By Joe Henricksen
There are two huge differences between Northwestern basketball pre-Bill Carmody and now:
1) The Wildcats have been consistently competitive, averaging 19 wins a year, winning 30 Big Ten games and reaching four straight NITs in the past four seasons -- even with suffering through key injuries.
2) Carmody, along with associate head coach Tavaras Hardy and the entire staff of assistants Fred Hill and Ivan Vujic, have recruited at a higher level and are consistently involved with prospects Northwestern has never been in on before. The balance of the staff, with Hill hitting the East Coast hard and Vujic helping land European talent, has been a key.
So while the basketball program awaits facility and amenity upgrades and everyone associated with Northwestern anxiously waits for that elusive NCAA Tournament appearance, Carmody and the program continue to cash in on point No. 2 -- recruiting.
Northwestern received a commitment from Jaren Sina, a point guard out of New Jersey who is considered to be among the top players in the country at his position. Although several ACC and Big East programs, along with Alabama, were in on the 6-1 lead guard from Gill St. Bernards School in Gladstone, NJ, Sina will sign with the Wildcats this fall.
Northwestern has done a nice job of recruiting the Chicago area, bringing in the likes of Juice Thompson (Lincoln Park), John Shurna (Glenbard West), Drew Crawford (Naperville Central) and David Sobolewski (Benet Academy) among others to Evanston, while expanding nationally to find the right Northwestern fit.
How much have the recruiting fortunes at Northwestern changed over the years? Using the rankings of just one recruiting site, Rivals.com, along with the always-debateable "star system," here is the breakdown:
Between the recruiting classes of 2002-2006, Northwestern signed 11 players. But only three of the 11 players, highlighted by Kevin Coble out of Phoenix in 2006, were tagged with the three-star label. From 2007-2012 Northwestern signed a total of 17 players, with 14 of those 17 players being three-star prospects or higher, according to Rivals.com. Regardless of how you view the star ranking of prospects, overall that's a big step up in talent being brought in.
Now you add Sina, who is a top 150 player in the Rivals.com rankings, is considered a four-star prospect by Scout.com and is a top 100 player in the country, according to ESPN. In a 5-6 year run of higher level recruiting at Northwestern, Sina is the biggest catch of them all.
Far from a coincidence, the recruiting surge at Northwestern rapidly turned about the time Hardy, a former Wildcat, joined the staff seven years ago. Hardy has been so influential in recruiting to a place that is not the easiest place to recruit to, which was highlighted in a Hoops Report blog a year ago. While Hardy has been instrumental with so many of the Wildcat recruits, Hill's East Coast ties helped land Sina, while Vujic was responsible for incoming big man Alex Olah, a 7-footer who is expected to be the best true big man at Northwestern since Evan Eschmeyer.
Despite the loss of Shurna, one of the top players in the Big Ten over the past couple of years and the program's all-time leading scorer, Northwestern does have some good, young talent in place going forward. Sobolewski put together an impressive freshman year at point guard last season and will get great support and depth from Sina at the position in 2013-2014. Talented Tre Demps, a shooting guard from San Antonio, will be a redshirt freshman this year, while 6-4 junior Jershon Cobb out of Atlanta is poised for a breakthrough season after being a highly-regarded prospect coming in.
There is a nice mix of veteran juniors and seniors in Crawford, Cobb, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio to go with a group of developing young players. The Class of 2012 is a four-man group with size -- the class includes 7-2 Chier Ajou and 7-0 Alex Olah -- and another top 150 talent in 6-7 wing Kale Abrahamson out of West Des Moines, Iowa.
With Sina in the fold, Northwestern will continue to pound the Class of 2013, with two Illinois prospects front and center: Proviso East's Sterling Brown, De La Salle's Alvin Ellis and Pekin's Nate Taphorn.
So where does all this leave Northwestern basketball? The program is consistently competitive. Remember, the program had a total of three post-season appearances in 100 years of playing basketball at the school prior to Carmody. Now the Wildcats have earned four straight NIT bids. More dramatically, the Wildcats have won 17-plus games for four straight years, including a pair of 20-win seasons. Prior to Carmody's arrival? The program had won more than 15 games in a season just twice -- 18 wins in 1983 and 16 wins in 1931. Carmody has won 16-plus games five different times. In addition, the recruiting is at a level never seen before in the program's history.
But the elephant in the room remains: the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern basketball has yet to play in one. Whether fair or not, that tournament appearance is all that is lacking from Carmody's Northwestern résumé. In this day of win-now and at all costs, patience is lost. But this much is true: Northwestern fans patiently waited 100 years to become competitive. And Bill Carmody is the one to thank for making them competitive.
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