Just over a year ago, Chris Collins must have felt like a king.
On July 6, 2015, he reeled in top area big man Barret Benson, the crown jewel of a class that includes two of the top players in Illinois and one of the best scorers in the history of Washington state basketball. Just a day after Benson’s commitment, we examined what future rosters could look like with Benson, lanky wing Rapolas Ivanauskas and aggressive guard Isiah Brown, the three members of the class of 2016.
On July 6, 2015, Collins was finished with 2016 and had his sights set on continuing to build momentum, turning his attention to 2017. The future seemed exceedingly bright.
Vic Law was the breakthrough in terms of recruiting Chicago, a high school hoops hotbed. An ESPN Top-100 prospect, Law was joined by one other Illinoisan, Scottie Lindsey. The class of 2015 held just one in-state recruit, Jordan Ash, but 2016 showed the fruits of Collins’s labor in Chicago: Benson dominated all the Chicagoland teams he played while Ivanauskas spent his senior year at well-known Brewster Academy, playing both with and against Division I player night in and night out. It was July 6, 2015, and Chris Collins was beginning to make Northwestern basketball Chicago’s Big Ten team just two seasons after taking over.
Today, he’s on the outside looking in.
On Monday afternoon, relatively sizable shockwaves reverberated throughout Big Ten basketball — and arguably the entire nation — when five-star class-of-2017 power forward Jeremiah Tilmon chose the Illinois Fighting Illini over a host of elite programs, including North Carolina, Kansas and Michigan State. Northwestern wasn’t a contender for Tilmon’s services; Collins didn’t even extend an offer to the East St. Louis (which is located in Illinois) native.
“So fine,” a hypothetical Northwestern fan may have thought. “Illinois pulled in a huge recruit. John Groce has done it before, and he’ll probably do it again. Plus, it’s not like he reeled in the kid over us.”
That’s where said fan would be wrong. Tilmon plays on the same AAU team — the prestigious St. Louis Eagles — as Northwestern’s top 2017 target, point guard Jordan Goodwin. And it didn’t take long for the former to begin recruiting the latter to Champaign. In chronological order, here’s what happened in the Twittersphere shortly after Tilmon announced his commitment.
Belleville Althoff wing Jordan Goodwin tells me Jeremiah Tilmon's #Illini commitment: "Definitely opens up my eyes for my decision."— Derek Piper (@DPiperScout) July 11, 2016
So maybe Groce did reel in a kid over Northwestern, and get one of the top 30 players in the nation.
Of course, it’s important to take these words with a grain of salt. When a longtime teammate commits to his home state school, there’s bound to be a ton of excitement, and rightfully so. Maybe Goodwin was caught up in the emotion of the moment. Maybe Goodwin’s words mean that he’s excited to join Northwestern and start a rivalry with his former teammate, with battles for bragging rights, not only between themselves but also for the intra-state programs they will represent, ahead. Maybe we’re reading way too far into a few tweets. After all, what is Goodwin supposed to do? Have no reaction at all?
But that line of thinking seems to be a major longshot. All eight predictions on 247 Sports have Goodwin headed to Illinois. Three of those predictions came Monday afternoon, right after Tilmon committed. Our good friend Luke Srodulski at Wildcat Digest summed it up pretty well.
Illini always had the big upper hand because of proximity and all. Just making a really tough job a bit tougher. https://t.co/sYIpiWOn2o— Luke Srodulski (@lsrodulski) July 11, 2016
I'd expect Chris Collins front & center at every STL Eagles game this live period. That's what it'll take to have a shot at Jordan Goodwin.— Luke Srodulski (@lsrodulski) July 11, 2016
A tough hill for Collins to climb just became a mountain.
Let’s go back to the hypothetical Northwestern fan. No reason to panic yet, right? Goodwin hasn’t announced a definite decision yet, and even if he is bound for Champaign, it’s not like it was never very likely that he was headed anywhere else, Evanston included.
A bad day got worse with another Northwestern 2017 point guard target, Brad Davison, committing to Wisconsin. Collins had made a significant late push late for Davison, who committed to the Badgers over Butler, Michigan and a host of Power Five offers.
Now with that fact into account, Collins has to be all-in on Goodwin. He’s do-or-die at this juncture. And that can’t be a good feeling for any coach. Especially not with the events that transpired Monday afternoon.
No one likes Mondays, right?
As Collins watched his top two ballhandlers either commit or become even more of a longshot — Savion Flagg, perhaps the second-most important 2017 recruit behind Goodwin, picked up an offer from Oregon.
Flagg has been a major riser the spring and summer, and an offer from a Top 10 team certainly validates said rise. Don’t be surprised to see many more high-profile offers come his way. Flagg has held an NU offer since April, but as he continues to impress and the offers continue to roll in, Collins will find it increasingly difficult to convince the Texas native to play for him at the next level.
The cupboard is somewhat bare for Northwestern behind Goodwin and Flagg as far as guards and wings — the two places Northwestern will need help at by 2017 — go. There’s an small likelihood that the team reels in local superstar Nojel Eastern, who has been featured on several Team USA junior teams and has offers from Michigan State (his top choice per 247), Michigan, Ohio State and more. Ohio native Kyle Young looks poised to stay in-state and play for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes. Another local guy, Justin Smith, is a longshot as well, given his enormous offer list.
Another major target is Jordan Nwora. Northwestern is prioritizing the sharp-shooting small forward, but he too is a hot commodity, with an offer list that could fill the phone book. Collins absolutely must get one of Goodwin, Flagg and Nwora. He may be a longshot to do so, but as far as we know, he’s still under consideration for all three.
At this point, however, Northwestern doesn’t look to be the favorite for a single recruit in the Class of 2017. Not one 247 predictor chose Northwestern as the landing spot for any of the 11 recruits to whom Collins has extended an offer.
Now of course the importance of Crystal Ball is open to interpretation, Srodulski told Inside NU. If one expert picks a kid to go somewhere, often other predictors will blindly follow. In fact, a similar situation played out a year ago when Nick Rakocevic was receiving Northwestern predictions when Collins wasn’t actually recruiting him. Still, it’s generally a trustworthy tool to use for the tricky task of predicting landing spots — Srodulski called it “about as reliable a predictor as there is” — and, especially in the case of Goodwin, it does not favor Northwestern. Plan B might already be underway. Tuesday morning, Northwestern offered three-star Anthony Gaines out of New Hampshire.
It’s not just that Northwestern’s top targets are choosing to go elsewhere, but rather the combination of that and the timing of it all. It’s now mid-July, and Collins, who had longer to put together this class than most coaches due to the early commitments of Benson, Ivanauskas and Brown, is definitively behind the eight ball for his top targets.
It’s tough to say what’s different. Maybe the fact that this class won’t have a home gym for its freshman year (though renovations should help, not hurt, on the recruiting trail) works against Collins. Maybe it’s just the up-and-down nature of the recruiting trail. You win and lose some years just like you win and lose some individual players. If that’s what you believe, then Northwestern’s struggles are not all that concerning.
But throw out Collins’s first recruiting class, which he got a late start on because he was hired in the offseason, and he’s been done with classes in April (class of 2015) and early July (class of 2016). It’s now mid-July, and Collins hasn’t even started on his class of 2017.
Of course you cannot say that timing is necessarily the major issue, either. It’s still relatively early in the process, and several Big Ten teams don’t have a single recruit. But that Collins got such a head start and is already at such a crucial juncture right now is concerning. Yes, it’s still somewhat early in the recruiting process — the “live period” is going on right now, and recruits should begin committing at a much higher rate over the next few weeks. This evaluation period — the best chance to make a lasting impression — ends July 24. If a month from now Collins doesn’t have a recruit, he’s in deep trouble.
A year ago, Collins seemed to have Northwestern on the inside track for ascending up the Chicagoland recruiting ladder. Now, he’s on the outside watching his most prized recruits — the guys he dedicated hours and hours to traveling, watching and building relationships with — become less and less likely to land in Evanston. If Goodwin and Flagg, who were considered priority recruits just a few weeks ago, as well as the talented Nwora, end up elsewhere — the signs are increasingly pointing to just that — Northwestern’s 2017 class is in shambles, a disaster for any coach trying to build a NCAA Tournament-caliber roster, and a enormous step backward for the Northwestern program as a whole.