With the Gophers on the NIT bubble and Northwestern precariously perched on the important bubble, Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament game between Minnesota and the Wildcats matters a lot more to the folks down in Evanston than it should to you. So what better time to check in with the good folks at Lake The Posts, who cover the Wildcats when they aren’t collecting flag pictures.
FTB: Northwestern’s failure to ever make the NCAA tournament is well known. What would it mean to Northwestern to finally get in?
LTP: That is really the question isn’t it? We honestly do not know. It is like finally getting that bowl win we are lusting after in football. It takes off those lists and gets everyone to stop talking about Northwestern’s largely negative history and start talking about the much more positive (we hope) future. It is just a step in that process to building a successful program in the revenue sports.
It is, I imagine, like getting to back-to-back-to-back bowls for the first time. It is just a level of consistency you have to reach. For the last three years, Northwestern has had a postseason-worthy team. Now the team needs to take that next step and break through. And you have to do it once before you can do it twice.
The exposure from just being in the Tournament and hearing pundits talk about the chances of an upset and the CBS music and all of that, it is just a symbol that Northwestern has arrived in some fashion. And, no matter how long it takes, we can move on to the next stage of developing the program — getting back — without the distraction of completing the first step.
FTB: How strong of a desire is there at Northwestern for a highly successful basketball program? Would an appearance in the tournament be enough to spur the athletic program to improve facilities? (many Gopher fans were appalled by just how horrible Welsh-Ryan is)
LTP:There is a big desire to see Northwestern reach consistency in the revenue sports. That definitely includes basketball. People of my generation of Wildcat fans (I am a recent graduate, actually), not only expect victory like the 1995 football team boldly proclaimed, but want a little bit more. They want continued success.
There has been a lot of frustration when it comes to the basketball team. Fans are upset that it has taken Bill Carmody 11 years to get Northwestern just to this level (on the doorstep of the Tournament). The fact it took this long and the talent level has increased has created a demand for more immediate success.
Obviously, Northwestern needs to improve all of its athletic facilities. We lag behind every other school in the conference and that is something that is holding us back. Winning will generate the desire to kickstart the facilities plan. The plan is already before the Board of Trustees. What it involves and what it will do to Welsh-Ryan Arena still is completely unknown. A trip to the Tournament might get the effort moving quickly again.
FTB: Gopher fans have had more than their fair share of tough luck. Make us feel a little better. Describe a few of Northwestern’s near tournament misses.
LTP:This year’s were not enough? Man, the Michigan and Ohio State losses took a ton out of this team and the fan base. Those games felt like play in games and the disappointments was pretty deep. We thought that kind of hurt was reserved for football.
But other close calls? We thought we had a chance to be in the running on Selection Sunday in 2009. We needed a win at Ohio State on the final day of the Big Ten season and came up woefully short. Then there was a game against Michigan in 1994 that could have turned the season around and helped the Wildcats build some momentum for a Tournament run. That one also ended in a loss.
There are just very very few “close calls” in Northwestern history. Many times, the Wildcats blow their chance with a bad loss in the non-conference season or a bad loss in the Big Ten — that 2009 “quest” was also derailed with a late-season loss at Iowa. And then there are plenty of teams that were just horrible. That is Northwestern basketball in a nutshell. The chances for a run like this are just so few and far between.
FTB: Is this Carmody’s last stand. He has been at Northwestern longer than almost every Big Ten coach as been with their teams, he has good point guard, an athletic scorer, and the school’s all time leading scorer. How many more chances does he get?
LTP: It certainly feels like it is Carmody’s last stand. There are plenty of people who believe that a failure to reach the NCAA Tournament this year should result in finding somebody else to lead this team. The argument ultimately goes back to the fact it took Carmody 10 years to get a team that could consistently make the NIT. And Northwestern’s recruiting shortcomings fall squarely on Carmody.
Carmody is just not a rah-rah, go out and sell the program type guy. And a lot of people want a charismatic coach who will sell Northwestern to recruits, to fans, to everyone. Carmody is a great coach. He seems to connect with all of his players (not named Kevin Coble or T.J. Parker, at least) and has gotten a lot out of teams with inferior talent. But, the fan base is getting restless. Any step back — like not making even the NIT next year — would probably be the final straw.
FTB: What is it like to be a Wildcat basketball fan? Do the fans demand wins? Is it a lovable loser Chicago Cubs sort of thing?
LTP:It is a little bit of both. I think there is a constant state of dread that the worst will happen with basketball. For example, I honestly was not surprised by Ohio State’s game-winner last week. That is just the kind of thing that happens to this team. So, like that, we are like the Cubs.
But with the success the football team has had and the relative success of the basketball team, there are a lot of Northwestern fans who want to start winning and expect winning. If you are going to proclaim yourself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and try to attract the entire Chicago sports market, you better win. That is the only way to guarantee attendance.
And that is what Northwestern is after. Wins are becoming part of the expectation for this program.
FTB: What led to the improvement of the Wildcats in recent years. I remember when winning a Big Ten game was an achievement for Northwestern teams
LTP: Recruitment has been big. Northwestern is bringing in more talented players than it had before. That effort goes directly to assistant coach Tavaras Hardy, who is much more in tune with the AAU scene, has done. He was the guy that brought in John Shurna, Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb. I believe he also had a pretty big hand in bringing in Michael “Juice” Thompson as well.
Northwestern was always playing with inferior talent. Now, they have started to get players that are at least on the level of some starters elsewhere in the Big Ten. That has enabled them to compete and win at a higher rate — especially in non-conference games.
FTB: In the event that Northwestern does make the tournament, will the university president apologize when the asteroid wipes out the planet on selection sunday?
LTP: Yes… I think we can do that. As long as the asteroid allows us to enjoy one game… at least until the inevitable collapse and disappointment of a Northwestern basketball game sets in.