Northwestern and Wisconsin-Milwaukee meet in the NIT tomorrow, and at first glance, there aren't many obvious connections between the two. NU is a small private school, UWM is a big state school. NU plays in the Big Ten, UWM plays in the Horizon league. And NU has never made the NCAA tournament, while UWM has made three NCAA's since 2003 and compiled an impressive-for-a-Horizon-school three tournament wins in that span, most notably making a surprise run to the Sweet 16 in 2005.
Playing a run and gun style featuring full court pressure and lots of three pointers, the 2005 UWM team won the Horizon regular season and tournament titles, then pulled off consecutive upsets of Alabama and Boston College before falling to #1 seed and eventual national runners-up Illinois in the Sweet 16. They were led by senior guard Ed McCants, a 6'4" gunner who averaged 17 points a game and was named Horizon League player of the year.
As I watched this Cinderella story unfold, I wondered "wait a minute, is that the same Ed McCants who was a mediocre bench player for Northwestern a few years back?" And sure enough, a bit of internet research revealed they were one and the same. A recurring theme for NU basketball over the years has been roster attrition; Rex Walters, Geno Carlisle, Steve Lepore, T.J. Parker, Kevin Coble, the list goes on and on. McCants is a forgotten man on the endless transfer/quitter list, largely because he didn't do much at Northwestern, but he's undoubtedly one of the bigger losses in modern program history.
McCants, along with the great Jitim Young, was in Kevin O'Neill's final recruiting class, enrolling at Northwestern in the fall of 2000. However, he never played a game for O'Neill, as KO left for the NBA before classes even started and was replaced by Bill Carmody. In Carmody's first year as coach, NU struggled to an 11-19 (3-13) overall record, and McCants didn't do much, playing 14 minutes a game off the bench and averaging just 4 points a contest.
While McCants showed occasional flashes of brilliance and was one of the best athletes on the team, he never meshed with Carmody's Princeton offense. The last couple of years, Carmody has opened up the offense a bit, but in his early days at NU, it was rare to see an NU player shoot with more than 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Rare for players not named McCants that is, who made former IU chucker Devan Dumes's shot selection look modest. KenPom doesn't date back that far, but I'd have to imagine he was the team leader in possession usage, as he fired up 119 field goal attempts in just 385 minutes. Making matters worse, he made just 10 of 27 2-point field goals, 25 of 92 3-point field goals, and 8 of 16 free throws, a downright awful shooting line. Still, there was hope he could eventually rein himself in and become a solid contributor.
But in October of 2001, McCants was kicked off the team after being arrested for battery. The Daily Northwestern's story is rather bizarre, but as far as I can tell, an old man yelled at McCants and former NU player Casey Cortez to get off his lawn, and the two proceeded to attack the poor guy and a fight ensued. During the fight, McCants somehow hit his head on a bannister, and was passed out on the porch when the cops showed up. I guess this explains his poor decision-making on the court while at Northwestern.
After taking the rest of that year off, McCants enrolled at a Texas junior college, and emerged as the 2nd best junior college shooting guard prospect in the country. The now infamous Bruce Pearl, who was the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time, took a chance on the troubled McCants, and it paid off brilliantly. Pearl's up-tempo system turned out to be a perfect fit, and McCants made the All-Horizon League first team both years in Milwaukee, including winning player of the year in that league in 2005. He averaged 17 points a game both seasons, and despite extremely high usage rates (842 field goal attempts in 2 seasons, including 528 (!) threes), he shot 50% from two, 40% from three, and 81% from the line. In short, the guy was a stud.
You've got to wonder how much better NU would have been had McCants not been such a knucklehead and remained on the roster for four years. While he might have had some trouble fitting in with the offense, McCants ended up being so good that NU may have ended up fitting their offense around McCants rather than vice-versa, and combining McCants with Jitim Young for three more seasons would have left NU with one of the top backcourts in the Big Ten, if not the best. Of course, NU's biggest weakness in those years was a lack of decent big men, and McCants wouldn't have solved that problem, but his presence likely would have been enough to at least get them to the NIT in 2002 and 2004, and if everything had fallen right, maybe even the NCAA tournament.
While McCants certainly would have helped the basketball program, NU co-eds circa 2001 should be thanking their lucky stars he left Northwestern, as his post-college career has been a disaster. About the only thing I can find on him playing basketball is this video from a Bulgarian dunk contest, and in 2009, he was sentenced to a year in jail after a domestic abuse incident:
According to the criminal complaint, McCants broke into the victim's apartment through a kitchen window in October...While at the House of Correction, McCants made 210 calls over a two-week period to the woman, which she found intimidating, according to the complaint.
At the sentencing hearing Friday, the woman told the judge that McCants choked her and threatened to burn her face on a kitchen stove during other incidents. She said he had a drinking problem, which McCants acknowledged.
Quite an ugly situation; frankly, a year in jail seems lenient given what he was accused of. I guess he's probably out now, and hopefully he can turn his life around. And regardless of his past issues, whenever I hear Wisconsin-Milwaukee mentioned, I'll always think about Ed McCants and what could have been.