Can a positive move in the short-term be a damaging one in the long run?
That is the question that faces Chris Collins and his Northwestern team right now. The addition of Pat Spencer, the 2019 Tewaraaton Award winner and number one overall selection this year in the Premier Lacrosse League, creates both positive and negative possibilities that Collins will have to monitor as he continues to build his program.
When news broke that one of the best lacrosse players in the country would be opting to join the Northwestern basketball program to fulfill his final year of NCAA eligibility, a sense of confusion set in upon the minds of many NU fans. The move essentially came out of nowhere, and is a one-of-a-kind scenario of an NCAA athlete making a radical switch in sports that the college basketball world hasn’t seen up to this point.
With regards to Northwestern’s on-court performance for the 2019-20 season, this move can’t really hurt the Wildcats’ chances of winning games. Spencer may turn out to be a player that earns quality minutes, and Northwestern currently has open scholarship spaces due to a combination of players leaving and missing on transfers like Javon Freeman. If he doesn’t turn out to be all that great on the court, Chris Collins will more or less find himself in the same place as he started before.
Many of his high school teammates and others who have played with Spencer over the past few years have praised his basketball ability. Coming out of a highly competitive prep environment, he seems to be able to shoot the ball well, and certainly has the athleticism and tenacity to succeed at a Division 1 level. So on the surface, Spencer seems like a limited risk move with a decent upside.
Not so fast.
The implications of bringing in Spencer could prove to be far more consequential and telling about the current state of this Northwestern basketball program.
Northwestern is a test dummy that is assuming a reasonable amount of risk by bringing Spencer on to the team despite the fact that the lacrosse star hasn’t played organized basketball in quite some time. Although many analysts and scouts have raved about Spencer’s potential on the hardwood, Collins is making a statement that you don’t have to be a tried-and-true basketball lifer to earn a spot on his team. This move declares that displaying athleticism and toughness alone are enough to be a Wildcat.
“Pat is an accomplished athlete, who exudes toughness and a drive to be great,” Collins said in a press release. “He knows what it takes to compete and to win at the highest level, and his demonstrated leadership abilities will be valuable for our young team.”
That’s not a statement that shows a coach that is oozing with confidence about his new weapon, but rather one that knows he has spots to fill, and bringing a high character athlete in is one way of doing it. It seems like a worthwhile move in the present for a team searching for someone, anyone to lead their offense, but the addition may be (at least in part) based on Collins’ desperation. Even key 2020 commit Joe Bamisile was initially confused by the signing, according to WildcatReport writer Louie Vaccher.
It isn’t inspiring when the primary reaction to a move from future players is confusion. Both Collins’ uninspiring message and the lack of enthusiastic response from others around the program may communicate to other potential recruits that Northwestern’s situation is unstable right now, with those around it grasping at straws.
Spencer may have the talent to earn Northwestern’s point guard role right away (a problem within itself), and he may have success in running Northwestern’s offense. But regardless of how his story turns out, he is just a stopgap measure in what will likely be a difficult season for the team as a whole.
It seems probable that Spencer’s tenure in Evanston will be just a blip in the program’s radar, hopefully with some slight positive externalities accompanying it. But there is a very real chance that this move winds up serving as another sign of dysfunction. The player himself will not make or break the future of Northwestern basketball, but the signing of Pat Spencer and subsequent reactions may portend a negative direction from the program in seasons to come.