Commentary: Annual Basketball Dabble
by Jonathan Hodges

Normally I constrain my commentary exclusively to football, but given the natural break in the college football calendar this time of year and the disappointing state of Northwestern men's basketball, I feel it is an appropriate time to take a stab at that topic.  Also, many Carmody supporters would probably like some payback after I called for his firing after last year's 1-Big Ten win season and NU won 8 conference games (including some big road games) and made the NIT tourney this year.  I've followed NU's 2008-2009 basketball run a little, and although I can't break down the X's and O's well, I feel like I can provide an evaluation of the general state of the program.

Last year, NU had its worst men's basketball season under Carmody (who began with the 2000-2001 season), garnering only 1 Big Ten conference win and only 8 wins overall - the lowest marks in both of those categories since he took over.  When I called for his dismissal, it was not only a quick reaction to one very bad season, but it also took into account his entire body of work at NU and the fact that the Wildcat basketball squad was stagnating and actually regressing over his tenure.  Back in 2001-2002 he showed us a glimmer of hope as NU went 7-9 in the conference and 16-13 overall but got snubbed by the NIT - but it seemed like the Princeton offense could be successful in the Big Ten and that NU was close to breaking through to the promised land (the NCAA tournament) for the first time ever.  Then in 2003-2004 the 'Cats actually achieved a .500 Big Ten mark (8-8), but a poor non-conference record (6-7) kept NU out of the post season.  Again, it looked like the Wildcats were close to breaking through, but then came the slide that ended in the dismal 2007-2008 campaign, with NU notching a total of only 15 Big Ten wins over the next 4 seasons combined - an average of less than 4 per year.

Now fast forward to 2008-2009, when NU went 9-2 in non-conference play (it's only 2 losses being competitive road games against Butler, who reached the NCAA tournament, and Stanford), and matched its best Big Ten win total under Carmody (8), which included some huge wins: a win at Michigan State (who became a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament and NU's first win there since 1984), a win at Purdue (the eventual winner of the Big Ten conference tournament), the first ever win at Indiana's Assembly Hall (yes, Indiana was horrible this year), a home win over OSU (the first basketball win over Ohio State in over a decade), a win over eventually ranked Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and consecutive victories over ranked teams (vs. #17 Minnesota and @ #7 Michigan State).  The 8-10 conference record took NU to 17-12 overall (before a first round exit from the Big Ten tourney), and got them an NIT tournament berth for the first time in a decade (where they lost at Tulsa to bring their final record to 17-14).

Yes, Northwestern had a very competitive season and was in the NCAA tourney "bubble" discussion as late as the first week of March - which by NU standards is quite an achievement.  They went to a postseason tournament for only the 4th time ever (the NIT), and the first time in a decade.  And even in the 'Cats' losses, they were quite competitive - losing close games to Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, and OSU.  But the questions are: does this signify enough progress and are NU basketball's low standards acceptable?

Progress:  Northwestern fans have seen this much progress in the program before: just after Carmody took over in '01-'02 and NU achieved an overall winning record and a conference record just shy of .500.  Then came the regression, despite the fact that Carmody was getting "his players" into the program.  Since nobody is capable of predicting the future, all you can go by is the past record - and the fact is that Carmody has shown that he can't take NU to the next level (and that's after a 9 season body of work - pretty long for a Div. I big conference school).

Standards:  It's not like NU fans are asking for much: get into the NCAA tournament.  65 teams get in (about 20% of Div. I teams), and this year the Big Ten conference sent 7 teams (that's over half of the conference).  All that needs to happen is to at least break even in conference record (9-9), win one or two in the conference tourney (1-1 or better), and take care of business out of conference (which NU finally did this year at 9-2).  Even in this, NU's best season under Carmody, they couldn't quite get there.  Instead, 'Cats fans reduced their standards to say, well, it's NU's 4th EVER trip to the NIT so that must be acceptable (where NU promptly lost, albeit in a close game).

In my opinion, it's time for NU to:

1. Make real progress, signified by a trip to the tourney and a sustainable competitive team that can be a contender in the conference.

2. Set the standard high and don't settle for something under that bar: make the NCAA tournament.

To do that, it's clear that NU needs to move in a different direction.  It would be difficult to remove Carmody after his best season ever, but if one puts things in persepective with the two items above, it's hard to argue that his body of work supports keeping him on board.  And all this is coming from a guy who supported Carmody for 7 years, even with cries coming from the few NU basketball fans starting after year one.

Now, I'm not saying that Carmody isn't a great guy - because the fact is that other coaches recognize him as a great coach and teacher - and he also has his players doing the right thing off the court and in the classroom.  Those are essentials, especially at Northwestern, and it's excellent that the Wildcats have a strong basis in the right things.  But the purpose of a basketball team at this level and in this conference is to compete, and that's something NU men's basketball has really only done in less than one third of his tenure here - with the ceiling being .500 against the rest of the conference.

Secondly, recruiting.  Yes, NU has high academic standards relative to almost every other school in the nation, but the fact is that Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, etc. get their players from somewhere and don't drop their standards down to the level of every other school (who sometimes seemingly have no standards at all) - and Carmody rarely competes for the best talent.  And in basketball, one talented player can really make a difference.  Sure, he develops players, but when you start at a higher level he could have an opportunity to take it even further.

Third, the Princeton offense.  It's an innovative scheme that has allowed NU to win quite a few basketball games and pull off some big upsets, but it's not a system anyone yearning for the NBA particularly wants to play (i.e. the most talented players), and it relies on a lot of outside shooting - which is a gamble, even with amazing shooters (in fact, NU's best seasons under Carmody have coincided with great outside shooting).  It's uniqueness helps NU stay competitive at times, but over the long term, don't expect the system to be competitive on a sustained basis..

Finally, "there's always next year."  Carmody has been recruiting for NU for a decade now, and his supporters have always chimed in with "there's always next year" in reference to solid underclassmen who will be even better after another year in the system.  This time around it's Shurna (a freshman this past year), along with Coble (a junior), and Thompson (a sophomore) who may finally lead NU to the big dance.  But in previous years there were others, and the 'Cats have never had the right guys in place to make things happen now.  Enough about what could happen - change something and make it happen.

This year NU fans saw a glimpse of what could be with sustained success at men's basketball.  Instead of being the ceiling, what we saw from NU this year could instead be the floor.  It's clear that's not going to happen without significant change in the program.  As an analog - just look to football, where NU came out of one of the worst periods in college football history to make 6 bowl games in 14 years, including a couple more years in that span when NU reached 6 wins but failed to make a bowl.  It took a new coach to come in and change the entire culture, but after that transformation, it paved way for sustained success.  Now it's time to reach that same level in basketball.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.