In precisely one month, Northwestern men’s basketball will look to do something never accomplished before in its lengthy program history: earn consecutive berths to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Wildcats haven’t finished with a winning record in back-to-back years since 2017, the season of the school’s only other March Madness appearance.
For the vast majority of the last few years, expectations had bottomed out surrounding the ‘Cats, with the team consistently picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. That’s starkly changed in advance of 2023-24, however. Fifth-year point guard Boo Buie was voted a preseason First-Team All-American by ESPN’s Dick Vitale, while NCAA.com’s Andy Katz slotted Northwestern the 24th-best team in his post-NBA Draft withdrawal deadline power rankings.
There are few who are more intimately aware of the perception surrounding NU men’s basketball than Chris Collins, the team’s head coach since 2013-14. Having reached unprecedented zeniths yet experienced true doldrums, Collins recognizes how outside attitude shifts can’t affect his team’s preparation.
“It’s easy to have motivation when people tell you you’re bad, or they pick you last or second-to-last,” Collins said at the Chicagoland Media Tipoff Luncheon Wednesday. “But now, when you come into a year and some of your players are being recognized, and the program’s being more recognized and getting more respect, you can’t soften up. You have to stay true to those habits.”
The Wildcats’ 22-12 record, including a second-place finish in the Big Ten and trip to the Round of 32 in Sacramento, California, captivated audiences around the country. Stunning wins over No. 1 Purdue, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and many more left fans of the purple and white nearly euphoric after six years of frustration and futility. Although the ‘Cats return four of their top six players minutes-wise from that magical campaign, Collins emphasized not resting his laurels on last season.
“I think our older guys have done a great job of understanding that every team is new,” Collins said. “You have to start over. We really made that point coming into the summer. We can’t just fast forward to get back to March. We’ve got to re-establish our culture, our habits.”
Six years ago, Collins transformed from a Mike Krzyzewski understudy to a bonafide, up-and-coming star at head coach when he took NU dancing for the first time ever. But, the ensuing season was rife with disappointment: Northwestern finished 15-17 and 6-12 in Big Ten play in 2017-18. Collins — who signed a three-year extension in May — reflected on his own growth and how he’s adapted since that season.
“Looking back, I think I didn’t do as good a job kind of moving on toward the next thing,” Collins said. “Certainly, there were other things involved as well, but it doesn’t take much to lose that edge or lose that hunger.”
One of those “other things” tough to ignore was the remodeling of Welsh-Ryan Arena, which began in March after Northwestern’s inaugural postseason trip; consequently, the ‘Cats played home games at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, 14 miles and 35 minutes away from their typical venue. This time around, though, Collins and his team can remain in its usual abode — where fans lined up hours in advance of tip and were still turned away.
“I hope they’re going to be great,” Collins said about home crowds. “What it became in the conference season was awesome. I think we showed it can be a really tough place to play, and a fun night for students to come out.
“I’m hoping from our first game of the year that we can have that same kind of energy, and the students will stick with us. No offense to the other people who come, but the students are the lifeblood of the home games. I hope we can pack those student sections every night.”
Northwestern’s roster did experience some turnover of its own, with the departures of mainstays Chase Audige and Robbie Beran, plus other impact players such as Tydus Verhoeven and Julian Roper II leaving. Consequently, Collins added three high-upside players in the transfer portal in guard Ryan Langborg (Princeton), guard Justin Mullins (Denver) and forward Blake Preston (Liberty).
“We felt like they all presented a need in our roster,” Collins remarked. “All three are going to have big roles. We’re excited about all of them.” More specifically, the head coach touted Mullins’ “length and athleticism,” Langborg’s “ability to put the ball in the hole” while still making plays, and Preston mirroring Verhoeven’s role of “being an older guy who played defense and brought toughness and dirty work.”
Another player that Collins, and a multitude of national pundits, is eager to watch is junior guard Brooks Barnhizer. Subsequent to a season including nine games with 10+ points, 168 rebounds and a 41% field goal percentage, many are projecting Barnhizer to transform from well-kept secret into full-fledged star.
“Now, as he takes the floor, he’s carrying himself like an elite player,” Collins noted. “He’s such a unique guy; you can literally play him all over. I think he’s excited about the opportunity. That’s what college is about: you figure out your role when you’re young, and you get better. Now, he knows he’s going to be thrust into a key role where he’s going to be counted on every night.”
On top of general roster and rotational consistency, Northwestern will return its entire 2022-23 coaching staff, which incorporated Big Ten Assistant Coach of the Year Chris Lowery. The team’s head coach expressed how “fortunate” he was to have the same expertise around him.
“It’s huge for camaraderie; it’s huge for chemistry,” Collins said about his coaching cohesion. “I think we all know how to lean on each other. Everybody brings different skillsets to the table; I think it meshes really well. When you see a together staff that is all moving in the same direction with the same message, the players [follow] suit.”
On Nov. 6, the Wildcats begin a season with 31 opportunities on the docket to prove their mettle in another vaunted Big Ten conference. Although the glamor of last year’s March Madness run won’t be forgotten any time soon for people following Northwestern, those inside the program have already reset — with eyes toward a future that could be even more promising.
“We turned the page,” Collins said. “We can talk about it at the reunions when that [2022-23] team comes back. Right now, it’s about moving forward; it’s about staying tough. Continuing to be hungry. We know how good the Big Ten is; we know what’s in front of us. I think our guys are excited to get going and kind of re-establish what this group can be — and be a new team.”