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Bryant McIntosh, Chris Collins

Chris Collins' emotions went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in the first 48 hours of the NCAA tournament in March. Collins led Northwestern to victory, over Vanderbilt, in its first-ever tournament game. Two days later, he committed a technical foul that pretty much ended his team's hopes of upsetting eventual national runner-up Gonzaga.

Northwestern trailed by five with just under five minutes left when Gonzaga's Zach Collins blocked Dererk Pardon's shot. Chris Collins screamed that the play should have been goaltending -- and he was right.

The Wildcats had come back from 22 down and they had the momentum. And then, it all evaporated.

Collins ran on to the floor to confront the officials. Instead of Pardon's shot cutting Gonzaga's lead to three, Nigel Williams-Goss made the two free throws that resulted from the technical foul, and the Bulldogs held on to win 79-73 in Salt Lake City. What would Collins do if he could live that the moment again?

"I think I react the same," Collins said on ThePostGame Podcast. "It's like if you're walking down the street and you're with three friends, and one person sees something the other three guys don't see, whether it's something up in the sky or you see something happening and you're trying to get your friends' attention and they don't understand. I wasn't trying to get a technical. I wasn't cursing out those guys. I was making the hand movement like, 'The guy went through the basket.' When you're in an emotional game like that, when you're in a fight and you've come back from 20 down, it's such a pivotal possession, we're on a big run, that was just an instinctive reaction. Of course, I wish I wouldn't gotten a technical. But if I'm in that situation again, with that kind of a call and that kind of a play, I probably would have done the same thing. It is what it is. What stinks about that is that it kind of overshadowed what the game was about."

But Northwestern's 2016-17 season was never going to be defined by an inevitable NCAA tournament loss. The Wildcats won a team-record 24 games and broke one of the sport's most notorious curses by being the last school from a Power Five conference to qualify for the NCAA tournament. They even became a finalist for ESPY Play of the Year -- a Hail Mary inbounds pass from Nathan Taphorn that set up Pardon's buzzer-beater against Michigan, which effectively secured an NCAA invite.

"The way that the game played out, it was almost like the movie finish," Collins said. "If you were going to write a script for Northwestern breaking the streak and going to the tournament, it would be a home run pass in a tie game with one second to go, at home, with a sellout crowd and everyone mobs the floor."

Collins arrived in Evanston in 2013 as a product of basketball royalty. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs, as his father, Doug, was the Bulls head coach from 1986-1989. Collins was Illinois Mr. Basketball at Glenbrook North High School and went on to star for Duke for four years. He coached under Nancy Lieberman with the Detroit Shock and Tommy Amaker at Seton Hall before returning to Durham as an assistant for Mike Krzyzewski from 2000-2013. By the time Collins got his own gig back in Chicagoland, he was 39 with a basketball education well beyond his years.

But he wasn't mentally prepared for Evanston. Collins had been around winners. He still had to learn how to lose. And he still had to learn how to attract a fan base.

"The lowest moment for me, personally, was my first conference game when we played Wisconsin -- Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky," Collins said. "I'm all fired up, first game in the conference, at home. I walk into Welsh-Ryan and 70 percent of the place is red, so that was kind of my first little downer. Then we proceeded to go out in the first half and be down 40-14 at halftime, and it was probably the one moment where I looked at the wall in Year 1, and I didn't really have any answers. I didn't know what to do. I think I realized how hard it was going to be, and from there, we just kept on fighting."

Collins lost his first three Big Ten games by an average of 23 points. He won six conference games in each of his first two seasons. He had to replace Bill Carmody's Princeton offense, convert the holdovers into his motion attack and groom his own recruits. It took Collins four years to make the NCAA Tournament, which is a relatively short time considering Northwestern's history of futility. The event began in 1939 and the first Final Four was played in Evanston at Patten Gymnasium.

Northwestern students may remember Collins' unofficial introduction in spring 2013, when he served burritos on the campus' Frontera Fresco (a Mexican restaurant affiliated with celebrity chef Rick Bayless, the brother of Fox Sports 1's Skip Bayless).

"In Year 1, I was literally in the union, begging people to come to games and they are like, 'What sport? What do you coach?' to going to having sellout crowds last year and people painting their faces and dressing in purple," Collins said. "It's been a lot of fun these last four years watching the program grow to the level we are at now."

Chris Collins

Collins has been the face of Northwestern's rise to relevancy, but senior Bryant McIntosh is the on-court catalyst. A scrawny combo guard from Indiana, McIntosh verbally committed to Indiana State before receiving a flood of major conference offers just before his 2013-14 senior season of high school. McIntosh's hometown Purdue Boilermakers emerged as a major suitor, but Collins swooped in, making an offer he couldn't refuse.

"Coach Collins talked about me being the guy at point guard for four years," McIntosh told The Indianapolis Star in 2013. "I thought I had a better chance to come in and play right away at Northwestern."

For what it's worth, McIntosh also grew up a Duke fan, and his favorite player was J.J. Redick.

Vic Law, an ESPN100 recruit from the Chicagoland area, was deemed the crown jewel of Collins' first recruiting class. And while Law has been a crucial piece for the Wildcats in two of the past three years (he missed a full season with a shoulder injury), McIntosh emerged as the star. He was second-team All-Big Ten last season, and this year, McIntosh was one of three players unanimously named to the preseason All-Big Ten Team. Miles Bridges and Ethan Happ are the other two. McIntosh is also on the 2018 Bob Cousy Point Guard Of The Year Award watch list. He's been to two Stephen Curry camps and keeps in touch with the two-time NBA MVP.

"I just want to take advantage of this moment," McIntosh says of his senior season. "There's nothing like playing college basketball with guys that care. The whole university, the whole support staff, they care. When you leave this, and you pursue playing basketball [at the next level], I just don't see having that connection with another program and the people in it."

Collins may only be a few years into a coaching career that lasts decades. But he'll never forget his first star.

"I thought he could be really good, and he's been even better," Collins says. "We gave him the ball from Day 1. We let him make some freshman mistakes as a young player. We stuck with him. He's got an amazing will. He's a winner. He's a two-time state champion in high school, in the state of Indiana. He's brought that winning DNA to our program. He's been an extension of me on the floor. I want to cherish this last year with him, I'm going to be one sad guy at the end of this year, because of what he and this senior class have meant to our program."

Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh

Collins believes both McIntosh and senior Scottie Lindsey, also on the Preseason All-Big Ten Team, will get a shot at the NBA next year. In Evanston, they will always be remembered for getting a program off the ground.

"Walking out in that Vandy game and seeing all of the purple and seeing people standing and cheering, it was literally all the stuff that we imagined," Collins says of the first NCAA Tournament game in Salt Lake City. "When I sat in Bryant Mcintosh's home -- Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey's -- and I talked about what it would mean to take a Northwestern team to the tournament and how they'd be remembered and what their legacy would be, and it was happening. It was a great feeling, it was a surreal feeling and I was so proud of those guys that they were the one's to crack it and they were the ones to get there because they were the ones who believed when there was not much to believe in."

Oh, about that Vanderbilt game. Northwestern won 68-66, but received some unexpected help in the final moments. With 14 seconds left and the Commodores up one, Vanderbilt guard Matthew Fisher-Davis -- thinking his team was down -- fouled McIntosh, who made both free throws to put Northwestern ahead for good.

"You definitely feel bad for a guy because you don't want players in that atmosphere to make a mistake like that," Collins said.

"I mean I felt bad for him," McIntosh said with a laugh, "but I was pretty happy." 

McIntosh says he does not think much about the tournament win and loss, saying the only time he thinks back on them is when the media asks. With a chance to win the Big Ten, McIntosh's mind is moving forward, and Lindsey said the team will have more expectations for the first time.

"It's always been about making the tournament, so it's definitely different for us," Lindsey said. "But it's cool and we're up for the challenge. We can't wait to show how much better we've gotten."

The Wildcats, who open the season Nov. 10 against Loyola of Maryland, will have a temporary home this season at Allstate Arena, located near O'Hare Airport. Welsh-Ryan is undergoing a $110 million renovation, another example of how the program is on the upswing.

"We are going to try to make their season year the best that we can," Collins says. "We're excited about what we've got as a team and what our potential is. We just have to go out there and play every game. I know it's a cliché, and I hate it, but you can't get ahead of yourself in college basketball. At the end of the day, we'll get what we earn and hopefully we're in the mix to be a postseason contender again."

Chris Collins, Welsh-Ryan Arena

Why Won't Northwestern Play Duke?

Given his Duke connections, Collins is faced with constant media buzz about a potential matchup with his alma mater. But it probably won't happen in a regular-season game.

"There's a story behind it with Coach K and Coach [Bob] Knight," McIntosh said. "Coach K beat Coach Knight in the Final Four, and Coach Knight didn't talk to him for 10 years, so it's just not something that Coach K or his guys want to do. They don't want to have to compete against each other unless they really have to."

Mike Krzyzewski played for Knight at West Point from 1966-1969 and served as an assistant for Knight at Indiana in 1974-75 after being discharged from the Army. The two legendary coaches met in the 1992 Final Four, where Duke edged Indiana, 81-78. The Blue Devils then beat Michigan and the Fab Five to capture the title.

Collins was a senior in high school at the time.

"I just think Coach K views all of us who are coaching as sons," Collins said. "I think that for me or for Wojo, or for Johnny Dawkins, it's just a no-win, it's too emotional. We've all spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears together, and we root for each other. I don't think any of us really like to play one another unless it's like a tournament and you have to. Although if it had to happen, you got to put all of that aside, go out there and compete and try to win."

Collins Grew Up On Michael Jordan

Doug Collins became Michael Jordan's third coach in three seasons in 1986. Jordan won a playoff series for the first time since Collins' second season. Although Collins could only bring the Bulls as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 1989, he earned the respect of His Airness. When MJ came back to the NBA with the Wizards in 2001, he handpicked Collins to be his head coach again.

In the 1980s, Jordan hung around a teenage Chris.

"He came over a few times back when he was playing for my dad," Collins remembers. "Obviously, as a 13-year-old, that's a pretty cool thing, and I still have a poster that he signed. It's been special for me to be around my dad and have access to pro athletes and greatness because really, it's shown me that in order to be successful, these are things that you have to do. I've been lucky with my childhood and now it's my time to give back what I've learned and help Northwestern be the best basketball program that we can be.

"I wasn't annoying him. For me, my dad was an NBA player, so not many people got me awe-struck. I was around pro players, I was around athletes all the time. There's like a different level of athlete that gets you that way. Michael's one of those guys. I wasn't annoying. I was more like stay quiet, in awe, kind of staring at him."

That's a lot of admiration toward a UNC guy.

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