Can Carmody lead NU to the tournament? (Men’s Basketball)

Gerald Tang

Like any human element, the concept of hope is relative. Perception tends to be distorted in the shadow of 66 years of futility. The distinction between patience and resignation becomes murky in the context of absolute, continual failure.

With a full century of basketball in its annals, Northwestern still has never made the NCAA Tournament, leaving its deprived fan base to wonder if there really is a first time for everything.

It’s no small irony that the birthplace of the Tourney was none other than Evanston, Ill. NU’s Patten Gym hosted the first NCAA Championship on March 27, 1939.

Nearly seven decades have passed since that milestone night. 2,424 teams have qualified or been invited to the Tournament. That’s 2,424 open spots for the Big Dance, and not one was seized by the Wildcats. The closest sign of NU’s name on any bracket line was when Northwestern State University (Natchitoches, La.) made the Tournament five years ago.

“The reality is point-blank,” said former Cats center Evan Eschmeyer. “We’ve never been there. You’re not going to get any more exact or harsh than that. I don’t have many regrets from my time at Northwestern, but it’s definitely the biggest one – that I wasn’t able to contribute to getting the team there. It’s something I’ll always live with.”

A former All-American and NBA player, Eschmeyer led the Cats to their last NIT berth in 1999. In the 14 previous seasons, NU posted a record of 30-220 (.120) in Big Ten play. The Cats won two conference games or fewer in 10 of those seasons.

Much of that woeful history can be attributed to the strength of competition in the Big Ten. It’s a league where hallowed programs like Indiana and Michigan State battle yearly upstarts. The depth and physical play of the conference make for a draining season.

“It’s hard because if you win a big game, you can’t be too overexcited about the win because your goals are higher,” said 11th-year Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “And if you lose one, you have to move on because you can go on a slide real quick in this league.”

The upside to playing in such a tough conference is that people know it – including the Tourney selection committee. On average, five to seven schools represent the Big Ten every March. In the 21 seasons since the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 64 teams (and later 65), only once has the Big Ten sent less than five teams.

According to NCAA records, the Big Ten is the all-time leader with 172 Tournament appearances. The Atlantic Coast Conference ranks second with 156.

“The Tournament selection is fairly straightforward,” said senior writer Pat Forde. “If you’re good in the Big Ten, you’re going to get in. If you’re .500 or above year in and year out, you’re getting in.”

That makes the question all the more pressing. One would think that even for a star-crossed program like NU, the stars would align once, if not by accident or the laws of probability.

Eschmeyer points to close calls and bad breaks, such as his senior season when the Cats were on the NCAA bubble. Their 6-10 Big Ten record included two overtime defeats and another three losses by a total of nine points.

Or after the 1989-90 season, when four NU players transferred and became starters for other schools that made the Tournament. Even this year could have been different without the premature departures of seniors T.J. Parker and Mike Thompson.

But these blemishes are isolated and random, not a systematic explanation for a 66-year drought. Any discussion about the enduring struggles of the NU basketball program begins and ends with recruiting.

“The reality is we are not going to get the elite recruits out of high school,” NU athletic director Mark Murphy said. “We would love to, and we’ll try to, but the McDonald’s High School All-Americans – that’s probably not going to happen.”

NU faithful are quick to single out high academic standards as the culprit, perhaps in an effort to soothe bruised egos. But the harsh truth is this notion of being an academic school in the Big Ten can’t entirely explain athletic shortcomings, not with a football team that has made two bowl games in the last three years and earned a trip to the 1996 Rose Bowl.

Because of the nature of the sport, a basketball program presumably would cope better with restrictive academic standards. Fewer scholarships are needed to field a team on the basketball court than the football field. Fewer impact players are needed to win games. All it takes is one or two elite recruits to build a successful team.

Furthermore, NU’s admissions process is more like bamboo than bedrock: It may look rigid, but it was made to be bent. Cats assistant coach Craig Robinson said most blue-chip recruits with average academic records would be accepted into the school. Expounding the value of education over the modern din of NBA contracts and television exposure is another matter.

“I don’t think (academic standards) are a big hindrance,” Murphy said. “Our admissions office has worked with us. Certainly, we draw from a smaller pool than every other school in the Big Ten.”

The exact size of that reduced pool is difficult to measure. When asked how many of the top-100 Big Ten prospects NU can recruit each year, Robinson struggled for a number. Eschmeyer said a conservative estimate would be 15 percent.

Regardless of the statistics, a certain academic mystique undeniably shrouds NU in the recruiting world. When former Cats forward Davor Duvancic toured Europe with other Big Ten players, he said they were curious about SAT scores and the image of this peculiar private school outside of Chicago.

“The first question they always asked me was, ‘How do you manage to play basketball and go to school at Northwestern?'” Duvancic said. “‘Is it really hard? Do you guys pretty much concentrate on books all day long and then practice whenever you can?'”

Misconceptions aside, there’s always the glaring Duke-Stanford argument: a pair of academic heavyweights that have managed to develop powerhouse athletic programs.

“The one thing you can say with Duke is they found maybe the second-greatest coach in the history of basketball with Mike Krzyzewski, which is a pretty good place to start,” Forde said. “(Former Stanford coach) Mike Montgomery was willing to stay a long time and put in the work of building Stanford as well.”

It’s been six years now since Bill Carmody and his staff arrived in Evanston with that quirky Princeton Offense and East Coast swagger. Robinson, who led Princeton to two Tournament appearances as a player, was confident about a quick turnaround.

He was especially optimistic about tapping into the recruiting hotbed of his hometown Chicago. Robinson served as head coach at the University of Chicago High School in 1999-2000.

“I figured we’d get some players in here, and then get our game plan together, get a couple years of competition under our belt, and then the fourth year, we’d be going to the Tournament,” Robinson said.

“It’s taken some time to learn how the game works and what is needed. Like everyone else who has been following us, I thought that it would be easier to recruit here than it is. I was completely off on that.”

Robinson and Carmody believe their program’s recruiting misery can be reduced to one ultimate obstacle, and it has nothing to do with grade point averages or test scores.

When the NU coaches walk into a recruit’s living room, they can sell the quality of the degree, individual attention or proximity to Chicago. But the fact remains they represent a school with a 102-year basketball history that boasts a total of two Big Ten championships, both during the Great Depression-era.

The 2006 NCAA records book lists the all-time winning percentages of 326 Division I schools. NU ranks 320th with its .401 record, ahead of schools with names like Prairie View and the Virginia Military Institute.

Compare that recruiting pitch to Indiana’s 18 consec
utive Tournament appearances. Or Ohio State’s nine trips to the Final Four. Or when Izzo shows starry-eyed high schoolers pictures of Magic Johnson’s national championship team at Michigan State.

It’s a tricky thing to fight the past with nothing but the promise of the future.

“Historically, we haven’t been good, so it doesn’t pop into someone’s mind that ‘Hey, I’m a good basketball player, I’m going to go to Northwestern,'” Carmody said. “Some places if you won, you could build on that, and it would snowball. But here, I’d think you have to win a few years in a row because you have a lot of history to overcome for it to be good all the time.”

When Cats freshman guard Sterling Williams committed to the school two years ago, he became the first player from the vaunted Chicago Public League to sign with NU in a quarter-century. Next season Williams will be joined in the backcourt by another public leaguer, Jeremy Nash of Chicago Marist High School.

Perhaps the elusive first movement needed to overcome program inertia has finally begun. The Cats have won at least 11 games in all six seasons of the Carmody era, the longest such streak in school history. NU entered this season riding its highest five-year win total ever.

But for the third straight year, the Cats have shown a glimpse of a breakthrough that never materialized. As much excitement as hovering around .500 can cause, Carmody still has not taken the Cats to the NIT, much less the postseason tournament that really matters to the school.

“I would say we’ve had modest success,” university president Henry Bienen said. “We’ve been pretty close to .500, which I think probably Coach Carmody is disappointed in. I hoped for a little bit more.”

Carmody said he figured the team would have made the Tournament by his fifth season at NU. It might seem trivial tacking on another year to a drought that began before the second World War. But one year in that context could just as well seem like an eternity.

To be fair, NU still has an outside chance at making the Tourney this season. If the Cats sweep four games in next week’s Big Ten Tournament, they will earn an automatic berth. If they don’t, another senior class will graduate with lofty aspirations unrealized.

“There will be something missing, definitely,” senior guard Mohamed Hachad said. “I remember the first thing everyone talked to us about as freshmen was making it to the Tournament. That’s been our goal.”

It’s a goal that links generations of players, coaches, fans, athletic directors – anyone who witnessed a part of this almost incomprehensible span of futility. Like a puzzle with too many missing pieces, the answer has never been clear, no matter how close or how far a trip to the Tournament seemed. The NU basketball program can do nothing but persist toward that dream, as much a mirage after 66 years as a distant reality.

Reach Gerald Tang at [email protected]