All it took was a Monday evening phone call. Barret Benson, a rising high school senior at Hinsdale South in nearby Darien, Ill., and his family phoned up Chris Collins and broke the news: the 6-foot-9, 240-pound center was committing to Northwestern. And just like that, the future of Northwestern basketball got significantly more exciting.
The biggest potential impediment for Chris Collins and Northwestern in the coming years — the biggest roadblock between this program and the NCAA Tournament — had been, in the eyes of many, a lack of a true center. Incoming freshman Dererk Pardon is seen as a center, but he is just 6-foot-8, sophomore Gavin Skelly is in the same boat, and Alex Olah and Joey van Zegeren, barring something unforeseen, will both depart after the 2015-16 season. There was a gaping hole.
Consider that hole filled. Now, of course, you never know. Getting overly excited about high school prospects is a common fault, and there's no telling what kind of player Benson will eventually turn into. But both ESPN and Rivals have rated Benson as a four-star prospect (out of five), while 247 Sports has him as a high three-star. He's even knocking on the door of both ESPN's and Rivals' top 100, and is a consensus top-five player in the state of Illinois.
But perhaps more than anything, Benson's commitment sparks fantasies about what Northwestern's roster could look like in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Guards: Bryant McIntosh (Jr.), Jordan Ash (So.), Isiah Brown (Fr.)
Wings/Stretch-Fours: Sanjay Lumpkin (Sr.), Nate Taphorn (Sr.), Vic Law (Jr.), Scottie Lindsey (Jr.), Aaron Falzon (So.), Rapolas Ivanauskas (Fr.)
Big men: Gavin Skelly (Jr.), Dererk Pardon (So.), Barret Benson (Fr.)
One of the narratives that has been in part driven by us, the media, and in part by Collins himself is that 2015-16 is the year. With Northwestern's two best players — Olah and Tre Demps — as seniors, 2015-16 is the first real opportunity to make a run at the tournament. The time is now.
Going along with that though, the thought seems to be that in 2016-17, the team won't be as strong. Benson's commitment surely challenges that sentiment. There's no telling if he'll be able to contribute right away — though I think he's got better odds than most — or how well Pardon will develop by his sophomore season, and clearly the development of all players — most crucially Law and Falzon — is still a big unknown. But this roster has been constructed nicely.
You will have your veteran point guard in McIntosh. You have your complimentary/backup guard in a possibly-improving Ash. You have a diverse set of athletic wing players in Law, Lindsey, Falzon and Ivanauskas, and a pair of seniors (Taphorn and Lumpkin) that, while not as talented as that other grouping of players, can absolutely be role players. And then you have the big men.
There is still one scholarship spot remaining, so Collins could look to bring in one more player. There are a few logical options. One would be true shooting guard who could come of the bench — essentially a situational Tre Demps replacement. This could come in the form of a graduate transfer or another freshman. Another option would be a veteran big man (a graduate transfer) who could ease the burden on what will be an inexperienced front line. The third option would be a project — an under-the-radar player who Collins and his staff could bring in and try to develop into a contributor later in his career. (The fourth option, of course, would be to leave the final scholarship slot unused.)
Either way, the 2016-17 roster might look even stronger than the 2015-16 one. It will certainly have more depth. You could very realistically see a 10- or 11-man rotation. Even with Benson, the biggest question mark will be in the front court, but there'll certainly enough talent to feed dreams of March Madness.
Guards: Bryant McIntosh (Sr.), Jordan Ash (Jr.), Isiah Brown (So.)
Wings/Stretch-Fours: Vic Law (Sr.), Scottie Lindsey (Sr.), Aaron Falzon (Jr.), Rapolas Ivanauskas (So.)
Big men: Gavin Skelly (Sr.), Dererk Pardon (Jr.), Barret Benson (So.)
This is where things get really enticing. How about a starting five of McIntosh, Ash, Law, Falzon and Benson, with Lindsey a very capable scoring threat off the bench, and Ivanauskas a great change-of-pace option to replace Law or Falzon? And Skelly, the 15-minute-per-game role player who'll spend every single one of those 15 minutes giving an opponent hell? That's not even to mention Pardon and whatever he develops into, or Brown, who is a natural scorer. And of course, it's tough to see Collins not being able to woo another big time recruit or two in the class of 2017.
As Johnathan Wood wrote in the comments yesterday, "If Collins has not made the tourney by 2018, I will officially be disappointed." With the prospects of this roster in mind, it's tough to argue against that statement.
The pieces are in place. Now, over the next three seasons, it's time to see what Collins can do with them.