Northwestern Seeks An End To College Basketball’s Longest Streak Of Futility

By: 07.18.12
Drew Crawford

Drew Crawford (photo. Stephen J. Carrera/Northwestern Athletics)

There are certain streaks in sports that have lasted so long that it seems like they will never end. One such streak, the New York Mets’ streak of seasons without a no-hitter, ended at 51 when Johan Santana no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals on June 1st. Another such streak nearly ended a few weeks ago as Andy Murray sought to become the first British man to win at Wimbledon since 1936 before he lost in the Final to Roger Federer. Perhaps the most infamous streak in all of sports belongs to the Chicago Cubs, who have not a World Series in 103 seasons and there is little hope for one this year with the team currently 14.5 games out of first place.

While the Cubs’ stretch of futility gets the most attention, another streak has been festering along Chicago’s North Shore since 1939, and that streak belongs to Northwestern University’s men’s basketball team. Since the NCAA Tournament came to be, the Wildcats are the only Division I program from a Power Six conference to have never qualified. Not once. And it’s not like the teams have been very competitive either as they have finished higher than fourth place in the Big Ten only twice in team history, including one stretch from 1984 to 1993 with nine consecutive seasons without a double digit victory total.

Take a second to comprehend that: nine straight seasons with no more than ten wins for a program that plays in the Big Ten, not the MEAC. They even finished one season with an 0-18 conference record. The team managed to turn it around in the 1993-94 season, finishing 15-14 and making the NIT Tournament, but promptly returned to its normal state of existence with a 5-22 season followed up by consecutive seven-win seasons. All of this futility has not inspired much hope among fans or alumni of the school.

“I was there in the mid to late 90’s and it was pretty pathetic,” says Northwestern alum and Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel. “I covered teams that went 7-20 or 7-22, and there were a couple of exceptions, but most of the players probably shouldn’t have had Big Ten scholarships. They were so bad that I had a couple of friends who were at Northwestern for four years and they only time they set foot in the arena was for orientation and graduation. I’m pretty pessimistic about the team because I’ve just conditioned myself over time to not get my hopes up.”

While the basketball team has been mired in an eternal slump, the rest of the Northwestern athletic department has had a significant run of success over the last 20 years. Starting in 1996, when the team made the Rose Bowl, the football team has become a consistent presence in post-season bowl games and has produced NFL players like Barry Cofield, Luis Castillo, and Mike Kafka. The women’s lacrosse team has developed into a national powerhouse, winning five straight national championships from 2005-2009, and men’s baseball has produced MLB players like J.A. Happ and Mark Loretta. So the ability to succeed is possible at Northwestern and the basketball team’s lack of success has baffled Mandel.

“It defies logic,” he says exasperatedly. “We’ve been saying this since I was in school and the football team went to the Rose Bowl. Even then, we would say, ‘It doesn’t make any sense, how does a football team that needs 50-60 upper-echelon players break through and make the Rose Bowl and now make a bowl consistently, but basketball can’t.’

“With basketball, and you’ve seen this at many non-powerhouse programs, it just takes one or two kind of transcendent players on a team to go to the NCAA Tournament which takes 68 teams so it just kind of defies logic that the basketball team has become the team that has never gotten over the hump in comparison to the football team, or the lacrosse team becoming a national power. You just need less guys to succeed in basketball, but they’ve never been able to do it.”

Mandel certainly has a point. Schools like VCU and Butler, with minimal exposure and revenue compared to that of Northwestern, have not only made the NCAA Tournament consistently, but been able to make deep runs in the Tournament and win games once there. This makes the streak all the more shocking. However, hope has been on the rise in Evanston over the past few seasons.

Starting in 2008-09 with the arrival of John Shurna, the Wildcats have made four straight NIT appearances including a quarterfinal appearance in 2010-2011. They have come painfully close to ending the streak each year where a few breaks here or there would have made history, but instead the team has been stuck in neutral: good enough to compete, but not good enough for the Big Dance. They are some of the best teams in program history, but then again, it would be hard not to be given that very history. The fact that they have come so close, but haven’t been able to do it, has just exacerbated the pain for both those inside and outside the program.

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Drew Crawford

Drew Crawford (photo. Stephen J. Carrera/Northwestern Athletics)

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.

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The team would rely heavily on their two stars, Crawford and Shurna, while the other three guys on the court tightened up. And not only did it cost them games, but probably a Tournament bid as well. Luckily for the Wildcats, Crawford is a player and person of exemplary character. Not only does he succeed on the court, but was named a second-team Academic All-American this past season and is widely regarded as one of the smartest, most approachable guys in college basketball, and the type of guy Northwestern players and fans can rally around as the face of their program.

“I really think he has been a great ambassador for Northwestern University in terms of his personality off the court,” says Bernfield. “Drew is as classy as they come in the way he treats the media and the way he treats people around the program. He’s a very grounded kid, and I think given his father, Danny Crawford’s, experience as an NBA referee, he’s been exposed to the things the sort of things that he was going to get at Northwestern. I think that has made him very comfortable in what he is.

“His array of talent as a player and person is just so great for the program because you have a guy who you really can put up front and say this is the guy we want to build around and want to represent our program. I think for Drew Crawford to be at the forefront of that first team to make the Tournament would be the ideal situation for Drew and the university because he is a wonderful example of what a college athlete should be.”

While Crawford will be counted upon to carry the team, especially with the loss of Shurna, he won’t be alone. No program can ever replace a guy like John Shurna, the emotional leader and leading scorer in program history, but they can bring in pieces to help offset his loss. The biggest piece to that puzzle was Jared Swopshire, a power forward transfer from the University of Louisville. Swopshire was a key reserve on the Cardinals’ Final Four team last season and not only brings his talent, but also the experience of what it takes to win and how to get to where Northwestern wants to go.

In addition to Swopshire, Carmody brought in a pair of centers in Alex Olah and Chier Ajou (who still needs to be ruled eligible) to give the team some much needed size down low. They also return Dave Sobolewski, a sophomore point guard with a good outside shot, who surprised a lot of people last year as the starting point guard. Guards Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb are also returning.

The pieces are in place for history to be made. The star player. The transfer from Louisville who knows what it takes to win. The head coach who is waiting to seize the moment. And perhaps most of all, a fan base that has been waiting forever for their one shining moment.

“Last year though people seemed to be really passionate about it, looking at the bubble watch and really paying close attention to the team,” says Mandel. “You get your hopes up every year and they toy with the fans each year that I think when their name actually pops up on Selection Sunday you will never see a more elated fan base especially because I get the feeling that if this day ever happens it will be down to the wire, a lot of worrying on selection Sunday in typical Northwestern fashion.”

After all these years of waiting, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Will Northwestern make the NCAA Tournament next year?

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