Perhaps it wasn't such a surprise when coveted Chicagoland recruit Barret Benson committed to play ball at Northwestern a few weeks ago. While the 6-10, 245 lb big man had scholarship offers from what some would argue are more established Big Ten programs (Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and more) Benson chose to keep it close to home, going with an up and coming Wildcat program that many would argue has the chance to make their first NCAA tournament this coming season. But what's with all this change?
Not long ago, many would have considered Northwestern the basketball armpit of the Big Ten. They are the only school in the conference to never have played in March Madness, having posted losing record after losing record for decades on end. Yet for some reason, head coach Chris Collins seems to genuinely be turning the program around.
Benson is the third four-star recruit that Collins has gotten in as many years. In 2013 he got everyone's attention when highly rated Vic Law agreed to take his talents to Evanston. Similarly in 2014, he got top 100 power forward Aaron Falzon to head west from Massachusetts. It no longer has become about getting the lower in-state guys to play for the program, Collins is hunting big fish, and quite successfully.
It's easy to trace the turn around of this program back to the 2013 hiring of Collins by NU. However, there's so much more to the picture. Take the veteran leadership.
This past season was the senior year for point guard Dave Sobolewski. An integral part of the roster since he stepped into the gym four years prior, Big Dave was an on and off the court presence that provided a sense of trusted peer leadership for the team. However, last season also saw the entrance of young point guard Bryant McIntosh. While only a three-star, McIntosh flashed signs of skill early in the offseason, urging Collins to insert him into the starting lineup right off the bat. This meant sitting his veteran leader who in many ways was the heart of the old NU regime.
Yet rather than reacting negatively, Sobolewski embraced his role from the bench, serving as a players assistant of sorts throughout the year. This not only allowed McIntosh to develop significantly over the course of the season, but gave an example to the rest of the guys on the team. Personal sacrifice, as Sobolewski demonstrated, it necessary for the forward progress of the program. While his time in purple was drawing to a close, another era was just beginning.
The rest of the Big Ten is going to need to take notice. A prominent program right in Chicago is a direct threat to many recruiting pipelines. Traditionally, Illinois has successfully captured much of the Chicago talent, while bigger names like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor have headed to the east coast to play ball. While not there yet, Northwestern threatens to be apart of the picture.
It'll be interesting to see how the Cats perform this year and subsequently how their recruiting is affected the coming offseason. The 2016 class is just getting started, yet NU already has three commits lined up. Look for Collins to take a stab at some of the bigger Chicago guys ie. ESPN top 100 Zack Norvell. You never know when you have a coach with a knack for getting kids' attention. Regardless, the rise of the Cats is already fun to watch.