Northwestern has hired Chris Collins as its basketball coach! Everybody's excited, before you think about the dark underside of it: Chris Collins comes from Duke.
I think it's common knowledge that every reasonable basketball fan that isn't a Duke fan despises the Blue Devils. How did it start? I'm not sure. It's some combination of jealousy and the fact that literally everything about Duke basketball is irritating as all hell. So now we're faced with the fact that the new face of Northwestern basketball is the old assistant face of something that's the worst.
My dad, who loves the NBA but doesn't really pay a whole lot of attention to college basketball, likes to ask me two questions virtually every time I talk about Northwestern sports. The first is easy to answer: "How come all these schools like Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast can make the NCAA Tournament and Northwestern never does? Who ever heard of those schools?" That one's pretty easy to answer. Some of the schools he's never heard of, like Wichita State, for example, actually have strong basketball traditions, and others, like FGCU, are in tiny conferences and all they have to do is win their league to make it - if they were each in the Big Ten, they too would likely never have made the NCAA Tournament.
The second one is the one that makes me uneasy. "Why can't Northwestern basketball be more like Duke?" (Sometimes, he throws in Stanford, but typically, it's Duke.) It's a troubling question from the start. First off, do we even want to be like Duke? The idea sends shivers down my spine. But the answer is probably yes: it would be awesome if Northwestern was wildly year-round competitive at basketball instead of a punchline for futility.
The connections are clear: both are elite academic schools. The difference is, one has decades and decades of basketball success, and the other doesn't.
But there's still lots of similarities.
Northwestern plays in an 8,000 seat junker from the 1950's. Duke plays in a 10,000 seat building from 1940 that would've been knocked down decades ago at some schools. Of course, one's lifeless and the other's one of the most imposing home environments in college hoops.
Northwestern and Duke each have kids trending more towards white, suburban backgrounds than other schools' teams that other schools' fanbases love to hate. Duke's are generally nationally elite players, Northwestern's are typically the guys from the Chicago area other Big Ten schools didn't offer. Both have fanbases perceived as elitist nerds, except one shows up to games and the other occasionally reads novels in the stands.
So we're stuck here at this moment where we can choose which side of the force we want to use. But its not as easy as saying we want to be like the bad guys: what Duke achieves isn't necessarily replicable by doing the same things they do.
So what can Chris Collins bring from Duke? Three things:
Yeah, there's two baseball teams and everybody loves the Bears, but in terms of talent, Chicago is a basketball city. And Northwestern typically gets squeezed out of that talent by coaches from around the Big Ten and around the country. Sure, we have Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski, and - err - Michael Turner, and in the past, Michael Thompson and John Shurna, but we're talking about guys that were generally looked over by other schools, not guys who looked over other schools to come to Northwestern.
One of those schools that's been able to get more out of Chicago than Northwestern is Duke, located, oh, 800 miles away. In Chris Collins' tenure, Sean Dockery, fellow Glenbrook North alum Jon Scheyer, and now Jabari Parker have all opted to play at Duke. In 1991, Collins was a kid from Northbrook who decided to play in North Carolina. Now, hopefully he can convince kids to play at Northwestern. And yes, Parker said he didn't consider Collins to be from Chicago when he made his announcement, making a distinction between the city and the suburbs, but at the very least, Collins is very familiar with the area. We'd be thrilled someone capable of selling the top talent from the area around Chicago on coming to school close to home, and would like it even better if he could make some inroads into the city itself.
Northwestern will never build a fence around Chicagoland - hell, they'll probably never be able to consistently get the best prospects from the North Shore - but it would be nice to have a shot at the best guys from the region instead of having to play against them.
Slapping the floor on defense
Well, really, I'd just like Northwestern to be known for doing ANYTHING on defense. Duke is generally pretty good at it. Northwestern is generally worst in the Big Ten at it. They'd just have to make sure they don't get purple paint on their hands.
Recruiting nationally on academics
Some often say things like how Pat Fitzgerald should stop running such a hopelessly idealistic program. Instead of going only for various smartypantses - smarties pant? - why doesn't he lower his standards? Doesn't going just for kids with great grades and clean records impossibly limit the field of players Northwestern can consider, and hurt the program?
Yes, it does. But it also highly increases the chances of landing the best players in a certain category. I've always said that Fitz' decision to try recruiting the best smart players in the country and taking his chances against Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Duke is likely to yield better football players than trying to recruit the best guys in Illinois and going up against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Northwestern can try the same for hoops. Duke recruits nationally and wins. Northwestern won't do that, but it can try it on a smaller scale with a few guys that are distinct fits. The only guy on Northwestern's recent recruiting list who falls under this category would probably be JerShon Cobb, so Bill Carmody's staff didn't really gun for this.
At a certain point, all this hypothetically breeds itself for Duke. They win a lot, so, because college basketball is fair, they win more. Fans go to Duke games because the thing Duke people do is go to games. That doesn't happen magically. If Collins can do some of the same things in recruiting he did at Duke, NU will be more successful - and then we can discuss how evil we want to be.