Thursday, March 28, 2013
Recruiting will be key for Chris Collins
By Dave Telep
There are all kinds of college basketball coaching jobs, and each comes with its own set of intrinsic challenges. At UCLA, coaches have to operate in the shadow of John Wooden’s greatness. At Kentucky, it’s the nation’s most rabid fan base full of unrealistic expectations.
For Chris Collins at Northwestern, there’s only one way to go -- and that’s up.
The Northwestern Wildcats have never played in the NCAA tournament. They typically don’t sign top-100 recruits and haven’t put local kids on lockdown. Those elements are not up for debate, but they are among the priorities on the new coach’s to-do list.
Every good coach comes with a plan, a blueprint for success. Collins, who is currently coaching in the NCAA tournament as an assistant with Duke, will have his hands full this spring.
And it all starts with recruiting.
Once he steps onto campus for good, Collins’ first priority at Northwestern will be roster retention -- a form of internal recruiting. The veterans on the team have seen the program struggle. They need someone to lay out a plan and then need to be sold that Northwestern can achieve it. That’s where Collins comes in with a clean slate and plenty of energy.
Chris Collins once recruited Jon Scheyer to Duke. Collins' job at Northwestern will be to ensure the next Scheyer stays closer to home.
Once Collins settles down the internal issues that come with a coaching change, he’ll quickly turn externally to recruiting the high school ranks. Most people will assume regaining a commitment from senior point guard Jaren Sina (Lake Hopatcong, N.J./Gill St. Bernard’s), who received a release from his letter of intent when Northwestern fired Bill Carmody, is the key to the Wildcats’ 2013 class. Sina is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s from New Jersey, has plenty of options and might not be retainable.
I’ll submit that the most important 2013 recruit for Northwestern is shooter Nate Taphorn (Pekin, Ill./Pekin).
Taphorn is a veteran of the Illinois Wolves, a suburban AAU program outside Chicago that routinely produces one or two players per year who could help the Wildcats. Northwestern sophomore Dave Sobolewski played for the Wolves. So did former Northwestern great John Shurna.
Collins, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, is going to want to lock down the Wolves' program, which often produces the kind of high-level student and athlete the Wildcats will need to lessen the talent gulf between themselves and the rest of the Big Ten.
Collins likely won’t be banging heads with the likes of Duke and Kansas in Chicago, but if he can swing with Notre Dame, Stanford, Butler, Vanderbilt, Minnesota, Wisconsin and eventually the upper-tier Big Ten programs, he’ll know he’s in the right neighborhood.
There’s a blueprint out there that Collins is likely to steal ideas from. Ironically, it’s another former Duke assistant, Mike Brey, who’s crafted himself a program using similar ideals to what Collins may employ. Among the core values Collins will look for in a Northwestern recruit are skilled players, versatile, interchangeable pieces, high-IQ prospects and players with great character.
Frankly, Northwestern already recruits kids with a lot of those attributes. However, Northwestern’s recruits haven’t generally been cut from the same basketball fabric as their counterparts at academic institutions like Notre Dame or Vanderbilt. Northwestern needs better talent, and to do it, Collins will need to bump into Vanderbilt instead of Valpo on the recruiting trail.
The Chicago area has enough prospects who match those criteria for Collins to pull a player or two each season. Taking care of his backyard should be the priority. Getting those kids to see the Wildcats as a viable local option and not just a place where NCAA dreams extend to infinity is key. Collins should also reach into Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan for similar guys. The plan will be to start from within the region and branch out, never sacrificing core values for talent.
Plenty of talented Chicago-area players have left the Windy City for high academic institutions over the years. Jerome Randle, one of Cal’s best players of the past decade, went from Chicago to California. Current Stanford guard Chasson Randle sought out the Cardinal for the combination of academics and basketball. Under Collins, the goal will be to make sure that doesn’t happen. If his formula works, those guys stay home.
Chris Collins didn’t leave Duke for a dud. Nobody in his right mind would do that. The Northwestern job doesn’t have the clout of others in the Big Ten, and it sure doesn’t have the history. But that’s what’s exciting about Northwestern. Win there and you create history. Collins should know, since he grew up in the shadow of the program.
The kid from Northbrook, Ill., took his game to Duke 20 years ago. Now he’s returning to the Chicago area to recruit the same type of player he himself once was. In 2006, Collins recruited fellow Glenbrook North alum Jon Scheyer to Duke. Now it’s Collins’ job to make sure the next Scheyer stays home and plays for his Wildcats.
If he does, the program, the coach and the hopes and dreams of Northwestern will have come full circle.