Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald at times this season lamented the fact he couldn’t have 22 Dan Persa’s on his team. His comment wasn’t a slap at the rest of his starters, but simply an honest statement of fact his quarterback brought a special combination of fearlessness and self-confidence to the field every game which is often lacked by even the best of players. As I listened to Fitzgerald make this comment a couple times I wondered who (if anyone) on NU’s basketball roster had something like Persa’s unique makeup. I eventually decided that Michael “Juice” Thompson was the guy. After all, playing in the Big Ten at very generous 5-10 and battling against bigger players while playing defense on the bottom of the 1-3-1 zone takes a special kind of toughness (or creativeness if you believe the player survey that had Juice as the Big Ten’s dirtiest player). I still think Juice is pretty good example of Persa-like basketball player, but I also think NU now has another Persa-type guy in JerShon Cobb.
“When I get there we’re not going to be trying make it, we’re going to be trying win it.” – JerShon Cobb on NU and the NCAA Tournament
Last year after Northwestern started the year with a slew of impressive non-conference wins, Rivals.com checked in with Cobb as he started his senior season of high school. They asked Cobb what he thought of the ‘Cats chances of making the tournament. Cobb showed no doubt that the Wildcats would make the dance—probably showing far more confidence than most fans and maybe some members of last year’s team. From that moment I knew I was going to love the kid's attitude. He possessed the same type of belief without evidence that Gary Barnett had when he coached the Wildcats to their first Big Ten title in football in over 60 years during the 1995 season. While the ‘Cats didn’t end up making the tournament last year, Cobb won his second Georgia State Championship with Columbia High School and joined a long line of college and NBA starts as the Atlanta-area Player of the Year. Those two events pretty much clinched my belief that when JerShon arrived NU would be getting a special player.
"I always knew I chose the right school. There was never a doubt in my mind."– JerShon Cobb when asked if NU’s win over Georgia Tech justified his choice of school.
Then Cobb arrived on campus and suffered through injury early this season. He then saw limited playing in NU’s win over Creighton and felt the natural frustration of a high school star in a reduced role. Thankfully, though, he at least felt healthy. It was finally in NU’s game against his hometown team, Georgia Tech, that Cobb was able to put his confidence and his health together and have a big game. He kept NU in the contest early with some impressive hoops and played solid defense all night. Eventually, he earned praise from ESPN for his “smooth game”. After the game the media asked whether the NU victory gave him validation of his college choice. His response was perfect. So many people it seems want to talk about way NU can’t recruit elite players. They try to place blame on Bill Carmody or Welsh-Ryan Arena or any number of other failings with NU’s coaching staff or administration. I think the honest is reason, though, is that 16 or 17 year old kids are fearful of going to a program that doesn’t have tradition and potentially not winning. These are kids and most of them don’t possess the confidence in themselves to get over the potential fear of getting labeled as going to a “loser”. Georgia Tech had one of those kids in Iman Shumpert, an Illinois kid who said he was worried NU wouldn’t surround him with enough talent. Players NU lost out on in recruiting last Spring most likely had the same fear, but JerShon Cobb came to NU with only confidence. Confidence in himself and his vision of the future of Northwestern basketball. That confidence to ignore what others say and believe in oneself isn’t something many people his age have. Dan Persa had it and succeeded despite a so-so offensive line and running game. JerShon Cobb actually has way more talent (and probably confidence) around him then Persa did. That’s why I know I can say Northwestern is going to the NCAA Tournament in the near future and when it happens I know JerShon Cobb will be able to say he never doubted it would happen, because like Persa he doesn’t play worried he’ll lose, he plays knowing he’s going to win.