Jim O'Donnell: Homestretch outlook on Collins, Stubblefield, Underwood and Valentine
WHEN PORTER MOSER LED Loyola to the Sweet Sixteen last March and then bolted for Oklahoma, the earth didn't exactly begin to quake under all premier regional men's D-I programs.
But accountability arrows -- both potentially poisonous or otherwise Primrose Lane -- are always flying through the air.
Now, during the initial leg of yet another massive elimination process doing business as the NCAA's March Madness, those darts pick up their annual heat.
Updates on four coaches who clog the local clatter (in alphabetical order):
Chris Collins, Northwestern -- The bloom is gone from the one-time Purple Rose of The Enchanted Lakefront. ... Five years since he led NU to its first NCAA men's tournament berth in school history, Collins is caught at the wrong end of five straight losing seasons.
His major career mistake came years ago when he showed far too much loyalty to Mike Krzyzewski during a 13-season run (2000-13) as an assistant at Duke. ... If only "Coach K" had shown as much loyalty to Collins. ... He passed up numerous opportunities to interview for choice D-I top jobs with no guarantee of ascension in front of the Cameron Crazies.
Now, with first-year athletic director Derrick Gragg hovering, Collins is a 47-year-old former Bulls ball boy in search of a life raft. ... A veteran-laden band of Wildcats flamed out this season. ... While he remains a top-tier basketball mind, there is no reason to believe sustained good fortune will ever flow his way in Evanston.
Outlook: Collins has enough career "track" remaining to make good things happen elsewhere. ... He needs to find a culture capable of consistently producing NCAA tournament-quality teams. ... He was once a trophy hire; Collins is now a prime candidate to be a trophy reclamation project. ... He has the smarts and seasoned voice to structure a departure from NU as an amicable one.
Tony Stubblefield, DePaul -- Talk about doing it the hard way. ... The veteran Oregon assistant was brought in to somehow introduce coherency and direction into all of the expensive Humpty Dumpty nonsense that was Dave Leitao 2.0. ... And somehow, he's manage to restore a pulse to the Blue Demons.
With fellows like Javon Freeman-Liberty, David Jones and Jalen Terry (a former OU Duck) priming the patchwork, Stubblefield crafted an inaugural campaign of three distinct parts -- a 9-1 non-con opening, a 1-9 introduction to Big East play and then a remarkably resilient 5-5 close into the conference tournament. ... That's called "being able to take a punch," something Leitao teams couldn't imagine.
Outlook: The arrow is pointing a guardedly optimistic "up" at Wintrust Arena. ... Recent chatter about a NIT bid would have seemed absurd Feb. 1. ... Stubblefield has Chicago recruiting ace Paris Parham on staff, all of the volatility of the transfer portal and NIL money swirling around and a once-grand brand name from the NCAA's back pages. ... It's an intriguing easel for a determined 51-year-old lifer to be drawing upon.
Brad Underwood, Illinois -- No one said that the Illini's basketball gentry was signing the man for his GQ mien and placid courtside ways. ... He coaches like a used-car dealer whose entire sales staff is far short of its monthly quota. ... That's acceptable when Illinois wins and markedly gauche when it doesn't. ... But do The Orange Too Frequently Krushed really care?
Bruce Weber set an amazing platinum-gold standard for class and organic affability with his helmsmanship during the Fighting Illini's mystical NCAA runner-up 2004-05 campaign. ... Underwood's never going to touch that kind of approach. ... And if he couldn't get out of the tournament's first weekend last March with Ayo Dosunmu and a No. 1 seed, why is anything going to be different this time around?
Outlook: Detached realists continue to project that The Brad Underwood Era of Illinois Basketball will not have a happy ending. ... The ensemble enters the Big Ten tournament on Friday heavily dependent on porcelain big man Kofi Cockburn. ... The serious, seasoned people behind the program are in a future-is-now mode. ... The problem is, there's always a far side of that attitude and what are they going to do when those final tabs fall due?
Drew Valentine, Loyola -- Athletic director Steve Watson didn't try to get excessively clever or cute when Moser split last spring. ... He elevated Valentine -- now all of age 30 -- to take the reins and his new coach proved that he knew all the dance steps. ... The Ramblers weathered a rough end in Missouri Valley regular-season play to win the conference tourney and its automatic NCAA slot.
The grand conundrum at LU will happen if Valentine and the rosary beads of Sister Jean push through to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. ... Then, Valentine becomes a prominent presence on the future scopes of more moneyed, needier programs across the land. ... And what do Watson and associates counter with? ... A lifetime pass on the CTA's Red Line? ... Success can be such a witches brew.
Outlook: Life in the Atlantic 10 next season will be a very different sort of winter wonderland for Loyola. ... There's no question that the energized Valentine would be an enormous asset during that transition. ... But if things fall his way in the next four weeks and a power port with a basketball exchequer to match comes calling, even Sister Jean's rosary beads may tell him, "Vaya con Dios."
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.