By the end of his tenure, people wondered whether anyone could win here, and not because Carmody was a transcendent coach who just happened to fail. They'd been trained for losses and disappointment, and they needed someone who could preach change and execute immediately. They required someone bold enough to take on a thankless job with one specific goal. Make the NCAA Tournament and you're a demigod. The problem is getting there.
Chris Collins arrived to a weak basketball roster saved only by the resurgent Jershon Cobb and the proud Drew Crawford. Carmody, for all of his efforts, left a program tainted by recruits whose high school success never translated to the college level. His final three recruiting classes – Nate Taphorn included – bore one mediocre center, a starting point guard that was immediately recruited over, and several middling role players. (Every time I say something smart, I remember saying out loud that Sanjay Lumpkin was the team's second best player. It's an effective ego check.)
The hype was nothing special when he settled into his introductory press conference. Every local media member dug for articles about the triumphant former Duke assistant — only to come up with an identical storyline. The first step was recruiting, with local ties an added bonus.
He did it. He accomplished the goal already. His 2014 recruiting class, as it stands, is the most resounding A-plus imaginable. It includes a new face of the program (Vic Law), a four-year starting guard with incredible determination (Bryant McIntosh), a high-upside stretch four (Gavin Skelly), a better version of most old Northwestern recruits (Scott Lindsey), and the secretive athletic find from Chicago to California (Johnnie Vassar). I'm not joking when saying that group alone could beat NU's current starting lineup. He's recruiting a different caliber of player.
Yet few of us are afforded the opportunity of truly understanding how Collins recruits. And, even for me, that arrives as second hand news. Our first real exposure to Collins has been from watching him coach through this mess of a season — one that makes all numerical analytics seem excessive. I could sum this team up far more easily with a few words: "Not very good." They aren't. They lost to Illinois State, almost lost to Brown, and DePaul might be their last chance at a win this season.
We'll see Collins trot out an overmatched lineup approximately 20 more times, all the while waiting for the promise of next season. And the freshman-heavy lineup of next season might face initial struggles in the Big Ten. We're not guaranteed immediate success; it's still the wisest team to invest in.
I've seen these recruits play, and if it were ethical, I'd place money on this team making the NCAA Tournament in 2015-16. I'd guess 8-seed. Collins is – empirically at this point – a wildly better recruiter than Carmody. Armon Gates is one of the most promising young assistants around, with Patrick Baldwin and Brian James rounding out a maturely chosen staff.
There's so much to believe in, but it's hard to believe as you watch the guys in purple jerseys struggle to mount a single decent offensive possession. Collins doesn't have much to work with at this point, and it only carries you so far dreaming of future seasons. The dedicated fans will suffer through this year – with three Big Ten wins an optimistic estimate – because they, one day, have reason to expect better. Chris Collins is winning while losing.