By Joe Henricksen
Forget the 8-22 record of last year for a moment. Forget the fact Northwestern went just 1-15 in the Big Ten a year ago and are a combined 3-29 in league play over the past two years. Believe it or not, strides have been made in Evanston despite the recent results. But has the program, which has struggled so mightily in recruiting and falling short in luring top Illinois prospects, turned the corner in the recruiting game?
Turning that recruiting corner has been a near impossible task, no matter who has coached at Northwestern. First, the admission requirements at the prestigious academic institution have always limited the crop of players the school can even recruit.
The less talked about factor is the competitive nature of the high school player and the constant losing players have had to deal with while playing at Northwestern. Combine those two and the perception of NU basketball the prep player sees becomes a big negative. If you are a Division I basketball prospect in high school, that player typically has a competitive fire, a competitive drive that has enabled him to be the player that he is. He's pushed himself and worked his butt off to put himself in a position of securing a Division I scholarship. There aren't a lot of high-level players that are willing to roll the dice and put themselves in a position of losing -- and losing big -- for four years with no hope of ever playing in an NCAA Tournament.
I have heard at least two prospects and/or their parents, who Northwestern recruited in the last couple of years, tell me there was no way they would ever go to Northwestern because of the constant losing. Despite the great education and what the NU degree will mean down the road, I can understand.
But last season head coach Bill Carmody broke through and recruited a Chicago Public League player -- and a good one -- in Michael "Juice" Thompson out of Lincoln Park. The jet-quick point guard had a solid freshman year, averaging 12 points and over four assists a game. This year Carmody, with the help of stellar assistant coach Tavaras Hardy who prep players, high school and AAU coaches connect with and respect, landed arguably the best recruiting class in school history. The tandem of 6-9 John Shurna of Glenbard West, a top 10 player in the Hoops Report final player rankings in 2008, and Nick Fruendt of Batavia was a major recruiting coup last November. And now comes big Kyle Rowley, the 6-11 center from Lake Forest Academy and a late addition to the Class of 2008 recruiting class. While still a work in progress, Rowley has arguably a bigger upside than any player Carmody has ever recruited to Evanston.
Yes, Northwestern has made great strides in recruiting. The foursome of Thompson, Fruendt, Shurna and Rowley have provided an eye-opening public relations boost in Chicago area recruiting. But the program needs to land a true, legitimate difference-maker. They need to sign the recognizable talent that will truly break down the barriers and get others to follow.
Northwestern now has in place the ideal supporting players and quality talent in Shurna, Fruendt and Thompson, along with a potential difference-maker -- down the road -- in Rowley. But even with this influx of talent, realistically you're talking about a program that will jump from 11th in the Big Ten to maybe seventh, possibly sixth. If Northwestern wants to finally get in the upper half of the Big Ten, if it wants to turn that recruiting corner, if it wants a taste of March Madness, it needs to break down the door and steal a star. It needs a commitment from the likes of Zion-Benton's Lenzelle Smith, a star player Northwestern is actively involved with in the Class of 2010 -- or a player of that caliber. So while the recent recruiting success and upgrade in talent is a great step in the right direction, the expectations will remain mild in Evanston until a difference-maker overlooks the past and makes the commitment.