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Is Northwestern underachieving, or just finding their own level?

As you probably already know, Northwestern lost 81-70 at Minnesota last night. It certainly wasn't due to a lack of effort, as NU did an admirable job on the boards, somehow out-rebounding the Gophers' gigantic front line, but cold 3-point shooting, excessive fouling, and an inability to keep the bigger and more athletic Minnesota bigs out of the paint doomed them to another loss. Disappointing, but not really surprising.

Your Wildcats now sit at 13-7 (3-6), and with the seemingly invincible Ohio State Buckeyes coming to town Saturday, a third straight loss appears inevitable, and NU's NCAA chances are on life support. This turn of events has left most NU fans in a deep depression, wondering why a promising season has gone down the tubes. Lots of theories have been thrown out there (the majority of them blaming the entire collapse on Bill Carmody), but in my opinion, the answer is easy: the players just aren't that good.

Each of the past two years, most NU fans spent the entire off-season convincing themselves that this was going to be the year the Wildcats finally broke through and made the dance. And both years, before the season even started, Kevin Coble was lost for the year. Last season, the loss of Coble caused most fans to immediately write off any chance at the NCAAs, but after a strong non-conference performance and the out-of-nowhere emergence of John Shurna as an All-Big Ten candidate, optimism suddenly took over. We all know what happened; NU fell apart down the stretch, going just 2-4 against the terrible bottom three Big Ten teams, and barely made the NIT.

Fast forward to this off-season, where optimism still reigned: Coble was returning, highly-touted freshman JerShon Cobb was incoming, and NU was only losing defensive wizard but offensive black hole Jeremy Nash. With that lineup, they'd have their best team ever and have a good chance to make the slightly expanded NCAA tournament. Then Coble chose to forgo his senior season, which should have led most NU fans to conclude that the tournament was a long shot.

But it didn't. Even though NU was running out basically the same team that went 7-11 in a mediocre Big Ten, a lot of people still thought that NU could challenge for a bid. This might have been somewhat feasible had last year's top Big Ten teams lost a lot of key guys, but that wasn't the case at all: the 6 teams who finished ahead of NU last year were all projected to be at least as good this year. Yet somehow, fans expected Northwestern to compete with deeper, more talented teams led by many of the nation's best coaches. It just wasn't a realistic expectation. I know FBC has touched on this a bit (on the rare occasions he actually posts :sadface:), but it bears repeating: this Northwestern team just doesn't have enough talent to make the NCAAs. There are a few reasons why NU fans were so irrationally optimistic:

It's in our nature as Northwestern fans

In my experience, most passionate NU fans tend to lead towards being glass half full types. Given NU's historical incompetence at athletics, that may be a bit surprising, but I think for many people it's a defense mechanism; if you're going to devote hours and hours of your life to caring about a sports team, you want to at least believe they have a chance at success, so we cling to the positives while ignoring our team's obvious flaws. For more evidence of this, look at how many people seem to think the football team has a good chance to win their division next year (as far as I know, the football team still doesn't have a defense, a running game, or an offensive line).

Lazy national media members

If you read any Purdue basketball blogs, you'll see endless whining about how the national media disrespects their beloved Boilers. Sometimes it's justified, other times it's nonsensical, but it seems to be a yearly tradition at this point (I can already picture them complaining next year about how everyone's written them off because they lost E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson; well, duh). When it comes to Northwestern, the national media usually gets it wrong too, but in the other direction. NU basketball in the last 2 seasons has gotten way way WAY more hype than they deserved, solely because of the team's awful history.

Every time it appears Northwestern will be something better than terrible, national writers everywhere churn out the same formulaic column about how NU's never made it to the NCAAs, but hey, they did host the first ever Final Four! That's the closest they've been! Keep cutting and pasting, guys. As NU was blowing out lowly Georgia Tech this year on national television (by about the same margin that Kennesaw State beat Tech), my Twitter feed exploded with national writers talking about how this would be the year. I guess everyone loves a Cinderella story, as this phenomenon isn't limited to college basketball writers; last year, Deadspin started publishing a weekly column on NU's NCAA chances, and this year, even the Wall Street Journal weighed in with the exact same article that's been written a hundred times. I guess it's good that Northwestern is getting national exposure, but it feels like all the hype has just been setting up fatally flawed NU teams and their fans for disappointment.

Confusing offensive talent with overall talent

This, to me at least, is by far the biggest reason for the irrational optimism. People see an excellent scoring trio of Shurna, Crawford and Thompson and think Northwestern has the talent to compete. Down With Goldy made this point in his preview yesterday, saying "It feels like Northwestern should be good because they do actually have some weapons." And he's right, Northwestern does have offensive weapons, and those weapons fit well into Bill Carmody's Princeton offense. The NU offense has been excellent of late, ranking as the 17th best offense in the country and 4th best in the Big Ten per KenPom, and 30th in the country last season.

But that offensive talent doesn't translate to the defensive end. Michael Thompson, due to his lack of size and athleticism, is a liability on defense against Big Ten guards (the reason Carmody hides him at the bottom of the 1-3-1). John Shurna is a good help defender, accumulating a fairly high number of steals and blocks, but he has trouble defending opposing 4's one on one; this Draft Express profile says "his biggest weaknesses athletically are his lack of physical strength and lateral quickness." Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb, despite possessing the necessary athleticism, have yet to establish themselves as good on-ball defenders (although I think Cobb could get there soon). And Luka Mirkovic is a total liability defensively; he's such a poor leaper that he's never dunked in his 3 years at NU, so he can't be a shot-blocking presence, and he has such slow feet that he can't even rotate over in time to play semi-competent help defense. As such, Northwestern ranks 141st in the country and by far the worst in the Big Ten at defense per KenPom, which is a slight improvement over last year's 169th, but is still terrible.

Ryan over at Welsh-Ryan Ramblings has long advocated that Bill Carmody hire another assistant who specializes in teaching defense. While this would probably help a little, I don't think it would come close to solving the problem. Carmody has said many times that being good at offense comes down to making shots; you can draw up brilliant play after brilliant play, but if the shots don't go in, it doesn't matter. The same principle applies on defense; it doesn't matter how hard you play, or how well-coached you are, if you can't stop opposing players from driving by you, you won't get stops on defense. And this Northwestern roster, despite having a lot of guys who are very good scorers, just does not possess the talent to guard guys one on one.

I believe that is the biggest reason why Carmody uses the somewhat gimmicky 1-3-1 so much; he knows for a fact that his team will usually get torched trying to guard Big Ten players one on one, so he gives teams a different look that partially neutralizes athletic opponents and instead forces them to beat his team with passing and outside shooting. He's well aware of the flaws in a 1-3-1 (as Rodger aptly pointed out in his Michigan recap, NU abused Michigan's 1-3-1 the one possession they faced it), but he believes he has no other choice.

This article isn't meant to be a defense of Carmody. He's the head man, and the final won-loss record is his responsibility. The current roster almost certainly isn't good enough to make the NCAAs, and that's on him. Also, the questionable decisions he made in crunch time of the Michigan State games may have cost Northwestern a win or two. However, Carmody is far from the incompetent buffoon that many NU fans are making him out to be, and this team certainly isn't underachieving because of his coaching.

In college basketball, talent prevails above all else, and Northwestern is at best the 7th most talented team in the Big Ten. So if Northwestern is to finally break their NCAA drought, they simply need to get better players. Recruiting has gotten better as of late, as the coaching staff has found diamonds in the rough (Shurna, Coble) and out-recruited other BCS teams for guys everyone knew would be good (Crawford, Cobb). But even still, Northwestern isn't good enough finish in the top of the Big Ten, and until they get better players, they'll keep falling short of the tournament.