By Kevin Sweeney
Despite being close to 200 days from the beginning of the 2019-20 college basketball season, it’s an incredibly busy time of year for the Northwestern men’s basketball coaching staff. Between recruiting future ‘Cats at live period events, scouring the transfer market, and finding an assistant coach to replace Billy Donlon, Chris Collins has a lot on his plate.
It appears that Collins has crossed one order of business of his checklist, as it was reported earlier in the week that current Northern Illinois associate head coach Jon Borovich would replace Donlon on Collins’ bench.
Still, Collins, Borovich, and the rest of the Wildcat coaching staff have to take on double duty over the next several weeks: look to fill out a roster that still has four scholarships open for the 2019-20 season while spending many weekends on the road evaluating players in the 2020 and 2021 classes at grassroots events across the country.
While Northwestern has already earned one commitment this month from a member of the 2020 recruiting class in guard Joe Bamisile, NU still has a lot of holes as the calendar inches toward May. Here’s how the current scholarship situation shakes out:
One thing that is clear from this chart is a lack of class balance. The result of having rising seniors Aaron Falzon and Barret Benson depart, as well as earlier transfers by Isaiah Brown and Rapolas Ivanauskas, is that Northwestern is slated to have just one senior in each of the next two seasons. That makes graduate transfers an even more intriguing option for Northwestern in this cycle, as not only would they provide immediate help on the team next season but they would also allow Northwestern to get the scholarship back for next season.
In the short term, Northwestern’s two biggest needs are experience at point guard and center.
It was made abundantly clear last season by the Wildcats’ offensive woes that neither AJ Turner nor Anthony Gaines can cut it running the show out of position, and while there’s still time for Ryan Greer to establish himself as a key cog, he didn’t show much in his freshman campaign. 3-star freshman Daniel Buie is coming off a strong year at Gould Academy in Maine and has a bright future, but relying on an under-recruited freshman to run the show seems like a dangerous strategy. A grad transfer point guard seems like the logical choice here, though the market is lacking.
Up front, Northwestern has plenty of talent but little proven production as they look to replace Dererk Pardon. Pete Nance has tons of upside, but he is still rail-thin and it seems unlikely that Northwestern will be able to rely on him to battle down low with the Big Ten’s best bigs on a nightly basis. Ryan Young is a much sturdier option in the paint and is coming off a redshirt year, but has athletic limitations. Jared Jones seems like a decent bet to earn significant minutes out of the gates as it stands right now, as the 6-9 forward has a game-ready body and comes battle-tested from spending his senior year of high school for perhaps the best team in the country at McEachern HS in Georgia. A grad transfer would solidify things here as well.
Looking down the road, Northwestern just needs to add talent. A sit-out transfer or two either getting a fresh start after departing a high-major program or a high-scoring mid-major player looking to try their hand at a higher level all increase the upside of future Wildcat teams. With so many open spots at this point in the offseason, it’s unlikely that all four spots would be used on immediately eligible players.
the names we know:
Jeff Goodman of Stadium recently published a top 100 transfers list that features two players who he lists are currently being recruited by Northwestern. Both are guards from mid-major schools who would have to sit one year before having three years of eligibility remaining. Javon Freeman-Liberty, a Chicago native who was recruited to Valparaiso by current Northwestern assistant Emanuel Dildy, took a visit to Evanston earlier this month. Goodman also lists Northwestern in connection with Chase Audige, a New York native who began his career at Wiliam & Mary before entering the transfer portal in the aftermath of long-time W&M head coach Tony Shaver being fired in March.
Freeman-Liberty has long been speculated a Northwestern target given his ties to the city of Chicago and to Dildy, but he did recently tweet “I’m Not Committed To A School….. I’m Wide Open,” and has also been connected to Baylor, Arkansas, Butler, and several other programs. Audige’s recruitment has been quieter, with no reported visits. Goodman reports that Nevada, Providence, Colorado State, Furman, Penn, Dartmouth, Wake Forest, Northwestern, Pittsburgh, as well as A-10 schools have been in contact.
Logical Grad Transfers to Consider:
Jayce Johnson (Utah)
I noted earlier that the Wildcats could use some size, and Johnson certainly provides that. The 7-footer was productive for the Utes this season, averaging over 7 points and 7 rebounds per game, before electing to spend his final season elsewhere. He’d be an immediate upgrade over Northwestern’s current center rotation and would fit well as a roll man in Collins’ pick-and-roll offense. Johnson is visiting Nebraska this weekend.
Dominik Olejniczak (Ole Miss)
Olejniczak would essentially serve as a poor man’s Jayce Johnson. Yet another 7-footer, the Polish big man averaged about 5 points and 3 rebounds per game in just under 20 minutes per contest for Ole Miss this season after beginning his career at Drake. He’d provide some steady frontcourt minutes as Collins works Jones and Young into college basketball.
Donnell Gresham (Northeastern)
Gresham’s statistical profile doesn’t jump out at you, but he’d be a steal for Northwestern. Gresham is a smart player who can hit outside shots, defend, and get to the rim while being an excellent passer. He spent much of his time this season at Northeastern playing off the ball, but put up big numbers when he was thrust into the point guard role.
Jaevin Cumberland (Oakland)
Cumberland exploded onto the scene this past season for Oakland after two quiet seasons for Greg Kampe’s group, averaging over 17 points and three assists per game. He’s not a natural point guard but has some creation ability, and is also a high-level shooter. With four scholarships open, adding a guy who can score and handle the ball while getting the scholarship back in a year is a solid gamble for a guy who’d help this team immediately.
Jaylin Fisher (TCU)
This one is a complete roll of the dice. Fisher was a star for TCU before knee injuries derailed his career, and since leaving the team midseason has not seen a ton of interest. If he’s anywhere close to his pre-injury form, he’d be a massive coup for the ‘Cats, and even if not, the risk is low relative to the reward. Technically, Fisher isn’t a grad transfer, but there is a chance he could receive a waiver to be immediately eligible. If I were Chris Collins, I’d at least give him a call and test the waters.
Some Final Thoughts:
Northwestern is in a tough spot right now. They need grad transfers to provide a talent jolt and balance out classes, but it’s hard to sell high-level players on a rebuilding situation for their final year of school. Ideally, they’d land an immediately eligible point guard and big that would help out immediately and leave Northwestern with three open scholarships for the following class. They’d also grab Freeman-Liberty and/or Audige to provide a talent bump in 2020-21, and perhaps hold one scholarship for next year or use it on a prep recruit reclassifying from 2020 to the 2019 class.