A New Challenge For Chris Collins

USA TODAY Sports

Chris Collins has done everything right since becoming Northwestern's coach. Now it's time to see if he can, you know, actually coach.

Since being hired in March as Northwestern's basketball coach, Chris Collins has yet to make a misstep. In late August, ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan wrote a great piece on how Collins has provided hope to a moribund program, and since then he's continued to kill it in recruiting.

In fact, here's how well Collins has recruited, in pictures:

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It's still a bit early in the recruiting process, but I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams thought they'd see Collins recruiting this well this quickly. So much for concerns that losing Tavaras Hardy to Georgetown would negatively impact recruiting.

Additionally, Collins has proved adept at getting positive publicity for the program, attending football games, throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field, and turning the routine procedure of giving walk-on James Montgomery III a scholarship that otherwise wouldn't have been used into a feel-good video that already has nearly a million views on YouTube.

All of this is great. Recruiting is probably the single most important thing for any college basketball coach, and good publicity generates excitement about the program, which in turn improves recruiting. And starting next Saturday, we finally get to see if all this success off the court will lead to wins on the court.

After last years debacle, when NU finished the season on a 9 game losing streak and looked completely over-matched at times, expectations are low. The Big Ten is brutally difficult from top to bottom, and NU has a challenging non-conference schedule, featuring games against Stanford, Missouri, UCLA and NC State, all four of which will be away from Welsh-Ryan. A trip to the NIT would be a strong indicator Collins can coach. An NCAA tournament appearance would make Collins a contender for national coach of the year.

But while winning games is the most important thing for any coach, for Collins' first year at Northwestern it's almost a secondary concern. There is a dearth of depth on the roster, and if Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb don't both return at 100%, there isn't a coach on the planet who could take NU to the NCAA tournament. So in year 1, I'm more interested in seeing Collins fix the problems Bill Carmody couldn't.

The most pressing of those problems was the complete inability to play man-to-man defense. In the Eamonn Brennan piece linked above, there is an extremely telling quote from Drew Crawford (emphasis mine):

Crawford, who played three years and 10 games under Carmody until an injury robbed him of most of his 2012-13 season, said the summer workout focus has been surprisingly fundamental. As in, the Wildcats are actually working on fundamentals.

"It's a lot of new principles for us -- help side defense, helping your teammates out," Crawford said. "On offense it's just a different style. More ball screens, spacing the floor. We even put in a bit of transition game, too."

Almost by itself, the bolded justifies the firing of Bill Carmody: help side defense being a new concept to a fifth year senior at a Big Ten program is almost unthinkable, but I guess when you play a weird 1-3-1 trap and a strange switching match-up zone, these things can happen. Both of those defenses will likely be retired under Collins; Duke has played man almost exclusively under Mike Krzyzewski and we can expect Collins to coach the same way. Northwestern's defense should improve almost by default, but it has a long way to go to be up to the standards of the Big Ten.

The other problem I'd like to see Collins solve is in player development, particularly in developing centers, which was a complete disaster under Carmody. What was most frustrating during the Carmody era was how his centers not only didn't improve throughout their NU careers, some of them actually got progressively worse. Last season, Alex Olah didn't show any signs of improvement as the season went on, and given Carmody's history, I wrote him off as another disappointing NU big man. If Collins can turn him into a solid Big Ten center, that bodes extremely well for the future.

And last, I'd love to see Collins turn Dave Sobolewski into a solid all-around player. Sobolewski has shown flashes of excellence offensively in his first two seasons at NU, but in both those seasons he faded down the stretch. And throughout his tenure at NU, he's been a complete defensive liability: unable to stay in front of his man, unable to close out under control perimeter shooters, and prone to silly reach-in fouls. Collins, who was an excellent college point guard, will hopefully take Sobolewski under his wing and turn him into at least a passable defender.

I'm optimistic about Collins as an in-game coach and as a developer of talent, but as of now, we know almost nothing about how well he actually does those things, because he's never been a head coach at this level before. His recruiting has been great, but the rest of the Big Ten is also great at recruiting. No matter how good a recruiter he is, it's hard to see Northwestern basketball ever consistently getting better talent than the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, etc. So in order to beat those teams, he's going to have to be a great basketball coach too. Given a choice between a guy who's a great recruiter and a poor in-game coach and a guy who's a great in-game coach and a poor recruiter, I'll take the guy who can recruit every time: talent, more than any other ingredient, wins games. But winning at Northwestern is going to require both skills. He's shown he's got one, let's see if he's got the other.



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