We can only go up’

Glenn Kasses

First-year coach Bill Carmody ripped into his players; freshman point guard Jitim Young’s voice quivered and nearly faltered.

All this after one game.

With a new coach, a new style of basketball and little experience to lean on, Northwestern had no idea how much it could improve on last season’s 5-25 record.

But the season-opening loss at home to Arkansas-Little Rock, a team that patrolled the Sun Belt Conference basement last year, provided a few hints.

“We just weren’t ready to go then,” Carmody said. “And I don’t know if we could have accelerated any other way.”

Even before the Wildcats took on Arkansas-Little Rock, Carmody – who had just 10 weeks to prepare for the season after taking the job – admitted it would likely be a long year. But the first game of the season suggested that even respectability would be a pipe dream.

“Sometimes circumstances can put you in a situation where you don’t look too good,” Carmody said. “You lost, and so you say that this is the level we’re at now – can we improve? Maybe as a staff and a team we weren’t sure where we were. And that certainly didn’t wake us up. But it told us that we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Carmody and his first-year staff didn’t waste time with the Cats, stressing the fundamentals as an initial building block.

NU proceeded through the year – this time minus former coach Kevin O’Neill’s foul-mouthed diatribes – never expecting to vault to the top of the Big Ten. Instead, NU looked to take baby steps.

And wouldn’t you know it, it seems to be working.

Carmody didn’t panic when his team fumbled away a chance to beat Pepperdine on the road in December. And his team responded.

A close win at home against No. 15 Southern California just before the Big Ten season gave his team hope.

Then NU ripped off eight-straight losses. Still, Carmody and the Cats largely kept their cool, refusing to fold even as they stared down a modern record for consecutive Big Ten losses.

And when the Cats at last won a Big Ten game, a 69-61 home win over No. 14 Iowa, they could finally say they had turned a corner. One more win three games later against Penn State and the Cats had gotten win No. 10, double last season’s total.

Tonight’s regular-season finale at Michigan (10-15, 4-10 Big Ten) will offer one more opportunity to prove just how far they have come. The Cats haven’t won a road game in more than two years, but make no mistake – NU (10-18, 2-13) bears little resemblance to the team it was just months ago.

“We don’t have the same team we started out with,” Young said. “We know what we can do now. Last year we thought we can, but this year we know.”

The new challenge for the Cats – the next step in their painstaking rise – simply is to avoid plunging back into the abyss.

“Any time you get a change you get a little boost,” Carmody warned. “Managers come in

in baseball, and suddenly you win five games, then it’s back to the same old stuff. But I don’t see us going back to the same old stuff.”

“If you say it’s good enough, then you say that you’re satisfied, and of course you’re not satisfied with that. But I like the fact that we haven’t let the bottom drop out.”

But Carmody is correct in saying that the current squad won’t be enough. With the smallest team in the conference – “My mother would see that,” he said – NU doesn’t have the size to match up against the Indianas and Michigan States of the NCAA basketball world.

Recruiting a big man is priority No. 1 for NU, though Carmody’s late arrival won’t help draw top-notch high schoolers.

Still, the late-season success gives NU coaches something to brag about in a recruit’s living room, something they may not have had just a month ago – and certainly not a year ago.

“With those couple of wins that we got this year in the Big Ten, the recruits will look at us and not (think) they’re coming into a program that’s never going to get any better,” sophomore center Aaron Jennings said. “In the offseason we’ll continue to get to work together, they’ll bring in more recruits, and we’ll just get better.”

Carmody doesn’t have any of his own recruits yet, and he doesn’t have size at his disposal. He does have a team that won’t lose a single player to graduation, and one that has recently shown for the first time an ability to compete in the conference.

Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. Plenty of questions haven’t been answered.

Carmody spoke of eventually taking the Cats to their first NCAA tournament – but more than just a dash of confidence will be necessary to make that happen.

“At the beginning of the year, we’re bringing the ball down the court, and guys are just wide-eyed and looking around,” Carmody said. “Now, there’s a purpose every time we come down the court.

“You don’t want to see any seasonal backsliding, and I don’t think we should have any. It’s not like we’re losing any seniors. Now, if you only have 10 wins, and you’ve got everyone back, is that good or bad?”