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InsideNU Debate: Which Program Has More Momentum? Northwestern Football Or Basketball?

In the typical process of trying to come up with a topic for our weekly InsideNU debates, we choose something with a decisive conclusion. Whichever side you cast your lot with, whoever’s argument makes the most possible sense, the whole exercise is grounded in the mutual understanding of a discrete, even if debatable, answer.

We’re changing things up this week. This topic has one obvious answer – of course Northwestern’s football program has more momentum than men’s basketball. What kind of, um, crazy person could possibly disagree? Earnestly arguing otherwise isn’t our intention. What we would like to do instead is shine a light on the hoops side of things for the sake of comparison. Northwestern basketball, believe it or not, has a great deal of momentum right now.

One side of this debate will attempt to illuminate that momentum and everything involved (coaching change, assembling a new staff, positive fan reaction, you name it), and if you’re even the teensiest bit convinced that basketball does indeed deserve a rightful place in this discussion, your humble basketball proponent will have completed his mission and then some. The point is, I don’t expect anyone to buy into the hoops > football spiel, so before lodging harsh judgments and scathing criticisms, remember what this is all about: football is trending upward, and now, after a dreary losing season, so is the basketball team.

The Case for Basketball

Before discussing the new positive vibes surrounding Northwestern basketball, the dark side – the 13-19 (4-14 Big Ten) campaign and injury-riddled despair – must be addressed for context. Northwestern is coming off a brutal season. Injuries, poor execution and one of the most rigorous conference schedules in recent memory are to blame, as is recruiting and the general malaise that slowly seeped in as the Wildcats sunk further and further into the Big Ten cellar. The reasons are debatable; the outcome is not: Northwestern was trending downward last season. It was bad.

The moment everything changed was highly-publicized and dramatic and emotional and roundly applauded and [insert optimistic adjective here]. The Wildcats hired former Duke assistant Chris Collins to replace Bill Carmody, and almost everyone agreed the Wildcats not only identified a realistic pool of candidates and conducted an efficient interview process (Minnesota went after Shaka Smart; UCLA called Brad Stevens; Phil Jackson was reportedly interested in both jobs. Only one of those statements is laughably false), but came out with the best possible choice at the end of it all. Most coaching hired tend to have this effect – they stoke excitement throughout the fan base, if only in the name of “change” and whatever new possibilities that change may bring.

The reaction was overly exuberant in this case. Collins’ hire and introductory press conference – wherein Northwestern’s new coach spoke genuinely about his desire to elevate the program to new heights, even tearing up at several points – spawned a nearly unanimous wave of excited approval. Northwestern fans were thrilled at the idea of a young and vibrant (throughout the brief search process, Collins was described as a “basketball Fitz”) longtime Duke and Team USA assistant with Chicago ties taking over a program in desperate need of a positive jolt.

In the past three weeks, Collins has taken all the right steps to intensify the enthusiasm. But for the decommitment and failed retainment of three-star point guard Jaren Sina – and given his initial commitment to Northwestern was made under the assumption former assistant Fred Hill and coach Bill Carmody would still have their jobs, and that Collins himself had only barely begun settling into his new position – everything has been measurably rosy since Collins officially inherited his post.

He has already begun making inroads with some of the area’s top high school prospects, which was, come to think of it, one of the two or three biggest reasons Collins was such an attractive candidate to begin with. Collins has also assembled a very reputable staff in something like record time: an NBA assistant (no official athletic department announcement on Brian James yet, but let’s say you won’t be mistaken for assuming the affirmative), a former Wildcat with assistant’s experience at the collegiate level in Patrick Baldwin and a Carmody holdover (Tavaras Hardy) who reportedly rebuffed interest from multiple Big Ten schools to remain at the alma mater. If that staff, headed by this former Glenbrook North McDonalds’ All American coach, can’t instantly improve Northwestern’s recruiting pitch and get previously negligent in-state players to at the very least think twice about joining the Wildcats, show me a different group who can.

Beyond potential recruiting benefits or pedigree – being able to sell a recruit on the experience of having coached LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Dream Team, along with multiple national championships, can’t hurt – Collins has provided something intangibly positive about the general outlook of this program.

I could burn upwards of 1,000 words relaying every denunciatory message board thread, the endless stream of pessimistic and fuming 140-character salvos that passed through my timeline this year, but a summary will hammer home the message all the same: there were very few people actually excited about Northwestern basketball last season. Can you blame them? There was nothing to play for, no realistic hopes of breaking the school’s storied Tournament drought, none of the recent late-February bubble flirtation that had Wildcats fans buzzing right up to Selection Sunday.

In place of the overwhelming gloom is Collins. His sheer presence, without ever having led the Wildcats in any actual games, has sparked a revival of hoops interest -- the above tweet captures the message rather poignantly. It is only a sample of the sea change that has passed over the Northwestern basketball community in recent weeks. That is paradigmatic momentum at its most blatantly obvious.

- Chris Johnson

The Case for Football

When Solomon Vault committed to Northwestern a couple weeks ago, I think it finally hit me that there's a real chance NU has a chance to move up in the world of college football. That's a bit weird as far as timing goes — after all, the bowl game is much more of a monumental turning point — but something about Vault's commitment made me thing there's a real chance for NU to build on its momentum and turn the program into something special, though there's a lot of work to be done in order for that to happen.

After Vault committed, Chris and I were talking and he said it bluntly: "This is not a typical Northwestern kid." Why's that? Well, Vault had an offer from Tennessee when he initially listed NU as his No. 1 school. Then he got a Nebraska offer, and without hesitation, committed to Pat Fitzgerald's program. That's not typical of NU of old. But then it hit me — is Vault the new kind of "Northwestern kid?" He certainly fits NU's mold. Not only does he have other good offers, he also took SAT prep classes every Saturday and Sunday just to get his scores up so he could get into NU. Vault admits that he passed up good opportunities at Tennessee and Nebraska — "athletically, yes" — but, "academically, they don’t compare with Northwestern.” That's the kind of kid Fitzgerald wants — a great player who wants the degree that NU has to offer.  Maybe Vault is the exception, but he thinks otherwise.

“Winning a bowl game for the first time in so long, that’s huge,” he said. “Coming in this year ranked in the top 25 is big, too. The 2013 class is great, and the 2014 group is really starting to take shape. I think we’ll be able to compete with anybody in the Big Ten."

He didn't stop there: “I like where the program’s headed athletically. They have a great coach, there’s a new facility being built, they’re doing a better job of recruiting, they won their first bowl game in like 50 years. I was really impressed.”

Building a good program starts with recruiting, and if more players like Vault buy into NU's recruiting pitch, the program will keep getting better and better. Now NU doesn't just have the degree to offer; it has a new practice facility and most importantly, it's winning. There's a saying that winning cures everything, and after just one winning season, that's true for the Wildcats. The recruiting pitch looks much better than it did just a year ago, and once NU gets better recruits, like Vault, that could lead to more wins, and ultimately better recruits. It's a domino effect, and right now, the dominos look like they may be starting to fall in NU's favor.

Of course, this isn't to say NU is going to become elite overnight. In fact, even expecting a Gator Bowl-level bowl game each year isn't reasonable. The Wildcats still have major obstacles to face — the whole small fan base issue, for one — and there will still be recruits who write NU off immediately because of that. Besides, college football is cyclical; there will always be down years. But if the Wildcats play their cards right, they can get players who feel they can win on the field and in the classroom at Northwestern. Before, only the latter was guaranteed. College football may be cyclical, but if NU can capitalize on the program's current momentum and continue to attract recruits like Vault, down years will be much fewer and much farther between.

- Kevin Trahan