The swings and the misses

The swings and the misses

Publisher Nick Medline offers his latest NU basketball recruiting column...

At some point, because it was swiftly publicized, casual and devoted fans of Northwestern basketball decided that local small forward Malek Harris became a recruiting priority.

The offer list is not yet extensive, but there's an easily discernible list of NU basketball recruiting targets in the early days of Chris Collins. When you dig deeper, it comes down to some obvious strategy.

The foundation of recruiting involves relationships. NU had no chance at landing Harris. They extended an offer less than one week before he committed to Marquette. If his recruitment lasted longer–and even made it to his unofficial visit scheduled for tomorrow–they might have made some impact.

There was one unique feature of Harris's recruitment: He lacked a distinct in-state option. NU tried to become one. Collins should be offering top 100 players from the Illinois Wolves feeder program. That's not to say he planned on submitting the offer and walking away. He'd try. Collins and his staff have the capacity to spend time recruiting; it's one of their jobs right now.

You recruit against the odds. You take the chance when it's available. But devoting more than one sentence–or however many words I've written–to discuss the inevitable is simply missing the point. Malek Harris, an excellent player, found his fit. He raved about Buzz Williams, because he knew him well, and NU had offered one week before. The end.

This, to some extent, is why we should be patient regarding the class of 2014. It takes time to bond with players, and though Tavaras Hardy introduced Collins to guys while Patrick Baldwin worked incredibly hard on those phone lines, the staff faces uphill battles in many tough situations.

I need to bring up the Jaren Sina debacle one more time. When Sina (kind of) committed to NU before Bill Carmody's dismissal, the Wildcats (kind of) had their point guard. What did that mean? They couldn't yet recruit Tyler Ulis. Collins sat down with Jaren and Mergin Sina, trying to hang onto the three-star Jersey guard, and all the while they couldn't develop an immediate relationship with one of the smallest, best players I've seen in Illinois this spring.

If Ulis commits to Iowa, which some bright analysts think he will, the four-star prospect might begin his explanation with something along the lines of: "Iowa had belief in me. Coach McCaffery was with it from the beginning, and I feel comfortable joining this program." Something like that. Something that all makes perfect sense.

Recruiting is about the times you connect with players. Gavin Skelly, a relatively under-recruited Ohio power forward, said he "loved" NU–or some quality of the school–between 12 and 15 times in our recent six-minute conversation. He and Baldwin and the campus just connected. It's so corny, but that's recruiting. That's why Louie Vaccher and I text and call exhausted kids after they walk around Evanston and Welsh-Ryan for four or five hours.

So what do they lead with? Trevon Bluiett, with hardly any provocation, mentioned his text message exchanges with Chris Collins. Reid Travis, as of May, spoke with Collins twice per week. Any writer loves the unconventional. Recruiting, however, is just this compilation of boring but profound routine.

It's about the process, and after recent changes, NU faces an abbreviated version. Other programs boast stability and wear it proudly; Collins is busy re-defining the entire team. Part of that includes bonding with the current roster. The rest involves molding its future.

And what does that really mean?

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I have this giant spreadsheet on my computer, and have not closed it since returning from a Fort Wayne AAU tournament in early May. On it, there are several columns: Player, Class, Star Ratings, Offer (Y/N), Position, Level of Interest, State (not sure yet if that matters). Every so often, I need to click "insert row above" and throw up a new name—which intensified when Baldwin began to recruit the south. To the right of the spreadsheet, there is this disjointed "priority list" ranking some of Collins' most important players and positions.

A couple of things are actually obvious when you waste time on Excel. First, it looks like he's comfortable with the future at shooting guard. A completely tangential observation, I get the feeling Collins will love Tre Demps, his high potential and how that blends in. The Princeton, which I hate to bash for fear of enraging the loyal folks, did not suit his game. (For the record, I love the Princeton. I'm somewhat of a geek and that applies to basketball, but it just isn't the way you convince most top players to join your program.)

Second, and on a more obvious note, they don't need another center after signing three to Carmody's final class (Olah, Ajou, Liberman). I'm not sure what that was for, but I do plan to lead the Alex Olah bandwagon into the 2013-14 season. Something about the late-season improvement and his clear dedication spelled something like: "Breakout season in rebuilding year." He started dunking, rebounded a bit better and defended a bit better—not to mention the hook shot that will improve over time.

After that, we can all admit, there are holes to fill and there is scholarship flexibility. Collins can miss on some guys as long as he hits on most. He also developed this pretty strong sense of recruiting.

He pitches NBA potential to recruits now. Ask anyone: It can't hurt on the trail to use the "Hey, I coached for Team USA" or the "Hey, that's Brian James and he brings NBA assistant experience" cards. He also describes this up-tempo you're-our-guy style of basketball that appeals to recruits. Especially the best.

Who are those guys on my spreadsheet?

Tyler Ulis
Trevon Bluiett
Vic Law
Reid Travis

These are some pretty familiar names. To be honest, Vic Law seems like the attainable one. To be even more honest, his quiet spring–coupled with a strong NU visit–bodes especially well for the team.

But, really, you can't become good unless you believe it first. Collins knows that, and again, it's corny. It's recruiting.

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He developed a quick relationship, though, with Marcus Bartley–considered among the odds-on favorites to sign with NU. I'm not quite at that point. My great friend and budding Chicago hoops analyst Jeremy Woo sent me texts laced with superlatives after watching Bartley at DePaul team camp. Because Illinois lost out on Jaquan Lyle, Woo suggested they could engage in his recruitment and make a convincing case. Still, the argument surrounding Bartley-to-NU is founded on the early interest.

I'd be interested to know why Collins made one of his first trips to watch Bartley. Hardy probably knew there was some high-upside point guard for the Peoria Irish (because he did know everything) and told Collins to check it out. The new head coach gave Bartley an offer, showing some activity on the trail in those early stages.

There's a smaller list of two guys:

Bartley
Josh Cunningham

Cunningham, in one little-known fact, went to see NU at Welsh-Ryan Arena late last season. The three-star Mac Irvin Fire small forward even said he liked how the Princeton suited his game. Fair. He's a reserved, patient high-riser who would be an ideal addition to this team. (I'm biased, given that I watched him go 13-for-13 in a game—no lie.)

These two players have become major priorities. If NU landed both, it would be an exceptional first class in itself. The pieces need to fall into place before the Wildcats should land their "program turner."

Collins' vision becomes that much more attractive when recruits see the potential for on-court success. Even Vic Law delivered the perfect caveat: "We'll see how Coach Collins does in his first year, but I really believe in him." That's sort of how we all feel these days. It should also be noted that Armon Gates is helping to lead the Law recruitment; this involves the full staff treatment.

The group has worked to contact as many recruits as possible. Some, like Makinde London, seem extremely ambitious. Others are either under-recruited or quiet targets, not to be discounted. John Shurna, arguably the best player in team history, wasn't expected to be the program's all-time leading scorer. But now, in the early stages, the coaches need to introduce themselves.

It's about making the connections and then planning that busy July schedule—one of the most important months in recent program history. Then, the staff will be on the road evaluating potential offers. Tens of prospects–some in the class of 2015–mentioned to me that Collins will watch them play in July. It must be nerve-wracking, and it will certainly define part of the team's future.

Gavin Skelly
Peyton Aldridge
Makinde London
Ben Lammers
Donte Ingram
Scott Lindsey
Isaac Haas
Darreon Reddick

Those names, for now, round out part of the current 2014 picture. I'll include it for transparency, as the Wildcats have reached to out a stunning number of players.

But it's about everything off the list that matters. There are those conversations about "life," which Skelly joked meant being "more like friends than acquaintances" with Baldwin. It's so easy to oversimplify recruiting, and to say that one recent offer like Harris seemed an immediate priority.

There are so many names. Some will work out. Most don't. Included on the spreadsheet are 21 names for the 2014 class, and 11 for 2015. There will be new joiners and difficult departures. Programs are made from trying, from recovering after each setback and making something out of each class.

On Wednesday, I highlighted Malek Harris's name in red because he committed elsewhere. And figuratively, the NU coaching staff would have done the same.

It's about waking up, moving on, making that next connection. In the end, this class will turn out fine, and nothing comes from nothing.

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