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Op-Ed: The case for placing Chris Collins on the hot seat

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Is the seven year tenure of the Northwestern men’s basketball coach on its last legs?

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Disclaimer: this article was in the process of being written prior to the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein’s release of his own column on Collins. I have not yet read Greenstein’s article, and all words/beliefs in this piece are my own unless otherwise stated. If you would like to read Greenstein’s article, you can find it here.

Double disclaimer: this article will dive into some pretty advanced metrics and may get pretty nerdy at points. Just a heads up.

About a week ago, my midseason men’s basketball stock up/stock down was published on InsideNU. In the piece, I classified “Chris Collins’ job security” as one of my stock downs, much to the dismay of many longtime Northwestern fans.

While I’m only a freshman at Northwestern, my history with Northwestern sports stretches back much further than one might imagine. I grew up just a few blocks from Ryan Field and WRA, and I’ve played witness to many historic NU sports moments, such as The Pass and the Big Ten Championship game, throughout my 19 years of life.

I attended my first Northwestern basketball game when I was five years old. While I may not have fully understood what was going on at first, I quickly learned. Once I began to understand the game, I began to understand the struggle. Watching Northwestern basketball was often pitiful, rarely fruitful and came with an albatross that I’d usually try to mask with pride. However, that didn’t stop me from idolizing guys like John Shurna, Juice Thompson and Drew Crawford, to name a few.

What’s my point exactly? Well, when Bill Carmody was shipped off in March 2013, there was a sudden buzz of excitement surrounding the program. “Chris Collins is coming to town,” I recall one fan saying. And that he did. On March 27, 2013, Northwestern officially hired Collins as head coach. For the first time in a while, people were excited about Northwestern basketball.

But that excitement has disappeared.

Does Northwestern have a bright future? Potentially, and we’ll get into that more later on. However, is Collins the right person for the position? That’s what should truly be considered in this debate.

In the coming year, Collins will have the opportunity to prove himself and make me look like an absolute buffoon. This year is a wash, and while players are continuing to develop, it’s been a disappointment for me and many other fans. Many are saying Northwestern is a year out from competing, so let’s see it.

Do I honestly believe that Chris Collins should be on the hot seat at this very moment? Yes, and I’m going to do my very best to convince you, the reader, that I’m correct in said belief. Before I jump into my argument, however, I want to make a few things clear:

  1. There is a distinct difference between putting someone on the hot seat and believing they should be fired. At this moment, I do not believe Collins should go. I don’t believe he should go at the end of this year either. He deserves a chance to redeem himself next season, but next year should be his last chance.
  2. I mean no disrespect towards Chris Collins or Northwestern basketball. This is strictly a business decision. I’m not bringing into question the man Chris Collins, but the coach. This should be obvious, but just in case, I wanted to make it clear.
  3. The past is the past; the NCAA Tournament appearance alone is not itself a valid argument for keeping Collins. Making the tournament was a historic moment, but if the program wants to take the next step, why is anyone satisfied with one tournament appearance? How are we not more disappointed in the 2017-18 season? I’m sure my younger age and relative lack of experience with Northwestern basketball plays into my dissatisfaction, but this program isn’t going anywhere if the main goal was to make the tournament once.
  4. For argument’s sake, I’ll only be analyzing the 2016-17 season onward. It’s only gone downhill from there.
  5. Please read the entire piece before rushing to the comments. I have no doubt that this piece will cause some controversy, so all I ask is you read all the way through prior to commenting.

Without further ado, I present to you my best argument for lighting a metaphorical flame under Collins’ chair, if it hasn’t been lit in your mind already.


The case for placing Chris Collins on the hot seat

A season-by-season rundown

Collins has always been a defensive-minded coach, and the stats reflect that. It’s quite clear that he would rather limit possessions and slow tempo instead of playing in a high-paced, high-scoring basketball game. In their tournament year (2016-17), Northwestern ranked top-60 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. The ‘Cats cracked 80 points in nine separate games that season, showing off a somewhat impressive offense behind leading scorer Bryant McIntosh.

Besides the tournament year, though, I’ve yet to see Collins coach an effective offensive scheme, and the stats reflect that.

2017-18

The 2017-18 season was an absolute disaster.

After the tournament year, the ‘Cats lost veteran presences in Nate Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin, but returned multiple key players, including their top three scorers from the previous season in McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. The hype around the ‘Cats was real, and the preseason AP Poll reflected that, as Northwestern came into the season ranked No. 19.

That ranking didn’t hold up. The Wildcats began the season 3-2, including a scary close win over Loyola-Maryland to open the year. Within two weeks, Northwestern fell out of the polls, and things only worsened from there.

There were a few atrocious losses that truly stand out. First, it was the 104-78 shellacking the ‘Cats took at Oklahoma at the hands of current NBA All-Star Trae Young. After that, a 15 point home loss to Nebraska diminished hopes of a quick start in conference play. Later on, Northwestern absolutely collapsed against Michigan State despite building a massive halftime lead, in what was the worst loss I’ve ever witnessed as a fan.

The ‘Cats finished the season by dropping their last seven games. They finished 15-17 in regular season play and were a first round exit in the Big Ten tournament. After beginning the year ranked No. 19, Northwestern ended ranked 96th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 90th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They did not participate in the postseason.

2018-19

The 2018-19 team belonged to Law and Dererk Pardon, that was clear from the beginning. After McIntosh and Lindsey graduated, it was their team for the taking, and the duo did their best to carry the load, along with some help from their supporting cast.

But Collins and co. continued to force the ball to Law, in particular, and without a viable point guard option (a situation that, in fairness, was only partially the fault of Collins and his staff), things didn’t go so well.

Take the home loss to Penn State, for example. Coming into the game, Penn State was 0-10 in conference play. This should have been an easy win for the ‘Cats, but instead they put up a meager 52 points and lost by seven. In this game, Law took the ball up the court on a consistent basis, iso’d to run down game clock, then would put up a bad shot to end the possession.

Law finished the Penn State game shooting 3-17 with six turnovers, in what was easily one of the worst games of the Northwestern legend’s collegiate career. Collins just never changed things up.

The Penn State loss was an early part of a 10-game skid for the ‘Cats. At the end of the regular season, Northwestern finished 13-18 (4-16 B1G). They lost to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and didn’t participate in postseason play. Again.

Oddly enough, the Wildcats finished 204th in adjusted offensive efficiency for this season, but 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency, further pushing home the narrative that Collins is a defensive-minded coach.

It’s just difficult to win when your offense is dead in the water.

2019-20

Obviously, this season is still ongoing, so let’s just do a quick run through of some lowlights from the past year:

  • The ‘Cats currently sit at 6-15 (1-10 B1G).
  • They’ve lost to Merrimack (222nd in KenPom), Radford (180th in KenPom) and Hartford (249th in KenPom).
  • They’ve had some horrendous late collapses this season, including their most recent loss to Purdue (check out Daniel’s article for more on that) and the previously mentioned loss to Hartford.
  • Northwestern has lost four games this season where they’ve led by 5+ points with under five minutes to go. Additionally, the Wildcats are 1-6 this season when leading or trailing by one possession with less than five minutes to go.
  • Northwestern currently ranks 102nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 150th in adjusted defensive efficiency. These rankings are good enough for second to last in the Big Ten in both categories, ahead of only Nebraska.

Yikes.


What if it isn’t Collins?

I’m sure many of you are asking some iteration of that question. What if it’s the players’ fault? Why should Collins be blamed?

For that answer, we’ll take a look at KenPom’s “luck” ranking. This was first called to attention by friend of the blog Kevin Sweeney (mentioned again in Daniel’s article) but I’d like to dive a bit deeper. For reference, see Kevin’s tweet below.

To be more specific, a team’s “luck” ranking is measured by the deviation of winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record using the correlated Gaussian method, according to KenPom (lots of reading in that hyperlink, be warned). The luck factor doesn’t influence KenPom rating, but a “very lucky” team will tend to be rated lower in the system than their record would suggest.

Consider for a moment that the Northwestern men’s basketball program has had three very different looking rosters over the past three years. The roster has transformed completely, with ONE player from the 2017-18 team, Anthony Gaines, remaining on this year’s team.

Even with an ever-changing roster, Northwestern’s luck ranking has remained consistently horrific these past three season, as seen in Kevin’s tweet. All in all, this indicates that there might just be a coaching problem in Evanston.


Now that I’ve reached the end of my argument, I figured it would only be fair for me to visit some of yours from the comments I received on my midseason stock up/stock down. Let’s get started.

Recruiting + The Future

I’ve always viewed Collins as a better recruiter than head coach. After all, he’s brought in some of the best recruiting classes Northwestern has ever seen. The 2014 class, Collins’ first at Northwestern, contained Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly, all of whom would lead the ‘Cats to their first ever NCAA Tournament berth three years later.

Since then, Collins has continued to bring in solid recruits, only suffering from a few misses here and there. The classes of the future look extremely exciting, with Patrick Baldwin Jr., Max Christie, and, most feasibly, Luke Goode possibly (but probably not) headlining the 2021 group. Next year, 247Sports Top 100-ranked point guard Ty Berry and seven footer Matt Nicholson will join the ranks.

I have no doubt in my mind that Collins is a solid recruiter. He has plenty to pitch! What he’s done with said recruits, however, is what I’m bringing into question.

On top of that, Collins hasn’t been perfect in his recruiting. The 2017 class contained just one player in Gaines, and while the ‘Cats landed AJ Turner as a transfer, he was required to sit out a year. Even worse, all three players Collins landed in the 2016 class have transferred away. While Collins bounced back a bit with the 2018 and 2019 classes, the 2016 and 2017 classes are a large part of what set up for the failure we’re seeing now.

Collins was hand-picked, and won’t be given that little of time to get his act together

This is a fair point that I wholeheartedly agree with. As I mentioned previously, I don’t believe Collins should go now. I don’t even believe he should go after this year. If he is unable to redeem himself after next year, he should go then, but he deserves a bit of time to get his act together.

No other coach would take on the recruiting challenge

Northwestern is a unique Power 5 school purely because of academics. Aside from Stanford and Vanderbilt, no other P5 schools hold such high academic standards (Michigan is up there, along with others). Academics, in turn, make recruiting difficult, because the majority of recruits are more focused on honing their skills on the hardwood than in the classroom.

I’ve seen the argument that Collins is the only coach willing to take on these difficult recruiting standards time and again. While that might be true for the time being, I’d like to take a look at some Ivy League coaches who are dealing with even more difficult recruiting standards and dominating their conference.

  • Tommy Amaker (Harvard Basketball): Amaker has ties to Northwestern, as he turned down a head coaching job here in 1993 when he was just 27. Amaker has been head coach of the Crimson since 2007, and has led them to four NCAA tournament appearances (two round of 32 appearances) and three NIT appearances.
  • James Jones (Yale Basketball): Jones has been the head coach of the Bulldogs since 1999. He has a career record of 320-276 and has taken Yale to two NCAA tournaments in the past five years, going 1-2 in said appearances. He has also won Ivy League Coach of the Year twice.

Considering the situation is still entirely hypothetical at the moment, I’m not suggesting either of these names should replace Collins. I’m simply pointing out that other coaches, who have faced higher recruiting standards than Collins, have had success at their conference and national level. There are options out there. Some of them even have ties to Northwestern! We just need to look.


If you’ve read this far without rushing to the comments, congratulations. You may now do so.

I’d like to reiterate one last time that I do not believe Collins should be fired right now, or even after this season. It’s time to warm his seat up, though. Northwestern fans have witnessed one tournament appearance, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with just one. If this program wants to take the next step, the pressure on Collins needs to intensify. I know he cares, he shows that every game, but caring does not equate to competence.

Ramp up the pressure a bit, ‘Cats fans. The direction of this program depends on it.