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Northwestern is no longer a statistical footnote

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Belief got the Wildcats here, now let’s hope it gets better.

NCAA Basketball: Selection Sunday-Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It all started in Atlanta just shy of four years ago.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips met with then-Duke assistant coach Chris Collins on March 25th, 2013, to interview him for the opening vacated by the firing of Bill Carmody.

Phillips had spoken to other candidates — including (possibly) current Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew — but Collins was the only assistant on the short list, and, of course, he was hired two days later.

When asked on Sunday about whether or not he had his doubts about Collins, who had only served as an assistant in the WNBA and college ranks, Phillips admitted he did, as anyone would. Why would Chris Collins be able to do something in Evanston that countless others before him couldn’t?

“You don’t ever truly know, you just go off your instincts and your research. I just had a great connection with Chris immediately,” Phillips said. “I still have a good connection with Coach K. To me, institutional fit is very important. The only area he lacked was head-coaching experience.”

It seems he made the right choice.

The hiring of Collins was a significant departure from others in Northwestern history, as he was a relatively big name coming out of one of the most prominent college basketball coaching trees of all time. Collins was different.

But other Northwestern teams have thought they were going to the be the ones to make this The Year, yet they all failed. This one — as evidenced by the ESPN camera crew embedded with the Wildcats, the SportsCenter interview of Collins and the watch party attended by hundreds of fans — actually put some substance behind those words.

Basketball is a game of athletes, numbers, X’s and O’s that is so much more complicated than what meets the eye of a casual fan.

When you see Bryant McIntosh hit an open floater in the lane, you might glance over the high ball screen that gave him the space. You definitely don’t see the thousands of hours of practice, from childhood to today, that made that form so effectively effortless. It’s also impossible to visualize the decisions needed to be made by players, parents, coaches and administrative members that even resulted in McIntosh — a former Indiana State commit — calling Evanston his college home.

Phillips also recalled March 17th, 2013 — a week before his meeting with Collins — as a pivotal date in the history of Northwestern basketball. It was Phillips’ son’s third birthday, but he was far from his home and was instead in Pekin, Ill., about a 190-mile drive from Welsh-Ryan if you take Interstate 80.

The setting was the Taphorn home, where Nathan Taphorn — one of two current Wildcats to be recruited by Carmody — was convinced by Phillips to honor his commitment to Northwestern even though the program didn’t have a coach at the time.

Taphorn was swayed, and he was convinced to buy a bleak bill of goods. It turned out to be a Warren Buffet-like investment.

"Four years ago, we took a chance because it was something we believed could be really special,” Collins said at the press conference held after the watch party. “When I believed, it came time to find others who would believe with me.”

Belief is a funny thing, and it often gets confused with hope. Belief is the acceptance or trusting that something is going to happen, while hope is more of a feeling or expectation. For Collins, Taphorn and Lumpkin to have had hope in Northwestern actually turning into just another power conference school with a NCAA Tournament berth, they would have needed an inkling of proof. That didn’t exist, so they needed to believe.

Maybe Collins’ greatest achievement with this team, even beyond the appearance in the 68-team field, was turning that belief into a reality. He recalled sitting in the living rooms of guys like McIntosh, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly, and didn’t implore them to buy into his offensive system or even the university, but into him.

And now, because of that blind trust, Northwestern can be upgraded to “normal college basketball team.” No more fun facts about a tournament drought or questions about whether this team is actually different than those led by Evan Eschmeyer, John Shurna or Drew Crawford. No more ESPN graphics reminding fans that ineptitude can last beyond one coach or one generation, but for multiple, stacked together like bricks of the world’s most depressing building.

That structure still stands, and was built by the coaches, players and fans that weren’t fortunate enough to reach the heights accomplished by Collins and Co. But now, it’s a little sturdier and its future plans are clearer. You can’t actually become a championship program without first earning the right to play for one.

“I’ve been waiting for eight years,” President Morton Schapiro said after Northwestern’s name was called. “People told me that others have been waiting for 78.”

That wait has now turned into a delay of sorts, and the next phase of Northwestern basketball history can be undergone. A wait may be endless, and for some fans, it was. But a delay is temporary, with a defined end-point in sight. The operative word is when, not if.

Evidence has finally arrived, just a couple of decades late, so no more belief is necessary. Now Northwestern turns to hope and the “feeling of expectation...for a certain thing to happen” it denotes.

That sounds much, much better.