Northwestern had one more player it wanted to complete what suddenly was an incredibly deep basketball team.
He was a high school teammate of Wildcat commit Alex Olah and the kind of combo guard Northwestern needs to add depth and size to a backcourt that often had to go 40 minutes out of necessity. Replacing John Shurna is not easy, but you figured you could share the load.
This was the promise of Northwestern commit (now former commit) Mislav Brzoja. Unfortunately, Brzoja will not get to help Northwestern reach that elusive NCAA Tournament or go to the school of his choice. Like so many high school graduates around the country, but much fewer athletes, Brzoja received his rejection letter Tuesday according to Chris Emma of PurpleWildcats.com. Brzoja had a sterling 4.0 at Trader’s Point Christian Academy in Indiana, but his less-then-sterling GPA in his native Croatia gave Northwestern’s admissions committee some pause.
Brzoja told Emma that he planned to attend Dayton if Northwestern ended up not admitting him.
This is the unique situation Northwestern always seems to put itself in. It is sure to rankle some feathers in the Northwestern community. There is still a debate within our community about whether the focus should be on athletics or academics. To be sure this is going to make that debate even louder.
For the immediate term, Northwestern has seven players set to play their first game. Many will contribute to what has to be the deepest team in Bill Carmody’s 12-year run. Brzoja had a lot of skills Northwestern could have used on the court. He is a 6-foot-5 guard who was rated as a three star prospect by Scout and by Rivals. Brzoja averaged 13.7 points per game for Croatia at the U-18 European Championships last summer and is a skilled scorer and superb shooter.
No doubt, Brzoja would have helped on the floor. Luckily Northwestern has the depth to handle it this year.
This still raises the big question that Northwestern fans avoid and the big question that divides them.
On one hand, it is Northwestern’s commitment to academics that makes it such a unique place. We genuinely like being the only private school in the Big Ten and, at least for the revenue sports, doing things the “right way.” Our players graduate on time and we feel fairly confident that they are in class and actually taking advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
On the other, Northwestern has made a deeper commitment to its athletic program. It has put in a lot of resources toward winning — including the marketing program and the upcoming facilities plan — and sometimes to get there rules can get bent. If there was ever a guy to bend the rules for, it was Brzoja.
As Emma reported, Brzoja was a 4.0 student at Trader’s Point Christian Academy. If he had gone there for all four years, it is quite likely we could report he will suit up for Northwestern next year. Unfortunately, much like his high school teammate Alex Olah, he spent some of his high school years in Croatia. And there, for whatever reason, he was not as stellar of a student.
What the discrepancy was — remember Olah had to petition the NCAA to accept some of his credits from his Croatian high school, delaying his signature and commitment to Northwestern — is unclear. It just goes to show the razor thin line that exists for Northwestern applicants and just how hard it is to get into the school, even for the athletes.
The university was not going to compromise their standards in this case. That must have been the decision they came to. Because, according to Emma, this was very close.
On the Scout message boards, Emma wrote that there was “some serious deliberation” regarding Brzoja and whether admissions could allow him into the university. I read that language (and maybe I am wrong) to mean that they understood that Brzoja was capable of handling the Northwestern workload and succeeding academically in Evanston, but just could not bend the rules enough to let him in without setting a dangerous precedent. Eds. note: Let me again stress, we will NEVER know what that means or whether Brzoja could handle the Northwestern academic load. As a friend pointed out to me, kids that go to great schools with 4.0 GPAs struggle at Northwestern too.
And that brings it all back to the debate that has been at the heart of Northwestern athletics probably for much longer than we even know.
Are athletics worth bending the rules for academics admission standards? Is Northwestern a school that truly gives an opportunity for learning to students who are gifted athletically or like every other school with a mixed motivation of profits and education?
The dichotomy is not as simple as I just described, obviously. But the Wildcats, with their success on the field in recent years and the desire to do more in packing the stadium, are starting to resemble many of their Big Ten brethren in their goals. And that means at some point they will mimic their methods, you would think.
This is not an easy issue. Not anywhere close. It is one Northwestern has wrestled with for many years and will continue to wrestle with as it improves and competes for the better recruits.
It is tough that a kid like Brzoja who clearly turned himself around academically to even be in this conversation will not get to go to his dream school. But that is college admissions. This felt like a tough decision for the administration. This was not the time, in their opinion, to bend their admission rules.
Good luck Mislav at Dayton. We certainly wish you the best and are sorry it didn’t work out in Northwestern.