EVANSTON – One year ago on Tuesday came a news release to members of the media that cover Northwestern athletics that bluntly stated the situation with the men’s basketball program.
Dated March 14, 2022, athletic director Dr. Derrick Gragg had a statement on the state of the team that had endured five-straight losing seasons after a breakthrough NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017.
That included a 15-16 record in 2021-2022, prompting a meeting between the AD and Chris Collins. While the head coach’s contract ran through 2024-2025, the statement made clear that a critical time was ahead for the man that had led the program to its first “Big Dance” just five years earlier.
“I have tasked Coach Collins with making necessary changes to build towards success in the 2022-23 campaign. I am extremely grateful to all our supporters for their dedication and, most importantly, to our student-athletes for always representing our University with pride and passion,” said Gragg at the end of the statement.
One year later, Collins has met and exceeded what one might have hoped for when it comes to changes in the program.
In one of the more celebrated turnarounds of the 2022-2023 men’s college basketball seasons, Northwestern went 21-11 and won a program-record 12 Big Ten games to finish second in the conference.
For the first time, the Wildcats defeated an AP No. 1 ranked team, doing so against Purdue in Evanston on February 12. That was one of four ranked victories for the Wildcats that has put them back in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history.
While always quick to praise players and assistants, Collins did admit the turnaround had special meaning for him.
“It meant a little bit extra to me, personally,” said Collins on Sunday after the Wildcats were seeded seventh in the West Region with a first round game against Boise State in Sacramento on Thursday. “No one was more disappointed to not be able to sustain what we built in 2017 than I was. You always look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Man, how did we not continue on this track.’
“But it’s easy not to win. If it was so easy to win, then a lot of people would do it. There’s a reason why it’s only been two times in whatever, close to 100 years.”
Collins has both of those appearances in his ten seasons with the Wildcats, with difficult days in the middle where the team finished under .500 five-straight years and had two single-digit win seasons.
Yet the coach continued to have faith, even before this season when Pete Nance (North Carolina) and Ryan Young (Duke) both transferred. With strong play from veterans Chase Audige, Boo Buie, and Robbie Beran along with key contributions elsewhere, the Wildcats improbably made history over the last few months.
“For us to get there, have success, to take a step backward, and then rebuild it, and get back there, it’s been a lot of hard work from a lot of people and a lot of belief where we just had to hang in there because we saw we were making progress,” said Collins. “But sometimes the public may not see that, because of where the results were at, but these guys were growing, they were getting better, we had a bunch of guys stay the course and see this thing through.
“Now they’re going back to the tournament, which is really exciting.”
Especially for Collins, who is feeling much different on March 14, 2023, as opposed to a year ago.