Young Guns

Andrew Simon

By Andrew SimonThe Daily Northwestern

The workers selling souvenir programs at Welsh-Ryan Arena had better be prepared.

With the number of fresh faces on this season’s edition of the Northwestern men’s basketball team, fans are going to be scrambling to find names to go with them.

There are six freshmen, a transfer, a player who missed all of last season due to injury and three more who played less than 40 total minutes last season.

It’s coach Bill Carmody’s youngest squad at NU since he had six freshmen and no seniors during his first season in 2000-01.

“There’s a lot of talking going on, a lot of instruction,” Carmody said.

The starting lineup should be filled with familiar names such as Tim Doyle, Craig Moore, Vince Scott and Sterling Williams.

But even if Carmody uses only a seven- or eight-man rotation, that still puts a lot of minutes in the hands of the young or inexperienced.

Getting Ready

Doyle, Moore, Scott and Williams may be the focus of NU’s offense this season. And they may be the players opposing teams spend all of their time studying and preparing for.

But for most of the preseason, they couldn’t even attract the attention of their own coach.

It’s life on a team dominated by freshmen getting their first taste of college basketball.

“I’m going to start talking to my upperclassmen now, because I sort of ignored them the first eight or nine practices, trying to get the young guys ready,” Carmody said 10 days before NU’s season opener against Cornell.

Some coaches would be uncomfortable fielding a team this inexperienced, but Carmody has no such problems. He said he enjoys the opportunity to teach.

“The things you like (about a young team) are really the things you like about coaching,” Carmody said. “You get to see very quickly guys come along, facing stuff they haven’t been exposed to, and all the sudden they see it and they get it. That’s really a nice feeling.”

These feelings aside, the Cats must figure out how to win, and adjusting to the college game is no simple task.

Patience Is Golden

Physically, the jump from high school to college is huge, especially in a bruising conference like the Big Ten. Freshmen are facing players bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic than them for the first time.

But the biggest challenges for newcomers might come on the mental side of the game.

“Other than all the physical attributes, it’s just the thinking of the game, knowing when to do what and picking up on certain aspects of the game,” freshman guard/forward Jeff Ryan said. “That’s probably the most important thing.”

NU’s freshmen have the added task of absorbing Carmody’s famed Princeton offense, with its backdoor cuts and constant motion.

The system is team-oriented, designed to slow down the game and requiring each player on the floor to fit a role. Players accustomed to being stars and dropping 25 points a game must shift their focus to a more team-oriented style of play.

“It’s definitely a transition from high school to college,” sophomore guard/forward Sterling Williams said. “This is the next level, and going from being the best player to being a contributor is something you get used to. You adapt to the change with your teammates and grow and evolve as a basketball player.”

When a team is filled with youngsters, they aren’t the only ones who have to modify how they think and prepare. Their coaches are in the same boat, especially if they are coming off a couple of years with senior-laden rosters.

Iowa coach Steve Alford is in a similar position to Carmody after losing three of his best players from last season. This year’s Hawkeyes feature just two seniors.

“You’ve got to be patient, which has always been a challenge for me because I want things to happen right away,” Alford said. “Last year, from a coach’s standpoint, if I had a notebook with 20 pages, I could start on page 12. I didn’t have to worry about the first 11. They already knew it. This year I have to go back to page one and make sure they understand it.”

Carmody said he will simplify his system early in the season to help his younger players out. But he also acknowledged that at this stage of their development, the youngsters have a long way to go.

“Right now after 10 practices, this stuff isn’t good,” Carmody said at the end of October. “They’re not used to paying attention to detail, the little things that are important. But that’s part of it. You’ve got to drill them and let them know why these things are important.”

Despite the potential drawbacks of fielding an inexperienced team, some feel having players who don’t know they aren’t supposed to succeed can be beneficial.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are young, who are just going to go out there and play,” redshirt junior guard Jason Okrzesik said. “No one is worried about anything, about who they’re playing. And I think that helps the younger guys if they’re not worried about pressure and all that.”

‘The Older Guys’

Doyle and Scott were complimentary players in the shadows of Vedran Vukusic and Mohamed Hachad last season.

As the only seniors likely to see significant playing time this season, they’ll have to be a lot more than that.

“I’d like to take a bigger role this year,” Scott said. “In all my years I’ve had guys to look up to, like Vedran. Now for these freshmen, I’ve got to take a role on the floor and off the floor and be more aggressive.”

With a roster full of freshmen and other players with little game experience at the college level, Doyle and Scott have a lot of people looking to them for advice.

“The older guys are great for anything, in terms of support, learning the offense, getting adjusted to college life,” Ryan said. “They’re real cool, really nice to us, and help us out a lot.”

Carmody also is looking to his seniors but believes leadership is the result of action rather than talk.

“They’re the guys who have to make you win,” Carmody said. “Leadership is fine, but I’d rather have a guy who makes shots, who comes to practice every day, who works hard and pays attention to details consistently. Then that leadership stuff falls into place. People will see how you go about your business and then try to imitate that.”

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Moore was setting an example for this year’s freshmen last season.

Despite showing some inconsistency, Moore also made significant contributions, starting every Big Ten game and earning a spot on the conference’s All-Freshman team.

“That definitely does give me confidence, even more so this year since we lost so many seniors and starters,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be really important for the younger guys to step in this year.”

Seeds of Change

The postseason has been an elusive goal during Carmody’s six-season tenure. The Cats have finished one game under .500 each of the past three seasons and eighth in the Big Ten each of the last two.

But there is reason for optimism: young talent.

As freshmen last season, Moore and Williams both showed the potential to be solid players for the next three years.

This season, Carmody brought in a six-member recruiting class that includes Kevin Coble, a Nike All-America selection, and Jeff Ryan and Jeremy Nash, the 10th- and 11th-best prospects in Illinois for 2006, according to ChicagoHoops.com.

“All those guys are just real athletic, and I think that’s what we need on this team,” Okrzesik said. “We need guys who can run up and down the floor, and all these guys are going to get a chance to play this year.”

Nash is a guard from Marist High School in Chicago, where he averaged 16.5 points per game as a senior. He also grabbed more than eight rebounds per contest despite standing just 6-4.

But Nash also has been hampered by a groin injury that caused him to miss several practices and hurt his chances for extensive playing time.

Coble and Ryan have sta
yed healthy and impressed Carmody enough to be in line for significant minutes.

“Kevin has a pretty decent feel for the game, and he has a knack for putting the ball in the basket,” Carmody said. “Jeff has got a good sense of everything. He does everything decently. He gets it.”

Coble is a 6-foot-9 forward from Arizona who averaged nearly 27 points per game as a senior in high school. He is a strong shooter from the field and the free throw line.

Ryan joins Nash and Williams as examples Carmody’s efforts to increase the Cats’ recruiting strength in Chicago. The 6-foot-7 guard/forward attended Glenbrook South High School, where he averaged 14 points per game as a senior.

Carmody also tapped the Croatian pipeline, which has brought the Cats such players as Vukusic and Davor Duvancic, for two more recruits in Nikola Baran and Ivan Peljusic.

While the freshman surely will benefit from their more experienced teammates’ on-court leadership, they can always look to the sideline as well.

Carmody does have over 30 years of college coaching experience, including 10 as a head coach.

“He’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever had,” freshman guard Jeremy Nash said. “I’ve heard a lot about him, but since I came here, this has been just the best experience of my life.”

And the momentum should continue next season, as Carmody has already received commitments from Mike Capocci and Michael Thompson, two of the top 10 prospects in Illinois for 2007, according to ChicagoHoops.com.

“We probably have a couple kids who are going to sign for next year soon who are pretty good,” Carmody said. “But we still have to get a couple of kids who are in the magazines, and we haven’t been able to do that yet.”

The fact that NU hasn’t attracted many high-profile recruits isn’t surprising. After all, the Cats have made the postseason only three times and have never participated in the NCAA tournament.

But the current NU players are confident they are the ones who will turn the program around.

“It’s definitely headed in the right direction,” Williams said. “This year’s going to be fun. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m very confident in our team and what we have going for us.

“We’re taking this program to the next level.”

For the veterans who have lived with the disappointments of the past few years, the young talent isn’t likely to develop in time to take them to the promised land. But that doesn’t take away from their optimism.

“I think Coach has this program going in the right direction,” Scott said. “Hopefully when I’m gone, I’ll be able to buy tickets to see them in the NCAA tournament.”

Reach Andrew Simon at [email protected]