Commentary: Northwestern Basketball
by Jonathan Hodges

For a football-focused site and my usually football-focused commentary, I may be venturing slightly out of my realm on this one, but being the second-biggest college sport in terms of attention and fanfare, it is definitely fair to tread into the frightening waters that are Northwestern basketball (specifically, men's).  As you probably know and have heard a hundred times, the NU men's basketball team has never been to the NCAA tournament, despite the fact that the tournament was first held on Northwestern's campus in 1939 (at the old Patten Gymnasium, which stood on the current site of the Technological Institute, i.e. Tech).  In fact, some have called it a "curse" since the site of the first NCAA tourney was torn down to build a giant engineering building.

The fact is, though, it is not a curse - it's a continued stretch of poor coaching, poor recruiting, low standards, and an inattentive administration.  In the realm of basketball, look at schools like Duke, Stanford, Wake Forest, etc. where even small, private schools can become perennial powerhouses yet maintain solid recruiting standards.  And at NU, the football program since 1995 is an obvious example of an excellent team in a mainstream sport - and arguably a much harder sport given a roster basically 8 times as large and facing schools that spend considerably more money.  In basketball, some argue that it's much more of an individual-dominated sport and it takes only one or two amazing players to push a team over the edge, yet NU has never been able to find those players.

While I don't follow men's basketball as closely as football, I still follow the 'Cats and made it to most home games when I was in school - and I try to follow the national scene, especially around tournament time which features one of the most exciting sporting events one can find.  And, even recent years have proved (George Mason), anything can happen.  Well, except NU making an appearance at least.

Anyways, I was there for Carmody's first season at NU (2000-2001) and I saw the team get its first Big Ten win in over two full seasons against a ranked Iowa team in Welsh-Ryan (Carmody's first Big Ten win at NU).  I was a believer when the 'Cats put up two solid years during my time at NU - when they made it to 16-13 a year later and were arguably snubbed by the NIT.  A couple of years after that NU even made it to an 8-8 conference mark and were in the middle of the pack for the conference tournament.  It seemed as though NU was heading in the right direction, and Carmody (who continued to run the somewhat unique Princeton offense along with a typically tough 1-3-1 zone defense) was making the next step as well as bringing in some decent recruits and transfers from other programs.  And he had brought in some solid foreign talent, headed by Vedran Vukusic, who was one of the top scorers during my time at NU.  I got to see NU beat a bunch of good, ranked Big Ten teams at NU: Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa.  But now, those good years seem so far away as the team's performance continues to slip.

But, year after year, we have seen NU squander chances.  They haven't made any post-season tournament under Carmody.  Even the year when NU had an 8-8 conference record saw the 'Cats put up a poor non-conference showing and therefore kept them out of the NIT and NCAA tourney.  In recent years, the team has been plagued by injuries and unfortunate circumstances (like losing Coble for the first half of this season, or Duke transfer Thompson not being able to play any more due to a heart condition), but the fact is that every year we see the same thing.  There are some good, young players and some recruits with high potential, yet the team on the court isn't producing much of anything.

And with the Princeton offense it's even more frustrating because there is no sense of urgency in the style of play and, I believe, that translates into no sense of urgency to win.  It basically turns into a ton of perimeter passing and someone lobbing up a 3-pointer as time is ticking down - sure those easy layups happen from time to time but with no serious inside threat at all, NU never gets physical.  Oh, and then there's the rebounding - or lack thereof - it would be interesting to see how many more rebounds NU's opponents have had while Carmody has been at the helm.  But the fact is that NU has relied on the outside shot and has been lucky from time to time, but over the years every coach in the Big Ten has figured out the scheme and how to beat it consistently.

For years, I was probably a Carmody supporter - it seemed like that recruit to turn around the program and finally lead them to the tourney was waiting in the wings and that the quirky Princeton offense and the stifling defense would be enough to get the program to the tipping point.  But that never materialized.  Instead, us 'Cats fans are left with a stagnant program (possibly even regressing) that can't even become a one year wonder, despite the resources of a Big Ten school and a fertile recruiting ground that is Chicago.  It's obvious that a change needs to be made.

Therefore, I think it is officially time for Carmody to go.  He's a great guy and runs a pristinely clean program, but coaches should be graded on wins, and he has failed in that regard.  One may always argue that there is always the chance for next year, but at this rate there isn't much to look forward to, and the urgency just isn't there.  It's time to head in a new direction and get a different scheme in place to hopefully attract some more talent.  Honestly, how many really talented athletes are attracted by the Princeton offense - there is basically no need for a big man, in fact NU has been going without a true center for a long time, and you don't need any go-to-the basket type guys because anyone can keep taking cuts under the basket, and even if you are that solid outside shooting threat why not go to another team where you can put up twice the number of points due to the slowed-down style of play?  And then there's the fact that the system just isn't working.  I don't know what the answer is but it isn't the current direction.  In addition to better coaching and better recruits, maybe the team could use more commitment from the university administration (including funding for some renovation of the high-school field house that is Welsh-Ryan arena), but it has to start with a new mentality.

The loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament this year (by 3 points) was a fitting end for Carmody's NU career.  NU had been bad for much of the year (well, really bad) yet somehow found themselves with a chance to pull an upset.  Yet, in the end, they blew it and saw the lights go out on another season.

Go 'Cats!!!

Ed. Note

Jonathan is correct: this site typically addresses only NU football.  In fact, when I started the site, I decided there would only be two exceptions.  The first is the final "Lowes Line" column of each football season, when the Lowes Line staff gives its NU basketball forecast.  Since the Lowes Line predates HailToPurple.com, this exception was grandfathered into the Website.

The second exception is in the event that NU basketball makes it to the NCAA tournament.  Should that day ever come, HailToPurple.com will post a Special Edition covering NU's NCAA tourney team.

Given the special and unfortunate circumstances of NU's 2007-'08 basketball team, it certainly makes sense to have a third exception and post jhodges' commentary here.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.