Mar 132012

If this be March, we must all be mad.  Right now, a rather tiny number of people are mad because, honoring a long tradition, Northwestern University’s Men’s Basketball team has not been invited to play in the NCAA tournament.

Northwestern Basketball is noted for futility.  Through last season, it’s lifetime winning percentage is 41%.  The program flirted with, well, not excellence; let’s call it “above averageness” a couple of times (16-1 in 1930!), but always sank back to the usual.  I admit that I really didn’t notice the degree of futility as an undergrad: my high school, which house of horrors shall remain nameless, had an athletic tradition of being roundly humiliated by the other schools in its conference, and then mocked.  In my time, NU’s football team was pretty good, and I really didn’t notice that the basketball program was entering one of its periods of decline.  Then the entire school sort of slid into a slough of despair, when the grass went unmowed and the hedges untrimmed, and professors forgot to go to class.  Abandoning the “collegiate gothic” architecture of John Gamble Rogers, it erected concrete box after concrete box.  And the athletic teams became jokes too trite to tell.  Survivors call these the Dark Ages, the Lost Years, the Years of Futility.

For Men’s Basketball, a series of reputable coaches-Bill Foster, Tex Winter, Ricky Byrdsong, Kevin O’Neill – tried and failed to improve the team, eventually quitting or getting fired or (in O’Neill’s case), running screaming into the night.  Bill Carmody, the current head coach, has not been fired, nor has he quit, and if he screams in the night, he does it so as no one notices.  I wouldn’t blame him if he does.  After a long period of painstaking building (you cannot use the term “rebuilding” about NU basketball), the last four years have been quite good – 75 wins, 55 defeats, and the improvement in basketball playing ability of his teams has been noticeable.  But NU has not been invited to play in the NCAA tournament.  This enrages some witnesses, who demanded that the coach be fired.
Let us put this another way: there are those who, infuriated by NU’s exclusion from the NCAA field, demand that the coach with a career winning percentage at NU of 48%, 58%  over the last 4 years, and whose players do not do embarrassing things, be replaced.  This coach’s immediate predecessors had winning percentages of (are you ready for this?  It’s pathetic) 32% 5%, 28%, 31% and 34%, over a quarter of a century.  That is a deep, dark hole indeed.  In fact, the four-year record for 2008-2012 is unmatched since the inception of the NCAA tournament.  There are a couple of decent four year runs in that time (1957-1960, 1965-1968), but they don’t quite reach the level of the last four years.  There’s a bitter irony that NU basketball got bad just at the time the NCAA tournament got invented: before 1939, NU had 14 winning seasons.  Since 1939, 17.  In fact, until the last four years, NU had not accumulated 4 consecutive winning seasons since 1912-1915.  Good grief.  My great-aunt Bertha was living in Old Willard (Music Administration to you newbies) then.  This year, 19 points are the difference between an 18 and 25 win seasons.  One thing a coach can’t do is actually make shots.

Getting invited in to the NCAA tournament is, I submit, a false metric.  Better questions, I would say, involve how Carmody relates to his players (which I don’t pretend to know), how he identifies and recruits potential players, and whether (and this is a close judgment call, quite opaque to those outside the program) the immediate future is likely to be rosier than most of the past.  Next year’s team seems likely to be larger and quicker than this years, but short on experience.

Try as I might, I can’t find a huge reason to fire this guy other than the NCAA thingy – an arbitrary metric at best.

Dec 262011

Through last year, NU basketball’s record is 955 wins and 1373 losses,  a winning percentage about 41%. Excluding Bill Carmody’s tenure, the percentage is just under40%.  It a record of mediocrity with flashes of acceptability, accented with long periods of wretchedness. Since 1970, and again excluding Carmody’s tenure, the winning percentage is 31.7%. So it is a testament to Coach Carmody’s patient work at NU that the team has put together two 20 win seasons, and that fans are impatient to at last receive the hitherto unthinkable invitation to the NCAA tournament.

NU is 10-2 so far this year with conference play about to begin.  So far NU has shown the familiar hallmarks of the last couple of years – good offense, poor-to-average rebounding, spotty defense.

There are, it seems, two routes to that historic tournament invitation.  The team must win 21 to 22 games (in other words, go at least 11-7 in the Big 10), or play deep into the conference championship tournament in March.  Winning 10 or 11 games in the loaded Big10 seems unlikely, and even 9-9 seems a steep hill to climb.  But there it is: the goal and the necessities for getting there are clear enough. Go .500 and finish regular season 19-11, win a game or two in the conference tournament, and the invitation probably comes.  Go, 7-11, let us say, to finish 17-13, and then need to win at least 2 and more likely 3 games in tournament.  In any analysis, a tough assignment for a team with spotty defense and poor rebounding. By track record, the invitation seems unlikely – but not impossible.  It’s a matter of a hairsbreadth now, rather than a fever dream.

Of course, it’s a measure of success that folks are disappointed and frustrated over a near miss: NU will almost certainly go over .500 again this year, will flirt with the NCAA invitation at least, may well upset a couple of highly ranked teams, and be entertaining rather than excruciating to watch – all immense improvements. The NU Administration seems committed to doing whatever they can to bring about overall improvement; there was a (now distant, I’m happy to say) time when the administration seemed to be surprised at the mere existence of an athletic program. That attitude dug a deep hole that it has taken a very long time to dig out of.  So I’m not about to join the chorus of Carmody-detractors if the Cats aren’t asked to dance this year.  He may or may not be the coach to bring that about (and I am not sure I want the Cats to invited merely to be first round fodder for some No. 1 seed.  I’d like them to go to the tournament to make someone nervous).  If he’s not that coach, he has at least changed the circumstances for his successor to take the next step.