Chris Collins is optimistic about the future of Northwestern basketball

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source: AP
AP

EVANSTON, IL — Northwestern finished 14-19 last season in head coach Chris Collins’ first season at the helm, but you would never tell the Wildcats had a losing record by the way Collins is brimming with enthusiasm over his program.

Although the Big Ten program located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston has a well-documented dry spell when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, Collins is hoping that his pedigree and hard work will pay off, as he sees Northwestern as a place where a winning program can be built.

“I think coming into it I was really excited, but you’re also a little bit nervous because you never really know fully what to expect until you’ve been through it. You live in a place for a year and you really get to know how to build it, and for me, I’m even more excited for our potential to build a competitive program after being here,” Collins told NBCSports.com

At the recent team camp held on Northwestern’s campus, Collins evaluated high school basketball prospects with his staff. His father, former NBA head coach Doug Collins, was also alongside of him through much of the afternoon.

When approached by players, coaches or parents at the camp, Collins maintained the same positive approach about the things that Northwestern has to offer: Big Ten basketball, a top-notch education and being in the near suburbs of one of the biggest basketball markets in the world.

Those selling points, along with Collins’ reputation from Duke and USA Basketball, helped Northwestern land a talented five-man class entering the 2014-15 season and he hopes to keep the ball rolling on the recruiting trail in year two.

“I felt like the response has been even more positive [since the first recruiting class],” Collins said. “People feel like we’re a program on the rise and our future is really bright. We’ve hopefully become an option for players that want to play in our market and be at a school that’s great academically where you can compete against the best every night.”

On paper, Northwestern’s 2013-14 season doesn’t look particularly good. At 6-12, the Wildcats finished tied for 10th in the Big Ten with Penn State, but Collins took over a situation where his team had to adjust from Bill Carmody’s Princeton-style offense while also lacking enough healthy bodies to compete on a day-to-day basis.

But Northwestern still had some impressive wins — including a win at Wisconsin and over Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament — and the team never stopped fighting and playing hard. “Our toughness on the floor; our competitiveness. Those are things that you can carry on each year,” Collins said.

Last season, Collins had only 10 players to work with in practice and this year he has more of a complete roster to work with. That roster will also be adjusted to the way Collins wants to play.

“Last year we only had 10 guys and that’s not a lot of bodies. Now we’re up to 13 guys, I feel like we have more options. The competition level in practice I think is going to go way up,” Collins said. “Coming in last year, even though we had a lot of veteran players, it felt like they were newcomers again. I feel like I have six veterans coming back now that understand things and can really help our young players.”

Collins has seen the positive vibes on the recruiting trail pay off, but now he’s in for another season where he has to play a lot of young players and players that lack Big Ten experience. Although he spent his playing career and much of his college coaching career in the ACC, Collins has a new respect for the Big Ten after spending a season on the bench.

“The thing I’ll say about being in the Big Ten, as much as I respected it coming in, I have even a greater respect for the level of coaching we have in this conference,” Collins said. “There wasn’t a game we played out of 18 games where you didn’t have a well-coached team that was prepared and scouted and have good players and wasn’t ready to play. I think top-to-bottom, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better league in terms of coaching.”

Northwestern will continue to build slowly, as they look to make a postseason appearance under Collins, and the question will always be asked about the Wildcats’ chances to make the NCAA Tournament. Collins realizes that he’ll face the additional pressure of coaching at a school that’s never made an NCAA Tournament appearance despite playing in the Big Ten since 1953 and his goal isn’t just to make one trip to March Madness. Collins wants to regularly take Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament.

“To me, it’s not an “if” it’s a “when.” My goal is not to be a team that makes the NCAA Tournament, my goal is to be a team that consistently makes the NCAA Tournament,” Collins said. “Now, you can’t skip steps, and the first step is getting there for the first time, but I welcome expectations. I come from a situation at Duke where if we lost one game, it’s all that was talked about nationally for about a week. My dad was a pro athlete; eyes have always been on me. I feel like when it comes to expectations, and all of those things, I’m kind of immune to it because I have my own expectations and I hold myself to my own standard — and it’s a high one. So I don’t let that outside influence affect me in any way.”

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averagedΒ 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.