The improved Northwestern basketball program is the equivalent of watching that 6-year-old boy who wobbles, falls, gets up and shakes and wobbles again as he learns to ride that bicycle without any training wheels. He's going to get it sooner or later.
That's how close Northwestern basketball is in many aspects, whether talking a NCAA Tournament appearance, climbing the hierarchy of the Big Ten or landing the local, difference-making signature recruit.
Say what you will about NU hoops, but this much is proven: Northwestern basketball, under coach Bill Carmody, is the most competitive and successful it's been in the history of the program. Just compare the win totals over the past 10 years to any other decade in the program's history. Pick a decade, any decade, and it's not even close.
Northwestern has won 17-plus games in each of the past three seasons, including back-to-back 20-win seasons. And while it's fallen short of the elusive NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats have gone to four straight NITs, reaching the quarterfinals a year ago.
Now, about that marquee local recruit?
Enter Sterling Brown, the uncommitted Proviso East star.
Northwestern has done a terrific job of bringing in ideal, out-of-state fits, while also providing opportunities for local recruits to shine at the high-major level -- i.e. Juice Thompson of Lincoln Park, Drew Crawford of Naperville Central and John Shurna of Glenbard West to name a few. After a stellar career in Evanston, Thompson is playing professionally in France. Shurna is with the New York Knicks after putting together a better college career than any Illinois prospect in the Class of 2008. And Crawford is poised for a big senior year this season.
But NU is still trying to land that hot local name that, whether fair or unfair, automatically brings instant credibility in the Chicago hoops world. You know, one of those, "Hey, if HE'S willing to make that leap of faith, why not join him?" type of recruits.
Northwestern isn't known to be a wild chaser, going after endless lists of recruits or the unattainable. Carmody and his staff are extremely particular about who the Wildcats recruit and really pursue. Sure, some of it has to do with the high academic requirements, but the NU staff does a good job of identifying. They don't waste a whole lot of time -- out of state or in-state.
But make no mistake about it, Sterling Brown is one of those recruits Northwestern has zeroed in on. He's a priority. And why not? He's a top talent--the Hoops Report's No. 4 prospect in the Class of 2013--a local kid who led his team to a 32-1 record as a junior, and fits the Northwestern academic profile.
What can Brown do for NU? For starters, he would be the biggest local recruit Northwestern has ever signed. He would open eyes and potential recruiting doors for others. Most importantly, he makes Northwestern instantly better as a versatile perimeter threat with size and upside. He would join a Northwestern backcourt and recruiting class that will include a top 100 point guard in Jaren Sina out of New Jersey.
While Brown can do a whole lot for Northwestern basketball, it's a two-way street of opportunity that, really, few ever get the chance to take advantage of when seeking a world class education, high-major basketball and the potential to do something out of the ordinary.
Anyone trying to figure out the direction of the Brown recruitment over the past year, the last three months or even the last couple of weeks, comes to a roadblock when trying to forecast just where he may end up. Brown -- and those close to him -- have hardly let out a hint. The continued phrase throughout has been, "He's wide open." But now it's starting to come together.
Head coach Bill Carmody and associate head coach Tavaras Hardy keep grinding as Northwestern remains an option in trying to sell and clearly show what IT can do for Brown.
Imagine Brown, the local prep star, the kid from Maywood, making a major Chicago news splash by staying local and signing with Northwestern? Imagine Brown helping lead Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament berth? The attention and media blitz, locally and nationally, surrounding Northwestern's first-ever trip to the NCAAs--and Brown's decision to help them do it--would resonate. The feel-good stories would be endless.
Many in the media, with a strong high-profile contingent of Northwestern alums (ESPN's Michael Wilbon, Brent Musburger and Mike Greenberg to name three of many) are aching to talk about THIS BASKETBALL STORY. You can hear Wilbon now spouting about Brown and the Wildcats on "P.T.I." if Northwestern made the tournament.
Then there is that little thing college provides: an education. In this case, a free $62,000 a year world-recognized education located in a major metropolitan area and in the back yard of where you grew up.
The opportunity to play in the Big Ten, the potential to make basketball history, to be remembered as the guy that helped change the culture AND secure a Northwestern degree? Those are legit selling points.
Brown had scheduled visits to four schools officially: Miami, Memphis, Missouri and SMU. With commitments from four perimeter players, including a trio of 2-guards/wings, the road to Memphis appears to be blocked for Brown. Missouri is no longer an option, according to Chris Brown, Sterling's father.
Visits are set for Miami and SMU, where he has moved up his original visit to this weekend with a trip to Miami the following weekend. Minnesota, which received a commitment from De La Salle's Alvin Ellis last month, remains involved. And locally, Chris Brown has said any school within driving distance "won't likely get an official" visit but remains in the hunt. Thus, both Northwestern and DePaul, which is another local option for Brown, hope to secure a visit before the November signing period.
Who knows where Brown's recruitment will turn, what path he will choose and just where Northwestern sits heading into the stretch run. Miami is the cool, hip city with a basketball program that plays in the mighty ACC. SMU has connections through legendary head coach Larry Brown (who coached Sterling's brother Shannon Brown in Charlotte) and SMU Director of Player Development, Eric Snow (also with ties to Shannon Brown through Michigan State).
As Brown decides, the Northwestern coaching staff and fans hope Brown considers the old proverbial quote, "A well beaten path does not always make the right road."
By choosing a different path, his own path, the younger brother of an NBA player would certainly help Northwestern kick off those training wheels.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport