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A ‘different breed’ of Northwestern

Illinois sophomore Brandon Paul seriously considered Northwestern. The Wildcats didn’t win the battle, of course.

“I liked them,” Paul said. “Other than Illinois, that was probably one of my closest second options.”

But the fact that a top-50 recruit with the athleticism of the 6-foot-3 Paul seriously considered playing his college career in Evanston shows the progress Northwestern has made in recent years.

Since taking the job at Northwestern in 2000, head coach Bill Carmody hasn’t competed for the nation’s or even the state’s top recruits. Despite playing in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s lack of historical prestige, high academic standards and small campus have forced Carmody to find players who can succeed his precise Princeton-style offense.

He takes long, stringy shooters like Kevin Coble and current star John Shurna. Undersized guards like T.J. Parker and current senior Michael Thompson were passed over by premier programs, but found individual success running Carmody’s offense. The Wildcats coach also uses his passport when recruiting players bringing in players. Croatia’s Vedran Vukusic led the Wildcats in scoring in 2004-05 and current starting center Luka Mirkovic hails from Belgrade.

But Carmody has landed a different type of player each of the last two seasons.

Drew Crawford, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors from the media last year, picked Northwestern despite offers from Wake Forest, DePaul and Oklahoma State. Atlanta native Jershonn Cobb, ranked the 103rd best prospect in the Class of 2010, chose the Wildcats over scholarship offers from Auburn and Cincinnati. The 6-foot-4, athletic freshman guard has started all 10 games he’s played in this season, averaging 6.5 points per game. Crawford, a springy 6-foot-5 wing, has upped his scoring average from 10.0 last year to 14.6 this year.

Tre Demps, a 6-foot-3, three-star 2011 commitment, is of the same mold. The San Antonio native chose Northwestern over Colorado, Minnesota, Stanford and Vanderbilt, among others.

“They have some new, different breed of players, some athletic guys and some guys that are different than the style they’re used to having on the previous years,” Illinois forward Mike Davis said.

It seems to be paying off as the Wildcats are experiencing amazing success – at least by Northwestern standards.

Last year, the Wildcats celebrated their first-ever 20-win season. For the first time in school history, the Wildcats finished with back-to-back winning seasons and played in National Invitational Tournament. Northwestern began this season 8-0 – the best start in school history – against a weak schedule but have lost three of their last four games, including its first two Big Ten games, heading into tonight’s matchup with the Illini (12-3).

But Northwestern gave No. 18 Michigan State a scare in a 65-62 loss in Evanston. And while the Illini have won 19 of the last 21 games against Northwestern, the last three games have been decided by five points or less, including the Wildcats’ 73-68 home win last year.

The new breed of Northwestern hasn’t yet become – and might never be – a predator in the Big Ten but it’s no longer a bottom feeder.

“They’ve done a really good job recruiting,” Paul said. “They got Drew. I had a chance to play with him throughout the summer a little bit. They’re just really turning the program around. I feel like this is the best team they’ve had in a while really. We have a lot ahead of us.”

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