Friday, April 22, 2011

Season Obituary: Northwestern

In the Wisconsin obituary, I argued that disappointment is relative, and that it should take several more "disappointing" Sweet Sixteen seasons before fans question Bo Ryan. Northwestern basketball has been Wisconsin in miniature over the past couple of years; a program that has reached as heights never reached before, yet stuck in place. Unfortunately for Wildcat fans, that plateau is not the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, but the NIT.

Northwestern is a major conference program, but it hasn't always felt like it: never made the NCAA Tournament, one Big Ten tournament semifinals appearance in history, and so on. For the rest of the college sports-watching country, Northwestern is the team people forget when they're trying to remember the eleventh team in the Big Ten. But the past fifteen years have been a renaissance in Wildcat football--at least relatively speaking--and the last couple of years in the basketball program might be the beginning of the same, though without the same roaring success of the 1996 Rose Bowl to inaugurate the breakthrough.

So, the question: what is Northwestern? Has Bill Carmody reached the apex of what any NU basketball coach can hope to achieve, having been handicapped by poor facilities, a high school gym, and stringent admission standards? Has he successfully transformed Northwestern into a full-fledged Big Ten team that, while not a threat to win conference championships, is at least a threat to win each game on the schedule? If you're the optimistic sort, Ohio State was taken to the buzzer twice this season, while Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois (among many others) have all fallen to Northwestern over the past two seasons. The Wildcats made the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in its history, and while "postseason" covers up "NIT", at least Northwestern won a couple games last year. And with everyone but Michael Thompson returning--assuming John Shurna comes back, which he almost certainly will--the forward trend would figure to continue.

Those are the optimists. There are countering questions. Is this the best that Northwestern can do, or just the best that Carmody can do? Vanderbilt, Stanford, and Duke can manage their academic requirements; Baylor, Kansas State, and (to a lesser extent) Penn state have turned around long-failing basketball programs.  The pessimists would point out that Wisconsin and Ohio State fans are disappointed when they can't escape the Sweet 16, Purdue and Illinois fans are disappointed when they couldn't make the second weekend of the tournament, and Northwestern fans should be disappointed to not escape the NITite Eight. The best team Northwestern has ever put on the court couldn't make the most watered-down tournament, or even make the weakest bubble, in history.

I go back and forth on that debate, and I think either side can be plausibly argued. Regardless of where you fall, however, two things shake out. The first is that Northwestern basketball is no longer just the eleventh team in the Big Ten; this is a real program with real expectations and real disappointment from not attaining something that would have been unthinkable not very long ago. Whether the Wildcats improve next year or regress, I'd predict that Northwestern fans standards will be much higher going forward. Even if unrealistic, that's a good thing: dare to dream, purple backers. The only way to turn around the apathy that has surrounded the program is to invest fans in something stronger than "we'll play hard."

The second thing that shakes out is that Northwestern has to stop adding to its disadvantages. The facilities and Welsh-Ryan Arena are what they are, and while it's easy for a blogger to write "buy better ones," that's real money at a time when cash is not flowing like milk and honey in the chosen land. But there are easy fixes too. For a season with expectations higher than ever before, Northwestern had almost no chance to make the tournament before the season started just by reason of the out of conference schedule. When your third-toughest game is home against Creighton, and your fourth hardest game is home against American, you have not given your team am opportunity to prove its worth. 

And it's not like Northwestern played a dozen teams in the 100-150 Kenpom range during their out of conference schedule. SIU-Edwardsville? A road game at UT-Pan American? Northwestern was a bit unlucky that Georgia Tech, their ACC/Big Ten Challenge opponent, was not very good, but then St. Johns was supposed to be an easy road win, so the luck evened out. The NU athletic department entered the season knowing they had only one challenge on the schedule before Big Ten games started. Even though they entered conference play with only one loss, they still needed to win ten games to make the tournament. And worst of all, Northwestern proved they were good enough to beat reasonably strong teams in the NIT, including a road win against Boston College.

For that reason alone, I'm willing to give Bill Carmody a pass. The coach has enough disadvantages just because "Northwestern;" he doesn't need the athletic department adding extras. 2012 is going to look a lot like 2011: similar roster, same backdoor-cut Princeton system, same stadium. The NCAA tourney field is still 68 teams, and the Big Ten will be weaker than this past season. There's still time to schedule a big boy schedule, Jim Phillips; the season you save could be your own.