Commentary

Could this be Northwestern's year?

Updated: November 6, 2009, 5:48 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern started playing basketball in 1905. The Wildcats have played in four postseason tournaments. The first two appearances -- in 1983 and '94 -- ended with second-round losses. The last two -- in 1999 and in 2009 -- ended abruptly in the first round.

All four of those appearances took place in the NIT, which means NU has an infamous place in history.

Since the first NCAA tournament in 1939, there have been 71 brackets. Not one of them has included Northwestern University, the only school in a power-six conference that has never been to the tournament.

Then there's North Dakota State.

The Bison became tourney-eligible last season after being a provisional Division I team and then won the Summit League tournament for the automatic berth. Two weeks ago, the Bison raised a banner in Fargo displaying their accomplishment as the newest member to earn a berth in the sport's cherished event.

[+] EnlargeBill Carmody
AP Photo/David CrenshawBill Carmody and the Wildcats played in the NIT last season, but that's not the tourney they're gunning for.

"Don't depress me," 10th-year Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "It's different [for them]. I'm happy they got in right off the bat. Coming here, I knew it was going to be a challenge. I had my eyes wide open. I wanted to give this a shot. It wasn't a monetary thing, even though my salary got better. I wanted to get smart guys that play at a high level. I know you can do it. I want to be a part of it. I think we can get it done."

He doesn't just think about the possibility. He's adamant it will not only get done, but get done this season. So is every player and coach within the program.

The Wildcats return the core of their team, save wing Craig Moore, NU's second-leading scorer last season. Kevin Coble is back up front with guards Michael Thompson and Jeremy Nash and forward John Shurna, who won gold with the under-19 U.S. national team this past summer in New Zealand. In addition, freshman wings Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio already have fit in with their spirited play and enthusiasm.

Last season, the Wildcats stunned Michigan State on the road, won at Purdue, beat Wisconsin and Ohio State at home and were probably two wins from earning an NCAA tournament berth. Tough home losses to Illinois (by one point) and Michigan (three) as well as a Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota sealed the Wildcats' postseason fate. Their 17-13 record earned them an NIT berth at Tulsa, where their season ended.

"I think we're going to be pretty good this year," Carmody said. "My hair is getting grayer. I think we're going to do it this year."

The players and the staff can't get away from the futility streak.

"I hear it from friends back home," said Shurna, who is from nearby Glen Ellyn, Ill. "My cousin asks me about it. People on campus that are interested in basketball always ask about it. Everyone asks about it."

Coble, as the face of the team, was blitzed about the failure to earn a berth at the Big Ten media day on Thursday in Rosemont, Ill. A native of Scottsdale, Ariz., even he hears about Northwestern's zero NCAA tournament appearances every time he goes back home.

"Constantly," Coble said. "It's just something in the back of your head. You keep hearing that it's never been done before. … 'Are you getting there this year?'"

Thompson, a junior from Chicago, deadpanned on how often he hears about the lack of a berth: "That's something I don't hear, well, maybe just once a week. Yeah, everyone expects us to make the NCAA tournament. They all want to be a part of history and finally make it. We're close. We beat Michigan State and Purdue and felt like we belonged in the field of 64. We just need to get that extra rebound, that extra defensive stop."

The confidence that the most astonishing streak in major college basketball may finally be ending is blossoming in Evanston. The Cubs are known in Chicagoland as the team that can't win a championship. But although the Cubs are trying to win a World Series for the first time in more than a century, Northwestern is just trying to get into its sport's playoffs.

"I think it would just explode here," Carmody said. "We're ready to do it. I think everyone would like that kind of story. We have fans that would go crazy. The whole city of Chicago would love it."

Carmody came from Princeton, where winning or challenging for the Ivy League title was a way of life under Pete Carril and then Carmody himself.

Big-name players have come through the Wildcats program such as Billy McKinney, Evan Eschmeyer, Jim Stack, Rick Sund, Shon Morris and Kevin Rankin. Coaches such as Tex Winter, Bill Foster and Kevin O'Neill, now the coach at USC, have come through Evanston. All of them had success at other outposts.

Still, none of them could earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. Comparable academic schools such as Stanford (16 appearances), Vanderbilt (10) and Duke (33) have had their runs in the NCAA tournament. Northwestern? The most visible banners at Welsh-Ryan Arena are of the other 10 schools in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern
AP Photo/Jim PrischingNorthwestern blew a 14-point lead in the final five minutes during last season's heartbreaker to Illinois.

"I look back at the academics this school offers, what type of school and conference we play in, and I can't wrap my mind around why it's been such a struggle," Coble said. "But we're here now. This is our chance to be the group that changes it and the one that everyone remembers."

The program has had its moments, but never the moment.

"It comes down to one word: talent," said Morris, who is Northwestern's senior associate athletic director in charge of development and No. 8 all time on the scoring list (1,407 points from 1984 to '88). "They've had talented players but haven't had enough talented players at the same time."

Morris said the personnel has been the top priority in snapping the streak, but changing the mindset atop the administration has been another important aspect. He said a change in attitude occurred recently when it was deemed "OK to be successful without having to minimize the academic reputation."

"If anything, it can maximize it," Morris said. "Whether they want to admit it or not, how the football and basketball teams do is how people follow the school. You'd like to think it's the Pulitzer Prize winner, but that's not the way life works."

The decision to hire Carmody was hardly a gamble. He had been a hit at Princeton, coaching the Tigers to two 14-0 Ivy League records and finishing 92-25 overall in four seasons. The Wildcats needed a niche, and they got one in Carmody. But inconsistency rained down on the program, and the lack of talent was glaring at times.

Morris said impatience was the norm in the past, but the administration stuck with Carmody through the decade that saw a change in athletic directors and presidents. It could finally pay off this season.

"If you ask the staff, we never thought it would take us this long," said NU assistant Mitch Henderson, who played under Carril when the Tigers beat UCLA in the NCAA tournament in 1996 and arrived with Carmody in 2000. "It's tough to get a group of guys to stay together, but we have, and now we're deep."

Bringing in alumnus Tavaras Hardy as an assistant coach has helped, too. Like former Princeton player and NU assistant Craig Robinson, who now coaches at Oregon State, Hardy left a career in the financial world to coach with Carmody.

"I love this place," Hardy said. "Outside of my family, Northwestern is the most important thing for me. I've had an opportunity to be a player, and now to coach here, to be with the first team that makes a big splash. That's why I took this job, leaving the investment world to coach. I know we're not that far away.

"The city of Chicago knows this is a great story, a story I love telling. I want it to be where we're held accountable for wins and losses like everyone else in the league. I know once we get there we'll be in a whole different league because our product is so different."

Morris said if the Wildcats reach the NCAA tournament, it would rival the interest of the school's Rose Bowl appearance in 1996, which helped erase the memory of an epic 34-game losing streak from 1979 to '82.

"Chicago is a pro sports town, but the city embraced the football program during that Rose Bowl season," Morris said. "This would be a huge story. I'm not saying the NCAA berth would surpass the Rose Bowl, but it would be held in high esteem and in Northwestern lore. The Chicago media market would love it."

The unfortunate reality for Northwestern is that the Big Ten could be the best and deepest conference in the country. The Cats don't enter the season predicted to finish higher than Michigan State, Purdue or Ohio State. Michigan and Illinois are clearly projected ahead of them as well. That leaves Northwestern, at least at the outset, with a group of schools such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State attempting to finish at the very least as high as sixth.

The Wildcats haven't had a top-four finish in the Big Ten since 1968 and have never -- I repeat, never -- had a 20-win season.

[+] EnlargeKevin Coble
AP Photo/Tony DingKevin Coble enters his senior season in hopes of leading NU to its first NCAA tourney.

Northwestern's nonconference schedule this season has plenty of opportunities for power-rating points before Big Ten play. The Wildcats likely have to split the two key games early against Butler (Nov. 18) at home and Notre Dame (Nov. 27) in the Chicago Invitational Challenge at the UIC Pavilion. The second game in that event will be against Iowa State or Saint Louis.

A road game at NC State (Dec. 1) in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and a visit from Stanford (Dec. 19) won't move the power-rating meter, but a loss could be crushing. Both teams are projected at the bottom of their respective leagues.

The start of Big Ten play is brutal with road games at Illinois and Michigan sandwiched around a home game with Michigan State. Northwestern's first five road games in the league are at Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota and MSU.

To finally make the Big Dance, NU probably can't lose more than two nonconference games and has to reach at least 9-9 in the Big Ten with wins over NCAA tournament-bound teams.

"We can't wait until January or February to steal games then," Coble said. "We've got to win our 10 or 11 conference games and do well on the road. It helps we have 19 or 20 home games when you count the exhibitions. Our new guys will be more comfortable here."

Coble recognizes that getting into a deep hole in the Big Ten is unacceptable for a team that needs momentum. He also knows the Wildcats are expected to win and finally earn a bid -- and said he thinks Carmody is just the man to take them there.

"You give a coach four or five years to turn around a program under a normal situation, but these are unique circumstances," Coble said. "At Northwestern, they needed eight, nine or 10 years. The pieces are in place now, and we've shown a lot of progress."

Northwestern was in the discussion for a bid later into last season. The Wildcats are being talked about during the preseason.

"I feel now we should be," Carmody said. "Everyone here is working as hard as in any other program. We have just a little bit more focus now. They don't ignore me as much when I tell them stuff. They're ready to go. They realize [the bid] is out there. They want to grab it, but we still have to do it.

"I sort of like our chances."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com