With top recruit Vic Law, Northwestern looks to get back in the game
PHILADELPHIA -- To start, a few words about a recruiting class you either don't remember or paid no attention to in the first place:
When Princeton-offense guru Bill Carmody jumped from the Ivy League to Northwestern in September 2000, the timing was less than ideal. Previous head coach Kevin O'Neill bottomed out the Wildcats in 1999-00, going 0-16 in the Big Ten, and then waited until the fall to bail for an assistant gig with the New York Knicks. College jobs typically change hands in March or April, and the new hire lays the foundation for his first full recruiting class during that spring and summer. Carmody didn't have that opportunity, nor was he a recruiting dynamo, and thus his class of 2001 consisted of three anonymous imports. There was Thomas Soltau, a Danish center played 28 minutes over 12 games before deciding to return home. And there were two teammates from a club in Split, Croatia: Davor Duvancic, a forward who would top out at 6.5-point and 4.4-rebound averages as a senior; and Vedran Vukusic, the one great find, who went on to average 19.0 points as a senior.
Recruiting got a little easier for Carmody over his next 12 classes, but he started without momentum, never made a major breakthrough into the Chicago talent market, and never brought an end to Northwestern's NCAA tournament permadrought. The best players recruited by Carmody and his staff -- Vukusic, John Shurna and Juice Thompson -- were all plucked out of semi- or total obscurity.
With that in mind, consider the state of things at the 2013 Reebok Classic Breakout, a recruiting showcase at Philadelphia University:
On July 11, one of the event's featured showdowns was Scout.com's No. 30 recruit in the class of 2014, 6-foot-8 Devin Robinson of Christchurch, Va., going head-to-head with the No. 70 prospect, 6-7 Vic Law of South Holland, Ill. (It was a 5-on-5 setting, but there was no illusion that team-ball mattered; the Breakout's media packet devoted four pages to listing the big individual matchups, and the weekend ended with an All-Star Game, not a championship game.) Law, an athletic wing with a smooth three-point shot, scored 20 points while holding Robinson to two, and talked beaucoup smack in Robinson's ear during the process. Law was the best player on the floor, but he was no longer auditioning for colleges: At 1 p.m. on the 4th of July, Law had called up new Northwestern coach Chris Collins, put him on speakerphone with the assembled Law family, and committed to play for the Wildcats.
One four-star commitment can't change a program, and there are higher-impact players than Law in the class of 2014, but in terms of need and momentum, his pledge will go down as one of the biggest of the summer. Collins was used to pulling in elite players as a Duke assistant, but Northwestern? Zero-NCAA-bids-ever Northwestern? Its last top-75 recruit was center Evan Eschmeyer -- in 1993. Three months into Collins' tenure at NU, he ended that 20-year drought by selling the promise of a turnaround. "He just needed one person to believe in him," Law said. "And I believe. I know we're going to win."
Collins is now focused on wooing class of 2014 point guards -- four-star Tyler Ulis and three-star Bryant McIntosh and Marcus Bartley are the main targets -- but after taking the job in March, the coach's first move was to attend an open gym at Law's Chicago high school, St. Rita, and re-extend a Northwestern scholarship offer. The Carmody regime had been recruiting Law; it just hadn't been going well. "Vic was leaning heavily toward VCU," said his father, Victor Law Sr. "We loved Shaka Smart and loved VCU."
Law took official visits to VCU, Stanford, Georgia Tech and Harvard; with his 3.8 GPA and strong test scores, he could qualify anywhere. He had unofficially visited Northwestern as a sophomore. NU was the first choice of his mother, Bridget Anthony, who loved its academics. Law liked the school as well as its proximity to home and Loyola, where his sister, Simone, stars for the women's team. "But the basketball aspect of Northwestern never appealed to me," he said.
Why? It wasn't so much the Princeton offense. Law Sr. can explain; he recently retired from the Chicago Police Department after 27 years, part of that time spent as a homicide detective on the city's troubled South Side, and is not one to mince words. "When we went up there to visit [sophomore year]," Law Sr. said, "Carmody came across as arrogant -- like that the university would sell itself, and either you want to come here or you don't. And I'm saying to myself, 'You haven't won anything!' You had a sour taste in your mouth when you left, and to be honest with you, had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern. Not ever. That's how bad it was for us."
The fact that Carmody's Wildcats slow-played their offer to Law -- initially telling St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare, according to Law Sr., that they had higher-priority targets for 2014 -- further soured the situation.
The unofficial visit Collins hosted on June 23 went a bit better. Collins told Law he could be "the guy" to kick-start NU's rise, and showed him tape of how Duke used Gerald Henderson as an explosive wing who could shoot, slash and finish at the rim, as well as lead fast breaks after pulling down rebounds. Collins said he wanted to showcase Law in a similar role, adapting the offense around him in ways that Duke did with its best athletes. Law and his father left the visit liking Collins, and Anthony already loved the school, so VCU and Northwestern became choices 1 and 1A.
As the 4th of July approached, the decision came down to this: "Shaka really wanted Vic at VCU, but we didn't think he needed him, because he already had so many pieces there," Law Sr. said. "We felt Northwestern and Chris Collins wanted him and needed him. That's a big difference. That was the clincher for us."
Collins is hoping that this is the first in a wave of local recruits -- "I'd love to be able to build this program with Chicago talent," he said -- who take a longer look at Northwestern than he did as a McDonald's All-American at Glenbrook North (Ill.) High School in 1992. His old coach there, Brian James, said that the Wildcats called once about recruiting Collins. "They said, 'Can we get involved?' I said, 'Yeah, you can get involved, but here's the list of schools that have offered already.' They said, 'OK, thanks.'"
Collins' final five were Duke, Florida, Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina. Northwestern, then a perennial Big Ten doormat under coach Bill Foster, knew it had no shot.
James was the first person Collins added to his staff at Northwestern this spring. And so after spending 14 years as an NBA assistant, many of them under Collins' father, Doug, James was at the Reebok Classic Breakout last week, wearing a white Northwestern polo shirt and watching Law put 20 points on Robinson. After that game, Law had lunch with Robinson in the players' cafeteria, and tried to sell the No. 30-ranked recruit on coming to Evanston. There were no hard feelings about Law's trash-talk -- the two were roommates in Italy while playing on an exhibition team at the 2013 Adidas Eurocamp, and remain friends -- but the pitch still needed some work.
"He's trying to recruit me," Robinson said later, "but ... I don't know about that."
Robinson has Indiana, UConn, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and others coming after him hard. Duke has even started to call. He's not expected to look at Northwestern, but he at least dismissed it without acting as if it were preposterous. Chris Collins got Vic Law, and Vic Law is getting Northwestern in the recruiting conversation. That, in itself, is progress.