November 24, 2008

Northwestern's struggles prove tough to overcome

Futility, thy name is Northwestern basketball.

The NCAA tournament began in 1939. It was held at Patten Gymnasium on the campus of Northwestern.

That's the closest the Wildcats have ever been to it.

Exactly 300 schools have been to the NCAA tournament. Every "Big Six" conference team has been at least twice. All save for South Florida have been at least five times.

But not Northwestern. You can't spell "nuh-uh" without NU.

The Wildcats never have been to the Big Dance. Not once in the past 70 years. Tiny Belmont University in Nashville has been three times, and it has been eligible for only seven years.

There really haven't been that many close calls for Northwestern either. Wildcats fans have been able to make dinner reservations on Selection Sunday without a second thought as to whether there will be a TV in the restaurant.

Every program has its ups and downs, except for Northwestern. The elevator is stuck on the ground floor. Since 1969, Northwestern is 143-525 in the Big Ten, a .214 winning percentage. The coach with the best Big Ten record during that stretch, Tex Winter, had a .291 winning percentage. That's the best of the seven coaches in the past 30 years.

Bill Carmody is the current coach. He's entering his ninth season. His career mark at NU is 105-135 (including 2-0 this season) overall and 36-94 (.277 winning percentage) in the Big Ten. The Wildcats come off a season in which they were last in the conference, the third time they have finished in the cellar under Carmody.

How is it possible for a program to be this bad for this long? Must it remain so, or can Northwestern hit the "UP" button and rise all the way to the NCAA tournament?

Academics and basketball

Northwestern's campus is located in Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago, right on the banks of Lake Michigan. The university is known for churning out actors and journalists, among them the likes of Charlton Heston, Cloris Leachman, Warren Beatty, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Zach Braff, Stephen Colbert, Brent Musburger, Michael Wilbon and Mike Greenberg. It annually ranks among the top 20 academic schools in the country. Incoming freshmen in 2007 had an average SAT score of 1468 and/or an average ACT score of 32.35.

Northwestern's woes
"Big Six" conference teams listed by number of NCAA tournament appearances:
North Carolina40
Notre Dame29
St. John's27
Ohio State24
Kansas State23
Michigan State22
N.C. State22
Oklahoma State22
West Virginia21
Wake Forest20
Boston College17
Oregon State16
Georgia Tech15
Southern Cal14
Texas Tech14
Iowa State13
Arizona State12
Florida State10
Mississippi State9
Seton Hall9
Texas A&M9
Penn State8
South Carolina8
Virginia Tech8
Ole Miss6
Washington State5
South Florida2
Northwestern has higher academic standards than many of its conference brethren. But so do Duke (32 NCAA appearances), Wake Forest (20), Stanford (16) and Vanderbilt (10). How can they find smart kids who can play and Northwestern can't?

"I think it's a fair question," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "People talk about it, and the reality is our pool of prospective student-athletes is smaller than most schools. But it's comparable to other private schools [in the "Big Six" conferences], and they have had great success on the court. It can be done. It's shown that other places can have exceptionally high academics and perform on the basketball court. I think Northwestern can be like those others. I think you can have both."

No one is in a better position to speak about the challenges that face the Wildcats than Shon Morris. He was a Wildcats player in the 1980s, and has worked in the Northwestern athletic department for the past 13 years as the director of development.

"The first thing I'll tell you is I don't buy anyone who uses academics; that's a crutch," said Morris, who also is an analyst for NU games on WGN radio in Chicago and a studio analyst for Big Ten games on ESPN Regional television. "Stanford is no dog school. I don't think that's got anything to do with it. Sometimes people hide behind that.

"The biggest thing to overcome is what football had to overcome and that's operating against a complete and total lack of tradition. That's the biggest uphill climb. It's easier to go where the road is paved than to drive the bulldozer."

Lack of tradition

No BCS school has less basketball tradition than Northwestern. It is an inescapable fact.

It gets worse than no NCAA tournament appearances and winning percentages so horrific they make Stephen King cringe. The Wildcats have had more winless conference records (two; 1990-91 and 1999-2000) than winning conference records (one; 1967-68) since 1961.

The 1980s, a forgettable decade that brought us such regrettable trends as leg warmers, the DeLorean and New Coke, was a particularly forgettable time in the history of the country's most forgettable program. Northwestern didn't produce a single first-team All-Big Ten selection in the decade. Wildcats players have been first team only 11 times, less than any other Big Ten team (not counting Penn State, which didn't join the league until 1993).

NU closed the decade with six consecutive 2-16 seasons in the league. In fact, any freshman who entered Northwestern between the fall of 1984 and the fall of 1988 and graduated on time never saw a Wildcats basketball team win more than two conference games in a season.

Phillips, who became the school's AD less than a year ago after serving in the same capacity at Northern Illinois, grew up on the north side of Chicago, one of 10 children. He frequented Northwestern sporting events, including his fair share of basketball games at Welsh-Ryan Arena. He was in attendance for arguably the highest point in Wildcats basketball history, a first-round NIT win over Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day in 1983.

"I've followed Northwestern my whole life," Phillips said. "I can remember the win over Notre Dame. I was there, with 8,000 or 9,000 other people. I certainly know the history of the program. I'm very familiar with what has occurred."

So how is it possible not to have stumbled into just one NCAA tournament bid by accident?

"I'm not sure," Phillips said. "Again, maybe I'm just the new AD and too Pollyanna-ish about it, but I'm very optimistic. We have a tremendous recruiting class. We've made a commitment with a $5 million facility with a new locker room, players' lounge, meeting room, coaches' offices. We have a chance to better than we were last year."

No one is blind to the difficulty of winning at Northwestern. It is scaling Everest with a windbreaker, some twine and a spork.

"It really comes down to kids get scared when they look at a place that hasn't been successful because it takes somewhat of a leap of faith," said Morris, who played from 1984-88 and ranks eighth on Northwestern's career scoring list. He also was a three-time Academic All-American. "That's the biggest thing to overcome. If there was an easy way, I would hope someone had overcome it by now. Kids looking at coming here get frightened because it's never been done."

Kevin O'Neill spent three seasons as coach, from 1997-2000. He went 30-56 overall and 9-39 in the Big Ten but managed a rare postseason appearance in the 1999 NIT.

"I think anytime you're fighting tradition, that's a big factor," said O'Neill, currently an assistant coach for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. "When you combine that and the fact it's truly an academic institution, it becomes difficult. It's a big job, but it's a doable job."

Is it 'doable'?

The arguments are easy enough to make, apparently not easy enough to translate.

It takes far fewer good players to turn around a basketball program than a football program. Yet somehow Northwestern has become respectable on the gridiron 9-3 this season while remaining an embarrassment on the court.

"If I thought it weren't possible, I'd throw up my hands and walk away and not care," Morris said. "It's absolutely not insurmountable. There's no reason why you can't have a consistently successful program. I define that just as I would in football, where every year they're in the mix for postseason play, be it bowls or the NCAA or NIT. Every 4-5 years, you make a run at the conference title.

"It's not realistic to be at top of the heap every year. The margin for error at Northwestern is slimmer. But there's no reason with all of the things you can sell here that you can't be in the mix in the two high-profile sports."

Despite the lack of tradition, there are elements on which to sell a prospective athlete. Northwestern plays in an elite conference. The conference has its own TV network, so parents will be able to see their sons play. The campus is scenic and secluded, yet close enough to enjoy all there is to Chicago.

"It's a great institution in an unbelievable location in a great conference," O'Neill said.

Phillips said he believes the facilities upgrades already have helped in recruiting.

"The biggest uphill battle is perception," Morris said. "It's never been done, so can it ever be done?"

When close turned to crash

Who knows what would have happened if Rex Walters, Kevin Nixon, David Holmes and Evan Pedersen hadn't transferred after the 1989-90 season. They had arrived together in 1988, though Nixon sat out his first season with knee tendinitis.

Walters ultimately left for Kansas. Holmes went to Rice. Nixon wound up at BYU. Pedersen transferred to St. Louis.

Walters lit up the Big Ten in his second season in 1989-90. He averaged 17.6 points and 4.5 assists per game. Holmes averaged 7.2 points. Nixon averaged 7.1 points and 2.7 rebounds. Pedersen averaged 4.8 points.

But the Big Ten was brutal in 1990. Seven of its 10 teams went to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats went 9-19 overall and 2-16 in the league. Eleven of the losses were to ranked teams. Sixteen of the losses were to teams that made the NCAA tournament. If not for one-point losses at Vanderbilt and at BYU, the Wildcats would have entered conference play 9-1.

Walters, who had come to the Midwestern school from California, had had enough. Northwestern had gone 18-38 overall and 4-32 in the Big Ten in his two seasons. Surely the grass was greener somewhere else. Anywhere else.

"I think we would have been more successful [if he and the others hadn't transferred]," said Walters, now the coach at San Francisco. "My goal was to get to postseason play and play in the NCAA tournament. That was my dream and it wasn't happening. I was also truly homesick. By going to Kansas, that wasn't going to change. But I wasn't going to be homesick and miserable."

The Jayhawks made the NCAA tournament in both of Walters' seasons there, including a trip to the Final Four. The Wildcats, impossibly, sunk even lower. In 1990-91, they didn't win a single game in the Big Ten, going 0-18. It was the first time a team had gone winless in the league on the court (some teams are listed in the Big Ten media guide with winless records because they forfeited games because of various transgressions) since the University of Chicago in 1945-46.

"It looked like they were getting ready to make a move, then those guys transferred out," Morris said. "Whatever momentum they had was decimated. They've had some very good players at any course in time, but none that overlapped. There were none together who could push it over the hump."

Turning it around

Mike Mullins is the coach of the Illinois Wolves, an established and respected AAU program based in the Chicago area. His son, Bryan, played for him and now is one of the top players in the Missouri Valley Conference at Southern Illinois. The Wolves have churned out several Division I players, some of whom have played in the Big Ten.

Mike Mullins is familiar with the NU program. His brother played football for the Wildcats in the 1960s. But until recently, he had sent few of his players to Evanston.

"Their recruiting priorities always baffled me," Mullins said. "Over the last decade, when it was at its low points, they seemed to concentrate on European kids or kids from other areas. They really didn't go after kids here that I and other coaches thought would have been interested in a school like Northwestern."

Mullins doesn't buy the notion that the lack of tradition is killing the 'Cats.

"History for these kids is what happened the year before," Mullins said. "The priority for all of these kids is to play right away. And playing in the Big Ten is a wonderful opportunity."

Mullins has a point. Increasingly prospects, even highly ranked ones, are looking at schools where they can have a major impact, not be just the next guy in line at Traditional Power U. Akron, Georgia State and La Salle have commitments from top 40 prospects in's 2009 rankings. Those three schools have combined for one NCAA tournament appearance in the past 15 years.

Mullins says Northwestern recently has shifted its recruiting focus back to recruits in the Chicago area.

"I give [assistant] Tavaras Hardy a lot of credit for reaching back out and establishing a rapport with coaches in this area," Mullins said. "You've got to go after top kids here, whether you can get them or not. I think for a while the direction was not there with Chicago-area kids. When Tavaras got the job, it was the first phone call I'd had from the Northwestern staff in years."

Hardy is entering his third season on Carmody's staff. He played at Northwestern from 1998-2002, including his final two seasons for Carmody. This is his first college coaching job after spending three years as an AAU coach in the Chicago area.

"I think Tavaras gets it," Mullins said. "He has as good a perspective as you can have on it."

Crunch time for Carmody

If ever there were a season for Northwestern to break through and by break through, we mean finish higher than eighth in the league, something a Carmody team has done once in the past six seasons this is it.

The Wildcats return four starters from a year ago, including three who averaged double figures in scoring. The only other Big Ten team to return three double-digit scorers is Purdue, the preseason pick to win the league.

NU didn't have leading scorer Kevin Coble (15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) for the first nine games last season. He was home in Phoenix tending to his mother, who was undergoing chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.

There also is the recruiting class Phillips mentioned, a five-man group that includes four three-star prospects. Northwestern beat Pittsburgh, Marquette and Wisconsin for 7-foot center Kyle Rowley. It beat Xavier and DePaul for shooting guard Nick Fruendt. Forward John Shurna had 17 points and nine rebounds in the Wildcats' 66-48 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last week. Shurna and Fruendt played for Mullins' AAU team.

"I think you look at the perimeter guys I thought Craig Moore [13.4 ppg, 3.1 apg] improved as much as anybody I've seen here in the last 10 years," Morris said. "He's a very solid overall player. He gave them nothing in his first two years if he wasn't making shots. He's back, and he's been through it. Coble will be with them the whole year. [Michael] Thompson is a nice to above-average point guard.

"The real key is to increase your margin for error. You can't get outrebounded by double digits and win. You don't have to be Naismith to figure that out. If some guys can come in and limit other teams' possessions and keep some alive on the other end, they could be interesting to watch. It's a very top-heavy league. Fifth place is not inconceivable."

Nearly impossible, but not inconceivable. It has happened once since 1970, when Carmody coaxed the 2003-04 Wildcats to an 8-8 Big Ten mark, good for a tie for fifth.

It was a season that pushed expectations to a dangerous level at a place completely unfamiliar with their weight. Carmody is 15-51 in the league since, including just 3-31 over the past two seasons.

We did not attempt to reach Carmody for this story. Instead, we talked to others about the struggles of the program.

"I hope he can get it going," Walters said of Carmody. "I really do. I think he's recruiting the right kids, but the fact of the matter is that if a kid can't go high Big Ten, he's probably going to a Missouri Valley school instead of Northwestern. You have to find a special kid who wants to make a difference. I wasn't one of them."

There is a new AD, too. One who didn't hire Carmody, but who has expectations.

"I think it's the same with any of the programs; I think a reasonable expectation is the program moving in a positive direction," Phillips said. "Academically, our student-athletes do very well. Socially, they're model citizens. And, yes, I want them to compete at a high level athletically.

"The Big Ten is a tremendous conference, and we have to perform better. Nobody feels worse about three wins in the Big Ten in the past two years than Coach Carmody. The thing I'm most excited about I will say this, I don't want anybody to have amnesia about Bill Carmody. The last couple of years are not what anybody wanted. But he's still the fastest coach to 100 wins in our history. The detractors can say what they want, but he certainly has done some good things."

And what if, just once, the elevator makes it to the top floor and the doors open to an NCAA bid.

"I always joke with my wife, and I'm not sure I'm really joking, but I don't need to see them play an NCAA game," Morris said. "If I see the name 'Northwestern' come across the screen on Selection Sunday, I can get hit by a bus on Monday morning."

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for He can be reached at is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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