Chris Collins doesn’t need a calendar to know that March is coming up. He’s got basketball in his blood and he knows when tournament time is coming. This year, however, for the first time, the Northwestern head coach may need a day planner to schedule Northwestern’s March activities.”This time of year is when you get excited,” the former Duke player and assistant coach said. “It’s not a marathon anymore. You have three regular season games left, and then, whatever you earn after that, you’ve got to earn. I hope our guys will be excited about that.”For the first time in school history, there may be an “after that” for the Wildcats. In just his fourth year in Evanston, Collins has Northwestern on the verge of earning its first NCAA Tournament bid ever.Since March Madness began in 1939, Kentucky has had 55 bids. Duke, Collins’ alma mater, has had 40. Western Carolina, Troy, Delaware State and Prairie View have been to the NCAAs. So have Tufts, Catholic, Williams and Springfield. Northwestern has never been invited to the dance.Collins brought the Wildcats close last year, winning a school-record 20 games, but Northwestern was shut out on Selection Sunday. Collins has already matched the 20 wins this season, put together a school-record 13-game winning streak and is on the verge of setting records for Big Ten road wins.Not that Collins is ready to talk about the elusive NCAA invite quite yet. He told USA Today that the Tournament is “not relevant” and has avoided talk of his spot on the bubble.”Every program when you want to get to that level where you’re in the mix late in the season, you have to deal with [bubble talk],” Collins said. “For us, it’s a new experience. I want our guys to stay in the present, play loose, play free, play hungry. We’re not going to be successful if we play with pressure on our backs, if we play with a burden on us to have to be perfect.”Instead, Collins has taken the pressure on himself, something he’s used to. “My whole life, I’ve dealt with pressure,” he said. “My dad was the number one pick in the draft and an NBA All Star. So I’ve had eyes on me ever since I started playing in middle school. Then I chose to be at a program that’s the biggest pressure cooker in all of college basketball, maybe all of sports. This is what I’m used to. I’m fine with it.””I’m not playing, though,” he added. “Our guys are still getting used to it.”So far, that approach has paid dividends. Northwestern upset No. 7 Wisconsin on the road earlier this month, yet another milestone on the road to success.”We’re trying to build a program to emulate what Wisconsin has done,” Collins said. “We’re trying to build a program with the right guys who want to fight for each other and believe in something bigger than themselves. They want to fight for each other. It was huge for the here and now, regardless of any historical implication.”Collins has the Wildcats tied for fourth in the Big 10, with a 20-8 record, which bodes well for the team’s hopes for the history-making bid, which, of course, has the head coach worried.”I worry about it every second,” he said. “As a coach, I’m always worried about what could derail what you’ve got going good. It’s a fine line. I love that people are taking notice of what these guys are doing, but the moment you let in the outside chatterthe noisethe moment you soften up the littlest bit, you get crashed down to reality really quick. Every day we talk about the present. We don’t talk about anything else. We try to find motivation each game. These guys want to accomplish things that haven’t been done: To win at a venue they haven’t won in 40 years, to win five in a row.”And, someday, perhaps very soon, to become a part of the Madness.
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