Hoop Thoughts: Collins has Northwestern on the cusp of the NCAAs

Monday January 23rd, 2017

From his very public perch as the co-host of ESPN’s popular Mike and Mike radio and TV show, Mike Greenberg has never been shy about going full fan boy when it comes to his alma mater, Northwestern. The same holds true for many alums from the school’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The list reads like a veritable Who’s Who of sports media: Brent Musburger, Mike Wilbon, Rachel Nichols, Adam Schefter, Rich Eisen, Christine Brennan, J.A. Adande, Dave Revsine, Stewart Mandel, Ira Berkow, Jon Heyman. Shoot, even Teddy Greenstein, a college sports columnist who occasionally covers Northwestern for the Chicago Tribune, is a Medill alum.

In recent weeks, Greenberg has heard from lots of fellow Medillers and other buddies from Wildcat Nation who want to share their excitement for what the school’s basketball team has been doing this winter. Their exhilaration stems from the sad fact that Northwestern is the only power conference school that has never—that’s right, never—made the NCAA tournament. Greenberg knows the calls and texts will escalate as this team proceeds along its march to history.

And he wants no part of it.

“I hear way too much unbridled optimism for my taste,” Greenberg told me by phone on Sunday night, a few hours after Northwestern won at Ohio State for the first time in 40 years to remain in third place in the Big Ten with a 5–2 record (16–4 overall). “There are way too many people saying, ‘This is the year,’ I keep thinking, let’s just win a game this week. Let’s win another two or three games. I’m trying to focus on the here and now as best I can.”

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Imagine how the Wildcats’ fourth-year coach Chris Collins feels. Collins knows full well the program’s history. He attended Glenbrook North High School, which is about 25 miles from Northwestern’s campus in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. Collins played in an NCAA championship game for Duke and later became an assistant coach there for 13 years, so this is familiar territory for him. His players, on the other hand, are witnessing their very first glimmer of success. Like Greenberg, he is worried they might become blinded.

“I’ve tried to tell our guys you can’t get drunk off the articles and the excitement, or else you’re going to come back down to reality real quick,” Collins says. “So my biggest challenge right now is getting them to stay in the moment. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s something I have to manage because the last thing in the world I want is for them to feel the weight of 75 years of history on their back. College kids can’t handle that.”

Sure, we have a long way to go, but if this were any other program, the discussion would center on what seed the team was going to get, not whether it would make the field. The Wildcats already have two top-50 wins (Wake Forest at home, Dayton in Chicago) plus three top-100 road wins over league opponents (Nebraska, Penn State and Ohio State). They have not lost to a team currently ranked outside the top 50 of the RPI. They’re 34th in the RPI and 31st in Kem Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. And they passed the eye test during a two-point loss at Butler, which needed a last-second bucket to eek out the win in Hinkle Fieldhouse, and a four-point defeat to Notre Dame at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.

As the wins pile up, it won’t just be Medill grads who get excited. Northwestern is quickly becoming the feel-good story of this college basketball season. The Wildcats’ path to an NCAA bid is smoother than it might have been in the past, given that the Big Ten is experiencing a down year. The schedule appears favorable as well. Three of their next four games are at home, and all are winnable (Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois). Northwestern plays the league’s top-ranked team, Wisconsin, just once, although the game is in Madison. So not only is this thing doable, it is downright likely.

Should that come to pass, it would validate the strategy Collins pursued when he came on board four years ago. His first decision was to avoid the mistake that a lot of new coaches make by immediately scooping up whatever players were available. Instead, Collins saved his scholarships for players who he thought could provide a lasting foundation. That led to a breakthrough recruiting class right off the bat.

His first and most important target was Vic Law, a 6' 7" wing from St. Rita High, which competes in Chicago’s vaunted Catholic League. Law was talented, athletic and a good student, but he was understandably skeptical. Collins managed to convince Law to take a chance on him, which provided the coach with credibility he could take to the recruiting circuit. He later signed 6' 3" point guard Bryant McIntosh, an Indiana native who had previously committed to Indiana State and grew up a huge Duke fan; Scottie Lindsey, a 6' 5" forward from Illinois who at one time had been pursued by Vanderbilt and Iowa; and Gavin Skelly, a multi-dimensional 6' 8" forward from Westlake, Ohio. Now in their third season (Law sat out all of last season with a shoulder injury), Lindsey, Law and McIntosh are Northwestern’s three leading scorers, and Skelly is the first player off the bench.

From there, Collins has built this program class by class. Northwestern went from winning 14 games his first year to 15 his second and 20 last season. Though transfers have become rampant in college basketball, Collins’s current team has none, though he hopes to add one or two this spring. Meanwhile, there are only two seniors on Northwestern’s roster, and the school has a commitment from Anthony Gaines, an athletic, 6' 4" combo guard from New York City. The way things are going, it’s not hard to imagine the Wildcats being a preseason Top 25 team in the fall.

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Still, the Wildcats are not operating on a large margin for error. They are a good offensive team (35th in the country in efficiency) because they share the ball, take good shots and have good chemistry. They are fourth nationally in assists per made field goals and 23rd in turnover percentage. However, when they go up against teams that are bigger or more athletic, they get exposed for not having a dynamic scorer who can get his own shot as the shot clock is winding down. That’s a tough way to play under any circumstances, much less when a team is trying to overcome seven decades of futility. As the stakes get higher, the players’ nerves will be severely tested.

Fortunately, the Wildcats don’t have to look far for a template on how to exorcise demons. They were able to watch at close range as the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. Collins expresses admiration for the way Cubs manager Joe Maddon kept his locker room light, and he hopes to diminish the pressure by reminding everyone that there are bigger goals to be had. He looks at programs at other high-level academic institutions like Notre Dame and Virginia—not to mention Northwestern’s own football program—and wonders, why not us? “I know making the NCAA tournament is exciting, but to me that was never the end of the process. It’s just part of the process,” Collins says. “I want to win conference championships, I want to go to a Final Four. I want a program that’s relevant every year.”

Apparently, he’s not the only one who feels that way, because the school is about to embark on a massive, $110 million renovation project that will modernize the basketball program’s arena, offices and practice facility. That means that next year, the Wildcats will play their games at Allstate Arena in Rosemont while Welsh-Ryan Arena gets its long-overdue facelift. That will be no minor inconvenience, but it is a small price to pay for the chance to reach higher ground. So yes, it’s a little too early for unbridled optimism, but for the first time in forever, Northwestern’s players, fans and alums have cause for genuine hope. So do the rest of us, for that matter. This feel-good story is feeling better by the day.

Other Hoop Thoughts

• You cannot overstate the impact of sophomore guard Allonzo Trier’s return to Arizona. Besides his statistical contributions in the big win at UCLA (12 points, seven rebounds, four assists), and the added minutes for a team that was lacking depth, you could see the confidence that Trier gave his teammates. Here’s the thing, though. We now know, courtesy of a report by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, that the reason for Trier’s suspension was that he tested positive for a PED, which Trier says he was given by accident. What we don’t know is why Trier still had to sit out even though he won his appeal to the NCAA. The stated reason is that he couldn’t play until his system was completely rid of trace amounts of this banned substance, but why would that matter if he had won his appeal? I recognize that Trier is entitled to legal privacy, but I encourage him to waive that right so we can get some more clarity on this situation. Because based on the limited information we have, something doesn’t add up.

• As for UCLA, the Bruins had long been operating under the suspicion that, for all of their offensive prowess, their defense was not sufficient to win a national championship. They are currently ranked 125th in the country in defensive efficiency. (They’re No. 1 on offense.) UCLA doesn’t have to be great on D to win a title, it just has to be good enough. Right now, I’m not sure it’s good enough.

• My favorite moment on Saturday was when Butler coach Chris Holtmann elected not to use his final time out in the final seconds of overtime at DePaul. Instead, he trusted his outstanding freshman guard, Kamar Baldwin, to make the right decision—which he did by driving to the rim, getting fouled and making both free throws. I only wish more coaches would relinquish control in those situations. I mean, what do you spend all that time practicing for?

• Clearly this is a different Creighton team without its point guard, Maurice Watson Jr., who was leading the nation in assists but has been lost for the season to an ACL injury. I highly doubt the Bluejays would have lost at home to Marquette with Watson in the lineup. Greg McDermott started 6' 3" senior guard Isaiah Zierden in Watson’s place, but he has to be encouraged by the way Davion Mintz played coming off the bench. The 6' 3" freshman point guard had 17 points, eight assists and two turnovers in 26 minutes. We can’t expect Mintz to be as good as Watson, but if that’s a harbinger of what’s to come, then Creighton might be in better shape than I initially feared.

• Florida losing at home to Vanderbilt was a bad result from the SEC. For all the talk in recent years about things getting better from a hoops standpoint, this conference is about as bad as I can remember. Part of the problem is that Florida and South Carolina are still stuck in 2013. It is a lot harder now to grind out games and slow the pace and still beat really good teams.

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• As for Vandy, I am impressed with the way first-year coach Bryce Drew has dealt with his leading scorer, Matthew Fisher-Davis. For the second straight game, Drew did not start Fisher-Davis because he had thrown his gum in anger after being assessed a technical foul in a loss to Tennessee. Davis is a talented player (he had a team-high 19 points in the win at Florida), but Drew is trying to establish a culture at Vandy, and it is important that he holds everyone accountable.

• We had an unfortunate situation, to say the least, at the end of Georgia’s loss at Texas A&M. Georgia had the ball down one when the clock inadvertently stopped with 5.6 seconds on the clock. Bulldogs guard J.J. Frazier appeared to look at the clock and, thinking he had more time, delivered a post feed to forward Yante Maten, who was fouled in the act of shooting. The officials went to the monitors, pulled out a stopwatch, and determined that the sequence took longer than 5.6 seconds. So instead of Maten going to the line with a chance to win, the refs pronounced the game over. Yes, it sucks, but people need to know that officials control the clock via a device on their hips. So it’s incorrect to refer to a “home clock operator,” as if he’s the seventh grade math teacher who works the scoreboard at your local high school games. I realize that’s a messy situation, but the bottom line here is that there are not—and should not be—any do-overs.

• Oh, and if Georgia didn’t blow a 13-point lead and commit four turnovers in the last 1 minute and 16 seconds, then the clock error would not have mattered. So let’s not spend too much time complaining, Dawg fans.

• The most impressive loss of the weekend was turned in by Louisville. The Cardinals were on the road, playing a great team in Florida State, less than 48 hours following their previous game, without their starting point guard Quentin Snider (hip), with their best player Donovan Mitchell playing poorly, and found themselves down 14–0 right out of the gate. Yet, they fought back to make it a game before falling, 73–68. Tells me a lot about the mental makeup of this team.

Don Juan Moore/Getty

• As for the Seminoles, I hope everyone realizes the incredible gauntlet they just went through. In the last three weeks, Florida State played six consecutive Top 25 teams and went 5–1. The last two times that happened in the ACC, NC State went 1–5 in 1980 and Maryland went 0–6 in 1993.

• Boy, was I wrong about NC State. This team has way too much talent to be 2–5 in the ACC (13–7 overall) with losses to Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

• So the depth of the ACC is about to become a thing. The league has a chance to put nine or 10 teams into the NCAA tournament, which has never happened. It’s a great league, but the Big Ten and SEC having down years doesn’t hurt. The Selection Committee has to get those at-large teams from somewhere.

• Right now there’s no timetable for when junior wing Dillon Brooks returns for Oregon, but Dana Altman sounds pretty confident that it shouldn’t be more than a few weeks. Which is good, because we’ve had enough bad in injuries in college hoops lately.

• This will not be the last time I say this, but I’ll say it anyway: If Gonzaga enters Selection Sunday undefeated (which I believe it will), the Zags will be No. 1 seed. I don’t even think it should be up for debate, but I know it will be because that’s what we do.

• Oh, and it’s Gon-ZAG-uh, not Gon-ZAH-guh. Please make a note of it.

• Teams should not be allowed to huddle on the sidelines with their coaches during a replay review, or after a player is disqualified for his fifth foul.

• Give Jeff Capel credit for pushing the right buttons for Duke Saturday night. The Blue Devils faced an 11-point halftime deficit, so Capel put three starters—junior guard Grayson Allen, sophomore guard Luke Kennard and freshman big manHarry Giles—on the bench to start the second half to go with a more defensive-oriented lineup. The Blue Devils have looked tentative and soft for several weeks now, but the moves, plus Capel’s passion on the bench (and, presumably, the halftime locker room) seemed to restore that missing edge. Of course, it didn’t hurt that senior center Amile Jefferson returned after missing two weeks with a foot injury. He grabbed 12 rebounds (11 defensive) and Duke used a 22–1 run to put away the Hurricanes in the second half. Once Mike Krzyzewski returns, which should be within the next two weeks, then Duke could be well positioned for a championship push.

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• How many people realize Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is having an All-America-caliber season? Check out his stat line from Saturday’s overtime win at Minnesota: 28 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks, 1 turnover. At one point, he scored 14 straight points. He also almost singlehandedly fouled out Gophers forward Reggie Lynch.

• You know who else deserves some more All-America talk? Jonathan Motley, that’s who. The Baylor senior forward had 32 points and 20 rebounds in a win over Texas last week. He is by far the biggest reason the Bears are the season’s biggest surprise.

• Valparaiso senior forward Alec Peters had 30 points in the Crusaders’ win over Illinois-Chicago on Sunday. That enabled him to replace Bryce Drew as the school’s alltime scoring leader. That’s altogether appropriate considering Drew recruited Peters and coached him for three seasons. Peters is a great, great college player whose legacy is now entrenched.

• So Rutgers and Oklahoma State won over the weekend, which means Missouri, Colorado and Oregon State are the last remaining power conference teams without a league win this season. Just making sure you knew.

• Just when you thought you’d seen everything, my coveted Buy-Plus rating looks like it could be a bust. I gave it to Michigan State believing that a) the Spartans would be bolstered by the return of injured freshman Miles Bridges b) the guard play would improve and c) Tom Izzo would figure it out. As it turns out, Bridges has been just O.K. (an NBA scout who saw him play recently told me he thought Bridges had put on weight while he was sitting for seven games with an ankle injury), and as for the guards, well, you can’t get blood from a stone. They’re just not championship level. And yes, Izzo is a great coach, but he’s not a miracle worker. I’m sure it’s foolish to give up on this team in January, but frankly, I’m not seeing any indication that a major improvement is in the offing. Sorry, shoppers!

• Hope you’re just about through sleeping on SMU. The Mustangs have won 13 of their last 14 and are just a game behind Cincinnati in the AAC. They almost knocked off the Bearcats on the road on Jan. 12 before losing by two. Their rematch on Feb. 12 in Moody Coliseum is gonna be a doozy.

Joe Robbins/Getty

• I love that Caleb Swanigan is 14th in the Big Ten in foul shooting (77.9%). Might be my favorite stat of the season.

• You can’t put Illinois’s struggles on just one player, but senior point guard Tracy Abrams is really struggling. Abrams, who is in his sixth year after suffering two season-ending injuries, has averaged 4.3 points and shot 1 for 21 from three since the start of conference play. In seven games he has a total of 12 assists to 10 turnovers. Hard to beat good teams when your senior point guard is not performing well.

• Nice knowin ya, Nebraska.

• My life will not be complete until Ian Eagle joins Twitter.

• I thought it was pretty appalling the way Iowa coach Fran McCaffery screamed in the face of an official at the end of his team’s home loss to Maryland last Thursday. This, of course, is not new territory for McCaffery, who likewise stormed off the court earlier this season because he didn’t like the way his opponent (who lost) finished the game. I always wonder how a coach can behave that way and then counsel his own players to keep their heads when the temperature gets hot.

• I understand the need to respect a young man’s privacy, but this ultra secrecy regarding injuries strikes me as silly. I mean, what exactly is a lower leg injury?

• I’m starting to think Villanova junior guard Phil Booth is going to take a medical redshirt. He hasn’t played since Nov. 17 because of lingering pain from off-season knee surgery, and coach Jay Wright has no idea when or if he’s coming back. The decision will be Booth’s, but it looks to me like the decision is getting made for him.

• Iowa State 6' 5" senior guard Deonte Burton has to be first team All X factor. That’s not really a compliment. He has games where he is great (31 points against Oklahoma; 27 against Texas) and others where you barely know he’s out there (five points against TCU; six against Texas Tech).

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• It was great seeing Gene Keady back in Mackey Arena and being honored by the Purdue faithful.

• I’m sure Xavier coach Chris Mack is disappointed that 6' 2" senior guard Myles Davis has decided to leave the program, but in some ways the team is better off without the distraction. Davis missed the first 15 games as he was dealing with a misdemeanor assault charge. He rejoined the team two weeks ago but played sparingly in three consecutive losses. Last week, he informed the coaching staff that he was leaving school. Davis is a pretty good player who could have given the Musketeers a badly needed boost with their perimeter scoring, but certainty is always better than uncertainty.

• Make sure you put Boston College guard Ky Bowman on your radar. The 6' 1" freshman tied his season high with 33 points in Saturday’s loss to North Carolina, which is ironic considering Bowman originally committed to play wide receiver for the UNC football team before changing his mind. Bowman had a lousy game in a blowout loss to Virginia, after which he went back to dying his hair red as he had earlier in the season. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing that red dye the rest of the season.

Five Games I’m Psyched to See This Week

Kansas at West Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

I’ve been saying for a while that I thought Kansas was due to be clipped, and you’d think this would be the perfect spot to predict that first loss. Except the Mountaineers, which have lost two straight and almost lost at Texas, are getting exposed by league teams that are familiar with their style. And the Jayhawks have arguably the best backcourt tandem in the country in senior Frank Mason and junior Devonte’ Graham, who should be able to handle a fullcourt press and a hostile environment.

Kansas 78, West Virginia 73

Virginia at Notre Dame, Tuesday, 8 p.m., ACC Network

If this were a couple of years ago, I might be inclined to go with the Cavaliers. In today’s game, however, a great offense usually beats a great defense.

Notre Dame 70, Virginia 66

UCLA at USC, Wednesday, 11 p.m., FS1

It’s great that this is becoming a sexy basketball rivalry again. USC did a good job coming back against Arizona and squeaking by Arizona State, but the Bruins are clearly the better team, and they will not be in a good mood coming off the loss to Arizona.

UCLA 94, USC 79

Xavier at Cincinnati, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

Once again, Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are quietly putting together a solid season. Cincinnati is siccing its standard scrap-and-claw defense on opponents, but the difference is this season the Bearcats actually have some dynamic scorers in 6' 6" sophomore guard Jacob Evans and 6' 9" junior forward Kyle Washington.

Cincinnati 77, Xavier 70

Oregon at Utah, Thursday, 10:30 p.m., FS1

Utah darn near knocked off UCLA in Salt Lake City before losing by one two weeks ago. Facing an Oregon team that will almost certainly be without Dillon Brooks, I say they will complete the job.

Utah 80, Oregon 74

Kansas City Star/Getty

This Week’s AP Ballot

* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Kansas (1)
2. Villanova (2)
3. Kentucky (4)
4. Arizona (16)
5. UCLA (3)
6. Gonzaga (5)
7. North Carolina (8)
8. Baylor (9)
9. Notre Dame (10)
10. Florida State (12)
11. Louisville (11)
12. Wisconsin (13)
13. Duke (14)
14. West Virginia (7)
15. Oregon (17)
16. Creighton (6)
17. Butler (15)
18. Purdue (18)
19. Cincinnati (20)
20. Virginia (21)
21. Saint Mary’s (22)
22. Xavier (19)
23. Maryland (24)
24. SMU (NR)
25. UNC Wilmington (25)

Dropped out: Florida (23)

This week provides an excellent primer for how a savvy voter should handle injuries and personnel issues as opposed to simple results. For starters, my decision to elevate Arizona to No. 4 is not just a reaction to the Wildcats’ win at UCLA. It also accounts for the return of Trier. Arizona is now a fundamentally different—and better—team, and, barring injuries, that is the team it will be henceforth.

Creighton, on the other hand, might not have dropped quite as many spots for one loss (although since the loss came at home I would have had to ding the Bluejays a good amount). But this team lost its heart and soul in Watson, and he is not coming back. So I have to rank the Bluejays for who they are going to be rather than who they have been.

Oregon shouldn’t be without Dillon Brooks for too long, and besides, the Ducks haven’t lost without him. Louisville lost on the road to a team ranked above it, and without Quentin Snider.

You might think my Gonzaga arguments are contradictory, but they’re really not. It is important to differentiate poll rankings from the NCAA tournament seed list. The former reflects subjective assessments of how a team has been playing in recent weeks and where the voter thinks it stands compared to other teams if they played today. The latter is an assessment of a team’s overall résumé, which counts games played last weekend the same as games played in early November.

It should be noted that there is only one SEC team on my ballot. That, to say the least, is a paltry showing for a power conference that has 14 teams.

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