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Having landed Pete Nance, Northwestern takes a major step toward national relevance

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Chris Collins has finally reeled in a truly elite recruit.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

When Northwestern ended its 78-year Tournament drought, beat Vanderbilt in the first round and staged a furious second-half comeback against the eventual national runner-up, it entered the national college basketball equation. Northwestern had made it onto the sport’s biggest stage, and proved it was up to the task. It became relevant. It earned its spot on the national map.

Soon, Northwestern won't just be on the map, but it’ll have its own red pin emoji hovering over it, signifying its role as a destination in the college basketball landscape.

Pete Nance’s commitment to Northwestern supports that notion. Nance — ranked as a consensus top 80 player in the nation, including the 39th-best player by Rivals — is the first true blue-chip prospect Chris Collins has hauled in during his time in Evanston.

That isn’t to say Collins has gotten good talent to come to Evanston. Vic Law Jr. was also considered a top 100 prospect, as was Aaron Falzon. Collins has also found gems in lower-rated players like Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Dererk Pardon.

To say Nance is the biggest recruit in program history might be hyperbole — he hasn’t even played a game yet. Given where the program was when Law committed, a strong case could be made for him as the most important recruiting coup in school history.

Still, Nance’s pledge to the Wildcats is of monumental significance. It’s emblematic of a larger trend in the direction of the program: Collins has been trying to punch above the program’s weight in recruiting for years, but now, with tangible success to sell and state-of-the-art facilities on the way, he’s not only in the same weight class as some of the nation’s top programs, but he’s good enough to beat them. Collins has Final Four aspirations, and players like Nance are the blueprint for getting there.

Collins’s strategy of offering elite talents and competing with perennial blue bloods on the recruiting trail has had risk involved. By spending time and resources battling schools that quite frankly have better histories, better facilities and, until recently, better players, Collins was potentially compromising more attainable, solid talents.

But with Nance, the strategy worked. The Northwestern pitch is finally strong enough convince someone to pick the Wildcats over the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Florida, all of which have been to Final Fours in recent memory. Nance represents the payoff of Collins’s swing-for-the-fences ambition, which now has a newfound injection of on-court success and monetary backing from the administration and donors fueling it.

Nance, the son of former NBA All-Star Larry Nance Sr. and the younger brother of LA Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., will presumably want to play in the NBA like his family members. He doesn’t project as a one-and-done caliber talent — at 6-foot-8 and 180 pounds, he’ll need some time to develop his body before he could even be close to considering a leap to the NBA — but he seems to have the best chance of making it than any other Wildcat in recent memory. In that respect, he’s different from every other recruit in the Collins era.

Getting players to the NBA is not the main barometer of success for college basketball programs, but having NBA-caliber players is certainly a positive thing for a program. Of teams in the 2017 Elite Eight, six had players drafted in the 2017 NBA draft (seven if you count second round pick Edmund Sumner, who missed Xavier’s Tournament run with an injury). Nance might be good enough to get drafted one day, or he might not. He’s talented enough to warrant the speculation, though, which is a big deal for Northwestern.

Granted, Chris Collins & Co. caught some breaks during Nance’s recruitment. Thad Matta’s firing at Ohio State probably set Chris Holtman back in Nance’s recruitment, and UW-Milwaukee deciding to hire Pat Baldwin allowed Collins to poach assistant coach Billy Donlon away from Michigan, the other school that was recruiting Nance the hardest. Those factors should be acknowledged, but they shouldn’t take precedence over the steady rise taking place in Evanston.

Top players want to play for Northwestern now. In just the last week, two top 150 players pledged to play for NU over other programs that have been historically more successful. Now, when Northwestern debuts a renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena in 2018, it will also debut a 6-foot-4 point guard and a 6-foot-8 forward with guard-like skills, along with whoever else in the 2018 class decides to commit (and there will be more strong commits in this class).

Before that grand opening will come a 2017 season at Allstate Arena. Despite having no real home games, the excitement surrounding next year’s Northwestern team, one that will return the top five scorers from the 2016-2017 team that won the most games in school history, is higher than it has ever been. After that, McIntosh, Lindsey and Gavin Skelly will be gone, meaning Chris Collins’s first Northwestern class will have graduated. That trio will be missed, but with Collins aiming to get into the ring with the nation’s heavyweights, there’s no end to the excitement in the near future.