EVANSTON-There are a lot of new things for the Northwestern basketball team to get accustomed to this season.
The Wildcats will have a new home court, Allstate Arena, while Welsh-Ryan Arena undergoes its $110-million extreme makeover. They are also practicing at Blomquist Gymnasium, a campus building that used to house student intramural contests and is now decked out in purple hoops glory.
There’s one more thing this Northwestern team has to deal with for the first time: high expectations. After making the NCAA Tournament last spring for the first time in school history, what will the Wildcats do for an encore in 2017-18?
Head coach Chris Collins has some pretty good ideas. He said during his opening statement at the media day press conference on Monday that his team has some “lofty goals” for the season. Then, the first question he fielded from a reporter asked whether winning the whole tournament might be one of those goals.
Collins’ answer was a qualified yes, but he urged everyone to pump the brakes a little bit on the Wildcat Express.
“When you play and you coach, if you don’t think about winning the NCAA championship, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” said Collins. “That being said, there’s steps along the way and other goals we need to knock out before we get to hopefully get the opportunity to make that a reality.”
One of those goals is to win a title. Any title.
“We’ve been here four years and gotten better each year, (but) we haven’t won a championship,” he said. “There’s various ways to win a championship.”
He mentioned that the Wildcats’ first chance to claim one will be the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, played just before Thanksgiving. There, they will play LaSalle, and then either Texas Tech or Boston College.
If his team manages to cut down the nets in Uncasville, Conn., the next goal is to win the Big Ten. That’s something that Northwestern has done just twice in school history, the last time in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House.
But first things first. Once again, Collins talked about the steps required to reach that goal. “If you want to be relevant late, you have to play well early,” he said.
And this year, Northwestern faces some stiff competition early. For the first time, Big Ten games will be played in early December. So the Wildcats will play at Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten challenge and then conference games against Illinois and at Purdue within a brutal six-day stretch.
“That’s a heck of a challenge in the first week of December,” said Collins.
But Collins thinks his team is ready. He has four returning starters – Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon; experienced role players in Barret Benson, Gavin Skelly, Jordan Ash and Isaiah Brown; plus two players who sat out with injuries last season in Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas. Oh, and true freshman Anthony Gaines, too.
So Collins isn’t shying away from those high expectations. He’s embracing them.
“We have a lot of veterans returning, we have really good leadership, a core group of guys that have been a part of winning and have tasted what winning is about and postseason play. Hopefully we’ll use that to want even more this year,” he said.
The big question for Collins is, “How hungry are they going to be to want more?”
The answer? “So far, we’re off to a great start.”