Cats begin learning new system

For a program that struggled through scandal, transfers and on-court ineptitude last year, new Northwestern men’s basketball coach Bill Carmody offered a glimpse of hope this weekend.

On the Wildcats’ second day of practice Sunday, Carmody grabbed the ball from one of his guards at the top of the key in an offensive drill and began dribbling left. What happened next might be the future of the troubled program.

While talking to his team about making the proper cuts as it ran his offense, Carmody suddenly flicked his left wrist, sending a no-look bounce pass toward the baseline. The ball found a tiny hole in the defense and skipped into the hands of a streaking NU player, who softly laid the ball into the hoop.

It was the perfect back-door cut.

After four years as coach at Princeton, which brought the back-door cut to national prominence, Carmody may have the maneuver figured out. But the challenge is to teach it — and the rest of his system — to a group that remains one of the youngest in all of Division I basketball.

“Guys pick it up fast,” said Carmody, who took over the NU job on Sept. 6. “People worry and say, ‘Oh, this stuff, how are they going to pick it up?’ They’ve picked it up as fast as any place I’ve been. That’s not a concern at all.”

Last season, NU had only one upperclassmen — junior Jeff Eschmeyer — on its roster. This year, Tavaras Hardy and Collier Drayton are the only two juniors on a team otherwise made up entirely of freshmen and sophomores.

And after losing coach Kevin O’Neill to the New York Knicks in September, they are now the only link in the program to the 1998-99 team that made a run to the NIT.

As a result, Hardy and Drayton have to lead a squad coming off of a disastrous 5-25 campaign in which the Cats lost all 16 Big Ten games and had seven players quit or transfer. The program also was hit with a lawsuit in March by a former recruit who alleged that O’Neill reneged on a scholarship offer.

“I don’t have the support that I had last year to help lead this team,” said Hardy, the team’s likely starting power forward. “It’s more of an individual thing with me and Collier. It’s a role that I like and one that I wanted.”

This year’s team may be more experienced than last year’s, since two of the team’s main contributors, guard Ben Johnson and center Aaron Jennings, are both now sophomores.

“Last year coming into the Big Ten and not having the upperclassmen — the juniors and seniors to lead the way and show us what we had to do — we were just kind of feeling our way through it,” Jennings said. “And this year knowing what we have to do and what it’s going to take to be successful in the Big Ten or at least try to be successful in the Big Ten, I think that’ll really help us out.”

Last season, the Cats made a habit of getting blown out by physically superior teams. This season, NU has to find a way to overcome that gap — Jennings is the only player on the squad taller than 6-foot-9 — and simultaneously settle in with the new system.

As tough as Carmody’s new system could be to grasp, it may be just as difficult for NU to forget the old. With six freshmen coming in and with the Cats on their third offensive system in three years, they must discover a way to leave all their troubles in the past and focus in on the beauty of the back-door cut.

“It’s a big relief (to get started) because I try to put last season behind me and hurry up with this one as soon as possible,” Johnson said. “I know there’s going to be press about last season, but as far as that goes I’m going to try and forget everything that happened except for the experience I took from it.”