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Column: Northwestern Basketball and the Collins Era: What Six Games Have Told Us

Millions of snowflakes smoothly coated the slick Evanston ground. Outside Welsh-Ryan Arena on Monday night, a bitter wind swept through the surrounding area, intensifying the cold. Inside, Northwestern’s first half shooting rather reflected their home gym’s surroundings. But after the game, head coach Chris Collins did anything but.

Sweat poured down Collins’ face. He looked as if part of him was still in the heat of battle, still feeling the unrelenting pressure of being a head coach in a college basketball game. His team had just beaten Gardner-Webb, but with less comfort than expected. In his press conference, Collins’ tried to diffuse any impending inquisitive criticism, attempting to portray an underwhelming Gardner Webb squad as a quality team.

“Sometimes you guys look at the names of schools, and you don’t realize how good some of these teams are,” Collins said. “Gardner-Webb, you look at their history the past couple years, they’ve beaten teams, they’ve lost at the buzzer to high-major teams, they’ve been a factor in their league. This was a really good win for us.”

And in a way, Collins is right. But by that same token, the idea of this being “a really good win” for Northwestern tells you more about the current state of affairs than anything else.

This isn’t to say that Northwestern, or any school around the country, should be able to count lesser teams on their schedule as wins before they even take the court. In fact, on the same night, third-ranked Kentucky needed a furious second half comeback to beat Cleveland State at home. But other teams in the Big Ten can come out with reduced intensity on select nights and still end up as healthy victors. What the first six games of Collins’ era have told us is that Northwestern is not (yet) on that level.

So after six games, there are two questions: what have these six contests done to change the short-term outlook for this team, and what have they done to change the long-term outlook for the Collins era as a whole?

The major takeaway answers the first one. The 2013-14 Northwestern Wildcats are not a very good basketball team. They will finish in the bottom third of the Big Ten. They will not break the streak of NCAA Tournament absences. They are not better than some of former head coach Bill Carmody’s best teams.

They are, at the moment, a team devoid of an identity. They aren’t the slow-the-game-down, Princeton offense-based team that they were under Carmody. Despite some misconceptions, they don’t play “up-tempo.” They aren’t an overwhelmingly good three point shooting team. They don’t have the ability to kill opponents on the boards. They don’t do anything special in the way of schemes on defense. They don’t press with regularity. And their half court defense isn’t particularly stifling.

It’s not that Northwestern doesn’t have the ability to do some of these things, nor that they are extremely poor in any of these areas – it’s just that they don’t have anything to pinpoint as a staple of what they’re trying to do as a team. When asked questions about the team’s philosophy, many players rummage around for answers, talking about a motion offense, tough defense, or something else that doesn’t really answer the question with specificity.

All good teams fit at least one of two categories: they either have a clear-cut identity that they pride themselves on (see Michigan State, Syracuse, Louisville, Wisconsin, Wichita State, Iowa State, VCU, etc.) or they just have superior – in some cases outrageous – talent (see Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona). This Northwestern team clearly has neither.

Now on to the second question. With next year’s recruiting class, Collins is already well on his way to establishing a core with a much higher talent level. But what he must do is facilitate the establishment of an identity, both for the team on the court and the program as a whole – and that’s why any judgement must be put on hold.

Asking Collins to essentially make a group of players that aren’t his into a team that is his, and one that has an identity that reflects that, is unfair. As I wrote before the season began, year one shouldn’t do anything to significantly enhance or depress expectations. Overwhelming success should not be a strong indicator of promise, nor should astounding failure be a major deterrent.

Therefore the first six games have told us about as much as we could’ve expected them to. This is a definitively mediocre team. It is one that will likely have good games and bad ones, and one that will struggle to find a rhythm, play within itself and beat Big Ten competition. But the extent of that pessimism is minimal. It pertains only to this season. We shouldn’t have expected these first six games to affect the long-term outlook, and they haven’t.

On the court, the new era has begun – and it hasn’t begun with very much in the way of aesthetically pleasing basketball if we’re being totally honest. But in reality, the Collins era isn’t yet in full swing. It is still in its infant stages. Any dreams of an instant turnaround have been quashed, but prospective goals are still within reach, and the long-term view has not been obstructed by a slow start.