July 23, 2014
As the summer workout schedule winds down, NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski sat down with Northwestern head men's basketball coach Chris Collins to discuss the team's newcomers and returners as well as the state of the Wildcats.
It was the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald who avowed, "There are no second acts in American lives." But his lens was on Hollywood when he proffered that declamation and so, not surprisingly, it hardly applies when considering the reality of a young-and-promising basketball coach. That, of course, is now the status of Chris Collins, who as a rookie last season not only established an admirable culture and managed a surprising 14 wins. He also collected a highly-regarded freshman class that has raised expectations for a program that has rarely had any.
"I've always dealt with expectations my whole life," he will say when asked about that last fact. "Having a father who was a professional athlete and a coach in this town (of the Bulls), eyes were kind of always on me and there were expectations for me being in the same sport. So I've always dealt with that and I think it's helped me going through that as a kid. You learn how to shut all that out.
"Like I always tell people, the person who has the greatest expectations for me is myself. I hold myself to high standards. And I think when people have expectations of us, that's a good thing. It means we're going in the right direction. If there were no expectations, I'd feel worse about that. That would mean we're in a world of hurt.
"Now we need to take the next step. No question, we did some good things last year. But I'm not satisfied with what we did last year. That's not why I'm here. That's not what I'm trying to build. I think it was a good foundational year. We dealt with some injuries. We maximized what we could with what we had. But now it's time to push to the next level."
Here, by way of a quick introduction, are those freshmen who have caused a stir. There is Vic Law, a 6-foot-7 forward out of St. Rita high. "To me he's a jack-of-all-trades player," Collins says of him. "He's one of those guys who gets a lot done, a multi-stat guy. He may not throw up 25 points. But he might have 10, 12 points, seven, eight rebounds, five or six assists, some steals, some blocks."
There is Scottie Lindsey, a 6-foot-5 swingman who missed most of his senior season at Fenwick with a broken tibia. "I think he's a real sleeper," says Collins. "He's got scoring instincts. He's one of our best shooters already. He's got great range on his shot. I think he's a guy that, as he gets older and more experienced and stronger, we're going to look back and say, `Man, that was a real sleeper.' I think he's got a big upside."
There is 6-foot-3 combo guard Bryant McIntosh, whose high school team in Indiana went 62-2 over his last two seasons while winning back-to-back state titles. "The thing about him more than anything is he's a winner," says Collins. "He's just a real smart player. I think he's going to be ready to be a key guy as a freshman."
There is Gavin Skelly, a 6-foot-8 forward from outside Cleveland. "A powerful athlete. He's got good skill level. He's got a college-ready body," says Collins. And there is 6-foot point Johnnie Vassar, a will-o-the-wisp who was born in Chicago and prepped in California. "He's intriguing because he's probably different from any guard this program's had in a long time," says Collins. "He's a physical, little, power-pack of a guard. A lefty. Can really change ends. Can push the ball in transition. He's different from the other guards we have."
Now, in July, it is certainly too early to declare just how this quintet will meld with that half-dozen `Cats who return from last year's team. But already, after working with them for just those few hours permitted under NCAA rules, Collins has accrued some observations. "We have a lot more versatility. We have more options to have different kinds of lineups," is the first of them. "Last year we kind of were who we were. So it was hard, in the course of a game, we didn't have the ability to go to a big lineup, or a speed lineup, or a power lineup. It's nice to have enough players to have different kinds of lineups on the floor."
Another of them is this. "We've already seen a big difference in the competitiveness in our practice sessions. When you don't have many bodies (as was the case last year), what ends up happening is, the guys who play heavy minutes, they don't have people pushing them for their spots. So it's nice. We have 12 guys on scholarship and all 12 are talented players and they're all competing. (The twelfth is 6-10 Jeremiah Kreisberg, a Yale grad slated to spell center Alex Olah.) They're pushing each other, making each other better because they all want to play."
Finally, and not unimportantly, there is this. "My biggest concern-- anytime you have a team where half the guys are new, there's a period of feeling each other out," he says here. "We have to become a team. Right now we're a group of individuals and everyone's kind of figuring out how they fit in and work with each other. Our biggest goal, by the time we get going in November, is for our group to be a team. But I've been pleased with the way the older guys and the new guys have interacted. Until it happens, you never know how that dynamic's going to be. But our leadership has been really good."
Here, by way of a quick reintroduction, are the sources of that leadership. There is 6-foot-5 fifth-year JerShon Cobb, who has never had a healthy season in Evanston. "For us to be good, we need him to have a senior season similar to what Drew (Crawford) had, where he's healthy and plays well," Collins says of him. "When you have five freshmen, you need that senior to kind of be the big brother. He's that guy."
There is the 7-foot Olah, who last season had some memorable moments. "His confidence is through the roof. That's the biggest thing. That's the thing I've noticed most," says Collins. "He believes he's a good player at this level. Sometimes with guys, with players, that's half the battle."
There is the 6-foot-3 Tre Demps, the energizer who played much of last season off the bench. His role for this season has not yet been determined, but, says Collins, "He's a closer. When the game's coming down the stretch, the ball's going to be in his hands."
There are sophomores Sanjay Lumpkin, the glue guy, and Nathan Taphorn, the three-point threat. Both, says Collins, "Have really changed their bodies in a big way." Then there is senior point Dave Sobolewski, who was shuffled out of the spotlight last season by both a concussion and his own poor shooting (26.2 percent overall and 18.3 percent on threes while averaging just five ppg). This is a fate familiar to Collins, who as a junior at Duke suffered a broken foot and then returned to shoot just 29.8 percent overall and 23.3 percent on his threes while averaging a mere 3.8 ppg.
The next year he too was out of the spotlight, which instead shined on a younger cast that included new Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski and current Blue Devil assistant Jeff Capel and a phenom from Alaska named Trajan Langdon. "I talked to him (Sobolewski) about that. A lot of similars," Collins finally says. "All the talk was kind of about the next wave. But I had a year left and I certainly wasn't going to go down without a fight and I was able to bounce back and have a great senior year (averaging 16.3 ppg while shooting 46.7 percent overall and 44.1 percent on his threes). I know that's how Dave is wired too.
"He's a competitive guy and he's a good player. I think he's poised to have a really good year for us."
That, then, is the cast as Chris Collins prepares for the second act of his `Cat career, and most certainly it is filled with promise. But, as any number of coaches have averred over the years, there is a process that must be endured to reach the apex, and so finally we wonder if he ever gets impatient as he works his way toward the top. "Sure. Absolutely. Oh, yeah," Chris Collins says with a smile. "It tests me all the time. I want to win now. I pride myself on being a winner. It's something that's very important to me in everything I've done in my life. But while you're doing that, you can't skip the steps that you need to build a winner.
"So while were striving to win, and we'll try to win every game we play this year, it's still going to be a process with a bunch of new guys. We're going to have to figure out who we are, create an identity with this group. But staying patient is tough. I think all coaches would say that because your competitiveness and your instincts are to want to compete at the highest level right away. But sometimes you have to build in order to get to that point.
"I think we're on track. We've just got to keep pushing."
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