IOWA CITY — Through three Big Ten games this season, Northwestern basketball resembled its porous football brethren of the early 1980s.
The Wildcats lost by a combined 76 points to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. They allowed those teams to shoot nearly 55 percent from the field and almost 40 percent from 3-point range. As a program with a new coach and new system under Chris Collins, Northwestern appeared on track for a forgetful season filled with growth and humility.
But Northwestern quickly turned around its fortunes, not by luck, but with defense. The Wildcats have won three of their last four and in those wins held opponents to less than 29 percent shooting. There was nothing magical or schematic with the changes, just simply more effort and focus.
"What they’ve done is they’ve committed themselves to shutting people down and playing together and rebounding and limiting your opportunities," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "In terms of offense, they’re a little more patient, I think, than they were. But I think they’re doing what they need to do to be in a position to win."
"We’ve found our identity on the defensive end, and we’ve embraced it," Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said.
The Wildcats need to show that growth Saturday against No. 10 Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena (11 a.m. BTN). The Hawkeyes (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten) ripped Northwestern (10-10, 3-4) 93-67 on Jan. 9 in Iowa City. Iowa shot 56.9 percent from the field and hit 8 of 14 3-point attempts. The Hawkeyes ran at will in transition, scoring 17 points off the fast break.
But with two days between its Iowa debacle and rivalry game against Illinois on Jan. 12, Northwestern's focus and intensity shifted to defense. The Wildcats held the Illini to 15 points and zero of eight from 3-point range in the first half. The 49-43 win marked a 50-point defensive turnaround and has inspired Northwestern.
The Wildcats followed up with a 54-40 loss to No. 3 Michigan State, but it was a competitive game. Northwestern held the Spartans to just 2-of-16 from 3-point range and trailed 40-35 with 10 minutes to go.
In the last week, Northwestern has posted its two most impressive wins of the season. Indiana scored just eight points in first 17 minutes and shot just 25 percent in the Wildcats' 54-47 upset at Assembly Hall last Saturday. Tuesday, Northwestern held Purdue without a field goal for the final 12:54 in regulation. The Boilermakers shot just 27.6 percent overall, and Northwestern prevailed 63-60 in double overtime.
"We got hammered our first three games in the league, and I felt like that fourth game against Illinois, after going through that, our guys were really hungry," Collins said. "We’ve carried that out for three games, and we’ve got to keep that going. That’s who we have to be. If we don’t play scrappy, if we don’t play tough, if we’re not emotionally invested, then we have no chance to win against any of these teams. That’s our formula, and I think our guys are starting to realize that and hopefully starting to embrace that."
It's also likely junior point guard Dave Sobolewski will return after missing the last four games with an injury. He played only 14 minutes, had four turnovers and no points before leaving against Iowa.
In last four games, Northwestern's last four opponents have shot just 29.4 percent and 24.3 percent from 3-point range. That's quite a turnaround from Iowa's 26-point victory two weeks ago.
"That last game means nothing," Iowa forward Melsahn Basabe said. "They’re doing really well right now. They’re at home. They play very hard as well."
"They’ve won three out of their last four, one was on the road at Indiana, a very tough place to win," McCaffery said. "I thought they played extremely well against Michigan State. They could have easily won. You’re seeing a team that’s really battling. I think that’s what you’re seeing, a team that is really competing."