“If I thought he was going to be this good,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody says, “I'd have offered him a scholarship as a freshman.”
As a 6-4 senior guard, Hearn finally has that scholarship, and the numbers to justify it. He's a strong-shooting starter for a team clinging to a NCAA tourney dream, and if a bad ankle has slowed him down, it hasn't stopped him.
“He really picked it up in a big way last year,” Carmody says, “and this is like a continuation, a progression, of that. He came here and has gotten better in a lot of things. Even before Drew (Crawford) was injured, he was our leading scorer, or close to it. He gets rebounds. He defends. He's just a good player.”
Case in point — Northwestern's 68-54 upset victory at No. 22 Illinois Thursday night. Hearn's game-high 20 points earned him the BTN's “Amazing Performance of the Game” honor.
You'd better believe it.
Four years ago Hearn believed, but he had no proof other than solid numbers coming out of Snider High School — 14.9 points, 7.8 rebounds for the Panthers' state runner-up team of 2008 — that only earned him Division III interest. He was so lightly regarded Notre Dame and Butler told him thanks, but no thanks, as far as walking on.
Carmody might have told Hearn the same thing if it wasn't for former Northwestern assistant coach Mitch Henderson, now the Princeton head coach. Henderson saw potential, but no guarantee given Hearn was a high school power forward who would have to learn to be a college guard.
In other words, we like you enough to let you walk on. Beyond that, we'll see.
Welcome to the uncertain world of college recruiting. There are can't-miss guys (can you say Indiana forward Cody Zeller?) and no-chance guys, with most people somewhere in the middle.
Hearn played in the middle, but he didn't have to like it.
“I didn't know what to expect,” he says. “I came in with a level of confidence to believe in myself that I could play at this level. In the world of basketball, with injuries, coaching changes, all the different factors contribute to what's going to happen.
“The trajectory I've had is a very interesting one, to say in the least.”
That trajectory saw him average 0.4 points in 1.9 minutes of action in 13 freshman games. The next season wasn't much better — 1.0 points in 2.5 minutes and 19 games.
Last year, everything changed. Hearn started all 33 games, and averaged 7.4 points and 3.7 rebounds in 26.1 minutes.
That leads to this season. Hearn leads Northwestern in scoring, at 14.1 points, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten, which means he's ahead of Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford, ahead of Minnesota's Rodney Williams, ahead of Wisconsin's Jared Berggren and Illinois' D.J. Richardson.
Hearn also leads the team in steals (21) and is second in rebounding, at 4.9. He shoots 50.4 percent from the field, 39.3 percent from three-point range.
He's been strong against strong competition. He had 19 points against Maryland, 10 rebounds against Baylor. He had 18 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes against Stanford before hurting his ankle.
And then, of course, he had those 20 points at Illinois.
Why the big improvement?
“There are a couple of factors,” he says. “First of all, I have a year of experience. Coming in last year I was essentially a freshman with the amount of minutes I'd played. Over the course of the year, I got used to the offense and my role. I just got more comfortable out there.
“Also, with the injuries we've had this year, it's really called for me and (guard Dave Sobolewski) and some of the other veterans to step up. Those were the factors that contributed to what I've produced this year.”
Production had slowed recently because of that lingering ankle injury.
“The athletic training staff has taken care of me pretty well,” Hearn says. “I'm approaching 100 percent. It hasn't been a hindrance to me these last couple of games. I expect to be fully healthy soon.”
Adds Carmody: “He's still not 100 percent. He's not jumping as well right now. But he's giving it everything he's got. Now, as a senior, he takes over a little more responsibility and accountability in how the team plays.”
In other words, Hearn has to lead by word as well as by deed.
“I think I've stepped it up (as far as being a vocal leader), although not necessarily to Coach's liking,” he says with a laugh. “He wants me to be more vocal. I've always been more of a quiet player. I'm progressively trying to step into that role. Over the course of the year I'll get better at it. Hopefully I'll be successful with it.”
Northwestern entered the school year with NCAA tourney aspirations, but those took a pair of big hits. Standout guard Drew Crawford had season ending shoulder surgery in December. He hurt the shoulder in September and tried to play through it. He was averaging 13.5 points and 4.6 rebounds when he shut it down. He's 10th in school history with 1,418 career points.
Another veteran guard, JerShon Cobb, is suspended for the season due to a violation of team policy. He averaged 7.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in his first two seasons.
Still, the Wildcats are within range of their first ever NCAA tourney bid. They are 11-7 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten entering Sunday's game against No. 2 Indiana.
“The NCAA tourney remains our goal,” Hearn says. “In every journey to a goal, there are going to be some obstacles along the way. We've obviously hit some with JerShon and Drew both being out this year, but we maintain our goals. We continue to work tirelessly at them.”
Upsetting Indiana (15-2, 3-1) would boost Northwestern postseason prospects, but then, given the Big Ten's strength (sixth ranked teams, plus first-place Wisconsin), almost every conference game would.
“We enjoy the challenge of playing against the best teams in the country,” Hearn says. “We take that challenge. Almost every night we have an opportunity to get a great quality win for our resume. All the guys look forward to that.”