Baskeball: Expectations rise as tip off approaches

Andrew Simon

With basketball season arriving in November, it is time to start splitting your attention between the gridiron and the hardwood.

While Northwestern basketball fans have had little to cheer about in recent years – both the men’s and women’s squads won one Big Ten game last season – things are looking up.

The men’s team has its most talented group in years, while new coach Joe McKeown has brought his history of success to town.

On Monday, McKeown and men’s coach Bill Carmody addressed the media. Here are the important points from their press conferences.

BIGGER, MAYBE BETTER

Last season, the men’s team had no player listed at taller than 6-foot-8 or heavier than 235 pounds. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats were outrebounded by an average of about 10 per game and also suffered through some defensive mismatches. This season could be different. New arrivals include freshmen Davide Curletti (6-9, 232), Luka Mirkovic (6-11, 235) and Kyle Rowley (7-0, 280). Carmody expects the latter two to split time at center and praised Curletti as the team’s biggest surprise so far.

Carmody’s quote: “I feel good about our possibilities on the backboards. There’s competition there too. Last year, I’d go down the bench and I’d look at my assistants and go, ‘Get him the heck out of there.’ … Now I think I can look down and get somebody else in there.”

REVAMPED RECRUITING

The first eight years of the Carmody era at NU have been rocky, with the team failing to make a single postseason appearance. While Carmody generally is considered a strong coach from an X’s and O’s standpoint, he has had trouble bringing highly touted recruits to Evanston. But in consecutive years, Carmody brought in Kevin Coble and Michael Thompson. This season he snared probably his finest class – adding Nick Fruendt and John Shurna in addition to the three big men. Carmody attributed the success to getting an earlier start, toward the beginning of the players’ sophomore years.

Carmody’s quote: “I used to joke that you’ve got to get in touch with guys when they get out of Little League. And I think that’s what the staff decided we have to do, so my assistants have done that.”

NO INSTANT CHANGE for women’s team

McKeown deciding to come to NU was like the cheerleading captain asking the school’s biggest nerd to prom. McKeown, who left George Washington after 19 seasons, ranks 13th among active NCAA women’s coaches who have at least five years experience with a .745 career winning percentage. In 22 years as a head coach, he’s made 19 trips to the postseason, including back-to-back Sweet 16 berths the past two seasons. Now he inherits a program that has not made the NCAA tournament since 1997 and went 24-95 the past four years under Beth Combs. But don’t expect huge leaps right away.

McKeown’s quote: “When you take over a program that’s last – let’s be honest, I went from first to worst – you’ve got to build blocks slowly. We would love to jump over people in the Big Ten, accelerate. That’s our goal. But we also realize we’ve got to put a foundation in for the future.”

JUST LIKE JAESCHKE

If there was a bright spot for NU last season, it was center Amy Jaeschke. As a freshman, the star recruit out of New Trier High School led the team with 13.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. She figures to be the focal point of the team’s offense again this season. But Jaeschke also can play an indirect but vital role off the court, helping to draw more top recruits to Evanston.

McKeown’s quote: “To have a freshman like Amy Jaeschke, who gives you a foundation you can build around, who’s a high school All-American … One of the things we’ve been trying to do in rebuilding is saying, here’s someone who could have gone to any college in America, but she chose Northwestern. So I think that’s helped us accelerate our recruiting a little bit.”

PROTECT ECK

While NU will count on Jaeschke to hold things down in the paint, the team also will be looking to improve its perimeter play. With Nadia Bibbs lost to graduation and Beth Marshall lost for the season to injury, the team needs junior Jenny Eckhart to step up and run the offense. Eckhart averaged 6.3 points and 3.1 assists per game last season and was the only player to start all 31 contests. McKeown said her play will be a major factor in deciding the team’s fortunes this season.

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