Eighteen years ago to the day, in Oklahoma City, Chris Lowery led another Illinois-based No. 7-seed trying to turn its magical regular season into something more lasting.
Heading into their Round of 64 tilt with Saint Mary’s during Lowery’s first season at the helm, his Southern Illinois Salukis had won 26 games, the most in the 38-year history of the program. It marked the fourth straight appearance in the Big Dance for SIU, which appeared to be the college basketball world’s next up-and-coming mid-major darling.
Yet, even with Matt Painter and Bruce Weber — who coached the Salukis in that three-season stretch before leaving for jobs at Purdue and Illinois, respectively — Southern Illinois hadn’t turned “darling” into “power.” SIU was coming off crushing one-point defeats in the Round of 64 to Missouri and Alabama in 2003 and 2004.
Lowery did what those two successful coaches failed to do in the two seasons prior, and solidified that success with a 65-56 win. His team held the Gaels, whose two top scorers shot 47% and 42% from three that season, to a 4-of-20 mark from deep in that game. Behind the stellar performance was a hounding post-double team with hard hedges and lightning-fast rotations to compensate for them everywhere else on the floor.
“We built it on ‘Floor Burn U,’ which is what we called it,” Lowery said. “We wanted to create floor burns every time we played.”
He said he adopted the defense under Weber while serving as an assistant under him during his first season at Illinois in 2003-04. Although Lowery enjoyed success with his scheme in Carbondale the next few years afterward, he reunited with his former boss after Weber took the Kansas State coaching job in 2012. After a decade-long run that featured five NCAA Tournament appearances and an Elite Eight stint, Lowery didn’t even have to convince Chris Collins to embrace his philosophy last summer.
“It was just, Coach Collins said he wanted to double the post, and he goes, ‘I know where you’re from, coming from your coaching family,’” Lowery said. “‘That’s what they do. They double the post, so I want to implement that in what we do.’”
And with that, Floor Burn U was back in Illinois, tearing up the floorboards of another gym 350 miles north of Carbondale.
In his first season as a defensive assistant at Northwestern, he’s ignited the red sparks from SIU into purple and white flames. And as he did almost two decades ago, he has the chance to blaze an uncharted trail for Northwestern, which has never advanced past the Round of 32. The fundamentals of his defensive identity — rooted in unbridled commitment and interdependence — is exactly what Northwestern wants to permanently establish as the identity for its program.
That unshakeable dedication and reliance on others immediately manifested itself during Lowery’s transition to Evanston. He took a job as an assistant coach for Missouri State earlier in the 2022 offseason, but joined Northwestern in late July — leaving him less than three months before NU began practice. With the ‘Cats having already lost Pete Nance and Ryan Young to the transfer portal, the prospects of integrating a new big to successfully take on the hard-hedging responsibilities Lowery’s defense demanded seemed even more challenging.
However, the inaugural Big Ten Assistant Coach of the Year winner still thought Northwestern was on the upswing from the moment he arrived there. While Chris Collins helped usher him in, the players demonstrated willingness to fully immerse themselves in righting the ship, convincing him that NU was trending upward before he even got there.
“[It was] not only Coach, but the team in itself helped with the transition,” Lowery said. “Everything was already in play with them transcending toward this change in the program. So I came at the right time. We were already rolling toward the right direction anyway.”
In the eyes of the general public, that seemed to be anything but the case. After all, Northwestern didn’t have a ton of experienced frontcourt pieces in a conference teeming with them. Yet, the NU assistant’s mindset entering the season mirrored that of the team’s: Lowery knew the Wildcats had a serious chance of making noise before they had even played a game, even if the noise outside Welsh-Ryan Arena screamed otherwise.
Although the group had struggled as a whole prior to his arrival, Northwestern wasn’t awful defensively. In both 2020-21 and 2021-22, the ‘Cats finished in the nation’s top 100 in defensive efficiency, and Lowery was set to have Chase Audige — a key piece of both of those teams — at his disposal. He saw immediately that Northwestern’s trappers could fly out onto the weak side after committing heavily with help defense.
Little by little, as the leaves fell and the lights in Welsh-Ryan Arena turned on, Lowery saw that potential realize itself. It didn’t take long. Once Northwestern took No. 13 Auburn down to the wire over Thanksgiving weekend, it was clear Northwestern’s defense wasn’t just a unit with a chance of being good; it was one of the nation’s best.
“I think the biggest thing is watching every day in practice, and I kept saying, ‘Man, we’re gonna be pretty good,’” he remarked. “Defensively, just watching how we can rotate fast and get out of our post traps.
“But it was in Cancun where I was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna be elite defensively.’ After our Auburn game, 43-42, I knew at that point we were gonna be pretty good for the rest of the way.”
Pretty good is an understatement, to say the least. As of March 18, Northwestern is 18th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which would be its highest finish since KenPom tracked the metric in 2001-02. From Purdue’s Zach Edey to Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Lowery’s trapping defense has flummoxed elite paint scorer after elite paint scorer, forcing them to rush passes to outside shooters.
The same forwards and centers who many expected to dominate Northwestern have relied on their supporting casts to nail shots, with multiple Wildcat defenders on the ropes after swarming the post. More often than not, it’s been the NU forwards’ trust in their perimeter teammates that has proven to be stronger.
As much as Lowery has credited the players for the team’s performance, Collins has taken note of how his assistant hasn’t just helped bring about quantifiable success, but also that intangible improvement.
“He’s brought an aggressiveness, a grit and a toughness that I thought we needed,” Collins said. “I did a deep dive at the end of last year about what we needed to do get better in terms of getting over the hump and being this caliber of team, and I felt like our toughness needed to improve. We needed to guard better and we needed to be more physical, and I think those are all areas that he really brings to the table. That’s what he’s always been about with his teams.”
As Northwestern looked to earn its first NCAA Tournament win in six years against Boise State on Thursday, Lowery put those qualities on full display. Both the Broncos and Wildcats entered their matchup as two of the nation’s best defensive teams, which brought about cloudy forecasts with a large dose of slow-paced, defensive-heavy basketball in sunny Sacramento.
Northwestern found itself in a game with a pace that was almost the exact opposite of that, with both teams delivering blow after blow. Once Boise State’s Max Rice became scorching hot at the start of the second half, however, there was a potential for a knockout punch after he led a run that brought the Broncos within two.
Collins called a timeout with 12:38 to go. During their thirty seconds in the huddle, the ‘Cats heard an adjustment from Lowery, and took it to heart. Northwestern pulled away, and Rice wouldn’t score for the rest of the game.
“The adjustment was we originally thought, ‘Okay, we’re up at half, they’re gonna lay down,’” Lowery said. “And once we saw that, no, they’re here just like we are, we rubbed it back up and we really got after him again.”
Now, Northwestern faces a much harder test in UCLA, a team with the third-most efficient offense in the country. Even without guard Jaylen Clark, who will miss the NCAA Tournament with an Achilles injury, the Bruins are still one of the most talented and battle-tested squads in all of college basketball. And even they acknowledged that Lowery’s defensive scheme will be challenging to beat.
No one knows that better than UCLA head coach Mick Cronin, who has likely watched more Northwestern film than anyone not named Chris Collins in the past two days. For him, it’s NU’s trap recovery — the exact aspect of the defense that caught Lowery’s eye when practice started up again in the fall — that especially stands out.
“They recover extremely well out of their traps,” Cronin said. “It’s a team struggle to hurt them. And everybody knows it’s coming, which tells you how good they are at it. That’s a credit to their coaching.”
Cronin, who coached at Murray State from 2003 to 2006, faced off once against Lowery during his time at Southern Illinois — a 2005 “bloodbath” that ended in a 57-53 road win for Lowery’s Salukis. “His defensive background is as good as there is,” Cronin added.
As a result of that, and of Northwestern’s immense defensive prowess, Lowery’s name will almost certainly be at the forefront of head coaching lists for schools in need of one this offseason. It will give rise to questions about whether NU can maintain the defensive strength Lowery has helped mold in less than eight months with the program.
After his first Southern Illinois team lost in the Round of 32 after beating Saint Mary’s, similar questions came up. Yes, SIU had been consistently good before its 2004-05 season, but could Lowery use the success to take another leap? Just two years later, he found himself in the Sweet 16, forcing a 33-4 Kansas team to escape by the skin of its teeth.
Regardless of whether Lowery remains in Evanston after the Wildcats stop dancing, his goal is to make this identity Northwestern’s. To turn Welsh-Ryan Arena into an exploding volcano with a lava-filled floor, filled with screaming fans egging on the world’s most chaotic game of hot potato. Permanently.
“I think this is who we are now,” he said. “Defensively, we want to be this good always. And I think that’s the biggest thing I can bring to this program.”