Putterman: Collins’ 2nd year to offer answers on NCAA Tournament goal


Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

For decades, Northwestern basketball has strived for one over-arching goal, one coach Chris Collins was hired 17 months ago to address.

“When you take a program over, a coach is going to have a lot of goals. His is very centered,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta explained at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, we got to win the Big Ten or we’ve got to do this or we’ve got to that.’ It’s, ‘We’ve got to make the NCAA Tournament.'”

Collins’ purpose resonates more clearly than that of any other Big Ten coach. When he leaves Evanston, he will have succeeded or failed, with little room for in-between.

With that backdrop, Collins begins his second season helming the Wildcats. Year one produced few conclusions: NU looked terrible, then figured itself out, then skidded to the regular season finish, then upset Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.

The campaign was neither embarrassing nor impressive, and which descriptor it fell closer to didn’t matter.

In video-game franchise modes, you simulate year one and implement your own players and strategies for the next season. What happens with the players you inherited doesn’t reflect much about your roster-building and schematic abilities, so why bother playing?

But in real life, you can’t skip year one. It feels almost perfunctory, but it happens. Without year one, you can’t reach year two and year three, when the results mean something analytically and the plan begins to succeed or fail.

Because now that year two of the Collins Era is upon us, we can start judging his performance on the path toward that ultimate goal of an NCAA Tournament berth. Seven of NU’s 13 players are newcomers, whom Collins brought to Evanston. How the old-guard plays still somewhat reflects the recruiting of former coach Bill Carmody, but how the new guys progress directly falls on Collins.

Luckily, year one wasn’t a total loss. Collins suffered from his inexperience but learned along the way. He said Thursday it took 16 games, about half the season, for the Cats to discover their identity as a slow-paced, grind-it-out team.

Once Collins slowed the pace, wins trickled in.

“When I look back on year one, there were mistakes that were made by everyone,” the coach said. “I made mistakes, players made mistakes, but at the end of the day I feel like from day one from when I first got the job to today when I’m sitting here, we’re in a better place as a program.”

Collins’ ability as a coach and program-builder certainly can’t be evaluated on the upcoming season alone. But the results of games and — more importantly — the performance of players, will hint at the true direction of the program in a way they didn’t last year.

Year two won’t bring an NCAA Tournament bid, but it might offer some answers about when to expect one. Matta, for one, thinks Collins will accomplish the big goal some time soon.

“You look at the laws of probability,” Matta said. “It’s going to happen.”

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02