Northwestern will Make the Tourney this Year, I mean it this time

bill carmody

“Wait till next year” has become a seriously overused cliche in Chicago sports, but now it applies to teams other than the Cubs. You can say it about Northwestern, and their college football bowl win drought (1949). The past two years, the Cats were just an errant kick away from ending that streak.

In college basketball, there’s another streak alive and well. The Cats are the only power conference team never to have made the NCAA tournament. However, much like in football they have come especially close the past two years.

’08-’09 saw some program signature wins: at eventual national runner-up Michigan State and Purdue, a top 15 team. Last year saw a school record for wins, the only 20 victory season in school history, and the first national ranking in 40 years.

Ultimately though, they fell well short of the NCAA goal both times.

By Paul M. Banks

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Charting a Northwestern NCAA Tournament Course

By Paul M. Banks

January is the most murderous month on the schedule for the Northwestern Wildcats. February/March should be much easier for the Cats, and when it’s all said and done- they could quite possibly have that elusive first NCAA tournament bid in program history.

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Michigan State’s Tom Izzo Predicts Northwestern in Tourney!

NorthwesternTom_Izzo_at_Midnight_madness

By Paul M. Banks

Legendary Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo went out on a limb and told the media that this is the year Northwestern qualifies for their first NCAA Tournament in school history. In this video, he explains why he thinks the Wildcats will make their first NCAA Tournament this year. He also gives detailed analysis of the steps the program took last year, and where they are going.

Bill Carmody Comments on the Cats Upcoming Season

Ohio State Northwestern Basketball

By Paul M. Banks

Bill Carmody may not have gotten his Northwestern Wildcats their first NCAA tourney bid last year, but he did accomplish a few things that hadn’t been done before. The Cats set a new school record for home wins with 13, and they finished just one victory shy of the school record for wins in a season. Carmody himself is now 2nd in program history for coaching victories.

This year, they’ll have more games scheduled, and even more games, as their lone road non-conference game is at N.C. State, the ACC’s likely bottom-feeder. They’ll have a school record 19 home games this season, so this could be the year the tourney drought ends. Here are some of Bill’s more notable things that he’s said to the press about the year ahead

This year’s outlook…

“We had a decent year last year and we’re all pretty enthused about some of our wins and heartbroken with some of our losses, but I think our guys are pretty confident that they can play with just about anybody. I think the confidence level is right where it should be, not crazy, but just right where it should be. They’re working hard in practice and that’s good.”

The main two offensive weapons on this team will be the one and two scorers in last night’s 78-49 exhibition win over Robert Morris University-  Kevin Coble and John Shurna…

“You have (Kevin) Coble up front who has led us in scoring and rebounding the last three years. He got stronger. Those of you who have been around a while know that when he was a freshman and he came here and he wasn’t really a three-point shooter. He didn’t shoot long shots. He was a scorer, but he’s moved it out further and further. Each year he’s gotten better and now he shoots two-and-a-half steps past that three-point line pretty consistently. He’s getting to the hole, getting to the rim, not getting knocked down as often. Still getting knocked down; he went down three times today on his drives, but he’s definitely stronger and heavier and that’s good.”NUCOURTSIDE

“Shurna had a very good summer. He made the Under-19 USA team where he played for about two weeks down in Colorado Springs, made the team, and went to Sydney, Australia, for three or four days then to New Zealand and he was a significant part of that gold-medal winning squad. So he’s confident.”

I would agree. This year Shurna seems more sure of himself both on the court and when he takes the podium to speak with the media this year. Last season, as he was getting used to speaking with the media, he often had a Paulie Bleeker from “Juno” like sheepishness. This fall, he’s got a much more commanding presence.

Defense is often overlooked on all levels of basketball, but stopping people consistently will be critical to this team’s success, and they have a really good, and very underrated defender in swingman Jeremy Nash…

“We haven’t played that much man-to-man, but when you play match-up you have to keep the guy in front of you a little bit. I’d say Nash is pretty good, not just because he steals balls but because, when he wants, he can keep his body in front. Coble is a very good low post defender. Even though he’s a skinny guy, he’s long and he runs around guys. Once they get it, it might be troublesome sometimes but he keeps balls away from guys so he doesn’t have to play defense, which is okay. I think that Kyle (Rowley) and Luka (Mirkovic) will be pretty good defenders. They’ll be pretty good defenders as they move along.”

On scheduling, scheduling teams that could help RPI and if scheduling differently would have helped them make the tournament…

“I don’t think that it matters. I think we had a pretty tough out of conference schedule. You play 30 games and 19 or 20 of them — 19 are against — if you just play one game in the Big Ten tournament against conference foes and then you have the Big Ten-ACC challenge, and we had DePaul last year and Stanford. We had some pretty decent teams in there, and Florida State in the challenge.NUCOURTUDE2

I think we lost a couple of games that we sort of gave away and that was the difference. But every program is at a different stage. So you’re trying to balance that out wins and tough schedule and RPI and all that kind of stuff. But I think that last year we hit it just about right. And I think if we held on to a couple of leads, I think we would have gotten into the tournament last year.

Tom Izzo said this is the year they make the tournament. Others are jumping on the purple bandwagon. His response to the idea of the pressure being on him.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’s that much pressure. If you have some good players, which I think we do, we look forward to it. That’s why you’re here. There’s 330 Division I teams and that’s everyone’s goal right now to get in the NCAA. And we’re just really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a tough year in the conference. CARMODYPROFILE

I think we have probably one of our better teams coming up. But just looking around from top to bottom that the league is very strong and so it’s going to be difficult. But I don’t see it’s really pressure. I think the guys sort of embrace that.”

Where Drew Crawford, a two guard who choose NU over Wake Forest and Oklahoma State, fits in…

“Drew Crawford is a true freshman from Naperville. We lost Moore who is a long-range shooter. Drew makes shots, but he’s not the kind of shooter that Craig is. But I think I’m going to throw him in there because he’s a pretty athletic kid. He can score — makes a jump shot. Gets to the basket a little bit. Gets a few rebounds, couple blocked shots.”

Big Ten Basketball Media Day Musings

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By Paul M. Banks

The Big Ten is light years stronger than it is in football. So the theme of the day was the strength of the conference, most specifically, the talent in the class of 2011. This year’s preseason all-conference team was similar to last year’s postseason all-conference team; all five were sophomores then and juniors now. Imagine how strong the conference will be when those guys are seniors. With the exception of Ohio State’s Evan Turner, who’s a projected lottery pick now, all of them should be back for what could be a magical 2010-2011 season. But from top to bottom, the conference is extremely deep, and 8 of the 11 teams could make the NCAA tournament this year, and 7 qualified last year.Evan-Turner

Also today, the slightly less credible and slightly more biased of the two major polls, the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, was released. If you don’t think it’s more fickle than the AP poll, take a look at who’s playing on an ESPN network in a given week, and look at how much lower they’re ranked in the AP poll. Michigan State, last year’s national runner-up, got ranked #2 with 3 first place votes and Purdue was #7. Michigan #15, Ohio State #17, Minnesota #18 with Illinois just missing the top 25.

Of course, the grand marshal of the Big Ten b-ball media day parade is Tom Izzo, the dean of coaches who’s been at Michigan State for 15 years. He is to this day what Joe Paterno is to football media day. H to the Izzo made a big statement when he took the microphone.

“I’ve been in the league now 26, 27th year as a GA on up. And I definitely thought early it was great when I first got in with all those great coaches, and then maybe we had a little bit of a lull. And then in ’99, 2000, we had two teams in the Final Four and I thought it was really good but I think this is the best it’s been since maybe that date. And because of that, I honestly see nine or 10, eight, nine teams that realistically could win the league. And, yeah, some are better than others right now. When you look at Purdue, Ohio State. I think Michigan is going to be much improved. I think Illinois will be much improved. And Purdue, with everybody back, we won it by four games last year, but understand Robbie Hummel made a lot of that possible.

And he’s back healthy and Matt’s done an incredible job with that program. And you just start looking around. Bo’s teams are always going to be good. Northwestern, I mean, Bill’s — I told him I was going to put pressure on him. This is his year to get there. And I think it is. I really honestly do.”

That’s right, Izzo said Northwestern will make the tournament for the first time in school history! And this was another storyline that was often revisited during the day. Last year, I wrote a story saying NU could make the tournament. I took some criticism on NBC’s site and even got called-out by one of my own writers. The next week, Northwestern beat a ranked team, then beat Izzo’s Spartans at Michigan State. Then every major media outlet covering college basketball did the same story I did two weeks earlier. I never received any validation from my detractors, and unfortunately, the Wildcats faded down the stretch and didn’t make the tourney.

Here’s how Northwestern Head Coach Bill Carmody responded to Izzo’s optimistic prediction.

Q. Tom Izzo just said this is the year for you guys to make the tournament. There’s a lot of that talk. Do you welcome that pressure?

COACH CARMODY: Yeah, I don’t think it’s that much pressure. If you have some good players, which I think we do, we look forward to it. That’s why you’re here. There’s 330 Division I teams and that’s everyone’s goal right now to get in the NCAA. It’s going to be a tough year in the conference. That’s the only thing. I think we have probably one of our better teams coming up. But just looking around from top to bottom that the league is very strong and so it’s going to be difficult. But I don’t see it’s really pressure. I think the guys sort of embrace that.

Look for a lot more on that storyline, as well as plenty of Michigan State and Northwestern coverage this winter.

But getting back to Izzo, he’s the rock star of the one-on-one interviews during the two hour period of media availability. There’s always a line for him, and a crowd listening to what he says. Protocol dictates you wait your turn to get up and talk to him. Unless you’re that old white douchebag with the ugly, creepy hair that used to be a Chicago Tribune columnist, then you just jump in and cut people off- same with some other old douche on the other side of me. Izzo was all class though, he saw what happened.TomIzzoGrandRapids

He made sure the collegiate female reporter, who was there longer than I, got all her questions in, in turn. And when one of the old jackass reporters tried cutting me off, I leaned in to make sure that didn’t happen. Izzo was smart in reading my body language, and patted me on the shoulder when my turn came up. He was most accommodating, and like I said before, all class. Last year’s Big Ten player of the year, and this year’s POY Kalin Lucas, is fortunate to have such a fine coach.

But like forwards battling down low for a rebound, reporters have to aggressively push and shove for position too. All in all, it was a fun and productive morning, even more so than Big Ten football media day.

And I enjoyed it much more than those two afternoons in July because 1.) Unlike in football, practice has already been going on for a couple weeks, so you’re already more in the mood for the event

2.)  You can feel the added national relevance here, and that additional buzz feels nice.