Close Game Clarity & The Carmody Conundrum
This topic isn’t going away. Hopefully, the vitriol that has surfaced around the “should Bill Carmody be replaced?” will. On the eve of Northwestern’s fourth straight NIT appearance (vs Akron, Tues 8pm et ESPN2 @Welsh-Ryan), Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh seemed to hit all the right notes when assessing the future of Northwestern basketball and whether or not head coach Bill Carmody will get lucky number year 13 at the helm (he says “don’t”). This is the latest in what has become a daily media topic, both among hometown outlets and purple mafia perched in “national” media outlets (ie SI’s Stewart Mandel called the ‘Cats latest late game flop a reflection of their coach). Teddy Greenstein recently laid out the pros and cons very well in the Carmody debate, without opining on what he believed NU should do.
I wanted to wait on this post until AFTER the NIT, but I can’t – the media hounds are beating the drum and I felt it appropriate to weigh in with some opinions. There are a few things missing from the philosophical and rhetorical questions being posed by media members. The most glaring hole in any coverage is any actual criticism of in-game coaching. Perhaps the continued mention of so many close game and OT losses implies that this is readily apparent, however to me it is worth exploring.
You can almost throw a dart at any of the close losses this season and really put the coaching tactics under the microscope. It’s more than a philosophical should you call a TO vs letting the team take the last shot in flow type of thing. Bill Carmody for years has been known as a lethal coach coming out of timeouts when he can design an out of bounds play. That went by the wayside in close games this year.
Pick a close loss, any close loss and you’ll see what I mean. Purdue hits a baseline “j” to go ahead by 2 with over 7.0 seconds left at Welsh-Ryan. The ‘Cats call a timeout to presumably set up a series of options for the final shot. After this full timeout, Purdue applies full-court pressure and Sobo barely gets it to halfcourt before finding Shurna who flings a 35-foot prayer at the buzzer. Against Ohio State, the ‘Cats are tied with the same amount of time left and after a timeout, the ‘Cats show Alex Marcotullio as the lone pressure man in the backcourt providing an easy-as-pie pass for the Buckeyes to launch it to halfcourt and float a no-brainer lob to Jared Sullinger who has the 6-foot JerShon Cobb fronting him in the post. There are still 3.3 seconds left and we let the flow happen which results in a near half-court heave from Shurna. I can keep going, but you get the point.
Any counter argument to above comes down to talk of injuries which is countered by lack of depth on our bench. The bar debate among NU fans seems to have a pick a side and here is your script. It’s exhausting. But, I do believe, aside from a few jackasses making hurtful comments, it comes from a place of love. Considering the infamy and suffering of NU basketball fans, I think we have some of the best fans in the entire nation. Give me any B1G prolgram not named Indiana and put them on a 50-year no NCAA Tournament track and then let’s talk attendance figures.
However, there is one other seldom scribed about element of the close game, no soup for you misses – the Carmody karma. When I watch Tom Izzo, Coach K, Leonard Hamilton and other coaches in tight games down the stretch, they evoke a feeling of support and calmness. Sure, they may yell at a player for a mental error, but they evoke that “you know what to do” sense of reassurance. It’s a winning attitude. It’s the moxie to say things like Izzo did when after the loss to Ohio State in the regular season he said they were going to Indy to get their title back. Coach Carmody meanwhile, spent years literally turning his back on players when we shoot a free throw. He makes gestures and displays body language that makes it seem like he’s ostracizing his players in clutch situations. It’s worn very thin on me. I can’t think of a time when it’s been a final possession and he looked like he was in sync supporting his team.
Despite the downsides, there have been a ton of positives. Carmody had turned NU into a competitive program. Thanks to Tavaras Hardy, he’s attracted an increase in talent to Evanston with the likes of Crawford, Cobb, Demps etc..His players graduate, never hit the police blotter and he’s done it on a foundation of nothing (the program he inherited post KO was in God-awful shape).
His Princeton offense isn’t some methodical slow-down the game tactic that average fans think it is. He’s actually produced one of the more effective scoring teams in the B1G in recent years. The problem continues to be fundamentals on defense, despite the effective (initially) 1-3-1. The ‘Cats don’t box out. Never have under Carmody. They are 333 in the nation in rebounding. Before you point to size, I’ll tell you, if they boxed out and opponents size was the reason for the rebounds, I’d grant you that. We don’t rebound. We’re traditionally one of the worst in the conference in defensive efficiency.
Those on the fence about keeping Carmody point to next year’s team, with finally some bigs on the floor with TCU transfer Nikolas Cerina, RS-freshman Mike Turner, big man Alex Olah, Shurna-like build Kale Abrahamson along with highly touted G Tre Demps, a healthy JerShon Cobb, Reggie Hearn, Marco and of course, Sobo as a sophomore. Should you change the head coach, will we repeat a 1990 NU transfermania (ironically Rex Walters, USF head coach is getting his name mentioned for some openings) and lose the base and revert back to a cellar-dwellar? Here is the conundrum. You can’t make the move to replace a Carmody unless you have the solution in hand.
‘Cats fans will bring up names like Duke assistant Chris Collins or the white hot VCU head man Shaka Smart, whom Illini nation is lusting for, but until you have certainty that a)they would take the job and b)you can protect the players and recruiting commitments from bolting you can’t make a move. Hence the complicated Carmody conundrum. It is different at NU and the ultimate insiders in the coaching world warn about taking the job, perhaps until now. Thanks to the work Bill Carmody has done.
The facilities upgrade is real. Folks, it is happening. You may not like the speed at which the announcements are coming, but hoops is getting a facility overhaul of pretty big proportions. Mike Thomas, the Illini AD is talking about a $100M+ remodeling of Assembly Hall and an upgrade to the practice facility. It’s part of the package along with a suitcase full of dough to try and lure a “hot” coach to Champaign. Carmody has managed to upgrade the program to a new level – an average at best program (not a knock) – without facilities as part of the package offering, until now.
However, in the big picture, the image of the program has been brought to light by the bright lights of the national media. You can’t read an article without the mention of the Chicago Cubs, or the fact that the length of time Carmody has had (12 seasons) to break through. I keep getting emails and Tweets with Rodney Dangerfield references – no respect. It turns out that NU wasn’t even one of the last six teams considered for the NCAA Tournament and then, where perception meets the road, we weren’t even one of the top 12 NIT teams. To me that screams of national perception weighing in once again.
I do have one bone to pick with the media, though. Comparisons to Duke. I can’t speak to the admissions standards for ballers at Vandy, Stanford or Notre Dame, but I can tell you several of the players annually that start for Duke are players that we couldn’t get in to NU even if we had them wanting to come to Evanston.
Coach Carmody has done a lot of things right, but as David Haugh pointed out, just not enough. In a class act he’s paying for all student tickets to tomorrow night’s NIT home game against a pesky Akron team that was 2 points away from dancing themselves (after winning their division in the MAC (13-3) they lost in the conference finals to Ohio by 1 point). If chalk were to hold, the ‘Cats will be out in the second round when they venture to play 1-seed and Pac 12 regular season champion, Washington.
From there, the Carmody debate and Northwestern basketball future will rage on until Jim Phillips makes his decision about what to do. We as a program are stuck in that conundrum of competing in the arms race on every front – facilities, players, wins – while trying to do it the right way. With becoming a player in likely the best revenue sport conference in America, comes criticism and fans that debate the program, the coach, the play and put it under a microscope. The hoops program is at a critical crossroads, so close, yet still so far.
This afternoon we’ll offer up some LTP bracket fun and return of focus back to the task at hand – Akron and the NIT.