You don't usually see the words "optimism" and "Northwestern basketball" in the same sentence. However, Chris Collins has changed the outlook in Evanston. The Wildcats have a young team playing in a recently renovated arena, and the future seems bright. Here are five reasons to be optimistic about Northwestern basketball this season:
1. Youth movement
Chris Collins brings in five scholarship freshmen in 2014-15, a recruiting class which is widely regarded as the best in Northwestern history. ESPN 100 recruit Vic Law can jump out of the building and throw down some vicious dunks. He should start, as could Bryant McIntosh or Johnnie Vassar if Dave Sobolewski doesn't rebound from his disappointing junior season. Forward Gavin Skelly has the size, 6-foot-8 and 219 pounds, to play the four spot and split time with Sanjay Lumpkin. Shooting guard Scottie Lindsey may not see the floor much, but the Wildcats are basically set at the wing spots with JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps. Plus, Collins already has two three-star commits in his 2015 class. It will take some time for the young guys to learn the system and develop into competitive college players, but this season will provide a look into the future of Wildcat basketball.
2. Soft schedule.... at the start
NU fans should have the opportunity to see lots of victories at Welsh-Ryan Arena in November and December. Collins scheduled an easy non-conference slate for his inexperienced squad. After an exhibition game with McKendree University, the Wildcats open the season with a home match-up against Houston Baptist. They then travel to Brown before the Cancun Challenge, which features home games against North Florida and Elon and contests in Cancun with Miami Ohio and either Virginia Tech or Northern Iowa. That's weak competition for a holiday tournament, so Northwestern has a realistic shot at taking some hardware home from Cancun. The rest of the non-conference schedule includes a trip to Butler and six home games, highlighted by the Big Ten/ACC Challenge match-up with Georgia Tech. NU's other opponents are Mississippi Valley State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, UIC and Northern Kentucky. It really could not get much easier. Northwestern needs to gel early and get victories in the non-con because their B1G slate is brutal.
3. New court
Northwestern made significant upgrades to Welsh-Ryan Arena in the offseason. They added new scoreboards above the floor as well as on the walls along the baselines. NU swapped out the old court for a fresh new look, which brings purple paint back inside the lane.
Fans had lots of interesting ideas for the new court, such as painting Chicago's skylines along the sideline. But Northwestern settled for just a "Chicago's Big Ten Team" script instead. Also, mid-court now has a big block "N" instead of the "N-cat" logo, which Northwestern is gradually using less and less. While the new additions seem really cool, Willie the Wildcat wasn't as happy to see the old scoreboard go.
4. They are better than the football team (probably)
If Northwestern football continues to play at its current pace, it will be extremely difficult for the basketball team to disappoint in the winter. The 'Cats have struggled in all of their first three contests on the gridiron. They lost to a Cal and Northern Illinois before beating FCS-opponent Western Illinois in a sloppy game this past weekend. Some believe NU may not even win a Big Ten game, although Purdue and Illinois look just as bad. A bowl game seems out of the question at this point, so the basketball squad won't have to live up to any high expectations.
5. Chris Collins
Northwestern found the perfect fit when they hired Chris Collins as head coach. He grew up along the north shore and was Illinois Mr. Basketball in 1992. He recruited the Chicago area during his tenure as assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Collins was the young, energetic and experienced coach NU was looking for, and he's already making big changes to a historically-bad Northwestern basketball program. His first recruiting class is one of NU's best ever. The team thrives off his intensity on the sideline, and the energy is turning Welsh-Ryan into a real home-court advantage. The buzz and excitement during the games against Illinois and Nebraska was unlike anything I expected to see at a Northwestern basketball game. It will be years before NU becomes a winner, but if there's any reason to believe in the Wildcats right now, it's Chris Collins.