Unlike the rest of the Northwestern sports world, it has not been a good month for Northwestern’s men’s basketball program. While most Wildcat fans were likely feeling their excitement levels for football season peak, cheering on Jordan Wilmovsky while he swam in Rio, or reveling in Touchdown Trevor’s inevitable ascension to the helm of a Super Bowl-winning offense, Chris Collins and his staff have been forced to take a serious detour on their 2017 recruiting trail. After initially setting their sights firmly on the mountain top by extending offers to nine four-star prospects and 11 prospects in total to fill their two remaining scholarship spots, the Wildcats have been hit by a storm of rejections and commitments elsewhere. The biggest lightning bolt of this storm came from 4-star shooting guard and Illinois native Jordan Goodwin, who committed to St. Louis in mid-August. With 3-stars Tomas Murphy (Northeastern) and Maxwell Evans (Vanderbilt) also recently pledging their futures elsewhere, Northwestern’s list of realistic prospects with standing offers has been whittled down to just three: Texas wing Savion Flagg, 6-foot-8 shooter Jordan Nwora, and New Hampshire two-guard Anthony Gaines.
Of the three, the electric Flagg is undoubtedly the most-coveted prize. He is hovering just below the top 50 of most national rankings for his class (No. 70 per 247Sports), and his combination of eye-popping bounce, a grown-man’s build, and a cultured offensive skill-set give him all the tools to be a foundational player for Coach Collins’ desired Northwestern basketball revolution.
For those of you skeptical that the ‘Cats have a legitimate chance of landing a near-five-star from a Texas town over 1,000 miles south of Evanston, there is some evidence to suggest that Flagg is intrigued by the opportunity to be the lynchpin of a movement to build a smaller program into national relevance. He has named Northwestern in a list of what are now the final eight schools he is considering, and will be making his first official visit to campus on September 17th, the day of the Duke football game.
The bad news is that the other seven schools on that list who have extended offers to him include Oregon, Florida, and Miami (schools with national championship pedigree), as well as Texas and Texas A&M (huge programs that are close to home). With last year’s Pac-12 champion and NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed Oregon pursuing him heavily, as well as suggestions that he has a strong desire to remain in the state of Texas for college, Collins faces a steep uphill battle to secure Flagg’s commitment. However, if the Wildcat head coach can do the seemingly impossible and lure the country’s No. 15 small forward up north, the entire narrative surrounding this 2017 class will change, and it could turn into one that is remembered in Northwestern basketball circles for a long time to come.
Nwora is another four-star forward with size who still has NU on his radar, but is a far different proposition than Flagg. In terms of on-court ability, Nwora is rated as a low-four-star talent, well outside most reputable top 100 rankings. Where Flagg has a versatile array of skills augmented by his stand-out physicality and athleticism, Nwora is a below the rim player who lacks lateral quickness, but makes up for it with an elite ability to score the basketball from anywhere on the court. He is a long ways away from being able to lock down Big 10 wings or be the focal point of an effective offensive scheme, but he can shoot from range off both the catch and the dribble as well as anyone in the 2017 class. Additionally, his considerable size (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) and deft footwork allow him to regularly finish around the cup. The ridiculous point totals that he has racked up at top showcase events in the past couple of years are proof of his special offensive tool kit.
While he may not be a surefire cornerstone to build around in Collins’ long-term plans, he would still be a capture that could right the ship as far as the 2017 class goes. Right now, Nwora has not officially removed any of the 21 schools that have offered him from his list, but signs indicate that the Wildcats are serious contenders to secure his commitment. They are among the only 3 schools at which he has taken an unofficial visit (along with Marquette and USC), and of those three they are the only school to which he has come to campus without having previously been offered. At this point with Nwora, it is largely speculation, but Northwestern does look well-positioned to remain in the running for his signature even after he makes his first cuts.
That brings us to Gaines, the remaining recruit that Collins and his staff have pursued most doggedly and who looks most likely to be donning NU’s purple and white in two years time. The explosive three-star slasher has narrowed down his list of 16 schools to a top six of Northwestern, Butler, Cincinnati, Dayton, George Washington, and Michigan (who has yet to offer). In terms of program appeal, this could be an unlikely situation where NU have the inside track over the four other schools that have offered Gaines, but the key player in the scenario will remain Michigan. Gaines appears ready to make his decision in the near future—in which case Northwestern would be his likely destination—but an 11th hour offer from John Beilein and the Wolverines could see them supplant NU as the immediate favorite to secure his commitment.
For Northwestern, landing the 6-foot-4 Gaines would be a definite boost, but nothing above the standards of Collins’ past two recruiting cycles at the helm. He is a player with a four/five-star athletic package and tremendous ability as a wing defender and rebounder from the guard position, but his offensive game needs some serious refining. It would likely take a couple of years in the college game to be able to mold him into a reliable offensive weapon, but a player with his upside would certainly be worth the time. Gaines is the most likely player on Northwestern’s list to fill one of their two available scholarships for 2017, and is simultaneously the most vital player from the program’s perspective, considering the likelihood of striking out on the two four-star prospects above.