A year ago around this time, I began reaching out to interviewees and researching historical data for a longform feature on Northwestern basketball ending its long and notorious NCAA Tournament drought.
I spoke to a variety of people in and around the program, alumni and fans, and almost all shared one similar opinion: Chris Collins positioned Northwestern basketball for long-term success beyond the one run. College basketball pundits nationwide evidently agreed, voting the Wildcats to the preseason Top 25 across a variety of publications and polls.
But now, one year after my work on that story began, Northwestern sits at 15-12 with a KenPom rating of No. 81 — sandwiched between East Tennessee State and South Dakota State. The Wildcats’ most recent loss reminded of a particular quote ESPN’s Darren Rovell gave me of appearing on camera at the Rutgers-Northwestern matchup last season: “It was a tight game, and I got text messages from people telling me, ‘You look green.’”
Hopefully on Tuesday, Darren had the sick bag on standby. The Wildcats’ 67-58, overtime loss to a Rutgers bunch that came in 12-15 and 2-12 in Big Ten play evaporated virtually any hope of Northwestern basketball landing another at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe closing out the regular season 4-0 with a stretch that opens Saturday against No. 2-ranked Michigan State, followed with a run in the obscenely early Big Ten Conference Tournament, could land the Wildcats a bid. But the only way Collins’ crew can be assured it sees its name on Selection Sunday again is to hoist the hardware at Madison Square Garden.
This season of disappointment marks a pivotal moment in the trajectory of Northwestern basketball, reminiscent of Wildcat football’s 2013. Pat Fitzgerald coached Northwestern to its first-ever bowl win to conclude a surprise 2012 campaign; much in the same way Collins guided the hardwood ‘Cats to their first NCAA Tournament against preseason expectations.
Northwestern kicked off 2013 with plenty of expectations, then broke into the Top 15 of the polls. College Gameday even aired from Evanston.
And that’s when it unraveled.
The Wildcats lost every remaining game on the schedule but one to finish 5-7. When the next season’s team finished an identical 5-7 — dropping the regular-season finale vs. Illinois to lose out on a bowl bid for a second consecutive year — the 2013 Gator Bowl began to look like the pinnacle for Northwestern football under Fitzgerald.
The program’s enjoyed a resurgence in the years since, suggesting it can be done. Chris Collins now faces a similar test for Northwestern basketball.
Plenty explains the Wildcats’ struggles. They have narrow losses to Purdue and Ohio State, two of the Big Ten’s three best teams. They’ve faced backcourt instability, with Jordan Ash out-dueling Isiah Brown for playing time, but the former recently going down for the season to injury. Instability results in a far less productive offense than a season ago, with plenty more turnovers.
“Home games” played at the former Rosemont Horizon — an hour-long trek at rush hour — don’t do the Wildcats any favors.
Explanations for Northwestern’s failure exist, and won’t be easily solved in the offseason. In fact, with Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly all seniors, Collins nears a crossroads. Ryan Wooden’s excellent reporting on Illinois recruiting touched on some of the struggles NU faces, but also notes the successes Collins — a former Illinois Mr. Basketball — has had landing local talent.
February 2018 may not be nearly as exciting as 2017 around Northwestern basketball, but it may be more important in shaping the program’s outlook.