SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a lush March Madness background for the man who just became the first of the 13 Northwestern coaches in the 78-year NCAA tournament era to steer the Wildcats to this event. And when there’s a lush March Madness background, there’s usually something horrifying in there.
The brain of Northwestern Coach Chris Collins can connect to that past horror with the mention of a single name: “Scotty Thurman.”
“Come on, man!” Collins said at the mention of it on Friday.
While Collins reached three Final Fours and won two national titles as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, his pinnacle as a Duke player proved both a privilege and a trial few know.
He and his Grant Hill-led Duke team played the 1994 national championship game in Charlotte against the audacious Arkansas team constructed by an American original, Nolan Richardson. As the score stood 70-70 and the game clock rushed by the one-minute mark and the Razorbacks’ shot clock hurried toward zero, Thurman fielded a frantic pass on the right side, roughly one mile from the basket.
Antonio Lang flew at Thurman, forcing him to alter his normal shot arc and ratcheting up the difficulty, thus the gasps when Thurman’s three-point shot plunged through the net with 50 seconds left. Arkansas won, 76-72, not that Collins can find that experience useful today.
“I try not too much with our guys to talk about when I played,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s relevant. They know I played. There might be certain experiences that I bring up, but that was a tough night. I was playing for a national championship. It was the game you always dreamed of playing. And Scotty hit a great shot.”
He does bring up, however, something that has exited the national consciousness about a game attended by the most famous Arkansan, President Bill Clinton. Ten seconds later, as the game tape shows, Hill had possession but then had it knocked loose. The ball rolled over to Collins on the left, and he dribbled back toward the center, unguarded. From about 30 feet, he launched.
“And what people don’t realize after that is I had a shot to tie it on the next possession,” he said Friday. “That was from the top of the floor, that went in and out that I thought I made when I shot it, and just didn’t go down.”
It did seem to go somewhat into the basket before it rattled out. “That was one of the toughest memories — it was one of the greatest memories, but also one of the toughest, because you came that close to being a national champion,” he said.
Said Northwestern’s leader, Bryant McIntosh: “You just never know, as we talked about a little bit before, the message from Coach Collins was Dan Marino getting to the Super Bowl his rookie year and then never getting back. Nothing is guaranteed. And that’s kind of what we are, like, talking about constantly in our locker room, is just taking advantage of the moment and enjoying it.”
That doesn’t necessitate bringing up Thurman — nowadays an assistant coach at Arkansas, which advanced to the round of 32 on Friday — but not for the reason it might seem.
“With our guys,” Collins said, “I’ve tried to use my experience of being in the NCAA tournament a lot to help with how we manage this all with the media and the hoopla and everything that goes along with being in an NCAA tournament. But I’ve tried to shy away from talking about what I did. First of all, I’m too old  now, none of them know that I could even play at all.”
He concluded, “I was in a great mood until you brought that up, so thank you.”