Northwestern is headed to its first NCAA tournament in program history. Under head coach Chris Collins, Northwestern has turned from historic underachievers to history makers in just four seasons. This is the story of how he got the program to where it is today through improving himself, stockpiling talent and changing a culture. Part I of this three-part series discusses the first recruiting class.
March 10, 2016.
That date sits on the wall above Vic Law Jr.’s bed. Law looks at it every day, and he thinks. He thinks about pain and heartbreak. He thinks about the past.
He thinks about the Michigan game in the 2016 Big Ten Tournament, a game he didn't even play in. It was a 72-70 loss for Northwestern, but it was more than that.
"I think when everyone went back to the locker room, everyone was pretty devastated," Law said. "And come Selection Sunday, when we felt we would at least make the NIT, Michigan was in the Tournament and we didn’t make anything. I felt like that day really signified what we needed to do. We knew it wasn’t gonna come easy, we knew nobody was really gonna say, 'Oh they gotta be in off their name alone, they gotta be in.’"
That loss was emblematic of the first two years of Law’s career in Evanston.
Close, but not there.
It wasn’t just Law who felt it. Law’s classmates — Bryant McIntosh, Gavin Skelly and Scottie Lindsey, the other members of a recruiting class that was supposed to change everything — felt it too. There was a boiling discontent. There was a weighing disappointment. Loss after loss after loss wears you down.
"When you’re losing games, your head gets down," Skelly said, recalling his freshman and sophomore years. "You lose a game, you kinda get past it, and then you lose again and you get past it and you lose another game and it keeps pounding you down, pounding you down. It takes a toll, you know. Those two long years of losing those close games really took a toll on a lot of people."
The losses hit McIntosh especially hard. As a freshman starter, McIntosh was thrown into the pressure of Big Ten basketball as just a teenager. Not to mention the weight of Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament-less past that was on his shoulders; he was quickly becoming the leader of a recruiting class that hadn’t yet delivered on its promise. McIntosh hit a low when Northwestern went through a 10-game losing streak in his freshman season. The hopeless feeling of that losing streak has stuck with McIntosh, even to this day.
"Winning is hard, that’s something I didn’t know coming in here," McIntosh said. "It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard for me to go back to that point in my life because there was just a lot of pain."
That pain was undeniably heavy. Even crushing, at times. But packing it in wasn’t an option. It couldn’t be. March 10, 2016 wouldn’t let it happen.
"That day just signified the start of something to me," Law said. "In the offseason, when I had a bad day, I would just come in my room and look at that date and just say, ‘We have to get over this hump.’"
When Chris Collins took the job at Northwestern, recruiting quickly became a top priority. And with a need to stockpile the roster with talent for the future, a lot rested on whether Collins could deliver on the first recruiting class.
He’d recruited for years. And he was good. The problem: he was at Northwestern, not Duke.
There were some built-in selling points for the school — top-tier academics, playing in the Big Ten and being close to a major city being the biggest ones — and Collins certainly sold those. The administration did give Collins its full-fledged support with regards to facilities and travel, but the starting point was unthinkably low. After years of flying commercially to games under Bill Carmody, the team began to charter flights for those trips. The flights represented palpable improvement: The administration was setting the groundwork for an overhaul of its facilities, but the end-product of that process was still years away.
The sharpest recruiting tool, then, had to be Collins himself.
It wasn’t just Collins’s experience at Duke that the rookie head coach relied on, but an unrelenting drive to win and build up the program, assistant coach Patrick Baldwin, who played at Northwestern from 1990-1994, says.
"Coming from Duke and having that background and all of those things, it definitely helps," Baldwin said. "But then it’s the passion, it’s the story you can tell, it’s the vision that you present to your guys and telling them, ‘We’re gonna get this thing done, now I need your help.’"
"[Collins] says it all the time: ‘You can have all the greatest plays and great anecdotes and all of that stuff, but if you don’t have the players, that stuff won’t mean anything.’"
After a little over three months on the job, Collins’s message got finally got through. On July 4, 2013, Vic Law Jr. called Collins and verbally committed to Northwestern. Law, a consensus top-100 recruit out of South Holland, Illinois, was the highest-rated recruit in program history.
"[Collins] showed he had a vision of what he wanted to be," Law said. "When I called him and told him I wanted to commit to Northwestern, I heard him drop something in the background, he was obviously pretty excited. It was just a feel-good conversation."
Law was the first recruit to buy into what Collins was building, but it wasn’t the first time he had entered a program with a historically losing culture. When he began at St. Rita of Cascia High School — an all-boys Catholic school on the south side of Chicago — the basketball program was an afterthought; St. Rita was a football school. But as Law grew into his sophomore and junior years, the program steadily improved, and better players joined as a result. By the time the he left, St. Rita was a Nike Elite basketball school. The thought was, Law said, "We’re good now, but we came from nothing."
"Vic was the first guy to say he wanted to come here," Collins said. "When you’re trying to start a program and you’re trying to sell a dream, you’re selling a vision, you’re selling what you’d like to do, but there’s not a lot of tangible stuff that you can put out there other than ‘Please share my same vision.’ For him to be that first guy to say, ‘Look, I want to be a part of it, I want to get this thing going’ meant a lot."
Less than four weeks after Law committed, Cleveland-area power forward Gavin Skelly jumped on board. Another recruit had bought in to the dream.
Fast forward two more months, and Collins had added a floor general of the future in point guard Bryant McIntosh, and a 6-foot-5 athletic scorer in shooting guard Scottie Lindsey.
McIntosh, an Indiana native who had previously de-committed from Indiana State, felt drawn to the idea of blazing his own legacy at a school that hadn’t yet experienced a high degree of success. Like Law, he had done it before — in his junior and senior years of high school, McIntosh led his Greensburg High School teams to its first two state titles.
"The fact that there’s no true legacy around here, there’s no jerseys hanging around here," McIntosh said. "Certainly there’s been great players, but there’s a chance to leave your own mark, to build something that’s not around. You look at a lot of other places that were recruiting me, they already had that. Here I thought I’d give myself an opportunity to be really special."
But make no mistake about it: It wasn’t just Northwestern that McIntosh fell in love with. It was Collins too. "I still remember those conversations. It wasn’t a desperation of ‘believe in me.’ He had a confidence about him that allowed me to believe in him. It wasn’t him begging or anything, he wants people that want to buy into the system and his vision. And I did."
Lindsey, meanwhile, had a broken leg when he committed and wasn’t sure how Collins would feel about it. When the Hillside, Illinois native called Collins to express his plan to commit to Northwestern, Collins’s audible excitement reassured the high school senior.
"He just said welcome, and he was going to crack a bottle of champagne," Lindsey said. "It was relieving, just to hear him say that he still wanted me, that he wanted me to come."
With those four set to come to Evanston, Collins had the talented pieces he badly needed on the way. He bet on himself, and he, in many respects, won. Not that there was really another option.
"I’m indebted to those first four guys that jumped on. Because really, all they were hanging onto was a vision, was a dream," Collins said. "There were no banners in here, there was nothing to hang our hat on with tradition... I had never even coached a game."
There was a fifth member to that recruiting class, though: Johnnie Vassar, a point guard from Chicago who committed to the school in December 2013. Vassar, who came to Evanston and averaged 0.8 points and 0.4 assists in 3.9 minutes per game, has since filed a lawsuit against the University and the NCAA, alleging that the University used "a campaign of harassment, pressure, and deception" to intimidate Vassar and try to get him to transfer.
Vassar tried to transfer after his freshman year, but couldn’t find a school to take him to play basketball if he wasn’t eligible to play immediately, which he wouldn’t be because of NCAA rules.
The ensuing lawsuit — part of a larger lawsuit against the NCAA and its transfer rules put forth by Hagens Berman in 2012 — claims that Northwestern offered Vassar a cash payment in March of 2016 so he would "go away." The suit also claims the school attempted to falsify Vassar’s timecards for his janitorial internship to "in an effort to create grounds for revoking [Vassar’s] guaranteed athletic scholarship."
The University claims the suit has no legal merit and plans to fight it. Collins, thus, would not comment.
While players transferring schools because of playing time is common in college basketball, allegations of coercion and falsified timecards are not. The disturbing nature of the allegations cannot be ignored, and it raises large questions about Chris Collins, the program and the athletic department.
At what point does winning stop being the most important thing?
In Collins, Northwestern got the change it sought. He professionalized the program in ways former coaches did not. He turned over a Carmody-recruited roster quickly enough to raise eyebrows. And the situation with Vassar is concerning, as well. While these things happen in major college basketball, it does not mean they should. It’s an elephant in the room that has momentarily backed away from the spotlight, but more questions than answers remain.
The players had seen a story like this before.
Close, but not there.
There was January 15, 2015 in College Park, when they held an 11 point lead with fewer than 4 minutes left, only to see that lead disappear in favor of Xfinity Center roars when Dez Wells tipped in a Melo Trimble miss with 1.4 seconds left. A one-point loss.
There was January 19th, 2016, when the Wildcats again held a late lead, this time by two points with fewer than three minutes to play in overtime. But again, that lead was short-lived. They couldn’t contain Diamond Stone and Robert Carter Jr. on the inside and walked out of College Park with another disappointing loss. A six-point loss, in overtime.
The players knew they could’ve won those games. They knew they should’ve won those games.
This time, Northwestern was playing Maryland in Washington, D.C. in the Big Ten Tournament. With 16 and a half minutes left, it appeared the Terps would have the Wildcats’ number yet again. The scoreboard read Northwestern 34, Maryland 44. The largely pro-Maryland crowd was on its feet after a Trimble layup punctuated a 26-6 run for the Terrapins. It wasn’t a home game for Maryland, but it was about as close as it could’ve been without being one: College Park is under 10 miles away from the Verizon Center.
As the shot clock wound down on a Northwestern possession, the crowd kept getting louder. Gavin Skelly caught the ball with a 11 seconds to shoot, standing just behind the left elbow. Facing his own basket, he pivoted to his left and looked for a pass. Nothing there.
Skelly put his head down and drove to the rim. With L.G. Gill and Damonte Dodd over to help, the Westlake, Ohio native tried to dump the ball to Dererk Pardon at the rim. Too high and too hard.
The ball was heading toward the Northwestern bench — another turnover seemed imminent. But Bryant McIntosh was there. He tracked the ball down, and calmly splashed a three. B-Mac, as his teammates call him, had his teammates’ back. Today would be different.
That shot spurred a game-deciding 20-2 run for the Wildcats. The Wildcats closed the deal and beat Maryland 72-64. Northwestern was headed to its first-ever Big Ten Tournament semifinal, and Chris Collins had finally beaten Maryland. This year was different.
"That’s the thing that’s special about my class and especially our team," Skelly said afterward. "When someone is having an off night, we have other guys that can step up. For Bryant, Scott, Vic and I to step up and do something like this, it’s special."
For Collins’s first class, the road to this moment wasn’t easy. It wasn’t short either. Three years of work, heartbreak and failure had prepared these players for this moment of joy.
"A lot of people may think, ‘What am I working for if we don’t win?’" Lindsey said. "This season just shows if you put the work in, and you dedicate and you listen that you are going to win. You are going to be successful."
"We had to take our lumps and bruises," Law said. "Coach Collins kind of threw the freshmen out to the wolves, and you know, just play and learn and get the experience so when you’re in games back then that are close and you don’t finish them, now when you’re a junior, and you’re playing Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament in Maryland, you can beat ‘em in those close games."
Just how far Chris Collins and first class have come together was abundantly clear. McIntosh, Law and Lindsey combined for 50 points for their head coach’s first win over the Terrapins.
"It's been fun for me to grow with the guys," Collins said after the game. "We're one. Hopefully you guys see it. We're a together group. It's not just the players. It's the staff. It's the staff with the players. This is a really together group. There's no outside agendas in this group, other than everybody just wants to win. They said, ‘We're here to win.’ They believe it. That's what's cool. That just doesn't happen overnight. It happens with a process through time and ups and downs."
It’s hard to see something that isn’t there.
It’s even harder to make that vision a reality. It takes dreaming, believing and investing.
Law, Skelly, McIntosh and Lindsey chose to come to a school that had never played on the sport’s biggest stage for a coach who had never coached a game. They saw the dream Chris Collins was selling when they committed to Northwestern. They believed in that dream, even when the light at the end of the tunnel was dim, if visible at all. And when they could’ve gone through the motions and accepted the status quo, they invested in each other and worked. And they got better.
The culmination of that, in a lot of ways, likely occurred even before the Maryland win, when Michigan visited Evanston on March 1.
When center Dererk Pardon gathered a pinpoint baseball pass from Nathan Taphorn with 1.7 seconds to play and the game tied at 65, something hung in the balance. As the pass floated across the length of the court, it wasn’t clear what something was — but it was something.
When Pardon softly dropped the ball off the glass and in, the devastation, heartbreak and torment of the past suddenly evaporated. That something was a childhood enthusiasm longing to break free.
The players tumbled into a dog pile on the floor, sharing a moment only they could understand. After months of seeing the date that Michigan ripped his heart out, Vic Law finally got his chance to get over the hump. With a golden opportunity in front of him, Law wasn’t going to let it slip. No chance. He had worked too hard, waited too long and quite frankly, was sick of hearing about the future. The future had to be now.
Law’s role in what was then-dubbed as the pinnacle of Northwestern basketball was lost in the miracle. Law turned in one of the finest performances of his career, playing tenacious defense all night and scoring and leading the team with 18 points. He had waited for this moment since Michigan ended the Wildcats’ season in 2016, and since he committed to Northwestern.
"To be honest, this is the game I committed here for," Law said after his team’s dramatic win. "When I committed and everybody said, ‘Why are you choosing Northwestern? They have no culture, there’s no basketball presence there.’ To play in a game like this, that I don’t really think a Northwestern team has played in a game so big as this, that really meant everything. How can you not be excited to play in this game?"
He didn’t need to think about March 10, 2016 anymore.
The three years that had preceded that moment were a grind. The positives were often hard to come by, and there were plenty of moments when the belief could have faded. But in the locker room, where it truly matters, that belief held firm, no matter how long the losing streaks were or how big the losses were.
"We went through long losing streaks, we went through tough times," Collins said. "Sanjay [Lumpkin], Taphorn and this junior class, they fought through things, and they worked, and they invested. I’m just excited for them that they get a chance to continue to see this thing through."
This season, seeing things through means getting somewhere no other Northwestern team has ever been before. Though he was disappointed about his team’s eventual loss to Wisconsin in the nation’s capital, Chris Collins wasn’t too broken up about it. He knew his team was going home, but not for too long. For the first time in his tenure, his team had another tournament to play in. The Tournament. And it was thanks to four high schoolers who were brave enough to dream.