EVANSTON, Ill. -- "Why did you commit there?"
It’s the basic question all recruits are asked after announcing their decision.
Was it the program’s success or the potential of it? Was it about playing time? The coach? The facilities? Academics? Was it about staying close to home or getting far away from it?
For Northwestern men’s basketball recruits, the answers to some of those questions have varied over the years.
But forever, it’s mostly been about academics to future Wildcats, and that isn’t likely to change. Northwestern will always be known for its classrooms, first and foremost. But as the basketball program has taken steps forward, winning a school-record 20 games last season and earning back-to-back NIT bids while putting itself in NCAA tournament contention, more and more recruits are committing to coach Bill Carmody’s program because they also see guaranteed individual and team success on the court.
“I definitely think more people are recognizing that you can win here, which helps,” said Northwestern assistant coach Tavaras Hardy, the team’s premier recruiter. “Our product hasn’t changed – the prestigious academics, the lure of playing in the Big Ten, being so close to the city of Chicago. At the end of the day, kids want to go somewhere they can win. With the groups we’ve had the last couple years, we’ve shown you can win and still have those great things.
“I think the big thing going for us now is we’re right on the cusp of something big time, a national story.”
The prospect of winning was vital to Drew Crawford when he was looking at potential destinations coming out of Naperville Central High School. Northwestern was on his radar because it was close to home and had great academics, but he also sought a place where he could develop his skills and experience an NCAA tournament.
Crawford ultimately decided on Northwestern in 2008 because he saw where the program was headed with Michael Thompson, Kevin Coble and John Shurna already in place. He chose the Wildcats over Oklahoma State and Wake Forest, two schools who normally trump Northwestern for a Crawford-like player.
“People are looking at Northwestern as more of an elite program,” said Crawford, who averaged 10 points as a freshman last season. “That’s attracting recruits. Kids are seeing what we’re capable of doing each year, and they want to be a part of it. People are noticing that our team is getting better and better every year. That was a large part of it for me -- that the team was going to continue to get better and I could be a part of that first NCAA tournament team.”
Carmody likes to call four- and five-star prospects the “guys in the magazines.” Crawford, who averaged 24 points as a senior in high school, was one of them. Shurna, who averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds his senior year, would have been one if he had played on the club scene longer.
JerShon Cobb, Northwestern’s lone freshman this season, is the latest “magazine guy.” Cobb, a 6-5 guard, opted for the Wildcats over Alabama, Clemson and Florida, among others. He averaged 23.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists and was named the Metro Atlanta Boys Player of the Year as a high school senior at Columbia.
What makes Cobb an even more notable recruit is his origins. While Crawford and Shurna were recruiting steals for Northwestern, their families’ homes are only a short drive from Evanston. Cobb grew up in Georgia.
Cobb learned of Northwestern as a high school junior and was interested in what the Wildcats were creating as a program, but he was sold by Hardy’s recruitment. With Hardy being a former Northwestern player as well as a current assistant, Cobb felt he was getting a true pitch.
“I felt like I could trust him,” Cobb said. “That was big. I didn’t want to go anywhere I couldn’t talk to anybody on the staff. He was more upfront about everything. Everyone else wants to get you to their school, and he was honest with me. It helped a lot.”
To Hardy, it’s him speaking from his heart.
“The way I see this whole Northwestern thing is: I’m a son of this school,” Hardy said. “I’m a product of this school. I know what we have to offer. For me, it’s a natural thing to tell. I don’t feel like a salesman.”
On Wednesday, when the early signing period begins, Northwestern expects to add three more players to the fold. Tre Demps, who is out of Texas, and Benet’s David Sobolewski are thought to be players who can step in immediately and fill the Wildcats’ need for a point guard when Thompson graduates after this season. Their third recruit, 6-7 forward Michael Turner, is seen as having a large upside with his athleticism and size and could be a factor later in his career.
“I think one of the reasons the team is on the rise is because they’ve begun to upgrade their talent,” ESPN Recruiting’s Reggie Rankin said. “I think they are getting more players who are ready to contribute as freshmen. I think they’ve done a great job in doing that. It seems they’ve also made extending their territory an emphasis. They’re not only attracting kids locally and in the state, but throughout the country.”
So, the basic question was posed to Demps, the highest-rated recruit in Northwestern’s Class of 2011. "Why Northwestern?"
“I just felt like academically it fit me perfectly as far me wanting to go into journalism after basketball,” Demps said. “Also, it was a situation where I could have a great opportunity to contribute right away and have the ball in my hands my whole career. I feel the program is coming up with Shurna and Crawford. I feel like we can make a push. That was a key in my decision. I don’t think I could find a better place in the country for me.”
That about covers all the reasons, and that’s good news for Northwestern.