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.”