In may of 2014, we posed the following question to our staff: Which has a better future: Northwestern football or basketball? The response was nearly unanimous though. Football seemed to be the correct answer. But after Pat Fitzgerald and his team struggled through another 5-7 season, and meanwhile, Chris Collins put together another highly-rated recruiting class, has the answer changed?
Ben Goren: I think both programs will be in good places two years down the road, and obviously you can make a case for either one. But I have more faith in the football program and its for one simple reason: they've done it before.
Pat Fitzgerald is the winningest coach in program history and is just three years removed from a 10-3 season. That isn't insignificant. The last two years haven't been fun, but I do think that Northwestern was hit with a preposterous amount of bad luck. There's plenty of talent in the pipeline, and provided Northwestern can get it back on the right track in the next few years (which I'd bet money on), the recruiting will pick back up.
As for the basketball team, it's hard to argue with the recruiting success. A starting five of McIntosh, Ash/Lindsey, Law, Falzon, and Benson with Ivanauskas off the bench and a few other young guys too is super exciting. But I haven't seen them win yet. Chris Collins has been an A+ coach in terms of getting talent into Evanston. But until I see NU play winning basketball consistently, I just don't feel as comfortable about their future, even if the talent is great.
Zach Pereles: To me, Northwestern basketball has the brighter future. The team has an undisputed general to lead its offense in Bryant McIntosh. At this point, the football team can't say the same, and whoever it is would have to do a lot to match the success McIntosh had in his first year. The talent around McIntosh, as a whole, has a far brighter future as well. While Justin Jackson should be a stud for the next few years, the wide receiving corps has not impressed in recent years and the best of this year's bunch is Christian Jones, who will be gone after this year. Behind him, there's not much. For the basketball team, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey are both long, athletic wings who showed promise in their first year. The basketball Wildcats also have a terrific class coming in — Rapolas Ivanauskas and Barret Benson are not only in-state guys (which improves recruiting momentum) but also guys who fill big holes that will likely exist when they arrive on campus.
If we can compare success on the gridiron to success on the court, what would be the conversion rate? I don't think making a bowl game at 6-6 would be a promising sign for the program. I'd set the mark at 8-4, which might even be too low. For the basketball team, it's obvious: making the tourney would show more promise than perhaps any other achievement. I think Chris Collins and Co. are far closer to an NCAA Tournament than Pat Fitzgerald and his bunch are from an 8-4 season.
Ian McCafferty: I think, at the moment at least, that Northwestern basketball is trending up while the football team is, if not trending down, then at least stuck in neutral.
The difference, at least for me, starts with the coaching. Fitzgerald is preparing for his 10th season and has certainly had his high points, but the last two seasons have been disappointments. Chris Collins is only entering his third season, and even though he's had a losing record in each of his first two years, the team is moving in the right direction. This will also be the first season where he gets to work with primarily players that he recruited and he even has a few highly touted recruits already in the pipeline as well.
The main reason that I think Northwestern basketball has a brighter future is because the starting point is lower, but the ceiling is higher. If the football team goes 7-5 this year and plays in a bowl everyone would be pretty happy with that result. It wouldn't be a huge success, like a 2013 or a 1995 but it would be a solid season. However, if the basketball team finishes over .500 this year, that's a success for the program and if they somehow manage to sneak into the tournament, then Chris Collins would have accomplished something literally unprecedented.
I guess this is basically just arguing semantics, but I think the future is brighter for Northwestern basketball, not only because of the recruits, but because they have so much more room to grow. I'm not sure how much the current iteration of the football team can really improve, but the basketball team has been slowly but surely taking steps towards the future, and that ever-elusive NCAA tournament berth.
Josh Burton: I agree with Ian in that since Northwestern basketball has failed to experience any notable semblance of national success in its history, any sort of breakthrough this season or in the next few would serve as a sure sign of a bright future. Football, on the other hand, has reached the highest peaks of success both in the past and relatively recently, so it would need to improve significantly--maybe even more than possible--to leave a good taste in fans' mouths.
Also, as has been mentioned above, with an exciting, smart, respected coach with NBA ties in Chris Collins — who has the talent-rich Chicago area at his recruiting helm — Northwestern basketball has the ability to rebuild quickly. This turnaround has already started with the roster in place for the 2015-16 season, as it has more talent than any Wildcats team has had in a long time. Considering how young most of the nucleus of the unit is, basketball is only going to get better, which is why it certainly has a more optimistic future than Pat Fitzgerald's squad does.
Josh Rosenblat: I believe I have answered this question before and I will continue to give the same answer I have always given: football. The Northwestern football program will always have more upside than the basketball program, until proven otherwise, because we've seen where the football program can get in 2012 and early 2013. We have only seen Northwestern basketball challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth and that was with an old regime, before a complete rebuild. For all the talk of how much young talent is in the basketball program, please consider the young talent in the football program (i.e., Justin Jackson, Clayton Thorson, Auston Anderson, Xavier Washington, Garrett Dickerson, Solomon Vault, do I have to continue?). Pat Fitzgerald, a man notorious for not giving as much responsibility or credit to young players, really, really likes this class. Monday, according to Big Ten Network's Dan Revsine, Fitzgerald said he is considering playing 11 freshman. ELEVEN. That's insane but also showcases the future of this football program. It's bright.
Kevin Dukovic: There's no question the football team is the more accomplished of the two programs to date. And relatively speaking, the football program has recruited better than the basketball program since Collins took over. But the gap is closing fast. It's much easier to improve a program quickly in basketball with just one or two great recruiting classes. And Collins has the recruiting prowess to make that happen.
Despite improved talent, NU football has plateaued over the last two seasons. The 10-win season was impressive, but it's beginning to feel more like an anomaly than a sign of sustained prominence. While NU basketball doesn't have much to show for it right now, they have the higher ceiling of the two programs. And thus the brightest future.