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Profile of a possible savior: Chris Collins

I mean (other than that one thing) what’s not to like?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Northwestern vs Rutgers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In a previous POAPS, y’all let me know in no uncertain terms your thoughts about hiring a UNC “alum” to coach basketball at NC State. I hear you. But what about a Dookie? Specifically, I’m talking about Chris Collins, who, as you’ve no doubt heard, will pilot Northwestern in the NCAA tournament this afternoon for the first time in the program’s history. Will Collins parlay the rare success for the normally moribund Wildcats to a position at a program with greater likelihood for sustained success?

Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:

1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?

As noted in the intro, Northwestern is making its first trip to The Dance in program history. In his four years with the Wildcats, they’ve been ranked for a total of one week, which came in January of this season. They were 25th.

2. Has he built a program from the ground up?

Collins followed Bill Carmody at Northwestern. Carmody’s club won 20 games in 2010 for the first time in program history and also achieved a short-lived ranking of 25th. He won 20 again in 2011 and 19 in 2012 before getting canned after a 13-19 mark in ’13. Northwestern was actually in one of its best stretches of basketball, 2013 notwithstanding, when Collins took the gig. Remember, this is a program that has won less than 42% of its games all time.

3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?

Given the Wildcats’ at-large bid to the tournament, you would have to say yes. Getting there for the first time is the very definition of a substantial improvement. Their 23 wins so far this season are the most ever for the school, and last year’s 20-win season was then just the third in school history. It took some time, as Collins’ club made just a one-win improvement over Carmody in his first season, 2014, and then just a one-win improvement the following year.

From a more advanced perspective, Northwestern was 132nd in Kenneth Pomeroy’s rankings in Carmody’s last season. The progression under Collins: 134th, 122nd, 68th, 37th. That’s a nice trend.

4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?

Northwestern is his first head coaching job.

5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?

Most certainly. Collins was Coach K’s assistant for 13 seasons, including associate head coach for much of that span. The Blue Devils won eight ACC championships and two national titles during Collins’ time as an assistant.

6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?

Northwestern finished tied for fifth in the B1G; it’s also the fifth best team in terms of KenPom’s rankings. So, no, not really, but given Northwestern’s historical ineptitude, fifth ain’t bad.

7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?

To some extent, the jury is still out in this regard, but it would appear that defense will be a strength for Collins-coached clubs. Remarkably, the Wildcats jumped over 100 points in the AdjD rankings in his first season and checked in at 23rd overall. However, they backslid the next two years before taking strides to get back to an elite defensive team this year, coming in at 34th. The Wildcats are not exactly loaded with athleticism, so methinks Collins deserves some credit for scouting and game planning Northwestern to optimize its defensive prowess.

8. So how about offense?

While his defenses have been a bit all over the place, Collins’ offenses have enjoyed a steady, linear rise from deplorable to solidly above average. The KenPom ranks: 288th, 101st, 72nd, 59th. Phew. Carmody’s Princeton offense was apparently a tough thing to uninstall that first year.

Alas, don’t think that the Wildcats have completely shed their plodding identity. The team is 303rd in pace of play this season, though that’s likely due more to Collins trying to shorten games due to a talent gap than an actual preference to grind things out. Collins also understands the value of the heave from the bonusphere; his team is 31st in three-point rate (and fifth among major conference schools. Vanderbilt is first among major conference schools, so expect plenty of long looks this afternoon).

9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?

Collins was a Burger Boy himself and of course had a hand in drawing countless Mickey D’s All-American-type players to Duke. He’s only got a couple of top 100 recruits on the roster at Northwestern, but he has certainly improved the school’s recruiting over his predecessor.

10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?

Played at Duke. Coached at Duke.

11. Any other random red flags or positives?

Collins has been a college assistant or head coach since 1998, but he’s still just 42 years old. He has the potential to be around for a long, long time. That’s a positive.

Collins is an absolute basketball junkie whose idea of unwinding after a long day of recruiting, watching film in his office, running practice, etc. is to come home and…watch basketball. WNBA, high school, whatever. He’s hoops 24/7, and, while he definitely wants to pattern his teams after Duke, he picks up plays and approaches from all of the hoops he constantly consumes and should continually evolve as a coach. That’s a positive.

The only red flag, if you insist on it being one, is the whole Duke thing.


Would he be better than Gottfried?

I get in trouble on this question for ignoring Gott’s feats back in the salad days. I have no doubt that Collins would immediately elevate the program from where it is now, but that’s a low bar. Would he make the tournament four times in his first six seasons? My guess would be yes, and that things would be trending upward in year six rather than coming completely off the rails. But I’ve got no crystal ball. The fact that, even in his worst seasons, Northwestern’s defenses have been better than Gott’s defenses, and, in Collins’ best seasons, Nothwestern’s defenses have been elite would lead me to believe that it’s a pretty safe bet.

OK, so what is his ceiling?

The results of K’s disciples have been mixed. Jeff Capel looked like he was going to be successful until he wasn’t. Johnny Dawkins could never quite get off the bubble at Stanford (though he’s had a nice debut at UCF). Tommy Amaker failed at Michigan but has had a helluva run at Harvard. Wojo is off to a solid start. It’s probably too soon to tell on Bobby Hurley.

Mike Brey’s Irish have been ranked at some point in 15 of his 17 seasons and finished ranked eight times. My gut tells me that Collins is going to be Brey 2.0 but with a little bit better defense most seasons.

Would he take the job if offered?

When you look at that paragraph above you see a lot of potential heirs to the Duke throne. It’s interesting to me, in fact, how comparatively well off Duke is when compared to UNC on the replace your aging coach stocks. Collins is from Illinois, and his wife is a NYC native who quite possibly likes being near the bright lights of a big city (in this case, Chicago). If he thinks he can turn Northwestern into the next Duke, he’s not going anywhere.

If he thinks he’s the frontrunner to replace K at Duke, he’s waiting for that. But, he’ll have a lot of competition.

His total package at Northwestern, from what I can glean from the tubes, is less than two million a year and middle of the pack by B1G standards. The cost of living is a lot lower in Raleigh, and NC State could afford to pay him more. So, from a financial standpoint, advantage Wolfpack.

From a competitive standpoint, NC State is certainly historically a better gig than Northwestern, and the ACC is a better basketball league (some recent ACC-B1G challenge results notwithstanding). I think Collins’ career has a higher ceiling at NC State, but that job also carries more risk. He can get away with 19-14 and the NIT at Northwestern, but not here.

Bottom line: I think he’d listen.

How would I feel if he were hired?

Gregg Marshall is the only candidate profiled so far that I would prefer. That’s strong praise (especially considering how much I like Archie, which is tons). Played at Duke, coached for over a decade at Duke, and breaking Northwestern’s streak of futility—it was the only major conference school never to make the NCAAs—is a helluva résumé.

How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?

There will be some that will freak due to the Duke connection. Personally, I don’t have the Duke hatred. V and K were tight. That’s good enough for me. I think most fans would support the hire initially. The problem in the long run would be expectations. If it’s a K disciple, fans will want K results. Collins could be great and still not come close to measuring up to his predecessor, and that could create a tough climate over time. Can you imagine the media outcry if the “lunatic fringe” wasn’t satisfied with basketball royalty on their sideline?