CHICAGO – The Big Ten was the best basketball conference in America last year.
This year it could be better and deeper with the addition of two new coaches. It undoubtedly will be faster. A league teeming with established, veteran coaches gets a needed injection of youthful energy.
Chris Collins arrives at Northwestern after an extended mentoring from Mike Krzyzewski. The 39-year-old Collins played at Duke and was an assistant there for 13 patient years, turning down overtures from several other schools before landing a good first head-coaching job. What he didn’t learn from Coach K, he probably learned from his dad, Doug, a very good NBA player and an 11-year NBA head coach.
Richard Pitino arrives at Minnesota at an even younger age. Just 31, Pitino was a rookie head coach last year when he turned around previously abysmal Florida International. Prior to that, he worked with his dad at Louisville and for Billy Donovan at Florida – and the Pitino pipeline has been more successful than any other in the current college game.
“They’ll bring a lot of basketball pedigree from their dads,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Thursday at the league’s hoops media day.
Both men know what national championship teams look like, and will bring that to schools that have no institutional knowledge in that area. But more importantly, they have already upgraded recruiting at both places.
Pitino has three commitments for 2014, all from Rivals three-star prospects. He beat out several more established programs to land the players. And he has gotten Minnesota in the mix with several other high-level prospects.
Collins has four commitments for 2014, including a four-star prospect from Chicago – exactly the kind of player Northwestern hoped he could deliver in an attempt to overcome decades of program inertia in Evanston.
“It all comes down to one thing: recruiting,” Pitino said.
While waiting for that talent to roll in, both coaches should at least put more entertaining teams on the floor in 2013-14. They take over two of the most plodding programs in the league and will radically remake their playing style.
Pitino’s FIU team played at the 48th fastest tempo in America last year, copying his father’s pressure defense to mask a talent deficit. Tubby Smith’s last Minnesota team was the 278th fastest in America, slow even by the Big Ten’s deliberate standards.
Duke was the 96th fastest team last year, and even if Collins doesn’t totally mimic that pace it will still be a tempo culture shock at Northwestern. Billy Carmody’s Princeton style routinely ranked the Wildcats among the slowest teams in the country, and last year they were 326th in tempo.
“I think the gameplan and blueprint will be to do that (play faster),” Indiana coach Tom Crean said of Minnesota and Northwestern. “And I think they’ll be successful at that. But you also have to win games where you’re not going to be able to play at the pace you want, because some teams just won’t let you do it.”
Pitino takes over a program that has had more success than Northwestern, having squeezed into the NCAA tournament last year and won a game. But he wasn’t hired to tread water in the lower third of the league as Smith did, going 20-34 in Big Ten play the past three seasons. (Minnesota hasn’t had a winning conference record since 2005.)
Pitino will have a couple of nice perimeter pieces to build around in Andre and Austin Hollins. But questions inside mean that immediate upward mobility will be difficult in a league that put seven teams in the 2013 NCAA tourney and eight in Ken Pomeroy’s national top 40.
Collins comes into a program with even less historic success – Northwestern’s last winning Big Ten record was in 1967-68, and we all know the program has never been to the NCAA tourney. Bill Carmody was given a slightly ridiculous 13 years on the job to get that done, and never did.
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That’s the biggest difference between where Collins was and where he is now. Duke and Northwestern have plenty of similarities, as smaller, private, academically elite schools that can use that status as a national recruiting attraction. That and his Chicago roots provided a lot of the appeal of the job to Collins – but the school has none of Duke’s tradition.
“We’re on the rise in every sport,” Collins said. “They’re bringing me in to get basketball to that level.”
At least Collins takes over a team with more proven college players than Pitino has. His biggest plus is having career 1,300-point scorer Drew Crawford back for a fifth season, after missing most of last year with a knee injury. He will team with point guard Dave Sobolewski to make up one of the league’s better backcourts.
But the players’ adjustment from the unique playing style and phlegmatic personality of Carmody has been significant.
“Coach Carmody was a little more lax with a lot of things in the program,” Sobolewski said. “Coach Collins wants things done a certain way, because he has a vision for how he wants his program to work. … Coach Collins is a big fan of practicing for a shorter amount of time but a lot harder. He’s not going to wear us down, but we’re competing as hard as we ever have.”
It is brutally tough to move up the pecking order in a league as competitive as the Big Ten. Even a traditional power like Indiana had to eat sand for several years after the Kelvin Sampson Era – and Northwestern and Minnesota are not Indiana.
But Chris Collins and Richard Pitino give those schools a better chance than they’ve had at reaching a higher level of success. It may take a while, but the Big Ten’s new young coaches have an excellent chance at shaking up the league establishment.
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