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With Carmody on the Hot Seat, NU Basketball has Seen a Recruiting Resurgence

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The knee-jerk reaction to Northwestern’s failed NCAA tournament bid earlier this year was one of frustration and disgust, a defeatist resignation to a future without NCAA Tournament basketball. Fire Carmody! emerged as the most common refrain from the angst-ridden NU fans, as if deposing the long-tenured coach would somehow, someway bring the program’s postseason drought to a halt instantaneously.

AD Jim Phillips decided against the loud and wholly distinct wishes of the mounting Carmody demonization campaign and extended the coach’s stay in Evanston, at least for another season. There are divergent views on the remaining length of Carmody’s contract, with one source telling the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein that the deal goes beyond the 2012-2013 season despite its reported termination at the end of the upcoming season. Whatever the case, his time roaming the NU sidelines is nearing its end, meaning that this upcoming season could carry with it a make-it-or-break-it ultimatum, with NCAA Tournament or bust-type pressure hovering over every frustrating defeat and ill-fated decision. There’s no understating the importance of the 2012-2013 season to Carmody’s future. Should he fail to guide the Wildcats to their first tournament birth in school history, the consequences will be grave, surely.

Perhaps sensing his short leash, the coach made some key additions this offseason, particularly in the front court, hoping to improve his team for another rigorous Big Ten schedule.

The first move was landing Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, a 6-8, 200-lb forward with one remaining year of eligibility who fell behind the Cardinals’ promising young frontcourt talent. Swopshire chose the Wildcats over Illinois, Kansas State and Wake Forest, among a number of other schools. For NU’s thin frontcourt rotation, this was a welcome addition, and Swopshire—while perhaps lacking the same promising upside he had as a young player under Rick Pitino—can be an effective stretch four in Carmody’s Princeton offense, not to mention a veteran presence for a young frontcourt that needs all the help it can get.

NU made another addition to its frontcourt last week, this time welcoming 7-foot-2 Sudanese big man Chier Ajou. After attending the Culver Academy in Indianapolis in 2010-2011 then enrolling in a postgraduate year at St. Thomas More, the former home of NBA draft prospect Andre Drummond, Ajou verbally committed to New Mexico, only to re-open his recruitment last week and commit to the Wildcats. Ajou will be eligible to play this year, though it’s possible he will have to sit out as a redshirt.

Here’s what ESPN’s scouting report said of Ajou:

Strengths:
This extra long and lean center is very raw but tough to deal with when he is active and aggressively patrolling the lane. He is a shot charger and blocker on or away from the ball because of his great length and ability to cover ground very quickly.

Weaknesses:
He needs to improve his strength and hands but he can finish above the rim with a clear path from offensive glass put backs or drop off passes. Ajou is a work in progress but has great upside and will always be a factor when he is in the game due to his size and mobility.

Bottom Line:
Ajou runs well for a player of his dimensions, has fairly good footwork and has enough shooting touch to knock in a 17-footer. He doesn't yet appear to be an active and aggressive shot-blocker, but all the ingredients are in the mix for him to develop into one before long.

Even if he’s not ready to play big minutes this season, Ajou is a nice pickup for Carmody and could be an impact rebounder and defender while continuing to refine his offensive game. Ajou becomes the fourth member of NU’s 2012 recruiting class, which also includes Alex Olah (6-10, 250 lbs), Sanjay Lumpkin (6-6, 185 lbs) and Kale Abrahamson (6-7, 187). According to Scout. com, Olah and Ajou are rated as two-star players while Lumpkin and Abrahamson are three-stars.

With Olah, Ajou, Swopshire and TCU transfer Nikola Cerina (6-9, 245 lbs), the Wildcats no longer lack size. At the very least, their -6.6 rebounding margin (ranked last amongst Big Ten teams) will improve, if only because they have more bigger, longer players than last year.

On paper, the new additions give the Wildcats a new dimension that they lacked last season. When facing skilled big men such as Indiana’s Cody Zeller, Ohio State’s DeShaun Thomas, Michigan’s Jordan Morgan and Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, NU can now counter with size, and lots of it.

The bottom line is these new faces don’t mean much if the Wildcats ultimately fall short of their main goal. It’s hardly a guarantee that Carmody needs a tournament bid to keep his job, but after last season’s backlash, it’s no huge stretch to peg this season as Carmody’s denouement, a do-or-die culmination to a successful 12-year tenure, but one that could leave him wanting more if he fails to reach the promised land.