Northwestern Coach Chris Collins has been in this position before. Coming off a successful season, especially so by NU hoops standards, expectations are high in Evanston. The last time this happened, 2017-18, things did not work out at all.
That was the season after the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and with most of the core nucleus returning, expectations were understandably sky high.
Chicago College Basketball Tip-Off Exclusives
Chris Collins Drew Valentine Boo Buie
They finished that season 15-17, 6-12 in the Big Ten conference. Chris Collins says he’s better prepared now to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“I think I’m more equipped to deal with that,” Collins told The Sports Bank during an exclusive chat at the Chicago College Basketball Tipoff Luncheon.
“2017 was such a whirlwind for everyone- the first time going to a tournament, so much excitement, we had a lot of guys coming back and I think we all maybe got caught up in that a little bit and just assumed we were going to be good the next year.
“It didn’t help that we didn’t have any home games (NU, due to the renovations of Welsh-Ryan Arena, had to play their home games at AllState Arena in Rosemont).
“It doesn’t take much- that little bit of chip on your shoulder, I think we lost.
“This time around I think I’m better equipped to lead these guys and make these guys understand that what happened in the past is in the past.
“Last year was great, but this is a new team.”
Coming off a second place finish in the Big Ten, and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament (just the second in March Madness berth in school history), people are expecting the Wildcats to be good this season.
When they beat Purdue in mid-February, it was their first win over a #1 ranked team in school history.
Chris Collins is, by several measures, arguably the most successful coach in program history. His winning percentages don’t exactly jump off the page at you, but he has most of the program’s 20+ win seasons to his credit.
Well many expect this year’s team to be good again, we haven’t seem then ranked very high in any of the preseason polls that have come out thus far.
Then again, last year’s team surprised pretty much everybody, as most pundits picked them to finish last, or close to last in the league.
“Last year it was easy to get motivation,” Collins continued.
“When everyone tells you you’re going to be bad, and everyone tells you you’re going to come in last and you can’t win. Now when people say you’re pretty good, you can’t fall in to thinking that you’ve arrived. Because our league is a monster.”
Of course, these days, anything about Big Ten athletics always leads to a conversation on conference expansion. We no longer have leagues or conferences anymore.
Because a league/conference by definition is set by geography. It’s you and your local rivals.
That’s dead now, with the Big Ten going fully coast to coast. It was a Midwestern league, but now that is over. We couldn’t help but ask Chris Collins about Big Ten Manifest Destiny.
“It’s weird, for me,” he responded.
“I’m old school. It was weird, initially, to have Maryland in the Big Ten, because I was in the ACC (with Duke) for so long, and now to think of USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington, do those programs make us better?
Yes, great programs, great coaches, the west coast presence for our league, but in going from 14 to 18, with the schedule, you’re going to play less teams twice, which I don’t like.
“I like some of the natural rivalries that we’ve had within the conference, but it’s what’s going on with college athletics and like anything, you’ve got to adjust and adapt, and be on the forefront.”
Finally, CC discussed the main goals and objectives for this Northwestern team this season. There are still plenty of different ways to find motivation. When it comes to program milestones, there are plenty more to be reached, and they can start hitting those in 2023-24.
“There are a lot of things that are still out there, for these guys to try and create history for our program,” he said.
“We’ve never gone back to back, we came in second (last year), but we’ve never won a Big Ten championship, never made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully we can be worthy of those things.”
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.