There is something to be said for invigorating a program with a change in leadership, and in Northwestern’s case, it’s hard to argue some of that wasn’t at work with the school’s decision to fire Bill Carmody after 13 seasons and tab former (on a side note: I am deeply saddened that Collins’ description now officially requires a qualifying modification; that’s like six extra letters. Ugh) Duke assistant Chris Collins.
Frequent NIT appearances and semi-competitive Big Ten seasons were big improvements from when Carmody first inherited the job, and the merits of his tactical acumen was never up for debate. It was more a feeling of staleness and tedium surrounding the program that accelerated Carmody’s dismissal, as if no matter how much Carmody pushed and tweaked and explored every avenue to get his team over the hump, the Wildcats were stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity. Change was in order.
Now that it’s here, Collins needs to make a strong first impression. There will be no inaugural grace period; Northwestern’s next coach needs to go to work right away, and that starts on the recruiting trail. It might be too late for Collins to add any new recruits to the 2013 class. With the spring signing period less than two months away, most high-level talents have long since made their commitments. Besides, Collins will have ample time to leverage his local ties with AAU and high school coaches; as new recruits go, 2013 is essentially a lost proposition. The 2014 class will offer a better measuring stick of the type of talent Collins can lure to Evanston.
No, what Collins needs to focus on are two players who committed under Carmody’s watch: Drew Crawford and Jaren Sina. Both Crawford and Sina rank near the top of Collins’ early to-do list, and both will throw Collins’ engaging personality – school officials identified him as a “basketball Fitz” – into sharp scrutiny almost immediately upon accepting his new position.
Losing Crawford would leave Northwestern without its most capable scorer heading into a season where, even with a coaching change (and all the turbulence and tactical changes on the way), the Wildcats are expected to compete for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. Without Crawford, Northwestern’s chances of reaching that goal in Collins’ first season – a prospectively momentous first-year achievement – are significantly reduced.
The symbolic optics of losing a player like Crawford would dent Collins' credibility (fair or not) at the outset of his tenure; failing to convince a team leader and crucial on-court presence your first-year vision includes a realistic winning plan just doesn’t come off as anything remotely close to the strong personality appeal that so quickly attracted the eyes and wallets of athletic department officials. Collins himself is but a mere fraction of the various considerations weighing on Crawford as he sorts out his final season of eligibility, but that won't diminish the negative perception of losing Northwestern's best player and most important veteran presence.
One of the main reasons behind choosing Collins was his ability to connect with players and recruits on a man-to-man level. If his message doesn’t ring true for Crawford, what, then, does that say for the Northwestern players that have long looked up to the fifth-year senior as one of the team’s most prominent leaders?
Keeping Crawford is a very big deal, and not just because failing to do so would dent Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances. Collins needs to prove his personal charm is convincing enough to bridge the gap from Carmody’s leftovers without evoking internal resistance or transfer desires from current players. Unless Crawford receives an enticing offer from another school, I firmly believe he will play out his fifth and final year of eligibility with the Wildcats.
In-house recruiting job No. 2 won’t be anywhere near as easy. Sina was granted a release from his letter of intent after learning of Carmody’s firing, and has already been contacted by Alabama, Seton Hall, Indiana and others. He felt a strong connection to assistant Fred Hill and Carmody, whose Princeton offense was an excellent fit for Sina’s intuitive distribution skills and diverse shot creating abilities.
The coaching change prompted Sina to reconsider his options, but returning to Northwestern is not out of the question. Before he makes any decisions, Collins will need to reach out to Sina and his father, Sina’s high school coach, and make a compelling case that whatever qualities persuaded Sina to choose the Wildcats last summer are still in place – that a new program figurehead does not alter the basic construction of the Northwestern college experience, that his talents can be employed effectively in Collins’ system and, perhaps most importantly, that Sina will be able to compete for starters minutes right away.
If Collins can reach Sina and erase any and all doubts before the spring signing period, then a recommitment could come sooner than later, Collins will have completed his first real recruiting coup and Northwestern will have retained its most highly touted basketball recruit of the Carmody era. Sina is exactly the type of player Collins will look to seek out on a yearly basis – versatile backcourt pieces with designs on combining academic prestige and power conference basketball.
Keeping one with strong interest in Northwestern already built into the equation will be revealing assessment of Collins’ individual recruiting clout. If he passes it, Collins can move into a clean 2014 recruiting slate having already sealed a prized prospect early in his tenure. If Sina commits elsewhere, Northwestern doesn’t just forfeit a high-upside backcourt option. It also casts doubt on Collins’ ability to secure top-level talents – even if Sina’s Northwestern interest owes itself almost entirely to Carmody and Hill.
It is unfair to judge a coach based on his ability to recruit two players, and any new coach needs time to familiarize himself with his new program’s hoops culture, its academic constraints, and any other aspects that constitute a functional recruiting pitch, but these are Northwestern’s players. Collins is Northwestern’s coach. Coaches keep their own players. Syllogisms are fun. And so on.
For Crawford, leaving would signal a direct rejection of whatever one-year winning plan Collins prepares to implement in 2014. Sina has no technical obligations to Northwestern – in other words, he is not currently considered one of Northwestern’s players – but his heart and basketball-inclined desires were once aligned with the Wildcats, and should he refuse to reignite those desires under Collins, Northwestern’s new coach will have failed to recruit a player his predecessor, Carmody, locked up last summer.
Neither player is a guarantee, and both will require persuasive counseling and convincing recruitspeak, both of which helped make Collins Northwestern’s top replacement candidate. Collins was brought in to affect the minds of uncertain teenagers, and those skills will be put to the test as soon as he arrives in his new position. Whether he secures their allegiance, loses one and keeps the other, or watches both rebuff his pleas, will be Collins’ first real challenge as Northwestern’s new head coach.