EVANSTON – When taking a look at the Big Ten standings for men’s basketball, there is a team near the top that might be a surprise.

Northwestern, who has finished in the bottom half of the conference the last five years, is right now at 3-1 in Big Ten play, sitting just a half-game out of first.

That included an 84-83 upset victory over then No. 15 Indiana on the road, the first time they’ve knocked off a ranked Hoosiers’ team in Bloomington in program history.

During their start to Big Ten play, they also beat Michigan State in East Lansing on December 4 and ended an eight-game losing streak to Illinois in Evanston on January 4. Northwestern is 12-3 on the season, which is almost as many wins as they got a season ago (15).

It’s certainly exciting for head coach Chris Collins to have a strong start to the season, but he’s not getting too carried away.

“I think it started in the offseason, just the buy-in for how we would have to play to be competitive not only in the non-conference but once we got into the Big Ten,” said Collins when asked about his team’s strong play early in the season. “It’s a physical league, it’s kind of a ‘grind-it-out’ style, and our guys have really embraced kinda playing that hard-nosed defense, and we’re getting better in other areas, which is exciting.

“That’s what you have to do, you keep improving. We’ve had a good couple of weeks, but obviously it doesn’t get any easier in this conference.”

That’s a lesson Collins and a few Wildcats still on the team learned during the 2020-2021 season, when conference-opening wins over Michigan State, Indiana, then Ohio State had the team 3-0 in the Big Ten and receiving Top 25 votes.

After that, the team dropped 13 straight games, falling out of any running for a postseason berth. Boo Buie was a sophomore on that squad and is trying to prevent that from happening in his senior season.

“It’s good to start out 3-1, but I’ve been here before and its turned around in the way that I didn’t want it to,” said Buie. “We’ve just got to stay humble and stay hungry and stay to the formula that’s gotten us here.”

For this Northwestern team, that would be the defense, as the team is currently tied for 15th in Division I men’s basketball in points allowed per game (58.9 per contest) as they’ve held teams to a 37.5 percent field goal percentage in the early going (9th in Division 1).

That makes Wednesday’s match-up with Rutgers at Welsh-Ryan Arena so intriguing, since the Scarlet Knights are fourth in the nation in points allowed this season (56.2 per contest).

Perhaps that’s why the Wildcats are keeping their fast start in perspective with nearly two months to go in conference play.