Collins ‘very happy’ at NU, says he’s there ‘for the long haul’

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Northwestern’s Collins is fast becoming a star. Will other schools come after him? (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

You might’ve heard the big news Monday: Northwestern’s men’s basketball team barged into the AP Top 25, the program’s first appearance in the weekly poll in seven years and only its second in nearly five decades.

OK, maybe ‘‘barged’’ is the wrong word. Like the last commuter to board a Purple Line train, the Wildcats squeezed in at No. 25. Which raises the question: Doesn’t an 18-4 team that’s a game out of the Big Ten lead and on a six-game winning streak in conference play deserve better? If NU had the same résumé yet wore Spartan green or Hoosier red rather than Wildcat purple, would it be five spots higher? Ten?

Ah, well. It doesn’t much matter in late January, especially with the Wildcats’ visit Wednesday to No. 23 Purdue (7:30 p.m., BTN) looming.

‘‘To go through this season has been really fun, and to get to do it with this group of [players] who kind of started everything for me,’’ fourth-year coach Chris Collins said. ‘‘But right now we’re in the middle of the conference season, and we’re staying focused. I know how quickly things can go from good to not so good in sports.’’

True. That was the case with the Wildcats’ 2009-10 team, which got off to a 10-1 start (good for one week at No. 25) yet finished the season with 14 losses and a forgettable appearance in the National Invitation Tournament. And then there was the 1968-69 team, which fell so short of the promise of its early ranking that its coach, Larry Glass, resigned with six games left.

It’s somewhat understandable if voters are skeptical about this NU team, too, considering the whole never-been-to-the-NCAA tournament thing. Most years at Welsh-Ryan Arena, ‘‘not so good’’ would’ve been just about the nicest way to put it.

Yet many voters haven’t watched these Wildcats play more than a handful of times, if at all. Lord knows their games can be hard to find for those outside of Big Ten country; it’s pretty much BTN or bust.

What everyone eventually will find out: These aren’t your daddy’s Wildcats — or your big sister’s. This is a team that will play very meaningful games in March. This is a team that will barge — not squeeze — into the Big Dance at long last.

‘‘Obviously, we all have had those dreams,’’ sophomore Vic Law said.

Meanwhile, Collins is fast becoming a star. If he wins a game or two in the tournament, he just might surge to the top of the list of sought-after coaches. The rumor mill will churn like it did for NU’s football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, after his first 10-victory season

in 2012.

A phone call Tuesday seemed as good a time as any to sneak-attack the 42-year-old Glenbrook North alum on this front.

‘‘My intention is to be at Northwestern for the long haul,’’ Collins said. ‘‘I never viewed this as a stopgap or a stepping-stone job. I viewed this as home. It’s a great school. It’s the Big Ten. We’re in the midst of a facilities project — new arena, practice center, offices — that will give us everything other Big Ten schools have.

‘‘I feel like everything is here for me. I’m very happy here. I don’t even think about this other stuff.’’

We believe him, don’t we?

Groce, point blank

‘‘Fire John Groce.’’

It only feels like half of Illini Nation is hashtagging those words on a daily basis.

Illinois’ coach is up against it, though, with another one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of season gripping his program. Unless the Illini become a different team down the stretch of the regular season, they’ll miss the NCAA tourney for the fourth year in a row.

One former player who has the coach’s back, for whatever it’s worth: Marcus Liberty. The former No. 1 recruit in the country out of King was a member of the 1989 Final Four team and played four-plus seasons in the NBA before embarking on a long career overseas.

‘‘I actually like Groce,’’ Liberty, now a high school coach in Sarasota, Florida, told the Sun-Times. ‘‘Illinois people aren’t used to losing. I can understand the feelings the fans have. I want to win, too. I want to see my university win Big Ten championships and get back to the tournament. But I like John Groce as a person, and I think he’s a pretty good coach, too.’’

His first head-coaching job has given Liberty a tremendous appreciation of what patience can provide. His first team at Out-of-Door Academy won one game. His next team won eight and his next 11. Liberty’s fourth team is crushing it to the tune of 15-3.

Groce doesn’t have any such progress on which to hang his hat, but he does have a breakthrough recruiting class pledged for 2017.

‘‘Give him an opportunity to coach those guys and see what comes out of it then,’’ Liberty said. ‘‘If it doesn’t work out, then you have to make a decision on where you’re headed after that.’’

GAMES OF THE WEEK

No. 2 Baylor at No. 3 Kansas (8 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN2). The Bears are back on track, with five straight victories since their first and only defeat. The two-loss Jayhawks are coming off a monstrously impressive win at Kentucky. This one is for first place in the Big 12.

No. 1 Gonzaga at BYU (10 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2). Upset alert: The Zags have dropped a game to BYU in each of the last three seasons, and even a couple of their wins over the Cougars have come by razor-thin margins. In other words, this has developed into a heck of a rivalry.

No. 23 Purdue at No. 17 Maryland (11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN). Hoopheads will enjoy watching Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky, the Terps’ towering post defenders, tangle with Purdue giants Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. There might be a collision or two.

No. 5 Arizona at No. 13 Oregon (3 p.m. Saturday, ESPN). No one in the country is playing better than the Wildcats, who haven’t been beaten in nearly two months. You’ll find plenty in Pac-12 country, though, who believe the Ducks — who beat Arizona twice last season — are the most complete team in the conference.

No. 6. Louisville at No. 9 Virginia (6 p.m. Monday, ESPN). Virginia scored a big road win in the first meeting between these ACC contenders — a 61-53 affair that was far more one-sided than that score indicates — but the Cardinals have had a number of spectacular performances since then. It’ll be a defensive dogfight.

TRENDING

Up: the Big Ten. Not only did Northwestern debut in the Top 25, but the league also has a team (Wisconsin) in the top 10 for the first time in seven weeks.

Down: No. 20 Notre Dame. Four losses in five games — ouch. Life in the ACC sure can be brutal.

Up: No. 21 Duke. Don’t look now, but the extraordinarily talented Blue Devils — riding back-to-back gut-check wins on the road — could be ready to put the pedal to the metal.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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