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One-on-One with Northwestern Basketball Coach Bill Carmody

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

We're just kicking off football season, but basketball season is coming up soon, as Northwestern opens with an exhibition game against University of Chicago on Nov. 7. We checked in with NU basketball coach Bill Carmody to talk about all of the new personnel heading into this season, the criticisms he dealt with last year and his thoughts on the Los Angeles Lakers' new Princeton offense.

Jared Swopshire is one of many newcomers in Northwestern's frontcourt this season. (Photo courtesy Scout.com)

Is there a new energy heading into the season? 

I think, to tell you the truth, we’ve had pretty good energy the past few years, but every year is different, even if you have the same guys. So I think we’ve had pretty good energy for the past few years. The reason I think it seems like a little higher volume right now is so many new faces. Normally I would say that’s a little scary, but we have three starters back, maybe three-and-a-half almost, but we probably have eight guys or so who have not played here.

Just to go through them quickly, last year we had Tre Demps, who was a freshman and didn’t play so he redshirted because he was injured, Mike Turner didn’t play because he wasn’t ready, physically, to play. So it’s almost like what football does with a lot of the guys, just bulk them up a little bit. Nikola Cerina is a transfer, so he didn’t play. So those three guys haven’t played, but they’re not exactly rookies. Nikola played at TCU, the other two guys were here for a year. Now you’re adding the two freshmen who signed in November of last year, Sanjay Lumpkin and Kale Abrahamson. We picked up Alexander Olah, Chier Ajou, Jared Swopshire, (Aaron) Liberman, there’s probably someone I missed in there. We’ve got a lot of new faces, but they’re not all rookies.

Have you ever had a year where depth in the frontcourt has been so different from year to year?

Probably not, no. I think this is sort of like a confluence of things happening, like this new rule that a fifth-year guy can transfer and not sit out and then a coupe transfers. In the spring we got two 7-foot guys, so it’s going to be different, but you think you have all this depth but you never really know; you have to see them start practicing. People say, “You’ve got to redshirt this guy,” and I just think, let it fall into place, let the guys tell me who is going to play by their play. So, we’ll see. It’s certainly going to be a little different.

What does Swopshire bring that you didn’t have last year?

I think (posting up), that’s what he’s very good at. You know, it was funny because a lot of people said last year, with injuries, Shurna ended up being your 5-man for most of the Big Ten and I said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.” (Louisville coach Rick) Pitino did the same thing with Swopshire — Swopshire was a center last year for a lot of games because they got some injuries and stuff. So you have to go small, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But, I think he posts up, he can dribble the ball, he’s a good passer, he’s a good competitor, obviously a mature, experienced player at a high level. I don’t like to compare “what does he have that we didn’t have,” I just know what he has. He seems like a really solid player.

Have you talked to Pitino at all about him?

No, because I had seen him in high school, and so it doesn’t matter what he did anywhere else because we do things different and I used him differently. I’ll expect him to do more, actually, because there they put him in the corner and the guy dribbled off of ball screens, Silva, their guard. He only made five three’s the whol year, so you say he’s a good shooter, we’ll see about that.

Will he be expected to shoot more?

What he does bring is that he can score in a few different ways. He can get in the lane, he can post up, he can drive it to the basket, he gets out on the break. The shooting, I think will be okay. He’s not a misser or anything like that.

Did the selection committee criteria (weighting good wins over bad losses) surprise you and change how you schedule?

Well a lot of scheduling was done; an awful lot of it was done by that time. I think that did surprise me. There were some teams that had some bad losses and some good wins, and we basically didn’t have any bad losses, but we had only a few what you call good wins. So what was going on, we started the season with LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall and I thought those were pretty good wins, and as it turns out they were just okay by the end of the season.

I don’t think it changes how we schedule. I may in the future a little bit, but I always thought those bad losses hurt you more.

Would you say it’s a tougher non-conference schedule than last year with Baylor, Butler, Stanford and Maryland?

Well we had Baylor last year, we had (the ACC/Big 10 Challenge) away. So now you’re saying Butler and Stanford, Stanford will be very good, Butler will be very good. It’s a good schedule. It’s definitely a good schedule.

Northwestern struggled with close losses last year, causing some fans to question Carmody's job security. This year, however, Carmody says the program is on the upswing.

Last year with the close losses, did you talk to the team about something you can do to pull those out?

Yeah, I’ve gone through it, my staff have gone through all the different things. Some were caused by, I thought, offensively, not being able to beat guys off the dribble, that’s what teams do. We didn’t really have a guy we thought could really (do that). I tried Drew (Crawford) a couple times at Michigan, here (against) Illinois, give him the ball at the end and try something. That didn’t work out — doesn’t mean it can’t work out. Others were defensively. We’ve looked at them all and tried to see what we can do and what we think, and you have certain things you can do in those situations and last year it just was rough.

On the other hand, we beat Penn State at the end, their place. I think there were a couple others that were close. We have a lot of close games, that’s it, all across the conference.

Is there a guy, this year, who you think you can get the ball to at the end of the game?

We are going to be different because I think that when we throw the ball into our big guy, he’ll be able to do something with it once in a while and that will be nice. And if a guy is penetrating, flip it off to him, they’ll stuff it. And so, it’s changed, it’s just changed. I’m not going to try to say this is what we’ll do, I have to see how the different guys (play). Can you throw it down to Swopshire down there? Is that the thing to do? When they double-team him, who are we throwing it out to? If you have a big guy in there when you’re center is in there and you throw it down, are they going to double-team him or let him see? So you have to wait a little bit to see what the guys can do?

Will it help you run your offense better having a true center?

Definitely. Yeah, because there will be some scoring inside, and maybe they’ll have to be double-teamed. We never had to be double-teamed. We just were fortunate to have a guy like Shurna who could do some things if he caught the ball in motion and stuff like that. He came through with some pig plays and big shots.

With the criticisms at the end of last year, was that difficult to go through or did you not really hear them?

No, I paid attention to it because, here I am. If we’re having press conferences about it, obviously I’m part of that press conference, I’m paying attention to it.

Was that difficult for you?

Yeah, it was.

You said earlier this summer you thought you were trending upward, is there a new attitude around the team, having the players and depth now?

I think that the depth really helps. Like I said, last year we had 12 scholarships and three of the guys were out. So we only had nine and a couple of those guys got injured and it was tough, so I think depth is going to help, size is going to help, competitiveness is going to help. We worked out with the guys this summer and it was the first year we were allowed to do that for a couple of hours a week, and I just feel like the guys, it was very good — competitive, good chemistry. I just liked the feel I got about the team.

Was (that rule important for the new guys? Is this the best year for that to happen?

No doubt about it. I did this thing last night, a dinner with 300 people sort of kicking off the sports year, and that’s what I talked about, that next year it might not be that important, but having four freshmen, Swop, three guys that didn’t really play last year because they were redshirted, and so I said it was vital and it just seemed like, it doesn’t sound like much time, but we got a lot done. And for a guy like Jared I think it was really important, and he’s going to play so you don’t want him to be hindered by (thinking) “what am I supposed to be doing.” He’s got a good sense — it wouldn’t take him any time to pick things up — but just that, it’s like 14 hours of practice, it’s like a week’s worth of practice. That’s pretty good.

With the upturn in recruiting, has something changed in your recruiting philosophy or did it just sort of happen that way?

I think the staff, the guys have done a really good job. Alex (Olah) was identified by Ivan Vujic by going over there two years ago and seeing him in the European Championship stuff, like U17’s and stuff. Fred Hill is doing a very nice job back on the East Coast and he’s a factor in Chicago, too, the Chicago area. And Tavaras (Hardy) is sort of overseeing everything, so I just think they’re getting on the good guys now.

People see that, woah, we’re so close, we’re so close, and every high school kid thinks, “(They) beat Michigan State, lost to Michigan by one, lost to Ohio State by one or two — I can make the difference.” You know what I mean? Everyone thinks that they can. And so the Big Ten Network has really helped, helped recruiting. I think our guys, we just decided to go after a higher caliber player.

What’s the reason for getting a lot of Eastern European players? 

When I first got here, we couldn’t really get involved with too many Chicago guys and all that stuff and went over and got some Croatian guys. I made a few trips over there and liked a few guys, and then people see, Croatian guys see, the comfort level, it’s like when you get a bunch of guys from New York City go to some other school and they say, “Oh, Joe is there and he says it’s a great place.” It’s just a level of comfort, and so, (Croatian players) see that (NU) take a lot of international players, (they think), “they will understand me.”

Carmody has shared ideas with Eddie Jordan, who was brought in to help the Lakers set up the Princeton offense.

Do you think NU has been able to recruit Chicago more now? Is that because of success?

I think it’s just success. People see that we can hang. We have been fairly competitive. I think they had lost 40-some games in a row when I got here, I forget, it was crazy. You can look it up, it was nuts. It’s taken a long time, but we’re certainly competitive in the conference; it’s not like we’re at the bottom. So kids see that, we get on kids early and bring them up. And we have a good bunch of guys. Your own guys are your best recruiters. You get the (recruits) on campus and the guys that come here see them and say, the comfort level, again, is important.

Have the Lakers talked to you about putting in a Princeton offense?

I know Eddie Jordan fairly well. He used to be with the Sacramento Kings. He went to Rutgers. He was a very good player, played for the Lakers, played, I think, for probably six, eight years, I don’t know. So they hired him and I saw him this summer and stuff. We used to talk a lot about it. It doesn’t surprise me, because when Phil Jackson had all these guys here on the Bulls, they had two of the top 50 players of all time, Pippen and Jordan, and Phil Jackson could have just easily rolled the ball out and said, “Come on guys,” and probably done pretty well. But he ran the most complex offense, his triangle stuff. So it doesn’t surprise me at all because the best players love (the Princeton) offense. It’s the guys that can’t do things that don’t like this offense. It’s the truth.

I’m asking, like Swopshire, his father contacted us after the season and said, “He can do so many things and really didn’t have that opportunity at Louisville.” It’s just different; it’s not better. And he said, “He can dribble, he can pass, he can shoot, he can run, and so your offense gives everyone a chance to do it.” I said, “Yeah, but you have to do more.” You can’t just be a catch-and-shoot guy. You’ve got to be able to put the ball on the deck; you’ve got to pass the ball. And so, a guy like Kobe Bryant who is one of the best players in the league and has been, he can do everything, so it’s great for guys who are really good.

Has that helped in recruiting? Saying Kobe asked for the Princeton offense? 

It’s something you throw out there, certainly.