A lot has happened since 1939. World War II. The Vietnam War. The invention of the lava lamp. Steve Jobs was born. Steve Jobs died. Gene Keady’s combover. You get the point.
Maybe the most important thing to have happened, though, was the creation of the NCAA Tournament that very year. In that 76-year span, there’s only one power conference team that has never received a bid to the Big Dance: the Northwestern Wildcats.
In the spring of 2013, after 13 seasons of mind-numbingly boring and unexciting basketball under Bill Carmody, who led the Wildcats to four early NIT exits in his tenure, the Northwestern Athletic Department finally did something right. Mike Krzyzewski’s long-time Associate Head Coach Chris Collins, who had tremendous recruiting ties in the Midwest, was swept off the market just two weeks after the regular season ended and hired as the 24th head coach of the Wildcats men’s basketball program.
Since then, Collins has been better than advertised. In 2014, with Carmody’s meh roster, he revamped the Big Ten’s least efficient defense into the conference’s third, and nation’s 14th, most efficient defense. In 2015, he turned the nation’s 309th ranked offense (96.3 points per 100 possessions) into the nation’s 94th ranked offense (105.7 points per 100 possessions). Prior to the 2015 season, he signed Northwestern’s first ever ESPN Top-100 recruit in Victor Law (now a sophomore) and followed that up with yet another Top-100 recruit in Aaron Falzon, an incoming freshman from the east coast who passed up the likes of UConn, Ohio State and Notre Dame to make an instant impact for Collins at the four this season.
Next step: getting Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. In only his third season, Collins has put together potentially the best roster to ever step foot in Welsh-Ryan Arena, something that Wildcat fans should probably be able to say every year going forward under his watch.
With the defense falling back down to earth last season after the miraculous turnaround in 2014 mentioned above, Collins will need to find a way to balance out his team on both sides of the floor. The Wildcats ranked last in conference play last season at getting to the foul line and creating turnovers, and they were nearly the worst team in the country at converting three point attempts (38.8%). With offensively-challenged Dave Sobolewski now gone, the keys to the Evanston kingdom have officially been handed over to Big Ten All-Freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, a key building block for the future of this program who has put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle this offseason and can help the team improve in all three categories.
At 6-foot-3, the baby-faced assassin, paired with 6-foot-7 Vic Law, has the length to wreak defensive havoc on the perimeter by increasing deflections and creating turnovers. And after ranking second on the team to senior Tre Demps in both free throw attempts and three-point field goal attempts, expect McIntosh to increase his utilization and efficiency in both categories given the full-time starting spot. The kid was fifth in the Big Ten in free throw percentage as a freshman.
Outside of McIntosh, Collins has the fourth-most experienced major-conference team this season, by way of possession-minutes, per ESPN’s John Gasaway. Big man Alex Olah enters his senior season as Northwestern’s anchor, both offensively and defensively. He led the team in Poss%, OR% , DR% and Blk% last season, and he has improved every year; three-point sniper Tre Demps ranked sixth in conference-only 3P% at 43.0% and put together five 20-point games; Vic Law’s length, athleticism and rebounding prowess gives Northwestern their first true NBA prospect since Evan Eschmeyer; Scottie Lindsey, another athletic forward and a solid Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year candidate, will fill in for Law at the three again if he can’t overcome last season’s struggles; and junior redshirt Sanjay Lumpkin will look to improve upon his role defensively – a guy who can guard the wing and still has the size and length to man up in the post.
Although Northwestern’s lackluster nonconference schedule may hurt their RPI when it’s all said and done, they’ll have a chance to prove themselves in late November against UNC on a neutral court before taking on a somewhat weak Big Ten schedule that has them facing Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State only once while playing Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota twice.
On paper, this Northwestern roster could easily be top-8 or 9 in the Big Ten and, for a conference likely to get that many NCAA tournament bids, the stars seem to be aligning in Evanston.
Can Chris Collins finally end the drought? Only time will tell. As far as the list of things that have happened since 1939 goes, “the Northwestern Wildcats earned a NCAA tournament bid” could very well be added come March.