In the two weeks since Chris Collins was formally announced as Northwestern’s next head coach, the regional (and even national) media has weighed in on the implications of a young and vibrant head coach taking over a program that over the past few seasons had plateaud in its efforts to make an NCAA Tournament breakthrough. The reaction has been almost entirely positive, and that optimism extends to one of college basketball’s most well-respected online and magazine journalists: Luke Winn.
You’re probably well versed in the analytic nuances of his weekly power-rankings, complete with every situational statistic, bar graph and scatter plot you’d never, ever consider calculating, and his increasing presence on the magazine has further illuminated his unique talents on SI’s traditional medium. Winn, a Northwestern graduate, took some time this week to discuss Collins and what fans should expect from their new head coach. Check out his work on SI.com and Sports Illustrated Magazine and follow him on twitter @lukewinn.
The following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation from Thursday.
What kinds of expectations should be realistic for Northwestern fans under new coach Chris Collins?
LW: Because Northwestern played such substandard basketball for most of the pre-Carmody era, fans were almost conditioned or told they were supposed to be happy with mediocrity -- with reaching the outer fringes of the NCAA tournament discussion.
Carmody was the most successful coach in school history, and I think he went as far as his system could take him in the Big Ten. With the types of recruits he was getting, and his conscious decision to focus on the Princeton offense and largely ignore defense, he hit his ceiling. But I think the program itself has a higher ceiling.
With Collins coming in, I think the ceiling is much higher. The first thing is recruiting: he should be able to pull in more talent from the surrounding area. He should be able to compete with schools like Illinois, Notre Dame and Wisconsin for local kids. Realistically, if you can get a Jon Scheyer or Luke Harangody -- both were suburban Chicago stars -- and a nice cast of role players around them, you'd have a shot at the NCAA tournament. The first step is just getting a bid, and then you start building recruiting momentum.
As for expectations -- you have to remember that Collins is joining the toughest league in the country. The Big Ten top to bottom has the best collection of coaching talent in the country right now, plus a lot of future NBA talent, so it’s unreasonable to expect him to go and win the league anytime soon. Just contending would be a miracle.
What is reasonable? Maybe one NCAA tournament trip in the first four years? And after that, can Collins get NU to finish in the top four or five in the league every few years? To expect NU to compete with Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, etc. on a yearly basis might be too much.
What do you make of the widespread use of academic standards as a crutch to explain Northwestern’s inability to recruit elite talent? Is there a similar academics-first school Northwestern can aim to emulate?
LW: I really don’t see why it’s a massive recruiting roadblock. When I cover teams all over the country, I run into a lot of intelligent players who are more than capable of handling the Northwestern academic load. It shouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem as people make it out to be.
Schools with even loftier academic standards are bringing in quality players. Just look at Harvard recently, pulling in top-150 recruits. It’s possible to bring in smart kids who fit your program. Harvard has relaxed their standards a to let kids in, but still – when Harvard has arguably more talent on its team than Northwestern, how can NU ever use academics as an excuse?
Look at a team like Vanderbilt in the SEC. It's on a different academic level than the rest of its league, yet it finds a way to be competitive. They just had a down season, but recently they've had NBA talent on their roster. Kevin Stallings took them to six NCAA tournaments in the past 10 years. That’s a program that’s competitive more often than not, and it deals with similar academic constraints.
Vanderbilt isn’t a perennial powerhouse, and Northwestern can’t be that either. But having a tournament-caliber team every two or three years is reasonable. I'd like to think that Northwestern can get to a level in the Big Ten that's similar to what Vandy's done in the SEC.
How well do you believe Collins can recruit the city of Chicago and the surrounding area?
LW: If you can build some buzz around the program, then getting some of those great local players is not out of the question. I think it [recruiting] can get turned around pretty quickly.
You can sign one great player. It’s been done many times. Chris Collins might have a better shot at selling the program than Carmody would, just because other teams might have been negatively recruiting in the past.
They could point to Carmody’s system and say, “look, you’re not going to be able to showcase your skills there.” The Princeton is something you can run and use great athletes in. Georgetown does it. But in a really competitive recruiting environment, it’s something that can get turned against you.
Collins doesn’t have that problem. He learned under a coach who's produced a ton of NBA players and ran the past two Olympic teams -- with Collins as an assistant. And Coach K is not a "system" coach by any means -- one of his greatest skills is adapting to the talent that he has on a yearly basis. I'd expect Collins to try to take a similar approach.
What would you say is the main barrier preventing Northwestern from becoming an elite Big Ten program?
LW: We talked about recruiting, and I think that’s what it all comes back to. If you can’t get kids capable of competing at this level, it’s really tough.
But I think there’s also something to be said about the general lack of enthusiasm around the program. It’s tough to get students to make that walk from campus in the cold all the way to Welsh-Ryan for a sub-.500 team.
And if you don’t have a major base of season-ticket holders, then you can have your home court turn on you pretty quickly. The Big Ten has the most threatening set of road environments, and when Northwestern’s gym is getting flooded by visiting fans, that’s just not a winning atmosphere.
Collins certainly seems like he wants to be there and build something there. I don’t see Northwestern as a stepping stone for him other than if Duke comes open, and that should make fans excited. If he builds some early momentum, the crowd situation could change quickly.
Another thing worth mentioning is facilities. In the Big Ten arms race, Northwestern doesn’t compare. You’re trying to recruit against schools that can offer 24-hour access to multi-million dollar, on-campus practice-and-training facilities … and that is tough. If they really want to commit to becoming a major, national program, they'll have to spend far more money than they're currently spending.
Will Northwestern make the NCAA Tournament in Collins’ First Season?
LW: I don’t think they make it. To be an NCAA Tournament team, you generally need a certain level of defensive quality. They were so far away from it last year, and for most of the Carmody era, and it’s pretty hard to do that overnight. Even if Collins is coming from a place that does a great job of teaching defense.
Their ceiling seems like the NIT. It’s hard to ask a guy to come in and get them there [the NCAA Tournament] right away, especially when he doesn't have much to work with in terms of a frontcourt. The Big Ten is a bruising league, and you don't get many off-nights. If Collins manages to even break .500 in the league, that's a great sign. I think fans will be far more excited about years 4-5 than year 1. It was a really good hire, but he needs time to build.