From job on the line to Big Ten Coach of The Year: How Chris Collins led Northwestern to another historic season
March 8, 2023
When Northwestern men’s basketball’s 2021-22 season ended, coach Chris Collins knew his job was on the line.
The Wildcats had just lost 112-76 to Iowa in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, the most points scored in a Big Ten game. The program had ended below .500 for the fifth straight season – the seventh time in Collins’ nine-year tenure.
As a result, NU athletic director Dr. Derrick Gragg released a public statement directed toward Collins four days after the season concluded.
“Coach Chris Collins and I met today to discuss the high expectations we have for our men’s basketball program,” Gragg said. “I have tasked Coach Collins with making necessary changes to build towards success in the 2022-23 campaign.”
NU now holds the second-best record in the Big Ten, which includes the program’s biggest win in school history defeating No. 1 Purdue — snapping their 0-19 streak against AP No. 1 teams. On top of that, Collins was added to Naismith Coach of the Year Late Season Watch List and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the first time in his career.
After five straight losing seasons and on the brink of getting fired, Collins and his bunch are finally headed back to the big dance.
“I’m just trying to do my best for these guys,” coach Collins said.
Building up the program
Collins spent the summer of 2013 in Evanston adapting to the new head coaching position and putting together his first recruiting class — a milestone he said nothing else is like.
Although grateful for the opportunity, Collins replaced 13-year coach Bill Carmody and was expected to take the program to new heights by accomplishing what his predecessor couldn’t: a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
His career in collegiate basketball convinced many to take the leap of faith, including forward Vic Law, ESPN’s No. 66 national recruit, and guard/forward Scottie Lindsay. Both finished with over 1,000 career points in purple and white. This included his former player and now-assistant coach Bryant McIntosh.
“He was a part of my first recruiting class,” coach Collins said. “They believed in a vision that I presented to them about what we could buil.”
McIntosh said Collins’ vision is what sold him to commit to NU. The three-star athlete decommitted from Indiana State in July 2013, catching the eyes of many programs in college basketball in and outside the Big Ten. Collins sealed the deal by handing over the reins of the team to the high school senior.
“He did an unbelievable job of recruiting me and selling me on being the guy to give the ball to and lead his program,” McIntosh said. “At the time, there was not much to believe in. It was just like his belief and what he wanted to create.”
At the time of McIntosh’s recruitment, the program didn’t have any facilities or any guarantee of making an NCAA Tournament appearance. All the Cats had to stand on was Collins and his selling point.
Within a few years, Collins and his players finally saw the vision come true. NU went to the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17, the first time in program history.
“People need to take notice of what he’s been able to accomplish at Northwestern,” McIntosh said. “He’s done a great job of representing the school and how we want to do things, and just his ability to get us to the mountaintop again after the first time, should be celebrated.”
However, McIntosh didn’t think Collins’ ability to take a program to the big dance in his first four seasons set him apart. He said it was his skill to help grow an underrated and undervalued player into their full potential as a Division I basketball player, similar to what he did with McIntosh.
“Coach does a great job of letting that maturation process as a basketball player happen,” McIntosh said. “Having a vision of who that kid can be as a 16, 17-year-old kid in high school, seeing what he can be at 22, 23 is something that’s really impressive.”
From the top of the world to the bottom
Collins said he was still a young coach during the Cats’ 2016-17 NCAA Tournament run. He hadn’t yet faced true adversity in his first three campaigns, and he finished with a better record than Carmody’s last season in each.
Even with four out of five starters from that team returning, NU was unable to reach March Madness again the following year, and the season after. With a combined record of 28-36, Collins’ team finished below .500 in both years.
Collins said his inexperience and youth accounted for his inability to deal with setbacks after the major success in the 2016-17 campaign. However, the one thing Collins did understand was that NU wasn’t a “quick fix place”— it was going to take an extensive rebuild. So, he started the rebuilding process before the 2018-19 season.
“We brought in a lot of young players over the course of a couple classes, and we made it our goal to play those guys,” Collins said.
Although Collins’ freshmen group combined for five starts the entire season, they saw a skyrocket in play the following season, as eight of the 11 Cats that played were sophomores or younger. This allowed the young bunch to gain experience early into their careers, but it set Collins’ squad back even more. NU went 3-17 in conference play and 8-23 overall in the 2019-20 season — the worst season yet under Collins.
NU finished 9-15 overall and 6-13 in the Big Ten in 2020-21 and by 2021-22, Collins’ plan hadn’t come to fruition, holding a 15-16 record while 7-13 in the conference. Collins understood the losing seasons weren’t what fans wanted, but he did believe that his team was moving in the right direction.
“Guys were getting better and we were getting older, and we had a bunch of guys that stayed the course and stayed loya,” Collins said. “If you tell me it’s not going to happen or it’s not going to do it, I’ve always been confident in who I am.”
An important offseason
Alongside Dr. Gragg’s statement, NU’s 2021-22 disappointing season meant the upcoming offseason would be the most important of Collins’ coaching career.
Sadly, the setbacks continued to pile up. Last year’s leading scorer forward Pete Nance and center Ryan Young transferred to North Carolina and Duke respectively, diminishing the Cats’ frontcourt depth. Their replacements would be junior center Matthew Nicholson, who had played less than 100 career minutes, and defensive-minded graduate transfer forward Tydus Verhoeven.
To make matters even worse, Casey Simmons, the program’s top recruit in their 2021 class, transferred to Yale. Sports Illustrated placed the Cats second-to-last in their preseason rankings, falling under the ‘better luck next year’ category.
However, Collins and his squad blocked out the negative noise. Instead, they continued to believe in his vision.
“Coming into the year, I felt good about our group,” coach Collins said. “We were going to be a lot better than what people thought we were going to be.”
Back like they never left
Collins flexed a new look to start the 2022-23 season. The coach’s clean-shaven beard matched the color of his black and gray hair — different from his normal look.
Now, as the Cats enter the postseason with a secured spot in March Madness and the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament — the highest in program history — the beard was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to changes.
By the regular season’s end, NU capped off the historic season with a 21-10 overall record and 12-8 in conference play. Four of those wins came against ranked opponents: No. 20 Michigan State, No. 15 Indiana, No. 1 Purdue and No. 14 Indiana.
“We put in so much work together,” senior guard Boo Buie said. “We’ve been through so many ups and downs that, you know, like it’s finally starting to show what the real us is.”
A large part of the success was the Cats’ ability to turn their defense into one of the nation’s top-ranked fortresses in college basketball. With the hiring of former Kansas State associate head coach Chris Lowery, who Collins said had a strong defensive mind, NU suffocated nearly every offense all over the floor. The Cats flex the second-best scoring defense in the conference, a leg up from last year’s 11th-place finish.
Buie and senior redshirt guard Chase Audige’s games have developed even more too, currently averaging 34.3 points per game. As a result, Buie was named to the All-Big Ten first team and selected as a Bob Cousy Award finalist, recognizing the top point guard in the country. Alongside making the All-Big Ten second team, Audige was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the year and a semifinalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. They’ve made a strong case for the best backcourt in the conference.
However, this didn’t happen overnight; Collins had them starting together for the past three years.
“I’m super happy for everybody who decided to stay and stick it ou,” Buie said. “It’s easy for a coach to just get on his phone and start recruiting other players, but you know, he didn’t. He just stayed with the young guys and he believed in us.”
When asked about the Naismith award, Collins continually gives all the credit to his players, joking about his inability to play defense at his age and bodily condition. But, after proving his ability to get the most out of his players and turn the program around when his job is on the line, Collins is well deserving of the contract extension coming his way.
According to CBS Sports Jon Rothstein, Dr. Gragg plans on giving Collins the award at the end of the season.
Collins emphasized after every win this season the importance of his team staying in the moment and keeping their eyes on the prize, which were the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Now, with both just around the corner, he couldn’t be more proud of them.
“I don’t think many people picked us to come in second place,,” Collins said. “Through downtime you learn a lot about yourself and you figure out what it takes to hopefully win at this level.”
Email: [email protected]
— Men’s Basketball: Supporting cast and stifling defense lead the way in 65-53 win over Rutgers in regular season finale
— Men’s Basketball: Northwestern caps off historic conference season with a 65-53 victory over Rutgers