Nothing quite sums up Northwestern’s recent basketball history, and its past season, like the game on Senior Night this past spring versus Ohio State. With the team precariously hanging on to a spot on the NCAA bubble, a win against the Buckeyes would have put them in an excellent position heading into the Big Ten Tournament, but it just wasn’t meant to be. After tying the game at 73 with 7.7 seconds left, the Wildcats couldn’t stop Jared Sullinger from scoring, and a last second heave by John Shurna fell short. Just like their NCAA Tournament hopes.
“Oh yeah, it kind of did,” says rising senior guard Drew Crawford when asked if the Ohio State loss epitomized Northwestern’s season. “There were so many games the entire season and late in the season as well where we played games versus top opponents that we could have and should have won down the stretch. That Ohio State game in particular, cause it likely would have gotten us into the Tournament and it was like some of the games we had earlier in the season where we struggled to close them out and play well down the stretch really hurt us.”
Luckily for Crawford, he has one more chance to make history as a senior this upcoming season, but this may also be the last chance for the team’s head coach Bill Carmody to make history as well. Carmody has been at the helm for the Wildcats for 12 seasons and has been given leeway that no other coach from a Power Six conference would be given. With no more than 16 wins in any of his first eight seasons, Carmody would have been long gone at any other Big Ten program, but at Northwestern the standards are different. He has been given time to put his system in place and the dividends are starting to pay off, but not enough to secure his long term future with the university.
“There is evidence to support that line of thinking – that this is a do-or-die year for Carmody – because at the end of this past season there was a prolonged decision about Carmody’s future by the athletic director Jim Phillips,” says WGN Radio’s Northwestern studio host Jordan Bernfield. “There was speculation that it might be the end of Carmody’s tenure, because I think that there was a level of disappointment that they didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament, but Phillips decided to keep him.”
“I think that Bill Carmody, when you consider where they were before he got there, has done a really good job. They have put a lot of talented players in a Northwestern uniform and they have had more success than that program had ever seen. So I think that the problem you face is, it is easy for fans to say ‘Lets fire the coach’, and if they fire him, somebody else will come in and take the team to new heights. The system that Carmody runs, the Princeton offense style, is uniquely recruited so if you don’t bring in the right coach, you might be taking two steps back before you potentially take three steps forward.”
That is a big reason why Carmody has stuck around so long. Despite the fact that it has taken longer than anybody, especially Carmody, would have liked, there is a foundation in place that would be hard to tear up. There is a buzz around the program that has never been there, evidenced by the sold-out arena and the fact that the team has been in the national conversation for the past few seasons, and also has recruited some very good players to the university.
Shurna, who became the school’s all-time leading scorer before graduating, is now playing in the Summer League for the Atlanta Hawks. His presence will be missed, but luckily for Carmody, Drew Crawford is still around. After winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award in his first season with the team, Crawford has managed to improve each season, despite the fact that defenses have focused in on him more intently as time has gone on. Perhaps the most impressive part of Crawford’s improvement has been his efficiency. Many times when a player increases his scoring, his shooting percentage decreases, but Crawford shot a career high 48.4 percent last season while averaging just over 16 points. His efficiency is something he takes a lot of pride in and has been a focal point of his off-season workouts.
“In terms of my game, efficiency is really important, shooting a good percentage from the field and doing whatever I can to help the team win,” says Crawford. “If I score a lot but I’m not efficient that isn’t helping the team. Also, with me being a senior I would like to kind of run things this year because this will be a big year for me as a senior leader to help run this team and bring these young guys along and really get things moving in the right direction. I know we have a lot of talent on this team, we just have to get it all in sync and we will be really tough to beat.”
Crawford talks about the importance of being a leader and for a team like Northwestern, that responsibility takes on extra meaning. For a program used to falling short, having a player who will take charge in crucial situations is absolutely critical. As Crawford mentioned, last year’s team had issues closing out games. For anyone who watched a Northwestern game last season, it was evident that the team played without confidence in the last five minutes of big games.