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Progress of Northwestern Basketball Evident on Signing Day

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Northwestern fans are sick of progress; they want results. In particular, they want an NCAA Tournament berth. But be patient for just a little bit longer, Wildcats fans, because success is coming to the Northwestern basketball program. At this rate, it has to soon, whether that’s this year, next year or even four years.

Considering how much talent coach Bill Carmody has brought in over the past few years, the pieces to the whole puzzle have to be nearing completion. NU added two more pieces on Wednesday, with the signing of three-star forward Nate Taphorn and four-star/three-star guard Jaren Sina. It’s a sign that results are coming, and coming much quicker than we could have envisioned in March.

Back in March, the momentum seemed to be sucked out the program. An early Big Ten Tournament exit sealed another narrow NCAA Tournament miss, leading to a narrow NIT first round win against Akron and a blowout second round loss against Washington. Progress had halted.

But since March, a lot has happened. Northwestern signed two of its current starters — 7-foot freshman center Alex Olah and Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire — and 7-foot-2 center Chier Ajou. There’s a newfound swagger surrounding the program, starting with Carmody, whose team made a lot of genuine progress throughout the offseason.

Before the season, Carmody mentioned numerous times that the program was on the uptick, and on signing day he mentioned it again, stating that signing Sina and Taphorn helps, “continue the positive momentum that we have been able to experience in recruiting in recent years.” Just a few months after it looked like things had stalled — if only for a minute — Carmody has put the program in possibly the best shape it has been in during his career. How? Recruiting.

Carmody’s offensive system — the Princeton offense — is known as a good system for teams who don’t have the athleticism to keep up with others. That’s not to say good athletes fail in the Princeton offense, but it can help neutralize athleticism to an extent if need-be. It requires a high IQ and skillful passing to create open shots and frustrate a defense. But to run the offense well, you still need the right pieces. Last year, NU didn’t have those pieces in place.

The Princeton offense relies on having a big man who is a threat to shoot the ball, which neither Luka Mirkovic nor Davide Curletti was last year, and players need to be comfortable anywhere on the floor. Not only does this NU team have a reliable big man in Olah, but it has also added versatile players such as Jared Swopshire, Sanjay Lumpkin and Kale Abrahamson, who are perfect fits for the Princeton offense. This isn’t a case of NU being forced to run the Princeton offense because it doesn’t have athletes. Rather, Carmody was able to pinpoint talented athletes who fit his system, which is a luxury he didn’t have even four years ago.

Sina and Taphorn are both proof of that new luxury. Sina is a smart point guard, while Taphorn has the body of a forward, but can shoot outside and drive inside — think John Shurna or Drew Crawford.

NU didn’t settle in this recruiting class; rather, it got more pieces to the puzzle that is reaching the NCAA Tournament. Fans of this team have been waiting a long time for progress to turn into results. Given the talent that is already in the program and the talent that is arriving, a happy Selection Sunday isn’t very far off in Evanston.