After a honeymoon of an offseason filled with unbridled optimism, Chris Collins’ first season on the job at Northwestern has gotten off to a rocky start. With the Wildcats now just 7-8 after a 76-49 home loss to No. 4 Wisconsin in Thursday night’s conference opener and a 74-51 loss at Michigan, the former Duke assistant is starting to see this honeymoon period wane away into a winter of frustration.
But while Northwestern is certainly going through a difficult transition year, their first conference opponents have no doubt that things are trending in the right direction in Evanston.
“They are running some good stuff and they haven’t had all their pieces ready to get in an offensive rhythm...” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said Thursday. “If they can stay healthy and they can get some consistency, then obviously they are going to cause some problems.”
Even with the usual spat of injuries, those arguing that Northwestern would be better than a .500 team right now under the direction of former head coach Bill Carmody are probably right. The players at Collins’ disposal this season are products of Carmody’s recruiting and system, one predicated on the increasingly rare Princeton offense. With Collins making the move to a ball screen-heavy, more “pro style” scheme, those players have understandably faced an adjustment period and perhaps will never be able to function as well in the new system as they could in the Princeton.
But regardless of where this team would be under Carmody at this point in the season, Collins’ hire was the right move made at the right time. Already Collins is set to bring in one of the most heralded freshman classes in Wildcat history next year despite having a limited amount of time in which to get them to Evanston after his hire. It is that class for which Collins is trying to lay the foundation during a season that realistically had little hope of ending with a meaningful postseason birth.
“They have a new coach now and they have to focus on him and what he is doing, give him a chance and realize it’s not something that is going to happen overnight,” Wisconsin junior forward Duje Dukan said. “It is going to take a bit of time, especially with the way their system was formulated by Carmody and how everybody knew that system.
Even with the seemingly annual spat of injuries hitting the Cats hard during non-conference play and making the already onerous adjustment that much more difficult to withstand, opposing players can see Northwestern improving as a program under its new head coach, even if that improvement might not be translating into success from a win-loss standpoint.
“Their style of play is a little more up tempo...” Wisconsin sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “In the past it’s been the injury bug that’s plagued them but if they can stay healthy I think they will be fine.”
In all likelihood, it is going to be the freshman Collins is bringing in for the fall who are responsible for turning the program into a contender not just for Northwestern’s first ever NCAA Tournament bid but perhaps even for a Big Ten title. However, the current roster will play a big part in the transition process and that is a big part of why the sacrifices made this year in the implementation of Collins’ principles will pay off down the road.
“The guys who are going to be seniors next year are the ones who are going to teach the freshmen coming in the way that Collins wants things, whether its offense or defensive principles, or just simply the way he wants the game to be played,” Dukan added. “So I think the way he creates it now is the way he is going to set it up for the future.”
Will it be a tough year at Welsh-Ryan? Probably. But if you believe the Wildcats’ conference opponents, the long nights now are setting the stage for a future in which Northwestern can compete at the highest level in the nation’s toughest basketball conference.