Northwestern eyes jump in 2nd year under Collins
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — The high-definition video boards hanging above Northwestern’s new court are quite snazzy. Now all the Wildcats need are better results.
Northwestern heads into its second season under coach Chris Collins with a deeper roster, boosted by a highly touted freshman class, to go with the upgrades to its arena.
The Wildcats went 14-19 overall, 6-12 in the Big Ten last season, and did nothing to shoo away that NCAA tournament albatross hanging over the program. The school that hosted the first Final Four still is seeking its first invitation to the tournament after several close calls under former coach Bill Carmody.
In Collins, a former Mr. Basketball in Illinois and longtime Duke assistant, Northwestern believes it has a vibrant coach who can connect to recruits and better the program.
“I think where we are today is in a good place compared to when I first got here,” Collins said. “I think we’re on the right track. We’ve developed a culture that’s been created within the guys on the team of how hard we practice, how the guys approach playing basketball and putting in extra time and strength and conditioning. ... Now we have to take the next step.”
Here are some things to look for, starting with the Nov. 14 season opener against Houston Baptist:
TAKING OFFENSE: That Northwestern managed 14 wins last season is impressive considering it scored just 59.5 points per game. It was the lowest average in the Big Ten, but not the nation — Northwestern ranked 343rd of 345 teams, with Southern Utah and New Hampshire bringing up the rear.
With Drew Crawford gone after averaging a team-leading 15.7 points last season, the top returning scorer is JerShon Cobb (12.2 points). He struggled with foot and knee problems last season and missed eight games, including the final six. The Wildcats also will lean on 7-footer Alex Olah (he averaged 9.1 points last season) and their freshmen.
NEW LAW: Freshman Vic Law — a 6-foot-7 forward from suburban South Holland, Illinois — might be Northwestern’s most versatile player.
“He’s our best athlete,” Collins said. “We haven’t had a guy that’s (6-7) and long, can handle the ball and shoot the ball, rebounds the ball with two hands above the rim, plays with a speed that is of elite level. He wants to be on that stage. That’s why he’s here.”
FOR STARTERS: Collins insisted the Wildcats would have played in a postseason tournament last year if not for an up-and-down start and their struggles at home. They took a 7-6 record into conference play, and ended up 8-9 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“We played well enough in the league last year to be a postseason team,” Collins said. “You win six league games and one in the tournament, you should be playing in some fashion in the postseason. But we didn’t because we didn’t play well in November and December.”
NCAA WATCH: Law has a vision of what it would it be like to lead Northwestern to the NCAA tournament.
“If we were to do it for the first time, the city of Evanston and city of Chicago would blow up,” Law said. “I believe the school has just been waiting on a basketball team that’s good enough to make the tournament. It would be something special.”
THE PITCH: From the moment he arrived, Collins drew praise for his recruiting. He made a quick impression on Law, and aims to continue bringing in high-level players in the next few years.
“The first day he got the job, he came to (St. Rita of Cascia High School) to talk to me about Northwestern,” Law said. “I almost felt like he believed in Northwestern more than anybody else has ever done.
“When you got something like that that’s coming in with that kind of enthusiasm, it’s kind of hard to turn down.”