ROSEMONT — How do you build excitement around a basketball program that's never reached the NCAA tournament? Easy. You hire Chris Collins.
Northwestern's new coach has done the unthinkable in creating a genuine buzz for a Wildcats team that has historically struggled, finishing above seventh place in the Big Ten just once since the close of the 1960s. But make no mistake, Collins — with his famous basketball name and his impressive basketball resume — has people talking about Northwestern basketball in a positive light for the first time in a long time.
"I couldn't be more thrilled with the positive excitement around our program," Collins said Thursday at Big Ten basketball media day. "I think it kind of goes hand in hand with our whole athletic department. You've seen what's happened with football and the national attention they've gotten and ESPN Gameday and all those different things. The other sports, as well. I think it's time for basketball. I think everyone's hungry for basketball to make that next step."
Hoping to follow the example of Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald, Collins is trying to lift a program out of the Big Ten's basement and into the conference's upper levels. But, like Fitzgerald is experiencing this season, with excitement comes expectations. Whether or not the Wildcats' basketball program is demanding expectations quite yet will likely be determined in the coming months. But for Collins, he says bring 'em on.
"I welcome that, I want to have expectations. I've always had expectations on me," he said. "As a player, I was the son of a pro player. People expected me to be good. You go to Duke, you're expected to be good. So I don't shy away from the expectations. I love the fact that people are excited.
"But I also know it's going to take some time. We're going to go through some growing pains. There's going to be some nights where I look like I don't know what I'm doing, when the players don't look so good. People are going to have to hang in there and have some patience and know that what we're trying to do is build it the right way and give them a program that everybody can be proud of."
But the new coach isn't the only one embracing a new attitude about Northwestern basketball. His players are just as pleased with the new feeling surrounding the program, and they're as itching to build on it as Collins is.
"Anytime you have something new, I think there's that buzz, that excitement, and I think coach Collins has done a great job of amplifying that," senior guard/forward Drew Crawford said. "And we definitely feel it, too. There's a hunger around the program, and it's something that we're really embracing and working hard to have a great year."
"I think what we're most excited about is just the new energy surrounding the program," junior guard Dave Sobolewski said. "Coach Collins being a local guy, having a great high school career here, playing at Duke, his dad obviously coaching in Chicago. It's been great for this program, really getting this program out there and getting us noticed. So it's great to have that excitement surrounding our team. Our non-conference schedule is as hard as it's ever been. We go to Stanford in the first week of the season. Knowing that we really have no easy games all year long, it's really fun for us."
Like Collins pointed out, however, this journey won't necessarily be a quick one. Players have spent the last few months learning a new offense, and it's been a transition period that Sobolewski admitted has been rocky at times.
"We've definitely had ups and downs," Sobolewski said. "We started out a little shaky just trying to get used to the new system and the new sets that he was putting in. But over the past four to six weeks we've made some really, really serious improvements. We're starting to really understand the offense in and out. ... Our team has been making really great improvements, and it's at a great time because the season starts next week. So we're really excited to get going."
The ultimate goal for Northwestern has to be snapping that streak, the one that grows each year the Cats miss out on March Madness. And, though Collins cautions that patience is required, he also acknowledges his team isn't too far away from reaching that goal.
"I think everyone goes into the season with high expectations. We don't have a complete team in terms of every single component that they would like to have or I would like to have. The thing is, we have a number of guys who've won," Collins said. "You take away a number of injuries last year, the previous couple years with Crawford, with (junior guard JerShon) Cobb, with Sobolewski, that was a team right on the verge. They're accustomed to winning. We have to continue to get better, it's not going to be easy. Our league is tough, our non-conference is tough. But I'd be upset with our guys if they didn't come into the season having postseason expectations and aspirations.
"You can't just fast-forward yourself to March. If you do that, you're going to get there and you're going to be sorry. You really have to look at what's ahead of you here in November. We have a tough schedule, and if we can come out of it and improve and get some wins, we'll put ourselves in a position to be in the conversation."