Part III: Where in the world is Collins?

Final reflections on Northwestern hoops recruiting from the July evaluation period...

Tell me about Gavin Skelly, you say. He's unranked, flew wildly under the radar and held no other high-major offers.

Call me hyperbolic. Really, I dare you.

Chris Collins did not view Skelly as some easily bankable commitment. That is the antithesis of his approach.

People believe in Collins not because of his pedigree, but because of his confidence. The new head coach thinks he can land anyone.

Collins will fight for Tyler Ulis–regardless of my perceived Michigan State lean–until the very end of his recruitment. He also watched several power forward prospects for the spot that went to Skelly on Monday.

Many of them had multiple major-conference offers, higher profiles and star rankings. As someone who watched their games, I can confirm that they left fractions of Skelly's impact.

I believe that Collins pushed Skelly into an immediate commitment because he knew it would work. Skelly was your standard heart-on-sleeve recruit, telling me in our initial interview that he "loved" his Northwestern visit five or six times. It was obvious to me (and therefore to Collins) that Skelly would commit to NU without pause, barring some major change.

(This is why I was "blown away by the recruiting work" from NU. Collins found his ideal player and closed.)

I also believe that Collins would have pursued whichever "stretch four" candidate he wanted to land. Skelly happened to be the choice over several three-star players (somewhere, Fitz smiles) because he was simply better during July evaluations. That was apparent.

Many questioned my enthusiastic response to this commitment. Those who did have almost certainly seen Skelly a combined zero (0) times and measure their response based on film, which a combined zero (0) coaches and evaluators sincerely care about.

Why I like Gavin Skelly

He's polished. If anything, my major question surrounding Skelly was whether he seemed overly "traditional" for the NU stretch-four model. He shows better touch around the rim than anyone on the current roster—something not demonstrated by his dunk-heavy highlight reels.

At his very best, Skelly could be a matchup nightmare for opponents. He's especially athletic for his size and can even make select plays off the dribble. He's also an above-average defender in terms of fundamentals, which is one characteristic of under-recruited players. They do things the "correct way," with Skelly no exception.

Here's something else to consider. Collins will recruit an entirely new roster of about 12 solid players during the next four years. Only five end up starting. In the rebuild process, he needs guys to fill certain roles. Skelly may never average double-digit scoring totals, but those ideal rosters comprise ideal bench players and emotional leaders. That's what I see from Skelly.

(He will also provide many of the best interviews in NU basketball history. I like that aspect.)


Our final edition of "Where in the World is Chris Collins?" focuses on the highlights and takeaways from this July evaluation period, an undoubtedly successful one as the Northwestern coaching staff laid the foundations for future wins.

Here are some more facts and thoughts, beginning with actually answering the column's question. Today, that has one meaningful answer.

The Central Focus

Chris Collins watched every Bryant McIntosh game this past weekend—an obvious and striking sign of commitment to the 3-star Greensburg (Ind.) point guard.

There was one question to ask when I last spoke with McIntosh: Does Collins see himself in your game?

The answer: "Kind of." They have similar competitive fire (yes, please) and would be comfortable in any leadership situation. They formed an especially strong relationship in recent weeks, one founded on humor and common goals.

We'll have another full story on McIntosh tomorrow, but in short: Collins and the coaching staff are doing an excellent job in his recruitment. NU called his sister on her birthday. Armon Gates spoke with his grandmother.

In his first year as head coach, Collins clearly understands the nuances of recruiting. That led to quick program-defining commitments and impactful moves on top recruits.

McIntosh would fit this team perfectly as a four-year starter. He surprises people with his athletic ability–rising for an alley-oop slam two weekends ago–and does more than provide his team with a "knock-down shooter" presence.

What's most striking about McIntosh, though, seems to be his contagious intensity. If McIntosh lands at NU—still a big "if"–I envision pretty tremendous things happening. He blends the leadership skills and confidence of Dave Sobolewski with a well-rounded game and his trademark deceptive athleticism.

McIntosh is another person–and he admitted this to me–where film completely misses the mark. This is a recurring theme, one which you should keep in mind: Film sucks.

Trust the people who watch the games. McIntosh picked up offers from Florida State, Missouri, Iowa, Memphis, West Virginia and many more because they–like me–think he's a really special centerpiece for some team.

As for the rest of the class?

I expect them to take one point guard for the class of 2014. They would, however, accept commitments from McIntosh and Ulis before running down Sheridan Road to celebrate.

They need one floor general now, and badly. I think they'll get only one unless the aforementioned situation miraculously falls into place.

Another important note: They're already well into the evaluation process for 2015 point guard candidates which include Jordan Ash, Austin Conway and Jimmy Whitt—the latter a part of the Missouri pipeline that Patrick Baldwin is so familiar with.

It seems more reasonable to pursue other needs, namely another power forward.

Doesn't that seem weird?

From my viewpoint, Collins conducted separate power forward searches. The first centered on "The Search for Ryan Kelly." One reader cleverly went back on Twitter and hit the ‘favorite' button for that recent column after Skelly committed. He was correct. Skelly is their Kelly.

With the right progression, Skelly should settle into that "stretch four" mold—also something that Collins is expert at identifying from his time at Duke. But, as someone who respects basketball and who watched NU get massacred on the glass, I realize they still need some dominant interior presence.

There are no similarities between, say, Zach Braxton and Gavin Skelly. The former stood out in front of Patrick Baldwin two weeks ago and earned serious offer consideration. He joins the expanding pool of "true" power forwards, along with Tory Miller—my deep sleeper addition to this recruiting class.

When Nikola Cerina graduates, there are really no power forward options. Kale? Sanjay? That roster, in my opinion, would be rejuvenated with the presence of two four-men. Skelly was one. They need another right away.

This team–devoid of any significant depth–can keep every option in play for the "best available" spot. They should have their third verbal locked up by September or October, but that last one might remain unfilled going into the winter. (One last sweetened attempt at Josh Cunningham, perhaps?)

Collins is in control. There's no hurry.

Three pointers

Old Cats' Advocate

Would the former coaching staff have landed Vic Law? Absolutely not. But I might understand their reluctance to crown Chris Collins.

That group probably thinks it had Jersey boys Jaren Sina and Wade Baldwin locked up for four years–a formidable backcourt without question. The current staff probably entered Baldwin's recruitment a couple of weeks too late (Vanderbilt seems like the frontrunner) but you're forced to sacrifice certain priorities during transition periods.

I'm the first to praise Chris Collins having seen and documented his ability to recruit elite players and convince them of Northwestern's promise. The old staff simply has an argument that they were one or two pieces away from serious tournament contention.

Some Predictions

First tournament appearance: 2015-16
First time some school tries to poach Armon Gates: 2015-16
Games until Skelly becomes a fan favorite: Four
Third commitment month: August
Fourth commitment month: October

Also, here are my 10 most important 2015 prospect names, because it's really never too soon:

A.J. Turner
Aaron Jordan
Austin Conway
Chris Egi
Cody Schwartz
Edward Morrow
Evan Boudreaux
Jimmy Whitt
Jordan Ash
Joseph Toye

As for 2014's final two commit predictions, I'll keep those to myself—for now.

Flawless assistant moves

Armon Gates arrived in Evanston and quickly helped to land Vic Law. The first commit credited the entire coaching staff–including Gates–for making him feel at ease with the direction of NU. Gates is an ace recruiter and someone perfectly capable of replacing Tavaras Hardy.

Then, Baldwin made one his first tangible impacts by leading Skelly's recruitment. He brought Skelly and his father campus in late June and sold the high-upside power forward on NU. Then, this entire coaching staff felt as though Skelly did enough to earn the offer. Good recruiting, again, hinges on the quiet decisions and thorough foundations. They're doing it right.

Meanwhile, Brian James began to introduce himself to some promising recruits. He called Evan Boudreaux and attended his games; I also don't doubt that James studied Skelly's game two weeks ago in Orlando. He may not work as much on the recruiting side, but his scouting background–from all accounts–makes him the perfect addition.


So here it is. We're through July.

Our first impressions of Chris Collins will arrive well before his sideline debut. These impressions paint this picture of a new head coach poised and unfazed by his new surroundings.

Vic Law, Gavin Skelly and two others should join this first recruiting class—the group most crucial in defining the success of any brand new head coach.

I'd estimate that this staff watched between 300 and 400 AAU games in the month of July. Just like everyone else. You often see that programs thrive when there is clear vision from the outset. Collins holds this unwavering expectation for what NU should be. If results from the first important month of the Collins Era are any indication of his overall success at NU, get excited quickly.

But winning requires the process. That is why we follow basketball through July.

Quietly and quickly, everything assembles. When you're Chris Collins, it always seems to turn out just fine.

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