We had talked about potentially comparing those two teams (NW/MN), but never did get to touch on it. Basically, as I have preached from the beginning of my time, recruiting is where it starts. Both Chris Collins and Richard Pitino are thriving with the kids they recruited in their first classes, and they've only built onto those cores since.
Minnesota - Their turnaround this season has been incredible. Rich Pitino deserves national Coach of the Year. But they have to be considered an outlier. When have you ever seen a bigger one-year turnaround in the history of this sport? It's been a really long time, at least at the major conference level. Their turnaround was due for a variety of reasons, but mainly, their best players are sophomores and juniors, not freshmen. Nate Mason, Jordan Lynch, and Dupree McBrayer were all priority recruits for Pitino in his first classes and are carrying their load this season. He was able to supplement that core with another fabulous class of freshmen this season that also included some key transfers. They also got lucky with Akeem Springs, because the majority of grad-transfers from mid-majors burn out at this level. People remember the great ones like Damion Lee at Louisville last year, but honestly, the grad-transfer market does not yield a good success rate. We experienced that with Allen Roberts a few years ago.
Northwestern - Love this comparison, because it mirrors Penn State so well. Bill Carmody lost a ton in his 13 years, but he did raise the floor of that program when they finally terminated him. He had that run there from 2007-2012 or whatever where they seemingly were on the verge of sneaking into the NCAA tournament with Kevin Coble, John Shurna, etc. but never got over the hump. So Collins didn't inherit a complete disaster like Chambers/DeChellis did here. And then, he was able to land his first recruiting class with the kids he wanted in his first year, because he didn't get hired late and/or deal with the repercussions of a child-abuse scandal. So his first class was Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey. Surprise, they're the ones leading the way for them this season.
They arrived on campus in Collins' second year, while unfortunately for Chambers, the class he wanted didn't get here until year six. But look at the progression these NW kids are on. Read this article from today. In their first season, they lost 10 games in a row in the Big Ten, but four of them were one possession games. Pretty comparable to PSU this year.
Tears. A lot of them. On a cold January night in Ann Arbor two years ago, they came, and neither Collins nor Bryant McIntosh could fight them off. McIntosh fell into the arms of family members, devastated. An hour earlier, the freshman point guard caught the ball on the left wing, a maize and blue sea parted, and McIntosh had the freedom of Crisler Center to send Northwestern’s game against heavily favored Michigan to overtime.
So did Collins. “My guys keep getting their hearts ripped out,” he lamented, choking on the sobs.
Northwestern, in 2015, couldn’t stop losing close games. It lost 10 in a row. Doubts surfaced.
But as his eyes welled at Michigan that night, just as they would well 26 months later after a game against those same Wolverines, Collins maintained perspective. “To have Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh in these environments right now as true freshmen, that’s invaluable,” he said. “We’re going to look back on this when they’re juniors and seniors, and we’re winning big, and we’re going to talk about games like this as being part of our process.”