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In 4th season, Collins has Northwestern poised for 1st NCAA

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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Chris Collins recalled playing a state tournament game in a sold out arena at Northwestern when he was a star at Glenbrook North High School.

The atmosphere was off the charts.

''It was so loud and it was an amazing environment,'' he said Tuesday. ''That's what I envisioned for this place to become.''

Collins no longer has to use his imagination. Big things are happening at Northwestern, the school that hosted the first Final Four but still hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament.

That might be about to change.

Collins, the longtime former Duke assistant and son of an NBA coach, has the Wildcats (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) poised for their first NCAA appearance in his fourth season as their coach.

Northwestern is coming off a huge win at No. 7 Wisconsin on Sunday and is staring at another big opportunity against No. 23 Maryland at home on Wednesday. They have a chance not only to strengthen their NCAA standing but tie their regular-season record for wins set last season.

For a long-struggling program, everything seems to be falling in place.

Along with the upgrade on the court, the Wildcats are about to see a big improvement in their facilities.

A $110 million renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena is set to begin on the 64-year-old facility after the season. Though that means playing next season at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, the Wildcats will probably like what they see when the work is finished.

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The school plans to replace existing wooden bleachers with chair-back seats, update audio and video systems, add premium seating and widen concourses. Along with a renovated arena, the men's and women's basketball and volleyball teams will get a new practice facility in an existing building adjacent to the arena.

But there are more immediate issues. An NCAA appearance is in reach, for one.

''I'm not shying away from the NCAA Tournament question,'' Collins said. ''I know it's something that's on everybody's mind because it historically is something that hasn't been done. People want to see it be done. I'm not avoiding that. But really, when I came here, it wasn't about going to the NCAA Tournament. I viewed this as situation where it's a great school in a great city that plays in one of the best conferences, arguably the best conference, in college basketball. Why can't we have a program that's good every year?''

It's not just about making the NCAA Tournament for the Wildcats. It's about making a run, too.

''We believe in ourselves, we think we're really good,'' guard Bryant McIntosh said. ''When we do make the NCAA Tournament, that's not our end goal. We want to compete for a championship, and it starts with the Big Ten Tournament. It starts with the Big Ten championship, regular season. We have our eyes set on that.''

Collins, who grew up about 10 miles from Welsh-Ryan in Northbrook, saw similarities between Northwestern and Duke in size, academic reputations and old arenas when he was hired. The big difference, of course, is tradition. He had to get recruits to buy into his vision at Northwestern.

''He just seemed really genuine,'' forward Vic Law said. ''A lot of coaches are trying to sell ... everything they had already done. They're trying to boost themselves up. Coach Collins was really just trying to say we'll pick ourselves up by the bootstraps, he's going to make something special of this program. He couldn't guarantee when it would happen, but he just knew. He was confident that with the right players and the right idea, that he would (turn it around).''

It hasn't been an easy climb, with the team winning 14 games in his first season and dropping 10 in a row the following season. Even so, it was becoming clear he was bringing in more talented players and it showed with 20 wins last year.

Northwestern has been able to endure losing forward Aaron Falzon to a season-ending injury early this season. A hand injury sidelined center Dererk Pardon for about six weeks, and leading scorer Scottie Lindsey will miss his fourth straight game because of mono on Wednesday.

The Wildcats dropped their first two games without Lindsey, including a loss at home to Illinois. But they rebounded in a big way against Wisconsin.

''We celebrate in the locker room, have fun,'' Collins said. ''We had the 2 1/2-hour bus ride from Madison, and I told them on the bus, `Get all your text messages, get all that stuff out of your system these next 2 1/2 hours. Get back to your family and everybody telling you how good you are and what you did tonight. When we pull into campus, we've got to move on to Maryland.'''