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.”

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s touching tribute to his mother will melt your heart

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Frank Martin advanced to the Final Four for the first time in his career on Sunday afternoon, and the South Carolina head coach — who has blazed an unlikely trail to the pinnacle of the college basketball world — thanked the most important person to his success in the most beautiful way imaginable afterwards.

VIDEO: Luke Maye gets standing ovation in class after game-winning shot

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You want to talk dedication to ones studies?

How about this: Luke Maye, just 13 hours after hitting a game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite 8, got a standing ovation in his Business 101 class at 8 a.m. on Monday morning.

Check out the video:

Luke, you’re a celebrity now. Going to an 8 a.m. class after your weekend heroics is iffy at best, but if you’re going to do it, we need you to start dressing a little better than this.

VIDEO: De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo inconsolable after Elite 8 loss

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Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox, the two freshmen on Kentucky’s roster that aren’t Malik Monk, were sitting next to each other in the locker room following Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina on Sunday night, and the Wildcat stars were inconsolable.

As weird as this may sound, and as tough as that video is to watch at times, I love it. The problem with one-and-done kids is that it, at times, feels like they’re mercenaries, that they are players that are strictly in college because they have to be, because they can’t make millions in the NBA yet.

Fox and Adebayo certainly do fall into that category, but it doesn’t come with the typical shortcomings.

They clearly care about their school, about their teammates and about that loss.

I’ve grown cynical, I guess, and while I’ll readily admit that video was too tough for me to watch in its entirety, it is refreshing to see just how much they care.

Even if they are only making a seven month stop over in Lexington.

VIDEO: Kentucky, UNC fans react to insane finish to Elite 8 game

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The finish last night between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky was one of the greatest and most exhilarating endings to a basketball that we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament.

It was capped by Luke Maye answering Malik Monk’s jumper with a jumper of his own, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the second straight season.

That’s a roller coaster of emotions to go through in 10 seconds, and perhaps no one embodies that more than the dude in the No. 11 jersey here:

(Does anyone know him? Can we confirm he’s OK?)

Anyway, that emotion was nothing compared to what the Kentucky team went through. De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo were inconsolable in the locker room after the game:

North Carolina fans, however, were just a little bit happier:

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”