Second time around: Northwestern draws Boise State in NCAA opener
At the start of the season, Chris Collins was in serious danger of losing his job.
The Northwestern coach rose to national prominence in 2016-17, leading the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
Instead of building off the breakout season, NU collapsed and had losing records for five straight years.
"No one was more disappointed to not be able to sustain what we built in 2017 than I was," Collins told reporters. "You always look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Man, how did we not continue on this track?' But it's easy not to win.
"If it was so easy to win, a lot of people would do it. There's a reason why it's only been two times in whatever, close to 100 years."
Widely projected to languish near the bottom of the Big Ten this season, the Wildcats wound up finishing second with a school-record 12 wins in the conference.
At 21-11 overall, Northwestern is in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in its 118-year history.
The Wildcats are the No. 7 seed in the West Region and they face No. 10 Boise State in the first round at 6:35 p.m. on Thursday night in Sacramento.
The winner will likely draw a tough No. 2 UCLA in the second round.
"For us to get there, have success, to take a step backward, and then rebuild it, and get back there, it's been a lot of hard work from a lot of people," Collins said. "A lot of belief where we just had to hang in there because we saw we were making progress. But sometimes the public may not see that, because of where the results were at, but these guys were growing, they were getting better, we had a bunch of guys stay the course and see this thing through.
"Now they're going back to the tournament, which is really exciting."
Not much was expected out of NU this year after its top two frontcourt players -- Pete Nance (North Carolina) and Ryan Young (Duke) -- exited via the transfer portal.
There was some hope with guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige coming back, and the veteran duo are the Wildcats' top two scorers.
Robbie Beran, Brooks Barnhizer and Matthew Nicholson have been solid inside, and Ty Berry and Glenbrook South High School product Nick Martinelli have also played key roles.
Boise State (24-9, 13-5 in the Mountain West) is led by forward Tyson Degenhart (14.3 points per game) and guards Max Rice (13.9) and Marcus Shaver (13.5).
Like Northwestern, the Broncos are a strong defensive team so a close, low-scoring game is likely.
"They are a good team," Degenhart said of the Wildcats. "The Big 10 is a very good league. They played a lot of good teams this year so it should be a good challenge for us. I heard they are very well coached and they are very good defensively. It should be a good test for us."