Collins’ hiring adds to buzz at Northwestern

Northwestern made a sweeping change by hiring Chris Collins in the offseason and sent out a loud message in the process.

Close calls are no longer enough. The Wildcats are looking for more.

That means establishing themselves as contenders in the Big Ten and shooing away that NCAA tournament albatross hovering above them, and they believe Collins is the man to get the job done.

They made that clear when they hired the former Duke star and longtime Blue Devils assistant to replace the fired Bill Carmody.

“You’ve got to have the results, too,” said Collins, a head coach for the first time. “It’s nice to have the buzz and the excitement and all that. But at some point in time, you’ve got to get on the floor and you’ve got to play.”

Collins knows the territory.

He’s the son of an NBA coach and a former Mr. Basketball in Illinois who grew up near campus in suburban Northbrook, Ill., before going on to star for the Blue Devils. Now, he’s trying to accomplish something no coach has been able to do — lead Northwestern, the school that hosted the first Final Four, to the NCAA tournament.

The Wildcats came close under Carmody, making four straight NIT appearances before crashing last year under the weight of injuries and a suspension on the way to a 13-19 finish. Now, it’s Collins’ turn.

He’s facing some big obstacles, including high academic standards that limit the recruiting pool and an arena that ranks as the smallest in the Big Ten with a capacity of just over 8,100.

Collins is embracing the challenge. If nothing else, he learned from a Hall of Famer as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski for 13 years, and his dad, Doug, is just a phone call away, too.

“It’s a new era of Northwestern basketball — good and bad,” Collins said. “It’s not all bad. There was a lot of good, a lot of positives. It’s a team that was in the postseason four out of the last five years. My thing was let’s just start fresh.”

The season opener is Nov. 9 against Eastern Illinois, and with that in mind, here are five things to know about Northwestern:

LEAVING PRINCETON: The Princeton offense is out with Carmody gone. A motion offense is in and a quicker pace is coming with it, and Collins envisions a free flowing style that takes advantage of the Wildcats’ versatility.

“It’s going to be different — certainly the terminology, some of the ways you do things,” Collins said. “I also am trying to implement some of the principles and some of the things they did really well. I’ve always felt like coaching is not about being hardheaded and `this is my way.’ Coaching is about taking your group and the players you have and making them successful.”

CRAWFORD’S BACK: One of Collins’ early recruiting victories was an in-house job. He retained Crawford, a senior who received a medical hardship waiver after having season-ending right shoulder surgery and could have transferred. That was big, considering he averaged 13.5 points in 10 games last season. “At the end of the day, my parents’ advice for me was to do what my heart told me to do,” Crawford said. “And pretty much all along, through that whole process, my heart was telling me to stay at Northwestern.”

ALSO RETURNING: Besides Crawford, the Wildcats are getting guard JerShon Cobb back. He served a season-long suspension last year for violating team rules, leaving the Wildcats short-handed from the start.

MAKING A MOVE: As an ACC product, Collins knows a thing or two about tough conferences. Now, he’s trying his hand at the Big Ten. “It gives me stomachaches at night,” Collins said. “I got all excited. Our schedule was released a few weeks ago. I got an email, it said the Big Ten schedule and I opened it. I saw the first five or six games, and I got sick to my stomach. I decided to stop looking that far down the road.” The first six conference games are at home against Wisconsin, at Michigan and Iowa, home against Illinois and Michigan State, and at Indiana.

REACHING NEW HEIGHTS: The Wildcats will have the tallest player in school history on the court this season in 7-foot-2 redshirt freshman Chier Ajou. A product of South Sudan, he’s the cousin of the Chicago Bulls’ Luol Deng.

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