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March 27, 2013

The new face of NU hoop

It did not take long for the Cat to be let out of the bag.

Northwestern officially announced on Wednesday night the news that had traveled coast-to-coast via Twitter earlier in the day: Duke assistant Chris Collins will be the next head coach of the Northwestern Wildcats.

All that was missing was white smoke from Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Collins, who will remain with the Blue Devils until their season comes to a close, inherits a program that Vice President for Athletics & Recreation Jim Phillips says is in need of change.

If change is what Phillips and Northwestern are looking for, Collins certainly fulfills the requirement.

Gone will be the days of a tie-less, silver-haired coach pacing the sidelines. Instead, it will be a youthful 38-year-old with two NCAA championship rings.

The Princeton offense will likely be replaced with a system much more similar to the motion offense that Duke currently runs.

If it wasn't for the familiar scrappy play of point guard Dave Sobolewski or the antiquated facilities, most fans may not even recognize this program next season.

Expectations for recruiting will increase with Collins' arrival in Evanston. After all, this is a former Illinois Mr. Basketball from Glenbrook (Ill.) North whose Chicago roots run deep. Collins was responsible for recruiting Chicago stars like Sean Dockery, Jon Scheyer and Jabari Parker to Duke -- although he may find it more difficult to get recruits to come to Evanston than to Durham.

For a team that has never reached the Big Dance, it is hard to argue that change shouldn't be welcomed. But with heightened expectations -- it's NCAA Tournament or bust -- Collins has his work cut out for him.

For all the talk of recruiting ties, the benefit his youth brings to the program, and his tutelage under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, the unknown is still just as vast as the portion of empty student seating during many of this past season's games.

Potential? Certainly. Assured success? Not by a John Shurna long-range shot.

When the media buzz is finally silenced and Collins is left only with his players and an Under Armour basketball, can he get the job done? Only time will tell.

Though Collins has spent 13 years by Krzyzewski's side and won two NCAA championship rings, he has never held the top job at any level. And the Big Ten, which has four teams playing in the Sweet Sixteen this weekend, can be an unforgiving place for a young coach learning on the job.

Those who argue against Collins' ability to be successful point to the results of other former Krzyzewski assistants who have underwhelmed when they got a shot to sit in the first chair. Quinn Snyder (Missouri), Jeff Capel (Oklahoma), Tommy Amaker (Michigan) and Johnny Dawkins (Stanford) all left Duke for head coaching jobs, only to ultimately fall short of expectations.

But Northwestern is not Missouri. It's not Oklahoma or Michigan. Heck, it isn't even Stanford. The current expectation for a Wildcat head coach is not to make a run to the Final Four. He does not need to win a conference championship or tournament.

No, Collins only needs to get this team to the Promised Land for the first time in school history. If he can do that, then expectations will rise again. But right now, the goal is simple: get to the tournament.

And while former Duke assistants have been a mixed bag as head men historically, they are not any indication of Collins' own coaching ability. He is the son of Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins and, in many ways, has been training to be a head coach since he first put on sneakers.

And to top it off, reports say that he has long targeted Northwestern as a desirable job, even if there are no facilities improvements in sight.

If Northwestern fans are to believe anything that is being said by those close to Collins, his enthusiasm and knowledge of the game will be enough to carry the Wildcats to success. Just don't expect the transition to be without a few setbacks.

Even if prized-recruit Jaren Sina decides to recommit to Northwestern, a new system will take time to learn. In fact, the program may very well get worse before it gets better. Though Carmody's Princeton offense never carried the Cats into March Madness, it kept Northwestern in games against much more talented opponents.

Yet if all goes according to Phillips' master plan, the influx of talent that Collins can bring to this program with his local ties and his unbridled enthusiasm will soon pay off. Collins, Phillips hopes, will turn out to be the basketball version of head football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

When Collins is finally introduced and outlines the plans that will take Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament, expectations will be high.

Inside Welsh-Ryan, Collins will appear to be Northwestern's savior.

Outside, reality awaits.



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