On Saturday, the Northwestern basketball team rallied together for an unlikely event.
They sat on the east rafters at Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch Henry Ellenson–one of the most high-profile targets in NU hoops history.
Ellenson did well, of course. The 5-star (you read it right) power forward from Rice Lake, Wis., played with his high school team at the weekend NU camp. No one on the floor, or probably in those rafters, could match him.
At least nine players—and even 2015 commit Jordan Ash—watched the entire thing silently. To beat the best, you need to go the extra mile.
Ellenson had visited NU in February for the game against Nebraska. He watched NU blow its short winning streak and slide back into below average play. That happens. Any prospect, even a Vic Law or a Bryant McIntosh, can watch that and come up with some line about helping the program. Yes, as Ellenson said to me after, "You have a chance to leave a legacy [at Northwestern]."
But the pitch isn't just apologetic. There are more than zero reasons in favor of joining this NU program. Chris Collins built a team that should have enough talent to scratch the 2015-16 NCAA Tournament.
That pitch got better this weekend. Any school could put on a glitzy unofficial. Anyone else could roll out the banners and show off the facilities. Everything runs according to schedule and it's hard to distinguish between visits.
On Saturday, there was nothing contrived. Ellenson saw a team that valued him—and their future—enough to watch him play in a meaningless team camp before meeting him. Even the No. 15 player in the nation would notice that.
The players must be exhausted, and most probably worked out before the game. The freshmen arrived on campus less than a week ago. Jershon Cobb will be gone when Ellenson moves into college, but he was there.
The entire team sent the message that it's invested in the future, and that an Ellenson would change everything. Does North Carolina do that? Does Duke do that? I highly doubt it.
I should add, though, that none of this is to suggest Ellenson will choose Northwestern. The odds are around 40- or 50-to-1. That's not the point.
Ellenson told me his list included MSU, Wisconsin, Marquette, Duke, Michigan, UNC, UCLA… and… Northwestern. Collins arrived in Evanston wanting to be on that sort of list. Any time an elite prospect like Ellenson will mention "Northwestern" next to top teams, it marks another "step forward." Some think that sounds kind of preachy and stupid. So when kids start going to All-American camps and name-drop "Northwestern," do you expect that to hurt?
Chris Collins has cemented the culture of recruiting in less than a year and a half. He's grabbed seven commits and a transfer. He would have added another transfer, in my opinion, if not for the crap facilities in place.
Collins and his brilliant assistant staff also understand the value of increasing goals.
Last year, he stole quieter prospects like Gavin Skelly and Scott Lindsey. This year, he's after top-200 prospects like Ellenson, Aaron Falzon, Kipper Nichols and Juwan Morgan. He was able to watch key 2016 target Nick Robinson on Saturday, and, from what I've heard, built a better team camp than the previous regime.
That ambition trickles down to the current team, on which most of the players would admit they're not Tournament ready. They can slowly improve, finally bring in centers (Dererk Pardon) and then work from there. The group watched Ellenson as part of a program that realized it's worth trying.
Northwestern is not ready for a five-star player. But no one wants to play for a team that won't try. On Saturday, Henry Ellenson became part of the culture building in Evanston.
And it's certainly worth watching.