What a time to be a Northwestern men’s basketball fan. The ‘Cats seem destined for the Big Dance in March after two ranked wins in four days at a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena, and they even have an outside shot of claiming the Big Ten regular season title. All of this success is obviously thrilling to enjoy in the moment, but it also carries some pretty substantial implications for the future of the program. Let’s take a look three of these long-term ramifications:
1. Chris Collins’ job is safe
After last season, Chris Collins’ seat was incredibly hot. Northwestern Athletic Director Derrick Gragg not so subtly implied that Collins would be coaching for his job this season when, in a statement released last following the conclusion of last season, he challenged the head coach with “making necessary changes to build towards success in the 2022-23 campaign” and said the department was committed to “evaluating all aspects of the program.
Now, 26 games into his make-or-break season, Collins’ seat could not be any colder. In fact, he is very much in the conversation for the Big Ten Coach of the Year, and deserves a ton of credit for turning the program around and getting it back on the national stage. He currently has every member of his team bought in and committed to their role, and the team is firing on all cylinders as it enters the stretch run.
In fact, not only is Collins’ job secured, but he might have earned himself another contract extension. He is currently signed through the 2024-25 season under a contract inked immediately after Northwestern’s only other tournament run in the 2016-17 season. Fans should not expect Collins’ next extension to reach the length of the last one, but do not be surprised if he is handed a one- or two-year deal due to his incredible work with this year’s team.
2. Recruiting will improve
All of the intangibles for Northwestern to be a prime destination for recruits are there, including the proximity to Chicago and the phenomenal facilities, but the on-court product has not been good enough to sell elite recruits in recent classes. For this year’s class in particular, it also cannot have been easy for Collins to have tried and convinced prospects to come to Evanston when the players he was recruiting could not even be sure he would still be the coach by the time they arrived on campus. As a result, Northwestern has just the No. 61 recruiting class in the country, and just two recruits with Rivals star rankings have signed in the 2023 class.
‘Cats fans can now expect a significant recruiting boost for next year’s class. Prospects for the 2024 class can now be confident in the message Collins is trying to sell to them and have been able to see for themselves what comes with success in Evanston, from national media attention to incredible environments in Welsh-Ryan Arena. Additionally, in this new era of college athletics, Northwestern has likely moved up in the pecking order of some potential entrants into the transfer portal this offseason. Do not be surprised if NU turns to the portal to nab some high-quality veteran talent before next season.
It is also worth pointing out that a recruiting boom followed the 2016-17 March Madness run as well, so there is precedent for this expectation. The 2017 class included just one prospect, three-star shooting guard Anthony Gaines, and ranked a shockingly low 141st in the country. After the team danced for the first time, however, the caliber of recruits heading to Evanston skyrocketed. The 2018 class shot all the way up to 33rd in the country and included four stars Miller Kopp and Pete Nance, the latter of whom was the highest rated recruit in program history. If that year-over-year change of fortune on the recruiting trail is any precedent, expect some big names to be rolling through Evanston in the near future.
3. Chris Lowery might get a head coaching job
The hire of assistant coach Chris Lowery last offseason might have been the most impactful one in all of college basketball. Collins credits the former Southern Illinois head coach and Kansas State assistant for a lot of the team’s success this season, including the transformation of the defense from a unit that gave up 112 points in its last game in 2021-22 to a group that ranks 19th in the country in defensive efficiency.
“He’s a strong defensive mind,” Collins said after Wednesday’s win against Indiana. “He’s a former head coach that can help me having been in that seat before. And he’s been great. It’s been a seamless transition. He’s really fitting well. He’s really added to our staff.” Lowery really helped install the aggressive post trap-heavy defense that the ‘Cats have run so much this season, which has powered much of their success.
The curse of success in sports, however, is that struggling teams will see winning and try to replicate it. What this fact means for Northwestern is that squads have definitely noticed NU’s transformation and have heard Collins’ comments about Lowery’s impact. Therefore, his name will likely at least be mentioned in some potential head coaching conversations this summer. Whether he gets an offer that is enticing enough to pull him away from Evanston is a different story, but do not be surprised to see his name as a head coaching candidate.
For now, though, ‘Cats fans should not worry about the potential consequences of this team’s success. A group this good and this easy to root for does not come along very often, so now is the time to sit back and soak in every bit of this magical ride. The rest will sort itself out later.