Northwestern has never been to the NCAA Tournament, a feat accomplished by no other power five school. Instead they are on a list with a number of mid-majors that have never made the big dance, a lot of which being teams that have been a part of Division I basketball for considerably less time than the Wildcats. Either way, when you're in company with schools like Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Longwood, etc...it's never a good sign.
There was a three year stretch when former coach Bill Carmody had the Wildcats within striking distance (going 20-14, 20-14 and 19-14, respectively) thanks to prolific John Shurna, but a consistent onslaught of inexplicable losses did just enough to keep them out of the picture. Carmody would than fade to 13-19 in his last season and the door would open for Chris Collins, son of former NBA coach Doug Collins. The move to Chris was considered a big deal for the Wildcats as he had spent many successful years as an assistant under Coach K at Duke and was seen as a coach that could help Northwestern regain an edge in recruiting, especially locally in the metro Chicago area.
So far the move has seemingly been effective, but still a work in progress. After another underwhelming season in his debut season as a head coach, Collins entered with a drastically improved recruiting class that has more or less paved the way for any future success. The duo of four-star small forward Vic Law and three-star point guard Bryant McIntosh was a nice acquisition for a Northwestern team not known for their recruiting prowess and both became key players last season. Besides the duo being Northwestern's third and fourth top scorers, McIntosh added an impressive 4.7 assists per game and they each were capable shooters from outside. Mixed with a solid season from junior Tre Demps and quickly developing five Alex Olah and you had a program finally starting to come together.
Of course the end result last year was still the same, with the Wildcats finishing with a losing record and no postseason appearance. Of course a lot of that has to do with a ten game losing streak that was about as cruel as you can get. No, seriously, Northwestern had a six game stretch where they lost by 7 (in overtime), 5, 2, 2, 1 and 8 points. Not only that, but it came against Michigan State, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland and Purdue (three of said games also being on the road). Minnesota drew the headlines for their inability to win close games but the Wildcats definitely one upped Richard Pitino's squad as Northwestern squandered win after win in a rough January.
Now Northwestern is entering their third season under Collins, who recently signed an extension with the school, and is starting to enter the point where it's time to make some progress. Of course the school stuck with Carmody for over a decade, but if Collins wants to capitalize on recruiting and the Chicago/Illinois recruiting base, he needs to show potential recruits that he's building a competitive team worth joining. Considering everyone of value is set to return this season and the Wildcats should be an improved team this winter. Even more so with the addition of four-star power forward Aaron Falzon and touted shooting guard Jordan Ash, who could be a good rotational guard as a backup for Demps and McIntosh. The addition of 6'10" Joey van Zegeren from Virginia Tech also adds a quality backup for Olah, as long as Northwestern can keep him off the free throw line (13 of 41 last season, entering Andris Biedrins territory).
So now what you have is back-to-back strong recruiting classes, a young nucleus of formidable talent that can compete in the Big Ten, a relatively underrated and highly skilled center in Alex Olah (and a formidable backup now in van Zegeren) and the potential to surpass a collapsing Illinois program to lay claim to being Chicago's Big Ten school of choice. A lot of that is going to come down to Chris Collins now, especially after a season of dropping far too many winnable games, and how much Northwestern improves will be speak volumes of what the school has to work with when it comes to their coach. And not to add any pressure, but this is the last season on campus for Demps and Olah, two extremely critical players when it comes to the team's success.
It'll be interesting to see if Northwestern can use a soft non-conference slate to gain momentum heading into conference play. A strong start to the season doesn't always mean much (just look at Minnesota and Penn State last year), but with a weak non-conference schedule it does mean Northwestern needs to win or they'll be on the outside looking in before the midway point of the season. Outside of their involvement in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, where they'll draw North Carolina and either Kansas State or Missouri, the only other notable opponent Northwestern faces is a road trip to Virginia Tech in December, meaning Collins needs his team to take care of business versus schools like Fairfield, Chicago State and DePaul. If Northwestern can roll through everyone outside of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, or maybe cut losses to only one upset, they should put themselves into a position heading into Big Ten play where a solid enough season could get them over the hump.
The Big Ten slate isn't going to be easy for Northwestern, but it's not murder row. It seems like this off-season has essentially been a free fall for Illinois, and considering the roster turnover at Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers, the Wildcats should at least be in the running for a middle of the pack finish within the conference. The real question for Northwestern is if they can finally win close games and start to move ahead of the Minnesota and Iowa's of the conference. The reality is even when this Northwestern team was struggling last season and dropping games at an alarming rate, they still came close to beating most of the stronger teams in the league. With the Wildcats most likely set to be improved across the board, these games could be for the taking and are must wins if Northwestern wants to cross a tournament bid off their bucket list.
We'll finally get our first look at the program within several days as Northwestern is set to head overseas to Spain for their exhibition trip. The school recently posted their schedule as they set to depart for Madrid this Saturday:
Saturday, August 22
Team departs for Madrid
Sunday, August 23
Team arrives in Madrid
Monday, August 24
Tour of Madrid
Game #1 vs. Estudiantes, 1 p.m. CT
(Pabellon Fernando Martin)
Tuesday, August 25
Tour of Real Madrid Bernabeu Stadium
Game #2 vs. Eurocolegio Casvi, 1 p.m. CT
Wednesday, August 26
Travel to Alicante
Thursday, August 27
Game #3 vs. UCAM Murcia II, 1 p.m. CT
(Pabellon Principe de Asturias; Murcia)
Friday, August 28
Travel to Barcelona
Visit bullfighting arena and museum in Valencia
Saturday, August 29
Tour of Barcelona
Northwestern University alumni event
Game #4 vs. Andorra, 1 p.m. CT
(Pavello Esportiu Municipal)
Sunday, August 30
Tour of La Sagrada Familia
Game #5 vs. US Toulouges, 1 p.m. CT
(Pavello Esportiu Municipal)
Monday, August 31
Tour of FC Barcelona stadium Camp Nou
Tuesday, September 1
Team departs Barcelona, arrives in Chicago
Chris Collins has the cards in his hand to make it to the postseason in Evanston, he just needs to play his hand right. This obviously isn't a make or break season for the program, but it would go a long way with recruiting and fan support for Northwestern to make some progress and not suffer another Bill Carmody "close but not quite there" season of mediocrity. We'll get our first glance at how improved Northwestern is in just a few days and for the first time since maybe Gameday was in town there's a reason for optimism in Evanston.