Addressing Northwestern’s Hoops Dilemma


By Chris Mahr

If Iowa wins its regular season finale on Sunday, the Big Ten will boast a staggering eight teams with 20 or more wins — two-thirds of the conference’s membership.

The members of that octet can proudly claim to be part of the deepest league in the sport. Conversely, the four teams at the bottom of the Big Ten standings have to ask themselves what they’re doing wrong. None more so than Northwestern.

For the Wildcats, it marks yet another season of being the only hoops program from a BCS conference never to make the NCAA tournament. Their lack of hardwood success is not only in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the Big Ten but also to the Northwestern football team, which was once even more futile but has since become a perennially solid program with five straight bowl berths since 2008.

What can Northwestern do to put a stop to a soon-to-be, 74-year streak of not reaching the Big Dance that it has no business being on the end of? I offer three humble suggestions.

#1: Recruit Almost Exclusively in Chicago

Similar to what Jim Weber suggested when he was diagnosing the problems plaguing DePaul, the Wildcats need a much bigger Windy City feel to their team. Of the 15 players on this year’s roster, only three hail from the Chicago area.

If Northwestern wants to forge a new identity that isn’t “The Only BCS Team Not to Make the NCAA Tournament,” their best (and most practical) option is “Chicago’s Team.” And unlike DePaul, the Wildcats can boast the following to its recruits:

  • Membership in a conference with stability
  • Presence on TV (thanks to the Big Ten Network)
  • A degree from one of the best academic institutions among the BCS conferences (with all due respect to DePaul’s academics)

Pitching all this to local recruits who also want to play in front of their friends and families seems like a surefire winner, as it loads the roster with good players while also making it the college team in America’s third-largest city.

I understand that Northwestern’s strict academic standards makes it somewhat harder to recruit. But considering the sheer size of the Chicago metropolitan area, it shouldn’t be that hard to find talented Windy City-bred players who can also keep up in the classroom.

#2: Renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena

Last December marked the 60th anniversary of the Wildcats’ home court, Welsh-Ryan Arena (formerly known as McGaw Memorial Hall). The last major renovation to the structure was nearly 30 years ago, when seating capacity increased by 15% and a four-sided scoreboard was hung from midcourt.

Aside from that, the structure has been more or less untouched over six decades. It’s hard to attract high-caliber recruits when you’re convincing them they should play in a creaky building like that.

An all-out replacement of Welsh-Ryan isn’t necessary, but at the very least a facelift is. The exterior resembles that of an age-old public high school, not an BCS conference basketball arena. The arena itself, meanwhile, has some high school-ish elements of its own — namely the fold-out wooden risers.

With an endowment of $7.119 billion (10th-highest among U.S. colleges and universities), Northwestern certainly has the money necessary to fund a much-needed modernization of its basketball arena. If recruits and fans see that commitment to the future and keeping up with the sport’s Joneses, they’ll be much more interested in the program than they currently are.

#3: Replace Bill Carmody

I wrestled with this for a while. On the one hand, Carmody is by far the most successful Northwestern coach of the last six decades, trailing only Arthur Lonborg in the Wildcats’ record books for career wins. His teams have reached four straight NITs (2009–2012) and won 20 games for the first time in NU history (in 2009–2010 and 2010–2011).

On the other hand, Carmody hasn’t gotten the program over that non-tournament hump since taking over in 2000. Nor have his teams ever finished better than .500 in Big Ten play. And at age 61, it’s not like there’s much room or time for Carmody to suddenly hit his stride.

Northwestern is better going off with someone younger and someone who gets Midwest basketball, Chicago especially. Possible candidates in this regard include current assistants Matt Graves (Butler) and Dwayne Stephens (Michigan State), whom the Wildcats brass can hire with hopes that they become the next Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart.

Another potential interesting candidate: Craig Robinson, who could soon find himself out as Oregon State’s head coach. Barack Obama’s brother-in-law is a Chicago native who spent his first six seasons in coaching (2000–2006) on Carmody’s staff at Northwestern, where he developed a reputation as an effective recruiter.

While Robinson’s five-year tenure with the Beavers has been disappointing, he could find himself more in his element (and thus more success) back in the Windy City. And he proved he could win with a team at an academically demanding school, having guided Brown to a program-record 19 wins in 2007–2008.

Like Carmody, Robinson favors the Princeton offense, so Northwestern players wouldn’t have to deal with a dreaded style-of-play transition. And because of his famous sister/brother-in-law, Robinson could give the Wildcats something they’ve lacked for much of their existence: Attention.

Next year will be Year 75 of Northwestern’s quest to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. Before they get started, these Wildcats would be wise to make sure they have the right dancing shoes.

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.

Top and Bottom Photo Credit: David Banks/USA Today Sports

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