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Column: It's Not Bill Carmody Who's Keeping Northwestern from Taking the Next Step

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

When the final horn blew to conclude Northwestern’s 73-59 loss to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, you could almost sense a collective sigh of relief from Wildcats’ fan base and everyone involved with the team.

That’s not to say the team and the coaches — especially seniors Alex Marcotullio and Reggie Hearn — weren’t incredibly disappointed with the outcome of Thursday night’s game. After all, the dream of an NCAA Tournament berth, no matter the odds, was now an impossibility, not a dream. But that final whistle signaled the end to what was the toughest, most frustrating season for NU hoops in a long time.

“It was really difficult, especially for our senior class,” Marcotullio said. “But that’s basketball.”

Now just about everyone — with the exception of the seniors, who would love things to go back to the optimism of November — is looking toward the future, ready to say good riddance to 2012-13. The problem is, that future is murky, especially when it comes to speculation about Bill Carmody’s job status.

Carmody tried to make it about the seniors. He tried to reflect on their careers, rather than fight for his job. That’s just the way he is.

“I didn’t know there was that much speculation going on until I got asked by a reporter maybe a week ago, or before practice one time,” Hearn said. “I wasn’t really aware of it. And I think that Coach Carmody and the coaching staff have done a great job of not really letting it affect the way they coach.”

But Carmody was aware of it; he’s a realist and he’ll admit that. He refused to talk about the future — all the talent coming back next year — and lobby for his job, because again, that’s not who he is. He did, however, speak candidly about the state of the program now compared to when he took over 13 years ago.

“Well the talent is measurably better,” he said.

Of course, there’s no denying that fact. Even the most ardent “Fire Carmody” campaign leaders will admit to that. After all, Carmody’s team was “basically playing with all guards and freshmen,” as he said, after JerShon Cobb, Drew Crawford, Sanjay Lumpkin and Jared Swopshire went out, but they still kept things close with Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa. The talent level, even with the injuries, is better than the Northwestern teams of old.

But the problem many fans seem to have with Carmody is his inability to bring the program to the next step. Carmody readily admitted that, “everyone’s goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament. So we haven’t been able to accomplish that.”

But is it really Carmody holding NU back, or is NU holding itself back? Carmody hinted toward the latter Thursday night, and by all accounts, he’s right.

“There’s not much different now about what Northwestern offers than it was when Kevin O’Neil was here and (Ricky) Byrdsong and Bill Foster and all those,” he said. “So everyone knows, people have talked about it, it’s sort of like an arms race. So the gap might be widening that way. But I feel like we have done a pretty good job of bringing in some pretty good players and getting better.”

In a way, Carmody is recruiting against inflation. The product he’s offering isn’t worth any more than it was, but everything else he’s recruiting against is getting better and better. That makes giving solid recruiting pitches tougher and tougher, but he’s still managed to move the program forward.

Competing for NCAA Tournament berths with NU’s facilities and academic standards is a near impossible task, and it’s only getting tougher with each year that passes. With the current limitations, NU can put together a nice little program that might make the NCAA Tournament every once in awhile, but it can’t become a consistent winner until at least one of those restraints are gone, whether Bill Carmody, Chris Collins, Shaka Smart or even Mike Krzyzewski is the coach.

People always want to compare football and basketball, but as Carmody points out, “football and basketball are apples and oranges.” NU has committed to its football program. It’s building top-notch facilities for that program, which, non-coincidentally, has seen an uptick in recruiting.

Not to beat a dead horse, but Carmody is a realist. He knows that football is top dog.

“Money comes in from football,” he said. “People said 85 percent is football and basketball is like 15 percent. And our administration knows that and they’re going to do something about that. And it’s just a question of, you have to pick something first.”

NU basketball is going to get its facelift, but it’s going to have to wait its turn. The problem is, for recruiting to improve, there needs to some sort of concrete plan in place to improve the basketball facilities, or the challenges will remain for the program.

“The goal of the staff and the players all along has been to get to the tournament, and I think the administration knows that we sort of have to move ahead,” Carmody said.

The administration is going to move ahead, but it’s unclear whether that will be with or without its longtime coach. Maybe Carmody has reached his ceiling, but not the ceiling of his coaching ability; rather, the ceiling set by insurmountable recruiting obstacles.

If that’s the case, it’s not the head coach that’s holding this program back from taking the next step.