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updated: 4/2/2013 10:58 PM

Believe it: Northwestern can be a factor

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  • Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, left, stands with new Wildcats basketball coach Chris Collins during a news conference Tuesday morning.

    Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, left, stands with new Wildcats basketball coach Chris Collins during a news conference Tuesday morning.
    Associated Press


Northwestern can have a quality basketball program.

Really, it can.

National championships? Whoa! Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. But the Wildcats can be in basketball at least what they are in football.

Seriously, have you witnessed the lack of quality in the current NCAA Tournament? If that's the best that college basketball has to offer, Northwestern's climb toward the middle of the Big Ten doesn't seem so steep.

Chris Collins, NU's latest mountain climber, was introduced Tuesday morning as its 24th head coach. The 'Cats generally are most exciting when they hire or fire a new basketball coach, and this was no exception as Collins reacquainted himself with people who knew him as a great high school player at Glenbrook North before he matriculated to Duke.

Collins, son of Doug and protégé of Mike Krzyzewski, is the latest to accept the challenge of all college basketball challenges. He sure sounded like the right guy as he said all the right things that all the right guys say before they become the wrong guy.

"I want to be here for a long, long time" … "(The opportunity) is a dream come true" … NU's strict "academic requirements are a positive" … and so much more.

Nobody coaxed out of Collins whether a long, long time was until Duke wants him back to replace Krzyzewski or what happens if the dream job becomes a nightmare or whether he'll need to ask NU to lower its entrance requirements to Duke's standards for basketball players.

Those issues were quibbles for another day. This day was for being optimistic about a fresh start in Evanston.

For a couple of reasons I believed what Collins was peddling: First, I wanted to, and second it isn't impossible for any school to be highly competitive in this era of college basketball.

Northwestern's upside is limited by high academic standards, a lack of tradition, below average facilities and most of all the image as the school that never qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Then there's the little matter of the Big Ten, which this season happened to be the most powerful of college basketball's power conferences.

Still, Northwestern can be better than it has been, win 20 games in more seasons than not, be a fixture in the middle of the Big Ten, break into the NCAA Tournament and after that routinely contend for a berth in the tourney.

The college basketball bar is so much lower now. Northwestern goes to football bowl games based on the same premise: The gap between all wrong and all right has narrowed.

Think back to college basketball in the 1980s. Northwestern had no chance the way the game was played back then. Now the quality of play has drifted toward upstarts like Florida Gulf Coast reaching the Sweet Sixteen and midmajors like Wichita State advancing to the Final Four.

Teams like that used to be an oddity but aren't anymore, Heck, Butler made it to consecutive championship games.

With the best players going to the NBA after one season, teams are green now and shooting abysmal and ballhandling sloppy. Watching the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament should have provided as much hope at NU as a young, energetic, passionate coach does.

Wildcats fans can believe everything Chris Collins boasted Tuesday morning because they want to and because it's realistic.

Stranger things have happened than Northwestern being competitive in this lesser world of college basketball.

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