Until it happens, it will continue to be the main question asked before every Northwestern basketball season: Is this the year the Wildcats finally make the NCAA tournament?
It’s been a long, long time for Cats fans to wait to see their purple-clad players play deep into March, with the program’s all-time NCAA tournament appearance total still sitting at an unbelievable zero.
But with the Chris Collins Era entering Year 3, the momentum continues to build. A few years ago, asking if the Cats would make the NCAA tournament was asking a question you already knew the answer to. Now, it’s a serious part of the annual discussion, perhaps the best sign that Collins is truly building something to be proud of in Evanston.
“I've been asked about it a lot, and it's nice that people feel like we're on an upward trajectory, that it's even in the discussion,” Collins said Thursday during Big Ten basketball media day. “We don't talk about it a lot with our guys, but I think coming into the season, we did talk about the fact that it's not on this current team's shoulders to feel the pressure day in and day out of playing for however many years it's been of going to the NCAA tournament. If you start doing that, then you're not going to be successful.
“I want these guys to enjoy the journey they have together. We have to take it each step — I know it's cliché and I don't like that, but you have to take each season as it comes along. If we start putting our heads in the clouds and thinking about March, we're going to be really disappointed when that time comes because there's so much between now and then.
“I think there's a confidence in our program right now. I think there's a belief we can be a good team. I like that. And certainly my goal every year I've ever played basketball or been part of college basketball as a player or coach has been to be in the NCAA tournament. If that's not my goal, then I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I've said it all along. For me, it's a matter of when that happens, not if. That's the confidence level that I think we all share. So it would be great if it was this year.”
It very well could be. Collins has what might be the best Northwestern team in a very long time. Between experienced and productive veterans like Tre Demps and Alex Olah and the young guys Collins has brought in himself like sophomores Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law and this year’s duo of hyped freshmen, Jordan Ash and Aaron Falzon, there’s plenty of reason to be excited.
Over the first two years of the Collins Era, the Cats have had flashes of brilliance. Two seasons ago, there was the stretch of five wins in seven games, a stretch that featured conference road wins at Wisconsin and Indiana. Last season, the Cats lost 10 Big Ten games in a row, but five in a row were lost by an average of 3.4 points. Then, Collins switched up the defense, and the Cats won four in a row and five of six.
The destination is March, but the journey obviously starts far earlier. For Northwestern, what happens in March depends on what’s happening right now in October.
“What we get in March will be indicative of what we do right now and how we prepare right now and building those habits every single day,” Demps said Thursday. “Coach talks about every single day of practice we want to win. After practice, we come into that huddle and coach lets us know if we won that day or not. And our goal is to win every single day.”
Demps was here before Collins arrived. He’s seen first hand the difference Collins has made and the improvement he’s sparked in the program. Both Demps and Olah said that their personal confidence levels have risen as a result of Collins being here. The same goes for the confidence level of the team as a whole.
“I think the sky’s the limit for us. I think that we have enough talent to compete with anybody in the country,” Demps said. “We kind of have to have that attitude but at the same time having a poor man’s attitude that we have to earn everything we get and just trying to be a blue-collar team.
“Coach has done an unbelievable job just changing the culture around here. And just how guys have evolved and the desire for guys who want to be really good players: We have guys on our team that want to be pros. And the players that coach has recruited, I think it’s been a complete transformation, and I think it’s really going to benefit this program and university in the long run.”
The long run is what Collins is building toward, but the short term is what most people will be focusing on. The focus is on 2016 and if this is the season that finally ends with an invitation to the Big Dance. It’s the next logical step for a program that’s been moving in the right direction under Collins.
“I think the main thing we're trying to do is make a step forward,” he said. “I think our progression the last two years has been good. And it would be nice to keep going that way."
As Collins walked off the stage Thursday, he shouted to the audience of reporters, “Go Cubs!” It was a nice reminder that Collins’ hometown team is still alive in baseball’s postseason.
Not long ago, it would’ve been crazy to see the Cubs in the NLCS, as crazy as seeing Northwestern in the NCAA tournament. One down, one to go.