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The Carmody Situation (part 2)

It's been a couple days since I wrote a 3,000+ word summary of Carmody's tenure at Northwestern, so it's high time I actually gave my own opinion on the matter. As an aside, that summary wasn't supposed to be that long, but reading some old box scores got me angry and I felt compelled to rant for a while. If anyone actually read that entire thing, kudos to you. To summarize, Carmody came into an awful situation and showed solid improvement in his first two years. But in his third year he took a big step back, and he followed that with 3 straight years of mediocrity. Then the wheels completely fell off and he had two straight awful seasons before bouncing back with NIT appearances each of the last two years.

Judging solely from that track record, you'd conclude that the past two seasons were a fluke and there's no reason to expect him to ever get any better than the NIT. But there's a key reason for the improvement of the past two seasons: recruiting. Here's what I wrote earlier this season in a Q&A with the excellent Wisconsin blog Bucky's 5th Quarter:

4) It wasn't so long ago when fans wanted Bill Carmody out. Now the Cats have a shot at the NCAA Tournament and things look real good for next season. What changed in his recruiting/coaching?

The biggest change by far is that he's finally recruiting Big Ten caliber talent. Some of his past teams couldn't have won with Red Auerbach coaching them, as Northwestern wasn't bringing in any good players. When Tim Doyle has to play 30+ minutes a night you're going to have trouble winning in the Patriot League, never mind the Big Ten. But now it seems he's getting at least one good player a season, and Northwestern is finally competitive. Assistant coach and former player Tavaras Hardy has had a lot to do with the improved recruiting, but Carmody definitely deserves credit as well

The biggest thing that struck me when looking back on Carmody's past teams was just how bad the rosters were. Most of the good players he had in the early part of the decade were recruited by previous coach Kevin O'Neill, including the best player of the Carmody era, Jitim Young (Young never played for O'Neill but I'm almost positive he signed with NU before Carmody got there, I could be wrong though). Aside from his first recruit for 2001-02, Vedran Vukusic, Carmody did not bring in one guy who was ever even considered for All-Big Ten honors until he landed Kevin Coble for the 2006-07 season. In between there are countless terrible Euros, a couple of decent foreign imports in T.J. Parker and Mohamed Hachad, and numerous Americans who weren't even close to Big Ten caliber players (Tim Doyle, Vince Scott, Jason Okrzesik, Evan Seacat, Sterling Williams, Michael Jenkins, etc.). But recruiting has now picked up, starting with a solid role player in Craig Moore, continuing with Coble, and sustaining the momentum with Juice Thompson, John Shurna, Drew Crawford, and even Luka Mirkovic, whom I consider to be the best center Carmody has recruited (no seriously, who's better? Vince Scott? Davor Duvancic?). And with the highest rated recruit of all (well, excluding the original Michael Thompson) Jershon Cobb coming in next year, he's shown no signs of slowing down.

As I mentioned earlier, Tavaras Hardy is a big reason for the improved recruiting, but Carmody has to get a lot of the credit as well. I've seen a few NU fans argue that it's all because of Hardy and that without him the 'Cats wouldn't have landed any of the aforementioned good recruits. Unless those people were secretly following Hardy around on his recruiting visits, I don't know how one could reach that conclusion. Look, while Hardy has helped push things over the top, Carmody is still the man in charge and therefore is responsible for what happens under him. It's pretty typical for power conference programs to have one assistant coach specifically in charge of recruiting; that assistant can make trips to scout these kids during the season while the head coach stays at home and works with the current roster. So Carmody deserves credit for the improved recruiting as it is happening under his watch. If Hardy were to get in trouble in future seasons for breaking NCAA rules in recruiting, would the people refusing to give Carmody credit now completely absolve him from any blame then? No, of course they wouldn't, they'd accurately point out that violations occurred under his watch and that he's responsible. You can't have it both ways.

Onto Carmody's offensive and defensive strategies, namely the Princeton offense and various zone defenses. While some fans criticize his offense, personally I think it's fine. The reason for all the debate about the Princeton offense is that the media, usually in the form of announcers calling NU games, constantly talk about how Carmody is some kind of offensive genius and that his Princeton offense is incredibly difficult to defend. Since that's a wild exaggeration, fans get upset, but some go too far in the opposite direction and conclude it's a terrible offensive strategy. Look, the reality lies in the middle. The Princeton offense is just one of many different offenses that can be successful at the college level. When NU had a crappy offensive players, it didn't work, and the last two years, when the 'Cats have had good offensive players like the last two years, it's worked (49th in offense last year, 34th this year according to KenPom). And next season, when they make the huge offensive upgrade of replacing Jeremy Nash with Kevin Coble, it should get better. So the offense isn't a problem.

As for the defense, it sucked this year. While part of the issue was the lack of depth, as the defense got a lot worse as the year went on, there was absolutely no reason for the 'Cats to rank last by a wide margin in defense during Big Ten play. The gimmicky extended 1-3-1 drew the most criticism, but the problems ran far deeper than that. When Carmody tried to play man to man, it was usually a disaster, as his players seemed to lack the basic fundamentals necessary to successfully play team defense. It's highly questionable whether this will improve next year; while the depth problem should be solved, the team's best defender in Nash is gone, and is being replaced by the defensively challenged Kevin Coble. So I'm extremely concerned about this problem going forward. Assuming the current roster remains intact for next season, defense is the only thing that will keep Northwestern out of the NCAAs, as their offense will certainly be good enough.

So what should AD Jim Phillips do with Carmody this off-season? I say don't give him an extension and see if he can finally take Northwestern to the NCAA tournament. If he'd just completed his third year at the school, then absolutely give him an extension with the improvement that he's shown. But this was his 10th year; we can't ignore all the mediocre to awful years in the middle of this decade. The last two years, he's been pretty close to the NCAA tournament. In 2008-09, they were 2 wins away, and last year they were 3-4 wins away, but almost certainly would have been closer if healthy. While I've often been critical of Carmody's subsititution patterns and game management, next year's team has NCAA tournament caliber talent for the first time in his tenure, so let's give him one last chance to take them there. Unless there's a proven coach ready and willing to step in, firing him now makes no sense to me, especially since that could upset some key players and lead to them transferring. On the other hand, extending his contract seems ridiculous; he just doesn't have enough of a track record to warrant it.

What do other people think? I'm making my first ever Sippin' On Purple poll, very curious to see what the masses have to say, so please comment early and often. Some perspective from fans of other Big Ten teams would be great as well.