Friday, April 2, 2010

Position Group Evaluation: Coaching Staff

Position Group: Coaching Staff
Personnel Evaluated: Bill Carmody, Mitch Henderson, Tavaras Hardy, and Ivan Vujic
Grade: B

I’ve said this before, but it is worth restating that whenever one tries to evaluate a coaching staff they take on something of a challenge. As a fan or member of the media you are really only exposed to the work of a coaching staff during games. However, the majority of the work done by a coaching staff is actually done in practice. What you have to do is decide if the results you see in the games are an accurate reflection of the work done in practice. At times they really are not. I’ve seen more than a few coaches with excellent game plans lose contests because of issues their players had which where simply beyond their control. As much as fans might think so, a coach cannot prevent every bad pass or bad shot by a player with practice time. Sometimes even good players simply act stupid at the exact wrong moment of a game.

Having said that, I think this year’s results for the Wildcats were fairly accurate in reflecting the performance of Bill Carmody and his staff. At the start of the season the Wildcats were able to successfully navigate their non-conference schedule with only one exception, a loss to Final Four participate Butler. In the middle of the year the Wildcats were reasonably successful in the Big Ten, but at the end of the year they basically collapsed down the stretch despite facing weaker competition than in previous parts of the season.

I have to give Carmody and his staff great credit for pulling the team together and developing a game plan which resulted in the Wildcats beating a number of tough early season opponents only weeks after losing Kevin Coble for the year. What Carmody and his staff did to increase the role and accelerate the development of John Shurna into one of the Big Ten’s top players deserves great recognition. For the first 11 games of NU’s schedule, I’d probably give the coaching staff an A-. They did reasonably well in the middle portion of the season as well. I probably couldn’t give the coaches an A-, but a B+ would probably be reasonable based on wins at Michigan, vs Illinois, and a dominating performances at home against Indiana and Michigan. Carmody did an excellent job changing the Wildcats defense to include a double team on Demetri McCamey in the Illinois game in Evanston which resulted in the Illini turning the ball over and NU going on a big run to comeback and take the lead and eventually win the game. Of course, NU also had some chances to win a couple more games, but seemed ill-prepared on the road, something which became even more of a problem late in the season. The game at Minnesota in which the Wildcats staged a great comeback, but paid for getting in a big first half hole is a great example. In the last part of the season the Wildcat coaches would be lucky to receive a C. The ‘Cats struggled in losses to Big Ten bottom feeders Iowa, Penn State, and Indiana. Even worse, perhaps, was the fact the Wildcats could have pulled a huge upset at Wisconsin, but basically decided not to play in the first half. I’m not going to be one to criticize Carmody for his teams’ lack of “fire” I think that’s far too subjective of a term. However, I do think Carmody’s squads far too often look uncertain in the first part of games. That shouldn’t happen with Carmody and assistant coach Mitch Henderson supposedly amongst the best game prep experts around. I also can’t for the life of me understand how Penn State constantly beats the Wildcats. Yes, PSU’s lineup featured some good players, but that team only won three Big Ten games this year and two of them were against Northwestern. If Northwestern wants to seriously contend in the Big Ten not losing to teams at the bottom of the league would be a huge step forward.

That’s my overall impression of the season. As far as specific criticism I have two major issues. The first was NU’s defense which was just terrible. As mentioned in the past, when NU tries to play man-to-man they switch on even the weakest screen. I know Northwestern doesn’t have the greatest athletes, but they have to try to fight through screens more or they’ll constantly be caught in mismatches, which we saw regularly at the end of the year. NU’s other primary defense was the 1-3-1 zone. This is a good defense, but to be honest I think a lot of Big Ten teams are getting used to seeing this as it has been NU’s primary defense since 2006. Despite him making great effort, I have think that having 5-10 Michael “Juice” Thompson on the baseline makes this defense far weaker than if NU had a bigger player on the baseline. When Ohio State plays David Lighty on the baseline of the 1-3-1 it seems to work a lot better. Of course, Northwestern had to play Thompson because no one else can handle the ball. All I can say is that I think NU should learn legit man-to-man, especially if they envision replacing Thompson with 5-9 Jonathan Lloyd in a couple years.

The area where I thought NU’s coaches really struggled was end of game or end of half possessions. I can only think of one time this season when NU had the ball at the end of the half or the end of the game and scored. In the past, I thought drawing up such plays was a Bill Carmody strength, but this year NU consistently failed to even get a good shot with possession and the clocking running down. Perhaps the best (worst) example of this was NU’s last possession in the game at Minnesota. Actually, NU’s last regulation possession against Minnesota at home is also a good example. In both cases NU basically forced a shot and didn’t seem to truly execute any sort of play. As the ‘Cats get better and play in bigger games, they’ll need to be able to successfully score in such situations as it may be the difference between a win and a loss.

Overall, I think what Northwestern’s coaches did this year in pulling together an injured team and getting into the postseason was well done. However, with NU’s underachievement late in the season they can’t get an A range grade. However, with improvement in a few areas I have no doubt they can get NU into more significant and successful postseasons in the future. I just wish I knew they were making an effort even today to teach better defense to their players.

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