If there is one word to describe the Northwestern University men's basketball program, it would be unique.
It is not just unique because the Wildcats are the lone team in all of the major conferences to have never made it to the NCAA tournament. Not just unique because of the time-consuming, clock-crunching offense that they play. The Wildcats are unique becuse of the type of players they send out on the court.
Looking through a media guide showcasing NU's basketball history, names such as Nikola Baran, Jean-Marc Melchoir and Vedran Vukusic appear. These sound more like names on the 1980 Soviet national hockey team, never mind a college basketball team.
Countless years in the program’s history have been spent as being the laughingstock of the Big Ten. How could a team compete with the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State with starters that would be lucky to see the court at mid-major programs?
Northwestern had to find an innovative way to recruit players to an institution as academically rich as Stanford, but had as much basketball success as Chicago State.
Head coach Bill Carmody knew that a fresh style of recruiting needed to be implemented. So he hired former Northwestern standout Tavaras Hardy, who brought a mindset that, over time, Northwestern would have the ability to build a program by recruiting different types of "unique" players.
Hardy's first class featured a young kid from the city of Chicago that was overlooked for his size. He successfully competed in the tough Chicago Public League and carried a high GPA, making him a diamond in the rough. Michael "Juice" Thompson became the first building block put in place by the Carmody-Hardy combo.
Right away Juice was given the keys to run the offense. He learned during a 2007-2008 season in which his team finished 8-22 and had one lone win in conference play. However, Juice led the team in assists and was the vocal leader on the floor.
The next challenge the coaching staff faced was finding pieces to mesh with Juice.
The second piece would come in the form of a baby-faced suburban kid named John Shurna. With a unique-looking shot, Shurna was projected as a bench player for his entire four years in Evanston. Three years later he is considered as one of the top 50 players in the country, finishing in the top 10 in several offense categories in the conference.
Behind the leadership of Thompson and Shurna, the Cats have gone from an 8-22 team to one who has reached the NIT the past three years. The culture is changing in Evanston, but in a way that nobody expected.
Throw in last season's co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Drew Crawford, and the Wildcats have their own "Big Three" who average over 45 points per game. Players such as Luka Mirkovic and Mike Capocci, who both bring tremendous energy every game, were both overlooked coming out of high school for being too soft.
Even with the ability to detect the undetectable, the Cats never received national credit for their recruiting. This is because they never seemed to land a "big fish." That all changed when Northwestern landed guard JerShon Cobb.
Cobb, who was recruited by none other than Tavaras Hardy, became the first player in school history projected in several databases as a top-100 recruit.
In his freshman campaign Cobb has been a steady force at the 2-guard position when healthy. This is just the beginning of this new movement of recruiting. Next season guard Tre Demps will join the powerful Cats' lineup.
Demps has been compared to a taller version of Thompson who can handle the ball and play solid defense. Hardy's signing of Demps is just another sign of the change in culture happening in the northern suburb of Chicago.
Even with Thompson graduating after this season, Northwestern is now built as a team that can have success down the road.
Hoping to go dancing for the first time in school history, Northwestern is optimistic that all their pieces will combine to form the perfect puzzle sooner rather than later.
The team is now filled with players whose names announcers can pronounce and who can also compete against the nation's elite. Who would have thought that this four-year turnaround would happen at a small institution in Evanston, Illinois?