When Northwestern makes its final decision, Chris Collins or otherwise, the spotlight will finally shift to next season. No doubt, the new coach figures to deal with significant expectations. The Wildcats – still searching for that tournament bid – have an outside shot of competing with their current roster. It's been well-documented.
Athletic director Jim Phillips needs to hire the balanced candidate — someone who can build the future while excelling in the present. The new coach could be the ideal fit, but a disappointing sub-.500 season would feed the dwindling program support and create immediate pressure. No one wants to be in that situation.
For example, when Tom Crean arrived in Indiana, the program was initially overwhelmed in the wake of Kelvin Sampson scandals. His Hoosiers continued to play on national television, but were dominated on nearly every occasion. His first team – just five season ago – went 6-25, including a 1-17 Big Ten record.
The next two years, he won a combined 22 games. Despite these horrifying records, the fans and the administration remained patient. They trusted their coach – aware that his vision would eventually translate to success. It did.
Of course, Indiana has the basketball reputation NU could only dream of. But in this situation, fans will care about next season's results. They need something to cheer for, badly. They need their new coach to make bold statements, and that begins on the recruiting front.
The one link between the present and future is Jaren Sina. Say what you will; he ranks as one of the top recruits in Northwestern basketball history. This new coach, whether it's Collins or Dave Paulsen or some underwhelming surprise, needs to lock Sina up.
His original four-star ranking dropped to three, mainly because he failed to attend certain showcase tournaments. Sina has the requisite intangibles, and consistently won games at Gill St. Bernard's (NJ). Indiana even called after NU released him from his letter of intent. Do you need to know more?
As days pass, Sina's loyalty to NU seems progressively weaker. While Phillips waits to find his next coach, Sina continues to hear from other programs. He may return to Alabama – where he originally committed – and play for promising head coach Anthony Grant. Seton Hall desperately needs an intriguing prospect to reinvigorate its dying fan base. Or, the next NU head coach could pick up the phone and seal his commitment. That involves a couple of steps.
First: keep Fred Hill. The former Rutgers coach benefited from his New Jersey pipeline and keyed Sina's recruitment. Chicago basketball scout and former Purple Wildcats writer Jeremy Woo noticed that Collins and Hill worked together at Seton Hall. This is significant.
I'm in strong support of Hill – certainly an under-appreciated assistant. It would not hurt the incoming coach to speak with every single assistant on this team, especially Hill and Tavaras Hardy. All played vital roles in helping this team in whatever capacity. Collins, or whoever, should leave any assumptions about this program at the door and build from the current staff.
Second: stress Sina's unique role and importance. I'm willing to bet Dave Sobolewski supports his commitment. Sobolewski – the talented and steady floor leader – struggled down the stretch. Much of this can be attributed to fatigue. No one else seemed comfortable handling the ball. As well, he worked with several new players in the Princeton offense. It was visibly taking its toll on the rising junior. With fresh legs, his shots will fall with more frequency at the end of season. And he's a praiseworthy leader – one who willed his team to the road win against Baylor. While I responded harshly to some of his late-season performances, I respect his game and think he would only benefit from the addition of Sina.
Phillips wants his coach to embrace recruiting, something Bill Carmody never quite did. That first battle and that first opportunity to impress centers on Jaren Sina. Set any criticisms of the guard aside. The high-school player developed strong loyalty to Carmody and Hill.
Sina deserves the right fit. Phillips deserves the coach who ensures his arrival in Evanston. Ease that transition and commence the rebuilding process.
It all starts with Jaren Sina. And hopefully for the program, this infamous drought will end with him too.