Northwestern was outclassed and Chris Collins knew it.
The game, and thus the season, ended in a 71-56 beatdown at the hands of Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. There would be no postseason play for the 15-17 Wildcats, as Collins would decline an invitation to a tournament such as the College Basketball Invitational.
"We're going to be done for the season. Nothing against any of those tournaments, just we're ‐‐ it's time for us to start getting ready for next year. The finality of ‐‐ we're a little bit banged up, everybody is, and we wanted to put everything into this tournament and see where it could lead for us. It's time for our guys to get a little rest, and then we need to get to work."
"This is a huge offseason for our program. A lot of times you see the biggest area of growth from a freshman to a sophomore, and with five guys in that class, it's a huge growth summer for them."
So now it's mid-October and basketball season is on the cusp of relevance. The "huge offseason" is done. And for Chris Collins and co., it's time to answer some questions.
It's now year three of his tenure, enough time to gain continuity with the team's veteran stars (Alex Olah and Tre Demps) and also enough time to bring in a recruiting class or two that could, in theory, start to change the program.
After getting free passes in his first two seasons (his inaugural one as a head coach saw Northwestern finish 14-18 and 6-12 in the Big Ten, the same conference mark the team finished with in '14-'15), the pressure is now on Collins. The two real "leftovers" from Bill Carmody -- Olah and Demps -- are the team's two best players and his highly touted first recruiting class will play a majority of the team's minutes this season.
We will learn so much more about Chris Collins and his Northwestern program this season than we have in years past.
And that's why this season will be so intriguing.
Start with the roster.
The aforementioned Demps and Olah begin the season as the team's two best players, but there's a fair chance that other players such as sophomores Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law could jump up onto their level. Fellow sophomore Scottie Lindsey looks like a promising young scorer perfectly fit for a role off the bench. Freshman Aaron Falzon is the type of stretch-four that could be a difference-maker for Northwestern's stagnant offense. And, according to Collins, fellow newcomer Jordan Ash prides himself on being a relentless perimeter defender.
If you're a Big Ten team with Demps and Olah as your two best players, that really doesn't do too much to inspire confidence. McIntosh was good for most of last season before hitting a wall midway through conference play. Law was a major disappointment throughout his freshman year until he caught fire toward the end of the season. Lindsey looked far too much like a young Demps at times, looking for his shot constantly while getting lost on defense. And Falzon is listed at 6-foot-8 but just 200 pounds, a recipe for getting beat on the block in conference. Also, the things Chris Collins has said about Ash sound eerily similar to what he said about then-freshman Johnnie Vassar before last season: "He's strong. Just a great on-ball defender." Vassar is no longer with the Northwestern basketball program.
The same type of contradiction could be said about Northwestern's notoriously easy non-conference schedule.
Theoretically, Northwestern should go 12-1 in the non-conference portion of its schedule with a matchup with preseason favorite North Carolina in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic as the only game Northwestern should lose. Sure, Ivy League contender Columbia may pose a challenge in November, but otherwise the power conference schools Northwestern has on tap -- Kansas State or Missouri and Virginia Tech -- should be relatively easy wins.
But on the flipside, what will a one-loss non-conference really do for Northwestern? Personally, I see the schedule as a good thing -- racking up wins for a young team that didn't really have a shot at getting to the NCAA Tournament this season anyway. Many others though, and I really do understand this point, see the weak non-conference schedule as a death sentence in the eyes of the selection committee. Teams are rewarded for playing good teams in November and December and Northwestern lacks good teams on its schedule.
A third example is the Spain trip. Northwestern looked encouraging in its 4-1 stint, except for the fact that we have no real way of understanding how good Northwestern's opponents were.
Right now, I can see this season go in so many different directions and as we inch closer to the opener, we'll learn bits and pieces about this team. The only thing I know for certain is that Collins is out of excuses for poor play. Is Northwestern ever going to push the pace like he said it would? This is the season we will have to see it. What happened to the tenacious man-to-man defense the Wildcats played in Collins' first season? He says that's the type of team he wants to be, but last season Northwestern was far better in a more conservative 2-3 zone. Which is the real Northwestern? Ten game in-conference losing streaks can no longer be a product of some young players adapting to conference play.
I'm not saying Northwestern has to make an NCAA Tournament this season. But rather that there's no more room for excuses.
And after that disappointing loss to Indiana to end last season, it seems Collins understands that. And now, with Northwestern's first game less than a month away, that notion becomes even more in focus.
"We've got to make a jump," Collins said. "It's time."