Men’s Basketball: After finishing his seventh season, Chris Collins is still a believer

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(Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern). Chris Collins coaches from the sideline. The Wildcats' season ended Wednesday.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS –– Seven years into his coaching career, Chris Collins doesn’t look much different. He still wears a blazer, a dress shirt and no tie. He still combs his hair to the right, even though it’s gotten more gray every year. He still folds his arms as he watches a game.

So, no, Northwestern’s 8-23 season didn’t change Collins as a coach. He’s still the same ambitious up-and-comer, the one who led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament after inheriting a young, unproven roster. He’s still one of the youngest coaches in the Big Ten.

After Northwestern’s (8-23, 3-17 Big Ten) season ended with a 74-57 loss to Minnesota (15-16, 8-12) in the Big Ten Tournament, Collins sounded as excited as he’s always been about the program’s future.

He said this season wasn’t about the wins and losses. This season, he said, was about setting up next season.

“With so many new players and so many new faces, it was a great opportunity to watch these guys develop,” Collins said. “The core of this team is going to be back. We’ll look like a different team when we take the floor. I’m really confident about that.”

The Wildcats’ 17-point loss was a reminder of Northwestern’s inexperience. During pregame introductions, sophomore forward Miller Kopp forgot that he was supposed to shake hands with one of Minnesota’s players at halfcourt after their names were called. Collins jumped to get Kopp’s attention, and then he pointed to where Kopp needed to go.

On the Wildcats’ final play of the season, Northwestern called a set from the sideline. But it blew up when the two forwards weren’t in the right position, and Collins screamed “Corner Robbie!” twice as the shot clock ran down.

During one of the final timeouts of the game, Collins put down his whiteboard, looked at the players and said, “that’s not who we’ve been for 30 games.”

“We wanted to win more games, but we fought all year,” Collins said. “Our guys never fragmented, never splintered, never pointed fingers.”

Compared to where Northwestern was at this point last season, the program is in a better place.

After last year, the Wildcats lost their best three players, and they only had six returning players on scholarship to practice with in the spring. Now, Northwestern has eight of its best ten players coming back.

Junior guard Anthony Gaines missed the last two months of the season with an arm injury, but he’ll be back in the fold soon. So will sophomore guard Chase Audige, who sat out this season after transferring from William & Mary.

So even though Northwestern won eight games all year, Kopp said the team has high expectations.

“Our heads are up,” Kopp said. “This season was tough, but we have used and will use every loss, every trial and tribulation as motivation going into the offseason.”

“That’s exactly right,” sophomore forward Pete Nance responded. “We’ve got a great young group, and we’re all going to put our heads down and just work. We have a lot to prove, and we believe that we can accomplish a lot.”

But the gap from the bottom of the Big Ten to NCAA Tournament contention is large. Rutgers and Penn State made that leap this season, and their head coaches earned midseason recognition as national coach of the year candidates.

For the Wildcats to make that big of an improvement, Collins said the players need to be stronger. And the players and the coaches need more “mentally tough.”

“That starts with me being able to help these guys,” Collins said. “These guys were playing together for the first time, and I’ll be better too. Having coached these guys for a year and understanding their skill sets better, it’ll be a huge offseason of development for all of us.”

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