The Search for Ryan Kelly

The Search For Ryan Kelly: With the stretch four concept, Chris Collins is creating his new team from an old blueprint.

Everyone holds tightly to his or her vision for Northwestern basketball. Mine includes two simple components, listed in order of importance. In my ideal world, everyone cares about the obscurities of basketball recruiting and Chris Collins signs a real power forward.

The latter might never happen.

See, my power forward would be ranked 90 overall in some now-defunct video game. He'd be 6'10 with excellent ratings on defense and, well, defensive rebounding.

Last year, opponents outrebounded Northwestern by an average margin of 6.8. On Feb. 28, 2012, Jared Sullinger outrebounded the entire team by himself. The statistics are almost identically bad these past two seasons. This led to my simple wish.

Alex Olah, Romanian celebrity, seems like the long-term solution at center. The team–stuck with several areas of need–cannot adjust to recruit centers with Olah and Ajou already signed. But the power forward situation, for the time being, looks beyond repair.

Next year's frontcourt may include Olah and some combination of small forwards who aren't suited to play anywhere but the three-point line. My natural assumption, then, was that Collins might immediately recruit something along the lines of my hypothetical power forward. The longstanding NU blog Lake The Posts agrees, saying: "Can't think of the last time we had a true standout at the 4-spot."

So I arrived in Indianapolis, wide-eyed, to watch three or four Northwestern power forward targets. (Of course, you never know anything about players until seeing them in person.) I scrawled down some illegible notes–written that way because parents peer over shoulders–about my impressions.

For each player, they read similarly: Can run variety of offensive sets, comfortable in transition, decent perimeter game. And finally: Is he a stretch four or what? That dream vision of mine had faded in five minutes.

In interviews, these players explained what I already realized. Gavin Skelly, one rising Ohio "power forward," talked about the importance of versatility and of spreading the defense. And regardless of some distinctive qualities, the other targets said similar things.

As my mind finally fleshed out the obvious, I turned to Skelly: "They see you as the Ryan Kelly-type, right?"

Yeah, he said, like Ryan Kelly.

Chris Collins, more so than anyone, holds tightly to his own vision of Northwestern basketball. He's making his new team from an old blueprint, and it's all starting to make sense.

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Earlier this year, Bret Strelow of the Fayetteville Observer (N.C.) posted an intriguing and now relevant feature about Duke's advent of the stretch four.

"That's been one of the silent factors to the success of our program," Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski told Strelow. "We have had big guys who are really good, but our ‘4' men have been tall, skilled basketball players. It's one of those hidden gems of what we've done."

Ryan Kelly defined everything that people have grown to value about the position—especially in his one lasting image. After returning from a foot injury in March, Kelly knocked down seven three-pointers to almost singlehandedly beat then-No. 5 Miami. He always brought that elusive "versatility," the exact trait these recruits invoke.

To my surprise, Duke subsisted with smaller lineups and survived in the rebounding department. In 2007-08, with Kyle Singler the basic stretch four, they compensated with a series of athletic guards–including Gerald Henderson–who contributed on the glass. NU had John Shurna, almost your prototypical stretch four, but suffered from horrendous center play and minimal defense. That's a much longer story, but also an important point: NU can figure out other ways to rebound while adhering to the Coach K/Collins ideal.

So Collins lifted the stretch four concept, of course. He made it an immediate priority for NU on the trail. His efforts have been oddly minimalist, and constantly centered on three or four players. It's been chaotic in one way: That fight for stretch four offers has been equal parts vague and intense.

First, it's unlikely that Vic Law will play anything but small forward—barring some sort of strategic change. Josh Cunningham has been explicitly told by NU that he, too, was offered as a small forward. That leaves this intriguing bunch of players–about half of the current board–that falls into this stretch four mold.

Understanding this is essential to understanding Collins' goal: Find the next Ryan Kelly. Can he run the floor, make shots and play the Duke-style up-tempo vision? Those questions figure largely into the July evaluation periods, the notebook scribbling, and me wondering why no one hired this guy earlier.

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Several NU students and fans harbor an unnecessary dislike for Duke. (Full disclosure: I didn't get in.) As much as Coach K is respected, it was always easy to take joy in videos of Josh McRoberts whining and that blip when Duke kept choking in the NCAA Tournament.

NU is worlds away from that sort of reputation and success. It's also a dangerous job for any first-time head coach, given the academic requirements (I can guarantee these are still a problem) and the dumpster fire Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Collins, though, managed to perfectly apply his Duke background in his early days at NU. He's preparing to put similar mixes of five players on the floor. It's so trite and sentimental, but that's something. It can happen any way, beginning with the first recruits and carrying over to an institution. We cannot separate Collins' background from his current work; there has never really been a disconnect.

Collins identified physical point guard Bryant McIntosh—now one of his top priorities. He picked up an athletic wing in the form of Law. Now, the question mark: Which stretch four helps to cement that overall vision?

It all, I guess, expands beyond the simple discussion of one need. It represents a coach fully in control of his ability, understanding how to succeed in this job. He'll work to his own coaching strengths and express this unbridled belief in the program.

Here, he's established the broad base with Skelly (Ohio), Makinde London (Tennessee), Matt Cimino (Massachusetts), Mack Mercer (Indiana) and Paul White (Illinois). Regardless of likelihood, recruiting involves embracing those 15 percent chances. The staff will undergo thorough evaluation of those fringe offers, hoping to find their guy.

I've seen three of the above five in person, and expected something different each time. Cimino stands 6'10, but showed off variations of pick-and-pop jumpers and had one put-back dunk. Skelly seems somewhat more traditional, until you take into account that he's outstanding at spreading the floor and operating alongside perimeter shooters. (Heck, he still might be too traditional.)

But in so many ways, the former sexiest term in basketball has become heavily stigmatized during recent years. There tend to be some obvious limitations, which former PW staffer Jeremy Woo articulates fairly well: "I'm sick of the frequent use of the term ‘stretch four.' Typically describes small forward who can't dribble or power forward who can't bang inside."

Everything snapped into perspective one night in Indianapolis.

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Belmont coach Rick Byrd was in Indianapolis last Thursday to watch Mack Mercer. Because of course. Belmont wins game by knocking down three-pointers—something Mercer is more than capable of doing. Maybe that was oversimplifying it, so I watched the NU target.

His Eric Gordon All-Stars team faced off against Compton Magic, which employed a 1-2-1-1 full court press that must terrify coaches. It's nearly impossible to evaluate players in bizarre situations that devolve into turnover-filled messes. Disorder, however, won the day: They could not stop the stretch four.

Mercer could help his team handle the ball. He stepped out to hit jumpers, and then stepped back in to finish near the rim. They even controlled the immensely talented Bryant McIntosh; his versatile teammate proved his worth.

I don't know how much long-term relevance one performance will have. NU might offer Mercer. They might not.

But that night, it hit me. I'm okay with a Ryan Kelly, and it's sure as hell okay to have a little more Duke.


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