Balk: Common excuses don’t explain basketball futility

Tim Balk, Reporter

You hear it all the time. Ostensibly, Northwestern struggles at basketball for a preponderance of reasons: stringent academic standards, subpar facilities, lack of fan support, history, etc. But the truth is that none of those explanations accurately explain why NU has floundered so much at basketball over the past century. Although these are all obstacles, none of them is impossible to overcome. In fact, most of those factors are merely the results of the Wildcats’ ineptitude at the sport, not the impetus for it.

It’s quite possible for a high-quality basketball program to grow from an academically focused institution. In fact, many of the most elite programs in the nation are found on the campuses of America’s most illustrious academic colleges. Places such as Duke, Georgetown, Michigan, UCLA, N0rth Carolina and Villanova have historically dominated the sport. Further, three of those (Duke, Villanova and Georgetown) are schools of the same build as NU: small-ish, private, academically centered universities.

As of this moment, Harvard and Stanford boast strong, rising basketball programs. Stanford made the Sweet 16 last year. Harvard has won NCAA Tournament games each of the last two years, despite the inherent handicaps of playing in the Ivy League. NU has the advantage of playing in what is arguably the nation’s best basketball conference.

It can be done at a school like NU. A college basketball program can succeed, thrive and, indeed, even become a symbol of an academically prestigious private school. That much is beyond clear. Duke has proven it. Georgetown has proven it. Villanova has proven it.

The little academic college beating the Goliath state school may indeed be a pipe dream in football. It certainly looked like one as Nebraska cleaned NU’s proverbial clock on Saturday. However, it is not in basketball, a sport that requires far fewer scholarships and resources than the gridiron game.

Then, on to the issue of facilities. Former NBA guard Delonte West once said of his basketball mentality, “I’m just a player … and I just play with whatever they play with. If we’re going to play with a sock, we’re going to play with a sock.” Now, West may have been joking, but it is true that basketball is a simple game. You need a ball, a court and a hoop. So although NU’s facilities might not be up to the level of its Big Ten brethren, it truly doesn’t matter. Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke’s home venue, is a pit. NU’s practice facilities and main arena are not the problem.

As for NU’s fan support problem, it’s hardly a problem at all. At many other major basketball programs, fan support is equally weak or weaker. Boston College, a historically strong basketball school that has made the NCAA Tournament 18 times, has notoriously struggled with attendance. The Eagles have never sold out Conte Forum more than eight times in a season. During their 2011-12 campaign, they averaged an attendance of just 4,705 at home games. In spite of the basketball team’s struggles, NU had an attendance over 5,000 at every single home game last year.

Sure, the Cats have never made an NCAA Tournament. That does not mean they never will. In fact, it does not even mean they’ll never win an NCAA Championship. And the reasons usually given for why NU hasn’t made the Dance are not the real reasons.

The main reasons NU has failed so spectacularly at basketball are poor coaching and recruiting. Put another way, the rudderless program has lacked leadership. It has never had a Coach K. It has never had a Jim Boeheim, a John Thompson, a Jim Calhoun or a Tom Izzo. Instead, Cats fans have been left to watch a struggling mess of a program squander the opportunities presented by their Big Ten membership and location near fertile recruiting grounds.

Maybe coach Chris Collins, the irrepressibly energetic former Duke assistant now entering his second year at the helm of the Cats program, will be that guy for NU.

His is a program that can be built into a consistent contender, regardless of what the naysayers might think.

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Twitter: @TimBalk