Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jim Phillips Has Hope That He’ll a Hero for NU Basketball

Northwestern basketball doesn’t have many heroes. Rich Falk, Shon Morris, Jitim Young, Juice Thompson, and John Shurna are on the list, but overall the years have produced far more villains in purple and white than heroes. Guys who abandoned the program for what they thought were better places like Rex Walters, Kevin Nixon, Geno Carlisle, Kevin O’Neil, and Kevin Coble come to mind as do the various administrators who didn’t make any effort to improve the foundation of NU hoops throughout the years. Now NU’s current athletic administrator has made a move that he believes will improve NU basketball, but it is a move that will either make him the biggest hero in NU history or land him at the top of that list of villains.

After all, Carmody was NU’s most successful coach since 1950. He was the only NU coach to coach in multiple postseason tournaments (though all NITs) and the only NU coach to win 20 games. And he had assembled NU’s best potential tournament team ever to play next season. That doesn’t seem like a guy who should be fired, but he also was well under .500 overall and in the Big Ten and only beat conference rival Ohio State once in 13 seasons. Also, he failed to make the NCAA tournament in his 13 seasons.

It also seemed that the momentum of the program was going backwards this season, though, having three starters hurt probably was a big reason for that. Carmody also won some of NU’s best games ever pulling off multiple road wins over top-25 teams that NU had never beaten before. Of course, he also did things like drop multiple home games to UIC and never got past the second day of the Big Ten Tournament.

Overall, though, Carmody was a lot better than anyone who NU had ever brought in before him and I keep going back to the hopes which existed for next year’s team. You might say who cares about hope, but Phillips specifically cited the word “hope” as a reason to change coaches. He said he hoped NU basketball had a better “destination” than where Carmody had taken it. That might sound stupid, but Gary Barnett sold early-1990s NU football on the phrase “belief without evidence” and that’s the definition of hope so maybe at NU hope is a valid criteria to make a change if Phillips really thought Carmody’s tenure was bereft of that quality.

I don’t think it was, but I’m not sitting in Phillips’ chair. Regardless, he’s not staked his reputation on the “hope” that his chosen replacement for Carmody can work Barnett-like magic. Honestly, I’d say a sit down with Barnett should be required of whoever takes the job. After all, they might not have a lot to work with in year one. NU’s potentially strong roster for next year now might be rather thin. While they very likely maybe false rumors the fact is rumors have circulated from sources close to Sina (his dad), Taphorn (his AAU coach), and Sobolewski (his AAU coach) that all may leave NU. The Chicago Tribune has also reported that Drew Crawford and/or JerShon Cobb may consider leaving NU now that Carmody has been fired. Basically, NU might look like Indiana did four years ago and be forced to field a team of mostly walk-ons and late signings. The problem is that NU’s new coach won’t have the Indiana basketball history to build the program. If that happens it’ll make many fans angry at Phillips and put the new coach in a spot where he has to take a step backwards to go forwards.

But the new coach will have the “hope” they’ll do something nobody else has ever done. It’ll be a tremendous challenge and let’s be honest the odds suggest he will probably fail. But if they don’t they’ll be a hero and Phillips himself will be a hero as well for finding a true coaching gem in Bill’s replacement. A man who could take the Purple to the Big Dance!

I “hope” that’s what happens. If it goes the way history has gone, though, and Phillips pulled the plug on NU’s best team a year early then he can join a guy like former All-Big Ten guard Geno Carlisle who pulled the plug on NU’s tournament hopes and his NU career a year early by not waiting to play alongside All-American Evan Eschmeyer as a villain of NU basketball.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Northwestern Playing With No Pressure in Big Ten Tourney

The past few years a lot of pressure was on Northwestern as they entered the Big Ten Tournament. Fans believed a win or two would result in them making the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Now most fans expect NU to lose their game on Thursday and take a short bus ride back to Evanston. Will that lack of pressure to win work in NU’s favor?

Last year NU was in a similar position to Iowa and failed to hold a late lead and dropped out of the NCAA Tournament hunt. Can NU do to Iowa what Minnesota did to the ‘Cats a year ago? The odds are against it. NU simply hasn’t had the firepower to play with anybody in the Big Ten since Jared Swopshire went down. The Hawkeyes inside presence led by Aaron White and Adam Woodbury have given NU trouble in the past and will be expected to give NU trouble again. Alex Olah will need to have one of his best games for NU to compete with Iowa. Olah is coming off a big game vs Michigan State so perhaps that’ll carry over. What he needs to do, however, is not just score points, but also make himself a factor on defense and on the glass which hasn’t always been the case.

NU’s best chance to beat Iowa is probably getting hot from beyond the three point line. The ‘Cats need Tre Demps, Kale Abrahamson, Dave Sobolewski, and Alex Marcotullio all to have good games. Each of those four have had good moments over the course of this season, but they haven’t all put it together for 40 minutes. Can it happen now? It almost seems like it has to happen at some point, but maybe not. Iowa will put pressure on NU’s backcourt and if Sobolewksi and Reggie Hearn don’t handle the ball well than it won’t matter how well NU shoots because they won’t get shots.

In the end the storyline for this game for Northwestern is probably more about the future of head coach Bill Carmody than that of the team itself. I don’t think winning or losing this game should have a baring on Carmody’s future, but part of me thinks it will. I just think that A.D. Jim Phillips wants to make a change and if Carmody hasn’t won in more than a month he’ll be able to do so without being questioned. However, if Carmody pulls off a nice win and the top-rated recruit for NU in the last 20 years has his father going on record saying he won’t come to NU unless Carmody stays it’ll put Phillips in a very tough spot. Honestly, I’d love it if ESPN2 put a split screen on Jim Phillips during the game just to see how he reacts to how NU plays.

Prediction: In the end I think Iowa’s too much for NU but the game is closer than some might expect. The Hawkeyes will win by eight and Jim Phillips will fire Bill Carmody and replace him with Chris Collins. I won’t agree that Phillips made the right move but many in NU circles will and it’ll be interesting to see how Collins (and those that are so in love with him) handles a team that doesn’t have Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, Tre or Jaren Sina because I would bet that all or at least the majority of those guys won’t be back if Carmody isn’t back. I also wouldn’t count on Princeton-style players like Nate Taphorn or Kale Abrahamson sticking around NU without Carmody.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Regular Season Ends at Michigan State Sunday

With the loss to Penn State on Thursday NU will be the sure #11-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Before that they travel to play at Michigan State on Sunday. The team enters the game amongst increasing speculation on the future of their head coach and coming off a disappointing and emotional loss on Thursday night.

This season has totally crashed and burned since Jared Swopshire went out with an injury at Iowa. At the time NU was 4-6 in the Big Ten and was within four points of the Hawkeyes in their home court. Swopshire was clearly NU’s best all around player and probably deserves the team’s MVP award despite only playing two-thirds of the season considering what happened once he was gone.

So the Wildcats have trudged along without Swopshire and their season has suffered. Dave Sobolewski was clearly devastated after fouling out on Thursday and he’s perhaps struggled the most without Swop. It seems like for Sobo to take on the secondary scorer role was just too much to ask and as a result he’s gone from a guy who can have a very nice game as a third or fourth scorer (who is defended by the third or fourth best defender) to a guy who can barely dribble (let alone score) when he’s defender by one of the other team’s top defenders. Reggie Hearn seems to have suffered too, though, not as much, with having to be the focus of the other team’s scouting report without Swop to help take the pressure off of him inside.

All these issues have resulted in losses piling up and people piling on Bill Carmody. Right or wrong most speculation has him out of Evanston at the end of the season. I honestly converted from someone who was luke-warn on Carmody to someone who thought he did a good job at NU and despite this season I tend to remain in Carmody’s camp. This team suffered so many injuries I can’t believe any coach could have won with them about Swopshire’s injury became the final straw to break the camel’s back. Plus, when we look to the future Carmody is the one who assembled a team for next season that fits his style of play. How does NU win in another style without a collection of great one-on-one athletes? I don’t think they do. So is it really worth firing Carmody and suffering another season like this one? I don’t think so. Tough as last year’s closes losses were I’d trade last season for this one in an instant

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Senior Night for the Class of 2013

Northwestern’s senior of 2013 has seen some of the best basketball in the history of NU, but unfortunately they recently suffered through a stretch of one of the worst. As a result they’ll become yet another class to leave Northwestern without that first elusive NCAA bid (unless they have a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament). Nonetheless, this is a class that I know I’ll positively remember as a fan and I certainly hope others will as well.

The star of the group and the best story is Reggie Hearn. The one time walk-on that became a two-year starter and the leading scorer on the team this season. Hearn was at times NU’s best player even when guys like Drew Crawford where on the court with him. He’s always played defense with great intensity and became adept at finding ways to score off the dribble as well as being a decent enough three point threat to help NU win games. I’ll always remember Hearn dominating in Champaign vs Illinois for two years in a row and I hope young players look at Reggie’s toughness and work-ethic as an inspiration when things don’t go their way.

Alex Marcotullio had the potential to be a prolific shooter for the Wildcats, but his health didn’t hold up over much of his career. I’ll never forget him coming in as a freshman and hitting clutch shots to help NU beat Iowa State and N.C. State. I also won’t forget that he was in many ways NU’s best all-around player during their run deep into the NIT in 2011. NU’s media experts kept showing his clutch shot vs Ohio State from last season (despite the fact NU didn’t win the game) but maybe that shot was emblematic of Marcotullio’s career. He was close to becoming more than what he was, but at least he’s leaving as someone fans will remember positively.

Finally, Jared Swopshire only played about two-thirds of a season for NU. The 5th-year transfer from Louisville seemed to finally get comfortable as a lead player versus someone with a supporting role, but his injury at Iowa prevented him from reaching his full potential. Still, his influence around NU was significant as he brought a winning attitude from a Final Four program to NU and hopefully showed the young Wildcats what it takes to reach that level. If NU makes the NCAAs next season I have no doubt that Swopshire’s influence on guys like Tre Demps and Alex Olah will have played a big role.

I wish these senior could have accomplished more than they did, but instead they’ll leave that challenge to Drew Crawford who was once planning to graduate with them until an injury derailed this season for him. Now, Drew’s class of 2014 will take on the challenge of making NU’s history into history.

Unless the class of 2013 decides to do it in the Big Ten Tournament next week.