Northwestern basketball is low-hanging fruit.
After a home thrashing at the hands of Michigan State on Tuesday, and noticeable regression over the last four games, several sportswriters have found it painfully easy to cast doubt on Chris Collins’ rebuilding process. A 10-game (and maybe counting) slide would usually lead to an argument that a long-term plan may or may not come to fruition, but with no disrespect toward any of my peers, many of their doubts are premature.
The Collins hire in 2013 gave Northwestern fans an unheralded sense of optimism, which was justified. As a Coach K disciple from the Chicago area who had never known anything but winning in his career as a player and assistant coach, what wasn’t to love?
Northwestern only won 14 games last season, but pulled off enough nice upsets to give fans hope that in 2014-15, the ‘Cats would take the next step toward that elusive NCAA Tournament bid, which was also a justified expectation given the caliber of recruits that Collins brought in.
At just 10-14, it’s safe to say those expectations have not been met, and I’m not going to try to tell you this hasn’t been a disappointing season. But regardless, this is Collins’ first opportunity to coach his own players. Last season, the team he inherited just so happened to include Northwestern’s second all-time leading scorer, Drew Crawford. Now his team heavily relies on a talented, yet inexperienced freshman point guard – Bryant McIntosh – to carry much of a load, while constantly dealing with a debilitating injury to one of its best players in JerShon Cobb. There are five freshmen who have seen playing time this season, so to some extent, what did we expect?
The old Bill Parcells quote “you are what your record says you are” rings true, no matter how close several of NU’s losses have been. This is not a good ‘Cats team, but that still doesn’t give anybody license to question the overall direction of the program. Not yet, anyway.
Rebuilding takes time and patience. Collins is trying to dig Northwestern out of the perhaps biggest hole in power conference college basketball history, by far the most difficult job in his line of work, and it’s far too early to judge whether or not he is on the right track. A few blowouts in a row does not indicate a change in direction, especially given the circumstances surrounding this team. It’s completely justified to be frustrated with the ‘Cats this season, but it’s irrational to immediately extrapolate future failure from the present.
This is only year two of the Collins Era. It was always going to take longer than this to reach the ultimate goal, and a season of regression does not necessarily mean Northwestern is back to square one. Sometimes the path to success isn’t linear.
I’m not saying I know Collins will succeed, but I do know he’s the best coach Northwestern can possibly get right now. He’s got one recruiting class that’s seen court time, and is coaching a team that appears to have hit a psychological wall after a series of demoralizing close losses. It’s a tough situation, but nothing warrants long-term doubt right now.
If things look the same as they do now one or two years from today, I would say it’s OK to pour a bit of water out of the proverbial optimism glass. But as of now, we have no choice but to be patient. So, writers and fans alike, have a glass of “Gatorade,” put your pitchforks back in the shed and R-E-L-A-X.