The team is now 4-7 in B1G play. Yet, after its most recent game the head coach claimed “the one thing that’s happening now is that guys are trusting each other more, they’re trusting the system”. One of the starters chimed in with this postgame observation “We’re different from last year’s team”. By now you probably figured out this is not your Northwestern Wildcats. The coach is John Groce and the team is the ‘Cats archrival, Illinois. Yes, the Illini and Northwestern are tied with identical 4-7 conference records after NU lost to Iowa with a depleted squad and the Illini capped off a week that included upsetting #1 Indiana at home and knocking off a ranked Minnesota team at the Barn last night.
Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of B1G play. Northwestern basketball is downright depressing right now. A blow to the head of starting center, Alex Olah, and a knee injury to starting forward, Jared Swopshire, resulted in both guys missing most of the second half of play in the 71-57 loss at Iowa on Saturday afternoon. Bench strength, once the projected difference maker of this year’s team, is now exposed as fans find themselves wondering if somehow assistant coaches like Joe Kennedy and Craig Moore might somehow have eligibility to suit up, perhaps out of some unknown rule of empathy from the NCAA.
Northwestern will likely be without four projected starters from the outset of the season (Alex Olah, Jared Swopshire, Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb) when they venture to a personal house of horrors, Ohio State, on Valentine’s night, this Thursday. When you add in bench players Chier Ajou and Sanjay Lumpkin are redshirting due to injury and fan favorite preferred walk-on Aaron Liberman is also redshirting, you get the sense the IM courts are buzzing with thoughts about guys getting called “up” to play for Carmody.
Even with everyone on this squad either healthy or eligible, the talent factor is one that certainly is not an upper tier B1G level. To Carmody’s credit, from the last Iowa embarrassment at home to this Iowa road loss, he had found a way to wring every ounce of upside out of this team. Of course, non-apologists will cite the fact that injuries happen and when they do, depth of talent gets either rewarded or exposed. This Northwestern squad, if fully healthy, is at best a bubble team. We lack consistency in the post. We’re poor defenders in transition and we become one dimensional God forbid someone play any type of zone.
Guys like David Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn will earn mention for anyone’s “All-Heart” teams. Yet, watching Fran McCaffery’s team dismantle us on Saturday (after the stated injuries) for the season sweep simply highlighted yet another program that was down on hard times, that has since passed us in the trending up category. Remember how weak that program was under Todd Lickliter? Don’t look know, but McCaffery is about to become .500 as a coach at Iowa in year three, and his bigs are good. Meanwhile, just when you thought the Illini were bottoming out they win back-to-back huge games over ranked opponents and are tied with us in conference play (as is Iowa), yet the talk about Groce’s team is legitimately turning to NCAA Tournament talk.
The contrast between the trio of 4-7 teams in conference is just too striking. Wildcat fans are depressed. Iowa fans feel as if the basketball program tied has turned, despite several heartbreaking last second losses to upper tier B1G teams (Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin), while Illini fans feel like that team they had in December is back and poised for a stretch run to get them back to March Madness. Yes, that same Illini team we absolutely throttled a month ago.
With no Swopshire and no Olah, even the most optimistic fan would give NU little chance on Thursday. Thoughts of crafty massacre-themed headlines on Valentine’s Day are already likely percolating among Buckeyes’ media. Readers seem to be simply heartbroken by NU basketball, and while there is no doubt a “woe-is-us” crutch going on among the fan base, it’s simply overwhelming when you look at the string of bad luck we’ve had injury-wise this year. Whether it is karma or coincidence, it is really hard to have your heart in this program right now. Many of us are too distracted by shoes dropping from the sky wondering who can make it stop.
More than 20 years of rooting for this program can do that to you. It’ll suck the life out of you. Then you realize how powerless you are as a fan to do much about it. It’s that negative attitude that needs adjusting and we need a jolt from someone to do it. The “Expect Victory” mentality that Barnett instilled within the football program and the Wildcat fan base is so sorely needed. I’ve somehow become emotionless watching basketball games as I realize my age and experience are starting to get the most of my seemingly relentless optimism that maybe, just maybe, this is the game that turns the tide to get us to basketball’s promised land. I find myself eyeing the schedule and thinking by this time next Monday, after games with Ohio State and Illinois, we could very well be 4-9 and have ensured yet another year where we won’t cross the .500 mark in B1G play. It will be Coach Carmody’s 14th season at the helm and at that point, he’ll have failed to ever cross the objective line of conference mediocrity. No coach in my lifetime has accomplished that “feat”.
I sat there on Saturday watching Wisconsin just knowing they would beat Michigan. When the Wolverines drained a 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left, I wanted to see how the Kohl Center magic would play out. Of course, Ben Brust, hit a running 40-footer to send it to OT, where it was a foregone conclusion the Badgers would move to 11-0 vs Michigan in that building. I wondered if they had some type of conspiracy theory, a magnet in the basketball kind of thing, that enabled a seemingly Northwestern-like kind of talent level, that enabled Bo Ryan to win 92% of his home games. It is simply the most remarkable feat to me in college basketball’s current landscape. The permeation of “we WILL win” that hovers over a Badgers home game had me jealous. It had me longing for that feeling that we are just now getting used to in football (that is, going in to every game expecting to win). For a moment, I wondered if it was possible to considering switching my college basketball allegiance to ease my pain. I came to my senses and realized that in addition to being blasphemous, it is something that isn’t physically possible. I’ll always be a Wildcat basketball fan.
It then hit me that perhaps I should just let PRR write about hoops. He’s a young guy without the baggage of 20 years of “why us?” sentiment. Everything in life is relative, even mediocrity. The current ‘Cats senior class has 72 wins, just four shy of the alltime best set by John Shurna’s class (76 wins). While I don’t think we’ll get there this season, it is hard to rebuke the fact this is the most successful stint in modern NU basketball history. Perhaps a younger buck can take the fact that consecutive NIT appearances, while a potential building block, aren’t something that should be rationalized as having arrived anywhere, as we older timers tend to do. My thoughts have turned to loading LTP up with all kinds of football-related diversions to get our minds in a more positive place. Perhaps the losses have finally pushed me over the edge in to curmudgeon-ville. I want to mix it up. I want to be positive. I want to provide hope and fun and energy for this program. Yet, when you’re down to seven scholarship players and not only no post presence this year, but a woeful challenge in the paint for next year, it gets oppressive. Bring me back folks.