Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
May 20, 2013

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form. 

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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There is only one token of progress that really matters, one achievement that demonstrates positive momentum in the most obvious way. For some programs, that means Final Fours and national championships. Northwestern just wants its first NCAA Tournament appearance, and this season may be its best chance to get there.

The Wildcats bring back scoring (Drew Crawford), elite defending (JerShon Cobb), long-range shooting (Kale Abrahamson), size (Alex Olah) – you name it. They arguably have more talent and depth at more positions that at any point during Carmody’s tenure, and probably just one year to put it all together, just in time for Cobb and Crawford to play one final season together.

Everything sets up for 2013-14 to be Northwestern’s breakthrough season. Bringing in a new coach may or may not disrupt that objective. It could, it should, advance it, even in year one – which is why Northwestern sort of, kind of, really should make the NCAA Tournament this season, and why failing to do so would be a big disappointment.

That is a demanding mandate for any first-year coach trying to lead a program into college basketball’s premier postseason Tournament for the very first time. The Wildcats have never been invited to the Big Dance for a number of reasons, the biggest of which, obviously, is that they haven’t won enough games against enough good teams to satisfy the ever-fickle criteria of the selection committee.

In 2013, some – an unquantifiable fraction, but a seventh-place Big Ten finish and a couple of nonconference chips is a pretty sound if fuzzy formula – of those games will need to be wins, and Collins will need to figure out precisely how to reverse what those before him could not, how to push Northwestern over the top in those hard-fought conference road games, how to scrape out every last ounce of scoring and defensive intensity from a completely new group of players.

All of it will need to be quick and concise and regimented and compact, and any weaknesses will be easily exposed by what’s shaping up to be another brutal Big Ten conference. There are a lot of challenges to consider, and getting the Wildcats into the field of 68 would be a measurably tough bargain were they not introducing a first-year head coach and leaving behind a well-ingrained Princeton offense. The unpredictability of new leadership tosses more variance into the jumble, and that makes the task that much more arduous.

And with all of that disconcerting pretext out of the way, the reality is this: Northwestern has everything it needs to make a run at the NCAAs this season. It won’t be nearly as competitive, or as Tournament-capable, one year from now, and after that, who really knows the next time they’ll have a Tournament-quality roster available? This is Northwestern’s best chance and, whether or not the potentially disruptive (or merely different) influence of a new head coach makes immediate Tournament entry more ambitious than it otherwise would have been under the old guard – which is only semi-arguable logically, and hardly empirically – the Wildcats should be expected to break their program’s historic streak of futility this season.

The actual realization of that goal, when viewed in the context of rigorous conference competition and the typical early-feeling out period that comes with a new coach, is more suspect than a purely competitive viewpoint, which speaks to a team with a Tournament-quality roster and a one-year window to seal the deal with this core intact. When you remove the outside noise, and analyze Northwestern’s personnel in isolation, the picture screams “win now” and worry about the rest – the long-view programmatic build, Collins’ recruiting touch, facilities, and on down the line – later .

That is why, in long form, and out of complete and utter mid-Spring spontaneity, any Northwestern supporter has every right to be disappointed if the Wildcats miss the NCAA Tournament this upcoming season. The feeling is there every season, has been there every season since the program’s inception.

Next year, a failed Tournament run will feel especially disconcerting.

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