With President Obama giving the State of the Union address last night, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the state of Northwestern's basketball program.
This season, Northwestern basketball is probably enjoying more media attention than ever before in the program's history. The team made a brief appearance in the top 25, and is an NCAA tournament contender for the second straight season. Around the Big Ten and the rest of the college basketball world, people are on notice that the 'Cats are no longer a laughingstock.
However, the bottom line is that Northwestern has gotten far more attention over the last two seasons than they deserve. The biggest reason for all the hype is the program's embarrassing history, not its very modest success. Expectations are so low that if the 'Cats are better than terrible, it's considered a great year. Last season is the shining example of this, as Bill Carmody was lauded for leading Northwestern to an 8-10 conference record (good for 9th place in the Big Ten) and a first round NIT loss. While the season was certainly successful compared to the god-awful Wildcat teams the previous two years, frankly I found it sad how many fans were thrilled about how the season went. A step in the right direction? Yes. A great season? No way.
Here are my goals/expectations for the upcoming decade: at least 3 NCAA tournament appearances, and a .500 or better overall record in Big Ten play. I want seasons like last year to be considered below average by the standards of this program. I don't think those expectations are unreasonable; I'm not some bloodthirsty Kentucky fan demanding conference titles and Final Four appearances. I just want Northwestern to be in the running for an NCAA bid almost every season. Pat Fitzgerald has built up the football program to the point where a losing season would be considered a huge disappointment, and a season like the basketball team had last year (I guess the football equivalent would be 6-6 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten, and a Motor City Bowl loss) would be still be below expectations. My goals may seem lofty by the past standards of Northwestern basketball, but those standards need to change.
The good news is that Bill Carmody and his staff seem to have finally turned the corner. After years of futility, caused primarily by horrendous recruiting, Northwestern is well on their way to a second straight postseason berth (in all probability the NIT again, but an NCAA bid is still possible). If you'd told me after 2008's 8-22 (1-17) debacle that Carmody would have the 'Cats in NCAA contention each of the next 2 seasons, I'd have assumed you were a delusional Northwestern homer. But he's done it, and deserves a lot of credit. The biggest difference has been the recruiting, as Carmody has brought in at least one legitimate Big Ten player 5 consecutive years in Craig Moore, Kevin Coble, Michael Thompson, John Shurna and Drew Crawford (and by legitimate Big Ten player, I mean a guy who would be in the rotation for every team in the conference). And by all accounts, he's bringing in another next year with Jershon Cobb. I know I've ripped into Carmody a couple times this season for some of his in-game tactical decisions, but there's no denying he's done a good job this season. When Coble and Ryan went down for the season, most people (myself included) thought the 'Cats would be lucky to make the NIT, so kudos to Carmody for the job he's done.
This probably isn't the right time to look ahead to future seasons, what with this season still in full swing, but I'm going to do it anyways. Next season will be critical for Carmody and the program as a whole, as barring injuries he will have a team that should make the NCAA tournament. Trading Jeremy Nash for Kevin Coble while adding the highly touted Jershon Cobb dramatically upgrades the roster, and if that team can't make the NCAAs then it's doubtful Carmody will ever be able to do it. I'm not a very optimistic fan by nature, but I have to say I'd be surprised if that team doesn't get into the Big Dance. This season was supposed to be the year Northwestern finally broke through, but injuries have set them back. If the 'Cats were on pace for a 10 to 12 win season like many expected, using the injuries as an excuse would be ridiculous, but I don't think there's much doubt this team would be on pace for an NCAA bid with everyone healthy.
It's probably the best ever time to be a Northwestern basketball fan, as the program appears on its way to the kind of success it's never had. That's obviously not saying much given past ineptitude, but I'm hopeful the dark days are finally over. Interest in the program, both from fans and recruits, is growing. It's up to Carmody, his coaching staff, and the players to make the most of this opportunity, and continue to build the program until Northwestern is one of the better teams in the Big Ten year after year.
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten that the season is still going, so stay tuned over the next couple days for more current Northwestern basketball content.