Finding those YouTube clips of Geno Carlisle yesterday got me thinking about the best players I've seen at NU. My all time favorite Wildcat player is Jitim Young, but if you want to rank players based purely on talent I think Geno Carlisle and Evan Eschmeyer top the list of the Wildcat stars I’ve seen. As a recurring feature during this season’s quiet times I'd like to offer up a little Wildcat history and offer some memories of some of the best players and games I've seen as a Wildcat fan. Hopefully they'll offer up some memories for long time fans and offer a little Wildcat history knowledge for newer fans. Today I'll focus on Geno Carlisle.
A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Head Coach Ricky Byrdsong recruited Carlisle to Northwestern on the heels of the Wildcats 1994 NIT appearance. During his freshman year Carlisle averaged 11.7 points per game and became a fan favorite while leading NU in scoring a team-high 11 times. During his sophomore year, Geno burned out lights in the Welsh-Ryan Arena scoreboard. Earning first team All-Big Ten honors, Carlisle averaged 19.7 points per game. He scored in double figures twenty-five times, a total which included thirteen games of twenty or more points. As great as Carlisle’s numbers were, the fact is Northwestern has had other players score as much or more than him. What sets Geno apart in my opinion is the number of ways he could score.
If you look at Northwestern’s record book the first thing that jumps out about Carlisle is his three point shooting. He nailed 103 threes in just over two seasons with the ‘Cats. He was not, however, the type of guard who treats the three point line as a barrier which cannot be crossed. When Carlisle got his hands on the ball there was as much chance he’d try to drive hard to the hoop for two as shoot a jumper for three. When did drive the lane, Carlisle excelled at getting fouls called. This skill benefitted him immensely as he converted more than eighty percent of his foul shots. Perhaps the best example of Carlisle’s tremendous ability to draw fouls occurred during his freshman year in a game at Wisconsin. During that contest, Carlisle went to the free throw line a season-high sixteen times. Even better, he made fifteen.
In his years with the ‘Cats, Carlisle always seemed to play well against the Badgers. The most memorable of those games occurred in Madison during February of 1996. On that night, Carlisle treated a national television audience to a scoring display which hasn’t been exceeded by any Wildcat since. Using a combination of sharp three point shooting and his uncanny ability to draw fouls, Carlisle led the previously winless in the league Wildcats to an upset over the Badgers. He finished the game with 39 points. In retrospect, that game probably clinched Carlisle his spot on the All-Big Ten team.
Unfortunately, before the start of the 1996-97 season Coach Byrdsong suspended Carlisle for three games citing violation of team rules. Then on November 26, 1996 Carlisle declared his intention to transfer out of Northwestern. On the way out he told the school newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, “I wanted to come here to try to turn the program around. But now I'm realistic. I just don't think that we have what it takes to compete in the Big Ten.”
The saddest part of what Carlisle said, other than it being seriously insulting to his teammates and coaches, was that he wasn’t entirely accurate. The Wildcats did end Carlisle’s sophomore season with a record of 2-16 in the Big Ten. The two wins were both over Wisconsin, and were both a direct result of Carlisle’s outstanding play. However, future All-American Evan Eschmeyer started alongside Carlisle twenty-five times that year. The problem was Eschmeyer hadn’t played in a basketball game since breaking his foot two years earlier. As the year closed, the six foot eleven inch center showed flashes of the brilliance he’d display regularly during his junior and senior years, but it wasn’t enough for the ‘Cats to add to their win total before the 95-96 season ended. If Carlisle had stuck around to play alongside Eschmeyer in 97-98 and 98-99 the Wildcats might very well have made their first NCAA tournament. Instead, we're all still waiting to hear Greg Gumbel announce the Wildcats position as #9 seed on Selection Sunday. Maybe it’ll happen this year. Hey, it never hurts to have a positive outlook on things.