It's somewhat odd and vaguely uncomfortable to be excited about where a 16- or 17- year-old decides to go to college.
But that's exactly what Northwestern fans were Monday when 6-foot-9 center Barrett Benson of Hinsdale, Ill. gave his pledge to Chris Collins and committed to play basketball at Northwestern University. It was a successful and moderately surprising coup for the Wildcats, who managed to nab Benson over more established programs like Indiana, Illinois and Purdue.
Benson is the third class-of-2016 recruit to commit to NU, joining forward Rapolas Ivanauskas and point guard Isiah Brown. Ivanauskas is the most highly regarded of the bunch — 247sports ranks him as the 86th best player in the country — but Benson isn't far behind with a four-star rating from ESPN. Amazingly, Northwestern's 2016 recruiting class is, as of right now, the seventh best in the nation according to 247.
That will change of course once other classes fill up, but nonetheless, it's impressive, especially coming off back-to-back losing seasons. There's reason to be excited, at least from a talent perspective. As Henry Bushnell pointed out, the 2017-18 roster looks really, really good. Like, not just 'Northwestern good' — legitimately good.
It's evident that recruits are still buying into the notion that Northwestern's turnaround will come to fruition imminently. Collins and his staff have been successful in portraying his program as one on the rise despite posting 6-12 Big Ten records in consecutive years. For Collins, recruiting isn't the issue; it's undeniable that he's begun the process of equipping himself with players talented enough, both on the perimeter and inside, to compete in the top half of the Big Ten and for that elusive Tournament spot.
Collins' first two years were essentially a honeymoon. The idea of a "NU era" and bringing in more talented players rightfully took precedent over wins and losses. No one expected much at all in his first season, when none of the players on that less-than-stellar roster were his recruits. And the loss of talisman Drew Crawford dampened expectations for 2015, when Northwestern was picked to finish 13th in the conference by beat writers before the season started. Collins had the luxury of knowing that he just had to show that he was making progress, and the best way to do that is through recruiting, an area he's been successful in.
But because of Northwestern's strong finish to last season and the return of core players, as well as the addition of four-star forward Aaron Falzon and graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren, expectations this year are significantly higher than in either of Collin's first two campaigns. Few expect the long overdue NCAA tournament bid, but most think Northwestern should at least finish above .500, particularly with its laughable non-conference schedule. And it's safe to say that a third consecutive 6-12 mark in Big Ten play would be a sizable disappointment, perhaps even a setback.
If Collins is to turn Northwestern into the program he's said he will, he'll need to continue to bring in four-star recruits. Thus far, he's been able to do that largely through rhetoric, not results. But each losing season makes his pitch less enticing. After a while, it becomes nearly impossible to sell the idea of a turnaround, particularly if there's no on-court evidence to support that claim.
Consider this hypothetical scenario. You're a four-star recruit from the great state of California (I'm not from there or anything...) and Northwestern has extended a scholarship offer. You don't know much about the program, but their recruiting pitch is, on an island, very strong: a top-notch university with a beautiful campus and an improving program. But when you do your research, you realize that despite all the aforementioned rhetoric, the program is still stuck in the bottom half of the Big Ten. After three, four seasons, that rhetoric becomes not only ineffective, but invalid. So if basketball is your first priority, Northwestern is no longer an option.
If Northwestern isn't able to make strides this year, Collins and his staff risk having their pitch carry no weight in coming years. That is something a program trying to move up in the college basketball world simply cannot afford.
But if Northwestern can, say, get to .500 in Big Ten play and secure an NIT berth, that up-and-coming status will be cemented. That's why this season is so vitally important.
Collins got the extension — and raise — he wanted this off season. And Welsh-Ryan received the much-needed, multi-million dollar facelift he clamored for upon arrival. Collins no longer has the crutch of "wait until we get this scoreboard" or "wait until I get my players." All the tools for success are firmly in place. It's now time for Collins to show progress not only in recruiting and renovating, but also in the win-loss column.
Consider the honeymoon over.