Putterman: Success under Chris Collins no longer appears inevitable

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Men’s Basketball

When Northwestern hired Chris Collins in March 2013, I bought in without reservation.

I wasn’t alone in imagining the timeline: Collins would learn the ropes in year one, integrate his new guys in year two, contend for the NCAA tournament in 2016.

Regardless of precisely when, that tournament berth was coming. Collins’ resume was too shiny, his recruiting chops too impressive. Bill Carmody had led the program to the precipice, and Collins would launch them over it. I was sure.

But almost two full seasons in, success no longer feels inevitable.

After a predictably middling season in 2013-14, the Wildcats have underperformed all expectations this year. They’re under .500 overall and have lost eight straight conference games. For every impressive performance like the near-win against Maryland on Jan. 25 there’s been a poor one like Tuesday’s blowout loss to Nebraska.

NU won’t come close to the postseason this year and will surely be projected toward the bottom of the Big Ten before next season. After that the Cats lose Alex Olah, with no obvious candidate to fill the center position on the roster or in next year’s recruiting class. By 2018, when the current freshmen are seniors, who knows?

What I once optimistically viewed as a three-year plan now appears a five-year plan, at best.

It’s not that Collins won’t eventually lead the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament — he very well might — but at this point, it’s anyone’s guess. A year ago I would have bet that the Class of 2018 would witness a tournament berth. Today I suppose I would still bet that, but you had better be offering good odds.

This year’s disappointing results contribute to my creeping pessimism, but there’s more. NU’s offense often appears unguided, and the defense has slipped from last season. Collins has expressed contentment with inefficient mid-range jumpers and resorted to “hero ball” tactics late in games, flying in the face of analytics.

Much of the optimism surrounding the program derived from Collins’ first recruiting class, ranked 31st nationally by ESPN. The group has been a success, with Bryant McIntosh a star already and Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey flashing promise, but anyone expecting these five freshmen to carry the Cats to the Tournament might need to rethink. It’s a good group for sure but not necessarily a program-changing one.

And NU’s player development has been hit-or-miss under Collins. Dave Sobolewski was recruited for Carmody’s system and JerShon Cobb has battled injuries, but the lack of production this year from those seniors doesn’t reflect positively on their coach. And Collins has been unable to make an efficient scorer out of Tre Demps, who continues to shoot under 40 percent.

In fairness, Olah has improved steadily each of the last two seasons, and sophomores Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn have made noticeable progress. And given that Collins recruited none of those players, he can’t truly be blamed for their shortcomings.

Still, it all piles up. Individually, a terrible record, uninspired in-game coaching and inconsistent player development are factors that can be explained away. But together, they’re causes for some alarm.

It’s only year two, with tons of time for improvements to take form. An eventual NCAA Tournament berth under Collins remains a strong possibility. But I’m no longer making any promises.

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutt02