Northwestern coach Chris Collins didn’t expect the Wildcats to get the benefit of the doubt.
Not even after finishing second in the Big Ten last season or beating No. 1 Purdue in February or winning its NCAA Tournament opener against Boise State or losing a nail-biter to UCLA in the second round.
Nothing had changed, and that was perfectly fine.
Sure, star guard Boo Buie returned for a fifth season, and most of the rest of the Wildcats core were also back on a 22-win team that started 5-1 entering Friday’s Big Ten opener in Evanston against Zach Edey and the top-ranked Boilermakers.
No one expects the Wildcats to replicate their dream season of 2022- 23, as evidenced by their invisibility in preseason polls, so they’re basically in the same spot they were only one year ago after finishing 7-13 in conference play in 2021-22.
The difference between now and last December is that an NCAA Tournament bid is no longer just a pipe dream for a program that had only one previous appearance. And making March Madness in back-to-back seasons for the first time in NU history is something Collins and his players fully expect of themselves, even if no one else does.
“I get it,” Collins said of being overlooked. “I mean, you look at the conference and so many teams have returning guys. We’re still trying to find our way as a program and that level of success. We had a great year last year, but in order to get that ultimate respect you have to keep on going out and doing it.
“Sometimes that can be a good thing. You get a little bit too much praise and get softened up. I don’t mind it. We’re OK just going about our business. I tell the guys if you do the job and win, everyone will get credit. That’s kind of what happened last year. You saw guys win awards, get national praise, and people started coming to the games.
“Who cares what people say. Who cares where you’re ranked. That’s what is cool about basketball. It’s not gymnastics or skating where you have judges. You actually get to go out and prove it on the court and play the game. We’re going to have to do it like we’ve always had to — grind it out and do it the hard way. Our guys have learned to embrace that mentality.”
Northwestern stunned Purdue on Friday, winning 92-88 to hand the Boilermakers their first loss.
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