By Loch Mich Monster
"Woe is me" — Every Northwestern fan ever (every Cubs fan ever too for that matter). Sorry Hamlet, but we have it worse.
Except for once, “woe” became “woah.” Colter, Mark, Campbell, and Scott were the instigators of that change. Hell, Venric was even an All-American and will be immortalized on Ryan Field. Others like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Matt Alviti tempt us to believe that such a transition is permanent for our football team.
When will that revolution occur across Wildcat Way in Welsh Ryan Arena? Will it ever happen? John and Juice got us tantalizingly close to the NCAA Tournament, but will we ever get to lay our hands on that holy grail?
Here’s why it might take awhile, if at all.
We are all aware of Northwestern’s athletic prestige and how that limits us in recruiting. We’re even more aware of our academic requirements, and how much more that limits us in recruiting. Yet somehow, our football team has managed to grab a couple of first tier players, while mixing in a good blend of athletic second and third tier talent. Yet, in basketball, we’ve only been getting third tier and fourth tier guys. Sina provides hope as he is a second tier guy, but we struggle to compete for the top two flights of recruits in basketball.
Now basketball should have an inherit advantage over football. How you may ask? Chicago is the high school basketball capital of the world currently. While it produces its fair share of football players, Chicago is not a football city for high school athletes. Thus you’d at least expect us to be competing for some of the best basketball talent in the world simply because they have a chance to stay close to their families and friends. Yet, we have been unable to tap Chicago’s immense basketball prowess. We aren’t even in the conversations for the best local talent (I mean Jabari Parker was considering DePaul and not us). I realize that there are significant reasons for this both inside and outside of our control. I don’t have the insight to offer a fair analysis of our basketball coaches’ recruiting efforts (and I’m 1000% sure they are doing what they think is best), but I would like to look at the external factors as to why our football team is able to be more successful at recruiting than our basketball team.
In my opinion, this is the single biggest reason why we have success in football recruiting, but not in basketball recruiting. All high school student athletes are not equal as students. Consider the yearly schedule of a high school football player. He has summer workouts and practices before the season. He practices everyday during season, but plays games only don weekends (and thus only has to travel on weekends). He is mostly removed from football in the winter, and is back to light practice and workouts in the spring. How is this relevant to his academic success? The high school football player has less distractions from his studies during the school year. The hardest practices are done before school starts, and traveling to games does not have an impact on studying. Another key is having winter off. Winter provides some prime study months as individuals are more like to stay inside and work than to go outside and play. Then, football players have to consider how easy it is for injuries to end their careers, no matter how much potential they have to be an NFL player. This potentially leads them to recognize the importance of a good degree.
Now compare that to the high school basketball player, who has the most rigorous practices in the fall followed by a season that often lasts into March and April. Compound that with the fact that basketball players play more games, including midweek games (plus traveling), and you begin to realize how difficult it is to be a high school basketball player while being a high school student. And when the odd braniac basketball player comes around, Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, and UCLA are all very hard to resist in comparison to Northwestern (which isn’t so much an issue in football where Northwestern is one of the better academic football teams).
Thus, it’s more likely for upper tier football players to have achieved Northwestern’s strict academic requirements.
This section is not about the number of talented players or the ease with which they can be recruited across the two sports. It is about how much larger the impact a talented basketball player can make on a team than a talented football player can. The importance of recruiting talent is that much greater for basketball than it is for football. When our basketball team is recruiting mostly 3rd and 4th tier players, we will never have great success. This section is not meant to be a dig at are current team (who have performed admirably), but you need only look as far as Trey Burke (who I realize was not that highly touted out of high school) to see how a talented player makes a world of difference for a team’s fortunes in basketball (this is true in the NBA too). In football, although we’ve been able to attract more talented players, we’ve mostly been able to be successful because superstars are a luxury, as opposed to a necessity, to compete with the best teams.
Competition for basketball recruits is infinitely greater than it is for football recruits. Not only is there a smaller pool of players, but there are even more schools that have the ability to entice top talent. In basketball, the mid major conference tag is not a deal breaker for top recruits like it is in football. Butler, San Diego State, Gonzaga, and others have all had tremendous success on a national level, showing basketball recruits that they can achieve their ambitions outside of the major conferences. And although mid majors often miss out on the top tier of basketball recruits, they are still able to get a lot of second and third tier talent with which to build their squads. In football, the best players want to go to the best conferences. The main reason for that (aside from facing better competition) is the national recognition that comes from bigger conferences (both through larger national audiences as well as a greater NFL scouting presence). Basketball players at mid majors still receive a decent amount of recognition throughout the season, but are placed at the same level as major conference players come NCAA tournament time.
When Northwestern has to compete with other major conference schools for basketball recruits, as well as good mid major programs, they will lose those recruits. Football does not face as much competition
I put this lower because I’m not really sure how much recruits really emphasize past success. Simply put, Northwestern football has won B1G championships and gone to a lot of bowl games in the last 20 years (and have finally won one!). Northwestern basketball has made the NIT a couple of times, but hasn’t even progressed deep into that tournament.
When recruits are deciding between schools, they can lean on tangible results from the football program, but only ambitions from the basketball team.
In conclusion it is easier for us to recruit more talented football players because of academics, competition, and success, but it is also easier to win with less talent in football. If our basketball team wants to achieve the same success as our football team, they have to somehow figure out a way to recruit better talent.
I put a lot of thought into this and would love to hear back from people as to why they think we are more competitive in football than in basketball (or if that’s just a figment of my imagination all together).