Chris Collins created waves (well, more like ripples) when he told Big Ten Network and Fox Sports 1 basketball analyst Stephen Bardo that he thought his freshman class could progress to emulate the University of Virginia's senior class. Being from the UVA area, I thought this was a pretty ambitious goal from Collins. After all, the Cavaliers are reigning ACC regular season and tournament champions, and they went to the Sweet Sixteen after earning a number one seed last year. This year's senior class at Virginia is relatively small and under-the-radar, but last year's senior class that led the Cavs to its second 30-plus win season in program history was more of a standout group. Hence, I assume Collins was referring to last year's Virginia senior class. I'll look at the similarities and differences of the two groups, then discuss the unknowns before determining if these young Cats can be like UVA's 2010 freshman class.
This year's Wildcat freshmen were part of a five-man group, a big class for almost any program except, say, Kentucky, which shuffles freshmen in and out of the program like no other. The 2010 UVA recruiting class included a whopping six players.
For both recruiting classes, it wasn't just quantity, but also quality. For Northwestern, Vic Law was charged as "the guy" that would turn around the program that has struggled historically. Law was an ESPN Top 100 recruit and had offers from all over the country. Bryant McIntosh was also well-regarded coming in from basketball-crazed Indiana. In 2010, UVA brought in two top-100 guys in KT Harrell and James Johnson.
First recruiting class
The 2010 class at UVA was head coach Tony Bennett's first. Bennett took over in Charlottesville in 2009, but the 2009 class had already committed when he was announced as coach. The 2010 class was Bennett's first in which he had control over who he wanted and who he didn't. Collins arrived in 2013, but most of that class had already committed. The 2014 class was firmly in the hands of Collins.
State of the program
Northwestern, as most readers will know, has never made an NCAA Tournament, and Collins is looked upon as the person who can change that. This recruiting class has given Northwestern fans hope that the program is on the upswing. UVA, on the other hand, has traditionally been a team in the middle of the ACC. Only twice did the Cavs miss postseason play between 2000 and 2010. When Bennett took over for Dave Leitao, the team was just two years removed from a share of the ACC crown. Northwestern's 2014 class is looking to turn around 75 years of missed NCAA Tournament berths. Bennett's 2010 class was only trying to rebuild after a two-year slump.
Northwestern is unique in the traditional college basketball world (aka not one-and-done) because they rely so heavily on their freshmen. Both McIntosh and Law log heavy minutes (32.0 and 26.6 per game respectively), and Scottie Lindsey is looking to receive a major boost in minutes should JerShon Cobb's injury woes continue. UVA, in their 2010-11 season, had just one freshman average over 25 minutes per game (Joe Harris at 29.4). The Cavs could lean on star Mike Scott, who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks, or solid veteran guards Mustapha Farrakhan and Sammy Zeglinski in crunch time. For the Wildcats, a lot of playing time down the stretch comes with McIntosh and Law on the floor.
Of the six members of Virginia's 2010 recruiting class, four of them (Harrell, Johnson, Billy Baron, and Will Regan) transferred, leaving just Harris (now a role player for the Cleveland Cavaliers) and Akil Mitchell (currently on the NBA D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers). Could the same thing happen in Evanston. Might athletic and energetic Johnnie Vassar be disappointed in the lack of minutes? What about Gavin Skelly? Could -- *gasp*-- McIntosh or Law decide to move to a better team? It's hard to envision that Law, a local guy, could leave, but who knows?
Continued recruiting success
Bennett did a phenomenal job on the recruiting path following his first class, bringing in two ESPN Top 100 guys in 2011, three in 2012, and one more in 2013. It will be key that Collins continues to bring in high-quality recruits to support this class. Aaron Falzon, a Top 100 guy, is Collins' biggest recruit of 2015, and the signs are encouraging heading into the future. Building a solid team around his 2014 class will be Collins' biggest goal moving forward.
Collins was being pretty bold when he told Bardo that his freshmen could be like UVA's seniors. Do Northwestern's freshmen have the talent? Certainly. McIntosh has been impressive for a freshman charged with running the show, and Law has shown glimpses of stardom. Lindsey, Skelly, and Vassar have shown promise at times, but, like most freshmen, struggle with consistency. It's hard to make any definitive conclusions as of right now. If Northwestern can continue to have success on the recruiting trails and Collins develops his raw but talented freshmen, this team could be similar to UVA in reaching new heights. For UVA, it was winning the ACC Championship, having its best regular season ever, earning a #1 seed, and making it to the Sweet Sixteen. It would be unreasonable to expect such high levels of success from Northwestern so quickly, but a first NCAA tournament seems within reason at this point. That would be a major success for Collins and this recruiting class.