Basketball preview part 2 : the schedule and coach (plus Coble injury)

So as I was typing up my breakdown of the roster, news has leaked that Kevin Coble hurt his foot and will be out for a while. How long he'll be out is unclear, as estimates range from out for a week or two to out for the season. Given that he had to get an MRI, I'd guess the injury is pretty serious, but no one knows anything at this point so I'll hold off on the speculation. As for the impact on the team, its obviously a huge loss. Coble is an All Big Ten candidate and the best player on the team. It's going to be up to Shurna and Thompson to step up on the offensive end, and up to a committee of Jeremy Nash, Jeff Ryan and Ivan Peljusic to come in off the bench and contribute.

Onto the schedule. I like the non-conference schedule, as it has a good mix of cupcakes and tough opponents. I count 8 games vs weak opponents, all at home, including familiar faces Texas Pan-American and Chicago State. All 8 of these games should be wins, but in past seasons Northwestern has almost always managed to lose at least one game to a team they should easily beat on paper, so these opponents can't be taken lightly.

The 4 tough non-conference opponents are Butler and Stanford at home, Notre Dame on a neutral court, and at NC State as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (side note: the Big Ten is finally going to win the challenge this year. You heard it here first.) Anyways, Butler is #10 in the country right now and that game will be a huge test early in the season to see if the Cats can hang with a top team. Stanford is down this year but they've beaten NU 3 years in a row. Notre Dame underachieved last season but they bring back All-American forward Luke Harangody, so that will be a tough test, and traveling to NC State won't be easy either, as NU has gotten blown out the last 4 times they've played an ACC opponent on the road.

These games will all be significant if the Cats end up on the bubble come March, but looking around the various Northwestern basketball blogs a lot of people are really getting carried away. Some people seem to be under the mistaken impression that if the Cats lose to both Notre Dame and Butler their NCAA chances will plummet. Wins in those games would look nice, but the Cats will have more than enough chances to prove themselves vs tough competition in an incredibly deep Big Ten. Besides, the committee cares way more about what you did in the final third of the season than what you did in the first third. Non conference games like that are much more important for mid-major teams like Butler or Gonzaga who rarely get the chance to show what they can do against top teams. And if Coble is out for the non-conference season and the Cats struggle, but he returns for Big Ten play and the Cats play well, the committee will take that into account. So please, people, take a deep breath and stop acting like the world will come to an end if the Cats can't beat either Butler or Notre Dame. Those games aren't irrelevant, but they aren't NCAA play-in games either.

In Big Ten play, Northwestern gets a break in only having to play Purdue and Ohio State once, while playing the other 8 teams twice for a total of 18 games. That's about the only break the Cats will get though, as the Big Ten is incredibly tough. Michigan State is bringing back almost everyone from a team that played in the national championship game. Purdue is bringing all 5 starters and is ranked 7th in the country. Ohio State has the best player in the league in Evan Turner and will be very good. Michigan's bringing back Manny Harris and DeShaun Sims and is ranked. Minnesota is deep and has one of the best coaches in the country in Tubby Smith. Illinois brings back most of their team from last year and has one of the best freshman in the league in D.J. Richardson. Wisconsin isn't a great team, but they have a strong backcourt in Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon and they're always a tough out at home. I have a very hard time seeing Northwestern being better than any of those teams except for Wisconsin and maybe Illinois. When healthy, the Cats figure to be better than the other 3 teams in the league.Penn State figures to take a step back this year, but they still have Talor Battle, who's good enough to put a team on his back. Indiana will still be near the bottom of the league, but a great freshman class will help a lot. Iowa seems like the only weak team in the league, Jake Kelly transferring will hurt them a lot.

In conclusion, its a very tough conference, maybe the best in the country. As a gambler, I'd set the over/under on conference wins for Northwestern at 7.5, assuming Coble is 100% when Big Ten play starts. A lot is going to have to go right for them to win the 9 or 10 league games necessary to make the NCAAs, namely not losing any games to the bottom of the league at home and pulling some upsets at home over one of the 5 nationally ranked teams above them. They also can't collapse down the stretch after building double digit leads, like they did 3 times last season.

Now let's break down what for me is the biggest cause for concern going into the season: Bill Carmody. Carmody is about to begin his 10th season at Northwestern, and has posted a lackluster record of 120-149, including a downright terrible 44-104 record in Big Ten play. When Northwestern hired him, I thought he was the perfect man for the job, as he'd done a great job at Princeton, seemed like a perfect fit for a school like Northwestern that places a premium on academics. And he looked even better after they improved from 5-25 (0-16) the year before he came to 16-13 (7-9) in his second year. But the program did a faceplant after 2001-02 and didn't have another winning season until last year. I'll still never know how in the world he survived after 2007-08, when he went 1-17 in Big Ten play and lost at home to an Ivy League school for the second straight year, a year after going 2-14 in the Big Ten play and very nearly losing to a Division 3 team at home, a game that was probably the low point of my 10 years rooting for Northwestern basketball.

Yet somehow he survived and out of nowhere improved Northwestern to a 17-14 record and a respectable 8-10 in a tough Big Ten last season. Thanks to the work of Tavaras Hardy, Northwestern is finally recruiting Big Ten caliber players, and more importantly, players who fit into a Princeton offense. It was truly amazing how many players Carmody brought in who couldn't knock down an open 3 pointer, a skill essential to making the Princeton offense go. Time will tell how long Tavaras will stay on as an assistant though, with his recent recruiting coups he'll probably start getting offers to be the head coach at a mid-major.

Carmody's strength as a coach is definitely as a tactician, as he's often managed to run an offensive system that gets open shots for players who could never in a million years get good looks taking Big Ten defenders off the dribble. He shines in calling out of bounds plays that result in easy baskets. He also does a good job of confusing opposing defenses with a variety of zone looks; NU's 1-3-1 zone wreaked havoc early in Big Ten play before teams finally adjusted.

But I think he takes his conservative, take the air out of the ball offensive approach way way too far at times, especially when NU has a lead late in games. It seems that whenever NU has a lead, they start playing not to lose. They often don't even consider taking a shot until the shot clock is under ten. Never was this more apparent than during the collapse against Illinois last season. In the last 5 minutes of that game, Kevin Coble took a wide open 3 early in the shot clock. It was a great look for his team's best player, but after Coble missed the shot, ESPN's cameras cut to Carmody on the sidelines, screaming at Coble for his shot selection. It was absurd for Carmody to be upset there, it was a great chance to extend the lead and put the Illini away. Unless its the final minute and you can all but dribble out the clock, there's no reason to discourage your best players from taking wide open shots. When great teams have a lead in the last few minutes of a game, they try to win the last few minutes, not stall and pray the other team doesn't come back. But Carmody's teams have consistently played ultra-conservative late in games, and it's often led to disasters like that Illinois game. For this Northwestern team to make the jump to NCAA tournament team, they need to develop a killer instinct and start burying people.

I don't think Carmody is a terrible coach by any means. In a lot of conferences, he'd be the one of the better coaches. But in the Big Ten, he's near the bottom. Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, Bruce Weber, Bo Ryan, Tubby Smith, Matt Painter, Thad Matta and John Beilein are all much more accomplished head coaches than Carmody. I'd probably take him over Ed DeChelis or Todd Lickliter, but it's definitely not good when your team's head coach is at best the 9th of 11 in his conference. If he can't take this team to the NIT at the very least, I think it's time to strongly consider a change at head coach.

My prediction for Northwestern basketball this season: 16-15, 7-11 in Big Ten play. With Coble out they struggle against good teams in the non-conference schedule, and while they'll be competitive in Big Ten play, the league is just too deep, and once again the Cats will be on the road for the first round of the NIT. I hope I'm wrong.