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Will Northwestern's Coaching Change Hamper Its NCAA Tournament Aspirations Next Season?

If speculation and conjecture over Northwestern’s next basketball coach were as prevalent as NCAA Tournament success, the Wildcats might never be in this situation to begin with – never searching for a replacement for deposed head man Bill Carmody, who was promptly dismissed less than two days after Northwestern ended its season in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.

But a coaching search is in fact the main talking point in Northwestern men’s basketball circles these days, and the brunt of the discussion has focused almost exclusively on who the Wildcats plan to hire next. Dozens of names have been thrown out from various outlets – from Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew to Duke assistant Jeff Capel to ESPN Studio analyst Seth Greenberg.

Speculation abounds. Uncertainty hangs. Fans, players and – let’s be real – even the media just wants to know who Northwestern will elect to lead the program forward. Save for a completely unexpected jump to the NFL by football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the new direction of Northwestern’s basketball program, under a new head coach, will lord over the summer and spring as Northwestern sports' biggest storyline.

All of the conjecture is understandable, but it purports to bury one important fact: Northwestern’s best chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the foreseeable future is next season, and a coaching change could derail that possibility.

The one saving grace of what turned out to be Bill Carmody’s final season in Evanston was the mass of injuries (and suspension) that morphed the Wildcats’ roster from a mediocre, mid-pack, NCAA Tournament-hopeful group into one of the worst power conference outfits in the country. Northwestern lost its best scorer (Drew Crawford), best defender (JerShonn Cobb), and several other key contributors – including Alex Olah, Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire – missed significant stretches at various points of the season.

Having just one, maybe two, of those players around could have changed the course of Northwestern’s season, kept it competitive long enough and deep enough to allow Carmody to finish out the length of his contract. Maybe not. The fact remains that Northwestern was never at full strength last season, and that attrition, some believed, could or should have afforded Carmody one more season on the job.

It didn’t – Carmody was canned before a season where he would, undoubtedly, put his best team of his tenure on the floor, with his best recruiting class to date, one that has since seen its best player, Jaren Sina, ask for his release from the program. With or without Sina – he hasn’t ruled out a return to the Wildcats, but has since received interest from Seton Hall, Alabama and others – Northwestern brings back its best team in recent memory. It could be the one that finally, mercifully, gets the Wildcats over the NCAA Tournament hump.

You would be able to say that with more certainty with Carmody at the helm. Like it or not, Carmody’s players responded to his coaching style, his Princeton system, his ability to mask athletic deficiencies with tactical acumen. Now that he’s gone, and the Wildcats will install a new coach this offseason, will the change in leadership fracture whatever chances Northwestern had of reaching the sport’s preeminent postseason tournament?

Coaching changes can mean a whole bunch of different things. Depending on who the Wildcats finally settle on – and all indications point to one of two candidates: Duke assistant Chris Collins or Bucknell Coach Dave Paulsen – the shift in philosophy at the highest level of leadership can transform a team’s identity and playing style at its core. Northwestern, with the same basic group of players – minus, of course, graduated seniors Reggie Hearn, Alex Marcotullio and Swopshire – could play like an entirely different team next season.

They could implement a three-out, two-in, floor-spacing, dribble-oriented motion offense, for example – the system Collins has mastered, by osmosis, over 12 seasons under Coach K at Duke. Paulsen, too, or whoever else may land the coaching position, would run things their way, from the outset. If in the long term it improves Northwestern’s chances at making the Tournament, so be it. Next season the changes could present an impossibly difficult situation for a returning group of players that, up until now, spent hours of practice and film study inhaling Carmody’s Princeton philosophy and 1-3-1 defense.

There will be a learning curve, no matter who steps in to lead the Wildcats next season, and in the beginning, the adjustment could be rough. Learning a new offense and defense in one offseason, for a group of players recruited and drilled in something as atypical and complex as the Princeton, may not go as swimmingly as most NU hoops optimists – those sticking to their guns that next season would be the year when the Wildcats finally make a breakthrough – would like.

There are a number of reasons why coaching changes happen. A former boss loses his touch. The program stalls out. Win totals dwindle. All of those criticisms could be aimed at Carmody, and all of them, in various measure, are accurate. One thing you can’t take away from the now deposed coach: he had a very good shot of taking this team to the Big Dance next season.

Whoever next inherits Northwestern’s historic programmatic burden, however successful over the lung run, will probably have a less good shot. That man – be it Paulsen or Collins or Phil Jackson – may find it difficult to push the Wildcats over the top next season.