College Basketball Nation: Bill Carmody

On July 4, while you were grilling meats and hanging out with family and friends and doing other awesome things we Americans do on the Fourth of July, something profoundly strange happened: Northwestern landed a top-75 recruit.

No, seriously: Northwestern landed a top-75 recruit.

[+] EnlargeVictor Law
Kelly Kline/Getty ImagesVictor Law is the first top-75 recruit slated to join Northwestern in 20 years.
His name is Vic Law, he's the No. 66-ranked player in the class of 2014, per the ESPN 100. Law hails from South Holland, Ill., and he's a 6-foot-6 athlete with versatile skills -- he can rebound, handle, start the break, finish in traffic, knock down open jumpers, and defend multiple positions, according to our Recruiting Nation scouting report. And the news of his signing, almost surely thanks to the timing, passed us all by, at least until Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn examined the Law signing, and what it means for Northwestern, in a Wednesday column:
One four-star commitment can't change a program, and there are higher-impact players than Law in the class of 2014, but in terms of need and momentum, his pledge will go down as one of the biggest of the summer. Collins was used to pulling in elite players as a Duke assistant, but Northwestern? Zero-NCAA-bids-ever Northwestern? Its last top-75 recruit was center Evan Eschmeyer -- in 1993. Three months into Collins' tenure at NU, he ended that 20-year drought by selling the promise of a turnaround. "He just needed one person to believe in him," Law said. "And I believe. I know we're going to win."

It's difficult to overstate just how important Law's signing is to Northwestern. For more than a decade under Bill Carmody, the Wildcats never recruited a player as talented as Law. Under Carmody, Northwestern's rosters were always assemblages of misfit toys -- talented but tiny guards, lights-out shooters who couldn't slide their feet and forward "projects." When Wildcats fans asked why their teams always looked like the baby day-care room in "Toy Story 3," they were given, whether directly or indirectly, a maxim to repeat: Because it's Northwestern. Of course NU couldn't recruit. Of course the facilities weren't attractive. Of course the academic standards were too limiting. Of course recruiting meant plucking leftovers and unknowns. The roster would always look like a market inefficiency experiment taken too far, because ... well, because it was Northwestern.

Now, just a couple months into the job, new coach Chris Collins has made that maxim obsolete. How? Law provides a handy case-study, as Luke writes:
Law Sr. can explain [why his son didn't like Northwestern before Collins was hired]; he recently retired from the Chicago Police Department after 27 years, part of that time spent as a homicide detective on the city's troubled South Side, and is not one to mince words. "When we went up there to visit [sophomore year]," Law Sr. said, "Carmody came across as arrogant -- like that the university would sell itself, and either you want to come here or you don't. And I'm saying to myself, 'You haven't won anything!' You had a sour taste in your mouth when you left, and to be honest with you, had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern. Not ever. That's how bad it was for us."

Yikes.

Now, that's probably not the sole reason Carmody struggled to recruit, or even the most important one. Nor is Collins going to suddenly turn into John Calipari 2.0. But for the biggest signing in the past two decades of Northwestern basketball, the difference really was that simple. Attitude. Salesmanship. Belief. You know, oh, what's the word? Oh, right: recruiting.

You know that scene in "Pleasantville" when Joan Allen sees the stained glass in vivid color for the first time? Remember the look on her face? That's your average Northwestern fan right now. Law may or may not revolutionize Evanston, Ill., in the next five years, and Collins will surely face his share of struggles. But the new coach has, in remarkably short order, sent a clear signal to beleaguered fans: Their program doesn't have to be bad. What a concept.

3-point shot: Howland over Altman

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1. Oregon's Dana Altman got the Pac-12 coach-of-the-year award, but the honor should have gone to UCLA's Ben Howland. Howland has done his best coaching job since he has been at UCLA -- and that includes the three consecutive Final Four runs. Consider this: UCLA won the Pac-12 outright despite losing two rotation players, had to deal with eligibility and injury issues with Shabazz Muhammad and pieced together a team that had a mix of transfers and freshmen to win the conference. Howland was able to get Larry Drew II to play to his potential in his last season in college. Howland had to alter the way he coached. And he did all of this under the pressure and scrutiny that accompanied a perception that his job was in jeopardy. The Bruins had their moments of hard-to-fathom losses like Cal Poly early and at Washington State late -- but they still found a way to win the conference and are a real threat to make a run in March.

2. The reason the new Big East might not start out with 12 schools in the fall instead of 10 is the lack of consensus among the seven schools forming the new league. The best-case scenario would be for the new Big East to start fresh with a dozen. But if there isn't agreement on the schools beyond 10, they will wait for another year. Butler and Xavier are the locks to get first invites, with a debate raging among different factions over Creighton and Dayton for No. 10. Saint Louis is the other school that could ultimately be in the group. Having a primarily basketball-driven conference isn't a new concept. It's called the Atlantic 10. Georgetown coach John Thompson III wasn't being sentimental about the end of the Big East on Thursday. He said the Big East isn't going anywhere and neither is the tournament. He's technically right.

3. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips has to make a decision on the fate of coach Bill Carmody in the coming week. Carmody hasn't been able to get Northwestern in the NCAA tournament, but then no one has in Evanston. Carmody has had tremendously bad luck and is a well-respected coach for a reason. He has poured all his energy into trying to get the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament. Northwestern should be able to make a cameo every so often, like Stanford. The Wildcats are always going to be in a better position than most to earn quality wins due to the strength of the Big Ten, and probably just have to finish sixth to be in the chase for a bid. That will become more difficult with 14 teams, but still doable. If Northwestern were to go in another direction, I don't see how how Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, a native of the northern Chicago suburbs, doesn't get the first call. Carmody deserves a chance to state his case for what he has done to make the Wildcats competitive and what he can still achieve.
CHICAGO - Here's a quick look at Iowa's 73-59 Big Ten tournament win over Northwestern at the United Center on Thursday night.

How it happened: The undermanned, 11th-seeded Wildcats didn't have a chance. Northwestern went scoreless for the first 7 1/2 minutes, going down 11-0, and never got closer than within six points after that. Northwestern shot 32 percent from the field in the first half and 36.7 percent for the game. The Wildcats kept it interesting in the second half, trimming the deficit to single digits several times, but couldn't save their season. Iowa (21-11), the sixth seed, plays No. 3 seed Michigan State on Friday.

Player of the game: Reggie Hearn, a former walk-on, scored 19 points and added 10 rebounds and 3 blocks for the Wildcats.

What it means: Northwestern coach Bill Carmody might be fired after 13 seasons, none of which resulted in an NCAA tournament berth, and the school would immediately look for his replacement. This team was promising before JerShon Cobb was suspended in September and Drew Crawford under shoulder surgery in December. The Wildcats finished 13-19 with a 4-14 record in the Big Ten regular season, their first losing season since 2007-08.

What's next: Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips likely fires Carmody and begins a "national search" for his replacement. Whether that hire works out is anybody's guess.

Observations from Thursday night

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John Calipari has tried numerous tactics in recent weeks to light a spark within his Kentucky basketball team. One afternoon, he even staged an impromptu dodgeball game to loosen the mood and improve chemistry.

Nothing has worked.

Thursday’s 72-62 loss at Georgia marked the fourth defeat in the past seven games for the Wildcats, who will probably need to beat Florida in Saturday’s regular-season finale to have any shot of making the NCAA tournament.

Center Willie Cauley-Stein shrugged his shoulders when he was asked what Kentucky could do to turn things around.

“Have faith?” he said. “Go to church? Maybe that’s what we need to -- go to church as a team and pray for each other.”

Even divine intervention might not be enough to help the Wildcats at this point. If Kentucky can’t beat Arkansas and Georgia, there is no reason to believe it can get past a Florida squad many pundits have tagged as a Final Four contender.

The Gators defeated Calipari’s team 69-52 in Gainesville on Feb. 12. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s best player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in that contest and UK hasn’t been the same since. Granted, even before Noel’s injury, the Wildcats weren’t very good. Kentucky’s résumé includes very few quality wins -- and a bunch of bad losses.

“I’m mad,” guard Archie Goodwin told reporters after Thursday’s loss. “There’s no way we should lose to Georgia. There’s no way we should lose to Arkansas.

“When we play like we’re supposed to, there’s not anyone in the country we can’t beat. When we play like this, when we play soft as a team, anyone can beat us.”

Calipari, to his credit, said he is to blame for his squad’s collapse.

“I’m so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team,” he said Thursday night. “I’ve never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams ... cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win. Every one of them had a fight.

“If this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”

[+] EnlargeJosh Scott
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJosh Scott and Colorado outmuscled an Oregon team that could've nabbed a share of the Pac-12 title.
Here are a few other observations from Thursday’s games:

1. Does anyone want to win the Pac-12?

UCLA and Oregon entered the week tied for first in the conference standings with two games to play. Somehow, though, UCLA lost to last-place Washington State in Pullman on Wednesday, which meant Oregon could’ve clinched at least a share of the league's regular-season crown by beating Colorado on Thursday.

The Ducks responded by losing 76-53 in Boulder. And the Buffs didn’t even have Andre Roberson, who missed the game with a viral illness. Each team has one game remaining. UCLA plays at Washington on Saturday; Oregon takes on Utah in Salt Lake City the same day.

Whatever happens, no one can argue that the parity in the Pac-12 is greater than any conference in the country. Next week’s league tournament should be fun.

2. I loved the shot of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo jumping up and wrapping his arms around the neck of 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne during a timeout in the Spartans’ 58-43 victory over Wisconsin. Payne had just taken a hard fall under the basket after missing a dunk, but he eventually popped back up. Izzo loved seeing that toughness and resiliency -- not just from Payne, but from his entire team.

Michigan State entered the game toting three consecutive losses, all by single digits and all against ranked opponents. But by winning Thursday, Michigan State put itself in a position to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Indiana sits atop the conference standings at 13-4. Three other teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State) are 12-5.

If Michigan defeats Indiana on Sunday in Ann Arbor, four teams will finish in a tie for first. That’s assuming, of course, that Michigan State and Ohio State take care of business in their regular-season finales against Northwestern and Illinois, respectively.

Whatever happens, Michigan State should feel good about itself entering the Big Ten tournament following Thursday’s dominating victory over an excellent Wisconsin squad.

3. I’ve got to think Northwestern’s loss to Penn State on Thursday marked Bill Carmody’s final home game as the Wildcats’ head coach. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament and it won’t get there this year under Carmody, who is in his 13th season. Losing to the Big Ten’s worst team on Senior Night is about as bad as it gets. Duke assistant Chris Collins has been mentioned as a possible replacement. Another coach who would be a good fit: Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew.

4. Michael Snaer’s ability to come through in the clutch continues to amaze me. The Florida State guard scored on a left-handed runner in traffic with 4 seconds remaining to propel the Seminoles past Virginia 53-51. Snaer was fouled on the play, and he made the ensuing free throw.

The game winner was the fourth for Snaer this season and his sixth over the past two.

Virginia, which had fought back from an 11-point deficit to take the lead, has now lost four of its past six games. The Cavaliers are on the NCAA tournament bubble.

3-point shot: More woes for Northwestern

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1. Duke coach Mike Kryzewski was informative in an interview during "Katz Korner" on Tuesday. The highlights were: Senior forward Ryan Kelly is just now getting off crutches, is a month removed from suffering the right-foot injury -- and it doesn't sound like he's returning any time soon; Duke will not schedule Maryland in a non-conference game once the Terps move to the Big Ten in 2014, essentially ending the rivalry; the 2013 Duke team isn't close to being as good as the 2010 national title contender; Shane Larkin has been a difference-maker for Miami, and the Hurricanes' run to the top of the ACC has been extremely impressive; there is still no change in Coach K's decision on whether to coach the USA senior national team.

2. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips will, instead of wins and losses, have to use a different way to review the Wildcats and coach Bill Carmody in the offseason after yet another injury. Carmody simply cannot catch a break at Northwestern. The latest setback was the season-ending knee injury to Jared Swopshire. The Wildcats had a real shot at an NCAA tournament bid this season but losing Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb took away any realistic chance. If everyone comes back healthy and some of the schools ahead of Northwestern in the Big Ten standings lose players early to the NBA draft, as expected, the Wildcats should be an upper-half team next season in their quest for a first-ever NCAA berth.

3. Here is a question to digest and one we talked about on "The Experts" on Tuesday: Are all conference road losses created equal? Should Kansas be disciplined in the NCAA seeding process for losing at TCU as much as Indiana State should be for losing at Missouri State? These are the type of nuance questions the committee will have to ask itself during a mock selection process this weekend -- and again when they meet to fill the field in mid-March.

Northwestern and Baylor: Um, what?

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Here are some things that have happened on college basketball courts in the past 11 days:
  • Nov. 24: Baylor loses at home to College of Charleston, 63-59.
  • Nov. 27: Northwestern loses at home to Maryland, 77-57.
  • Dec. 1: Northwestern loses at home to Illinois-Chicago, 50-44.
  • That same day, Baylor wins at Kentucky, 64-55.
  • Dec. 4: Charleston loses at home to Louisville, 80-38.
  • Dec. 4: Northwestern wins at Baylor, 74-70.

I mean ... what?

OK, so college basketball teams comprise 18-to-22-year-old kids, and people that age do weird things. They go hot and cold. They struggle and then break through and then immediately regress. Maybe the travel gets to them. Maybe it's the opposing crowd. Or maybe they just don't shoot the ball well one night, or maybe it's just the matchups. Basketball is a game of matchups. That's what they say.

Nonetheless, the above results still boggle the mind. How can Baylor win at Kentucky but lose to Charleston? How can Charleston win at Baylor and go down by 42 to an offense-challenge Louisville in its own building? How can Northwestern get crushed by Maryland, and lose to UIC (which, to be fair, is suddenly looking ... not terrible?) on its own very purple floor, but then turn around and go to Waco, Texas, and come out with a win, one in which it led by double digits for most of the second half?

It might have a lot to do with NU and BU specifically, two teams with a lot of new key contributors, neither of which teams are particularly great on defense -- basically, both Scott Drew's and Bill Carmody's squads are still figuring things out. Maybe Baylor let its Kentucky-brickfest-assisted win in Rupp Arena go to its head.

Or maybe it's all just the glorious randomness of college basketball. I'm leaning that way.

I do know this: When we look at the NCAA tournament bubble in February and March, we always notice a few random results in November and December. We say, "Wow, how did Team X lose to Team Y?! Ha! They just beat Team Z, and Team Y is terrible!" Usually those comments are made about games that happen months apart. When we look back in March of 2013 at Baylor and Northwestern, we'll have plenty of head-scratchers to mull over. But these all happened in the matter of 11 days.

Your guess is as good as mine.
College basketball is a multibillion-dollar sport. With so much money at stake -- along with the prestige and exposure that comes with consistent success -- there’s always pressure on coaches to win.

The following list doesn’t necessarily include coaches who are on the “hot seat.” Only the athletic directors and insiders privy to the true statuses of these coaches know what’s necessary for each to maintain his current position. From the outside, however, they all appear to be coaches who need to win. Now.

Another lukewarm season might not cost them their jobs. But it certainly won’t help their respective causes.

Here’s my list of 10 coaches who need to win now:

  1. [+] EnlargeSmith
    Bruce Thorson/US PresswireTubby Smith has yet to lead Minnesota to an NCAA tournament victory in five seasons on the job.
    Tubby Smith (Minnesota) -- Smith has reached the NCAA tournament twice in five seasons since he left Kentucky to take the Minnesota gig in 2007. But he hasn’t won a game in the Big Dance during his time with the Gophers. The extension he signed in the offseason will mean little if the Gophers miss the NCAA tournament again. New athletic director Norwood Teague came from Virginia Commonwealth, where Shaka Smart helped that program attain national relevancy. Teague expects the same in Minneapolis. So the pressure continues to rise for Smith, who’s endured multiple off-court incidents during his term. Proof that he’s seeking public support: Smith now allows media in the locker room after games, a first in his tenure.
  2. Ben Howland (UCLA) -- Accomplishments in college basketball are quickly forgotten. That’s why Howland’s back-to-back-to-back run to the Final Four from 2006 to 2008 seems like an ancient feat. Howland’s recent years have been plagued by personnel issues and underachievement. But there’s a strong buzz surrounding his 2012 recruiting class. Howland, once again, has a roster than can make a run in March, assuming Shabazz Muhammad is cleared by the NCAA. The flip side of the hoopla is that UCLA’s fan base will likely bemoan anything less. So the Bruins must reach their potential, it seems, to keep Howland’s seat cool.
  3. Bill Carmody (Northwestern) -- Northwestern is not a football school or a basketball school. It’s a school school, one that places a great emphasis on its broad academic imprint. But there is discontent with the men’s basketball team’s inability to reach the NCAA tournament. It has never happened. The Wildcats have come close in the past three years -- the most fruitful stretch in the program’s history -- but those seasons all ended without a bid. The swell of disappointment has grown with each close call. Athletic director Jim Phillips reportedly considered a change but ultimately gave Carmody, who is entering his 13th season, a vote of confidence after another possible berth slipped away last season. He might not receive the same support in a similar scenario this season.
  4. Travis Ford (Oklahoma State) -- In his first two seasons, Ford led the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament. But the program hasn’t met that bar since 2010. Last year, Ford had an NBA prospect (Le'Bryan Nash) and multiple high-level athletes but still struggled in the Big 12 due to a subpar defense (the Cowboys' 70.8 points per game allowed was the second-highest tally in the league). Oklahoma State continues to invest in basketball. Its latest project, a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the program’s locker room, illustrated its commitment to the sport. But it’s equally interested in winning. And Ford has missed the mark in recent years. He had a young team a year ago, but this season’s group is so talented -- enter Marcus Smart -- that youth won’t be a valid excuse again.
  5. Herb Sendek (Arizona State) -- Few programs endured Arizona State’s offseason shift. Sendek added assistants Eric Musselman and Larry Greer, two men who’ve coached in the NBA, to his staff after finishing with a 10-21 record in 2011-12. Sendek also lost top scorer Trent Lockett (13.0 ppg), who transferred to Marquette to be closer to an ailing mother in Minnesota. The good news: Talented point guard Jahii Carson is eligible. But Carson's presence and the additions to his staff won’t guarantee additional years for Sendek, who was the Pac-12’s coach of the year in 2010. He has to find a way to climb out of the league’s basement in 2012-13.
  6. Craig Robinson (Oregon State) -- President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law has gradually upgraded the talent in Corvallis in his first four years. His best player last year, Jared Cunningham, was a first-round pick in the 2012 NBA draft. But Robinson is still trying to prove that the Beavers are on the rise after finishing seven games under .500 in his first four years (64-71). Last year’s 21-win season was both promising and disappointing. Oregon State had its chances but ultimately finished with a 7-11 mark in Pac-12 play. The loss of Cunningham was a tough one for the program. But its greatest problem last season -- a defense that was ranked 154th in defensive efficiency -- was a collective issue. It’s something Robinson must address in 2012-13.
  7. Kevin Ollie (Connecticut)/Chris Walker (Texas Tech) -- Both Ollie and Walker were placed in similarly uninspiring situations during the offseason. After Jim Calhoun retired, Ollie signed a one-year contract to coach a Huskies team that lost top talents Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi and will not compete in the postseason due to a subpar Academic Progress Rate score. After former head coach Billy Gillispie’s messy offseason exit, Walker inherited a Texas Tech squad that earned one Big 12 victory last season (1-17). Neither Ollie nor Walker is promised anything beyond this season. And their circumstances will limit their abilities to turn their “temporary” tags into permanent ones.
  8. [+] EnlargeJeff Bzdelik
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJeff Bzdelik enters his third year at Wake Forest with just five total ACC victories to his credit.
    Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest) -- From 2001 to 2005, the Demon Deacons reached the NCAA tournament. They also secured back-to-back trips in 2009 and 2010. But Bzdelik’s first two seasons were rocky. Under his watch, Wake Forest achieved one ACC victory in 2010-11 and four last year. That’s progress. But is it enough to satisfy a fan base that will watch the neighbors on Tobacco Road (North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke) enter the season as potential national championship contenders? Bzdelik is on the right track, and Travis McKie and C.J. Harris should help the program move forward in his third season, too. Any movement in the other direction, however, will encourage more scrutiny of Bzdelik’s job status.
  9. Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss) -- Kennedy averaged more than 20 wins in his first six seasons, but his program’s name was never called on Selection Sunday. And close never suffices in college basketball. Kennedy’s legacy won’t be defined by his consistency as much it will be marked by the program’s ongoing NCAA tournament drought and his efforts to end it in 2012-13. That’s crucial for Kennedy, who might have a tough time convincing his superiors to keep him with another respectable finish that doesn’t involve a trip to the Big Dance.
  10. Ken Bone (Washington State) -- Bone’s program returns the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Brock Motum (18.0 ppg last season). But Motum’s presence only intensifies the expectations for the Cougars. Bone hasn’t led the team to the NCAA tournament since replacing Tony Bennett in 2009. The Cougars have been inconsistent. A suspect defense (141st in defensive efficiency last year) hasn’t helped. But this season’s Pac-12 is filled with unknowns. Washington State can rise in the standings if it’s tough on both ends of the floor. Another mediocre year sans an NCAA tournament berth, however, will not help Bone extend his time in Pullman.
There's a reason the best programs in the country compete for national titles every year, and a reason the Northwestern Wildcats are still (still!) looking for their first NCAA tournament berth of all-time: recruiting.

The North Carolina's and Kentucky’s and Duke’s of the world land the elite recruits most every season. The mediocre programs often recruit the guys bigger programs would recruit if something else fell through.

Northwestern hasn't even had that luxury. Thanks to its academic rigor and a dash of self-imposed failures, the program has traditionally found itself confined to “Moneyball”-style market inefficiencies -- an undersized but effective point guard (Juice Thompson) here, a forward with a funky but deadly shooting motion (John Schurna) here. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has gotten awfully close to cracking that NCAA tournament barrier with these kinds of players in his tricky Princeton system, and it’s hard not to admire the program’s pluck. But at some point, over the course of a 30-game season, you have to have to talent. It’s the incontrovertible law of the sport.

Which is why long-suffering Northwestern fans should be so excited about Monday night’s news out of Lake Hopatcong, N.J. ESPN Chicago’s Scott Powers has the story:
ESPNU 100 point guard Jaren Sina committed to Northwestern on Monday.

Sina, who is 6-foot–2, 175-pounds, is from Lake Hopatcong, N.J. and attends Gill St. Bernard’s School. He chose Northwestern over Alabama, which he had previously committed to.

Sina is ranked No. 75 overall in the Class of 2013 and No. 13 at point guard by ESPN Recruiting. He is Northwestern’s most highly-rated recruit since ESPN began its rankings in 2007.

Yes, you read that correctly: In the five years since ESPN has been tracking and ranking collegiate hoops prospects, Sina, the No. 72-ranked player in the class of 2013, is the highest-ranked recruit Northwestern has landed.

Does that mean Sina will be a program-changing player? Not so fast. As we discussed about a month ago, we as fans (and writers) tend to overrate top–100 prospects, because the shorthand is easy to use and the expectations easy to slip into. As Basketball Prospectus’s Drew Cannon revealead in his postseason rankings of last year’s top 100 players, many players ranked near the bottom of the list take a year or even two to make major impacts on the college level. Not everyone is one-and-done, that’s for sure, and few -- 30 or 40 players a year, give or take -- are ready to make the transition right away.

That said, there are some good signs that Northwestern will be able to integrate Sina right away. His father Mergin Sina (I don’t know, but I love that name) is the head coach at Gill St. Bernard’s, the high school where Sina plies his trade. And Northwestern’s style -- cut-heavy Princeton offense, stretchy 1–3–1 zone defense -- is similar to what Mergin Sina’s teams already play:
“There was obviously location; it’s a great place,” said Sina’s father Mergin, who coaches Gill St. Bernard’s. “Academically, it’s one of the top programs, and the kids can play at a high level. Coach (Bill) Carmody and (assistant Fred) Hill and staff, we’ve been attracted to the way they played all year. It’s a similar style we play in high school. I think it’s a great transition for Jaren.”

So … how did a program that so rarely lands notable recruits land the No. 13-ranked point guard in the class of 2013? The presence of former Rutgers coach Fred Hill, who began recruiting Sina three years ago, when he was still the head coach at Rutgers. Hill was the first to offer Sina a scholarship during Sina’s freshman year, and the connection carried over to Hill’s new job as an assistant under Carmody:
“Coach Hill is a great guy,” Mergin said. “Northwestern is very lucky to have coach Hill. The tie was there with Coach Hill. Once we knew he was at Northwestern, we knew he would follow Jaren and do a great job of recruiting him.”

Anyway, big, big news for the Wildcats. It should be tempered with realistic expectations; this doesn’t mean Northwestern is suddenly going to dominate the Big Ten, nor does it mean it will suddenly start recruiting like Ohio State. But it does mean Northwestern landed one of, if not the, most talented players in the recent history of the program, a 6-foot–2 point guard who pretty much everyone agrees can really play.

With all due respect to the solid players that have come through Welsh-Ryan Arena in recent years, there is no misfit aspect here, no Scott Hatteberg-playing-first-base quality to the commitment. Sina’s just … good. Like any other program, those are the kinds of players Northwestern needs to win – good ones.

It really is just that simple.
You already know about the first. It's Louisville forward Jared Swopshire, who transferred out of Rick Pitino's program this spring in search of more playing time -- a scarce quantity in a frontcourt that already includes Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng, Wayne Blackshear, and a mix of talented reserves.

Swopshire found that playing time at Northwestern, where he'll immediately raise the level of athleticism in the Wildcats' program. And his transfer comes at a perfect time, as coach Bill Carmody searches for frontcourt talent to replace leading scorer John Shurna.

Northwestern also announced the signing of 7-foot center Alex Olah Wednesday. Olah originally hails from Romania, and though he isn't an ESPN top 100 talent by any stretch, his CV does come with some rather impressive notches: He averaged 18.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocked shots per game as a senior at Traders Point Christian Academy in Zionsville, Ind., and he put up 16.7 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game in the 2011 FIBA U18 European Championships.

Those numbers are almost surely inflated by the competition -- you can watch (hilariously edited) YouTube videos and decide for yourself -- but there's at least an outside chance Olah can enter Evanston, Ill. and contribute immediately. At the very least, he has size. If there's any quality the Wildcats need, it's size. Northwestern was one of the worst rebounding teams in the country in 2012; per KenPom.com, they ranked No. 319 in offensive rebounding rate and No. 327 on the defensive end. Time and again, the Wildcats -- who started John Shurna at forward and the let's-be-polite-and-say-not-very-good Luka Mirkovic at center -- were manhandled in the paint by bigger, stronger, and just plain taller Big Ten foes.

Shurna was an excellent player, an efficient, lanky shooter perfect for Carmody's Princeton style. But he simply couldn't compete on the boards. Swopshire can. Olah is a mystery, but at least he stands 7-feet (and appears, judging by the videos, to have some ball skills to go with the size). And at least the Wildcats, forever in pursuit of that elusive first tournament berth, will bring something on the interior.

So: Is 2013 the year? In this Big Ten, probably not. But the Wildcats' chances look considerably better today than they did just a few weeks ago.
1. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has no interest in the Illinois job, according to a source with direct knowledge of his plans. Hamilton declined to publicly comment. The source said Hamilton wants to stay at Florida State where he believes he will have a better team in 2013 than he had when he won the ACC tournament in 2012. The Seminoles, which lost to Cincinnati in the third round of the NCAA tournament, do lose key seniors Xavier Gibson, Luke Loucks, Deividas Dulkys and Bernard James. But the return of Michael Snaer and Ian Miller will secure the backcourt. Still Hamilton is firmly committed to staying at FSU where he has said he can finish his career in Tallahassee.

2. Butler coach Brad Stevens is enjoying the CBI and anticipates a semifinal matchup against Pitt that would be likened to an NCAA tournament game. “Pitt is healthy right now and playing well,’’ Stevens said Tuesday night. Stevens, who coached in consecutive national title games, said the CBI has done wonders for his team. “I look out on the court and see three freshmen and six guys in our top eight who are freshmen and sophomores,’’ Stevens said. “That’s why we’re not in the NCAA tournament. But we’re getting better and growing.’’ Still, it’s not easy for Stevens to watch the NCAAs. “It’s really hard,’’ Stevens said. “It’s never easy to watch.’’

3. A number of sources close to Northwestern’s Bill Carmody have wondered throughout the year if Carmody would return after the exhaustion of trying to get the Wildcats to the NCAAs. Still, the Wildcats have improved dramatically under Carmody and are always competitive. If he were to resign then the Wildcats would have to look at Duke associate coach Chris Collins, who is from Northbrook, Ill. Collins is ready to make a break from Duke and would do wonders back in his hometown.
1. UCLA might not be a high postseason selection. So now that the Bruins are out, athletic director Dan Guerrero must either make a commitment to Ben Howland or move on after the season. He left Howland’s situation too open-ended last week. He needs to make a declarative statement, the way Pat Haden did at USC, telling the Los Angeles Times that Kevin O’Neill will be back. If Howland is going to return, Guerrero must make that clear.

2. Decisions should be made soon at Illinois and Nebraska. Bruce Weber is fully expecting there to be a change, but he’ll pocket $3.9 million. Doc Sadler isn’t so sure — but he would earn $3.4 million if he’s cut loose. It’s not even close as to which Big Ten job is better. Both schools have resources, but Illinois is always committed to hoops. Weber and Sadler are both well-liked by their peers and didn’t suddenly become poor coaches. Expect both to be gobbled up quickly in some form or fashion (head or assistant coaches) if they are officially ousted. Weber is almost a certainty but it’s too hard to have a read on Sadler at this juncture.

3. The pained expression on Bill Carmody’s face Thursday after the overtime loss to Minnesota spoke volumes about his tenure at Northwestern. Carmody has been so close to getting an NCAA bid, but yet so far. The Wildcats have had plenty of chances to win key games, but consistently fail. There really are no excuses, no one to blame and no one to debate. Northwestern hasn’t been snubbed. It has had a multitude of opportunities to get a bid but simply hasn't closed when needed. The drought will continue. This is actually worse than the Cubs, since the odds should favor Northwestern getting an NCAA bid over the Cubs winning the World Series.


INDIANAPOLIS -- On Thursday night, the Northwestern Wildcats didn’t talk like an NCAA tournament team. They didn’t look like one, either.

Somewhere within the vicinity of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the NCAA selection committee will finalize its bracket in the coming days. And the Wildcats should not be included.

They had their chance to impress and they squandered it.

“I don't know. Hopefully, I won't be disappointed on Sunday,” said Northwestern star John Shurna. “But I guess we'll just have to wait and see. We'll be playing next week, and we like to compete no matter who we're playing against.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for good storylines, too.

Northwestern fans around the world will celebrate the program’s first-ever bid if it happens. The buildup to NCAA tournament No. 1 will consume all of Evanston, Ill. The players within the program certainly put in the work to position themselves for a shot at history leading up to the Big Ten tournament.

But decisions have to be made without consideration of TV story packages. The selection process should answer only one question: Who’s earned it?

And the Wildcats had to do more in Indianapolis to prove that they’d earned a ticket. Instead, they lost to Minnesota for the second time this season.

They led 61-57 with three minutes to play. But they missed three shots and committed two crucial turnovers in the final minutes of regulation. They then lost 75-68 in overtime.

I am not biased toward any particular program. But I do believe the best should earn bids.

And it’s hard to see how that team -- which had to make a statement following an 8-10 record in Big Ten play and a 1-10 record against the RPI’s Top 50 -- gets into the field of 68 after that performance Thursday.

[+] EnlargeBill Carmody
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoBill Carmody's Northwestern squad hasn't answered the bell with an NCAA bid on the line.
Minnesota freshman Andre Hollins, who averages 6.7 ppg, scored 25 against the Wildcats. That was the sort of clutch performance that would have made more sense for a Northwestern player based on the circumstances. But Northwestern fumbled down the stretch.

In my opinion, the Wildcats got an F on the eye test against the Gophers. They had something to prove and didn’t play like they knew it in crucial stretches.

They didn’t execute like a tournament team desperate for résumé-boosting victories.

This is not just about Northwestern. This is about the entire field.

This is about Drexel, a team that's lost two games since early December. This is about Tennessee, a team that’s won eight out of nine. This is about competition.

Teams deserve credit for their full body of work. Northwestern’s portfolio put the Wildcats in a pool of schools with similar arguments for NCAA tournament invites.

But if the selection committee aims to create the most competitive bracket, then it should rewatch NU’s effort Thursday night. It warrants scrutiny.

Every “must-have” performance within the bubblesphere does.

I watched the Northwestern-Minnesota game from press row at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And I did not see a team that belonged in the Big Dance.

Perhaps the selection committee has already penciled in the Wildcats as a tournament team. Well, that’s why we have erasers.

This is a great story. And it’s easy to root for a Northwestern team that has never participated in the NCAA tournament. History can be quite cruel.

But that shouldn’t factor into the decision to say yea or nay to the Wildcats on Selection Sunday.

They were presented with an opportunity to make a statement on national TV on Thursday. And the Wildcats ultimately offered an argument against their first bid.

“I'm still here. It's hard. It's disappointing, tough … but, you know, you come back,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said after the game.

Northwestern’s resilience has been well-documented in recent years. The Wildcats have approached NCAA tournament status in the past. But players admit they’ve never felt this close to a bid.

That determination is commendable. The annual conversation about if “this is Northwestern’s year” is a familiar one for fans of any program that’s struggled year after year.

But this can’t be about sympathy. It has to be about quality.

And that means Northwestern -- just 8-12 since mid-December -- is an NIT team.

That might not seem fair to Northwestern or its supporters. But it’s fair to the game and it’s fair to other teams that will prove their worth in the coming days, something the Wildcats didn’t do in their brief stay in the Big Ten tournament.
Believe it or not, a certain massive matchup in Durham, N.C., isn't the only college hoops game on the schedule today. Hard to believe, I know, but it's true.

Here's a look at much of the action -- bubble and otherwise -- that served as the appetizer to tonight's main course. Be sure to check back later this evening for our writers' reactions and analysis from across the country.

No. 7 Marquette 83, No. 12 Georgetown 69: When March calms down, and the offseason finishes out its usual assortment of draft decisions, coaching intrigue and off-campus arrests (and everything else), I'm going to sit down one week and calculate college hoops winning percentages on senior night. With the exception of Northwestern (which lost in heartbreaking fashion Wednesday), it felt like nearly every team in the country won its final home game of the season this week. A lot of that is just good, old-fashioned home-court advantage, and some of it is skill and so forth, but when you strip all that away, I'm still going to guess pretty much every college hoops team in the country sees a massive bounce in its winning in the final home game of the season. Quantifying emotion is never easy. This feels like a chance.

In any case, Marquette followed this (presumably real, potentially imagined) trend Saturday, easily handling a Georgetown team that was itself coming off a dominant performance in its final home game of the season, a 59-41 victory over Notre Dame. In doing so, the Golden Eagles extended their Big East record to 14-4 and ensured the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament next week. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder made one last-ditch pitch for Big East player of the year: He scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds on 8-of-15 from the field and 10-of-12 from the free throw line. (Crowder missed all five 3-point attempts, a portion of his game that he's really improved this season. When your center can shoot 37 percent from 3-point range, you've got a very difficult team to guard.)

Can Crowder win the award? Because he should. With all due respect to Darius Johnson-Odom and like four or five different Syracuse players, Crowder's mix of offensive efficiency (offensive rating: 122.9; including 61 percent from inside the arc, a low turnover rate, and the aforementioned perimeter solidity), rebounding and defense (he's averaging 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game) make him, to me, the most complete, most important player in the conference.

No. 9 Murray State 54, Tennessee State 52 (Ohio Valley Championship): With six minutes left in the OVC title game, bubble teams across the country were no doubt finding it difficult to establish regulated breathing patterns. Tennessee State was up 48-43, the Racers were struggling to find stops against the dish-and-kick action of the Tigers' 1-4 low sets, and even worse, Isaiah Canaan, Murray State's do-it-all star, was battling through an off night. A two-bid OVC -- and a suddenly shrunken bubble -- were very real possibilities.

But Murray State locked in on defense, stacking great possession after great possession, cutting the Tigers off and preventing easy shots in the paint, and eventually came back to seal the win. The final go-ahead basket was a matter of immediate controversy at the broadcast table; our own Fran Fraschilla was convinced Murray State guard Jewuan Long charged on his game-winning basket. The call was close, no question. But all due respect to Fran, who is way better than this than I am, I disagree that it should have been a charge. A few things here. Long shot the ball before contact was initiated; the defender was still slightly sliding under the move, rather than entirely in front of it; and, most importantly, it was the penultimate play of a one-possession game with the NCAA tournament on the line. The ref needs to swallow his whistle there. And, in general, college coaches and players -- frankly, this applies to the NBA, too -- need to stop coaching defense like this! It's bad for the sport. There are plenty of ways to defend a driving player without fouling or attempt to draw a foul. Choose one. Don't run to a spot and hope the ref gives you the benefit of a 50-50 call, especially when your season is on the line. In short: Play defense.

Maybe that's the pickup player in me coming out; I would have little sympathy even if Long committed a blatant charge. But it wasn't. The no-call couldn't have been more appropriate. And every bubble team in the country can breathe just a little bit easier as a result.

Illinois State 65, No. 14 Wichita State 64: On second thought, bubble teams, you can go back to freaking out now. Why? Because Arch Madness has yielded its first truly mad result of the tournament. Wichita State is the Missouri Valley's best team and No. 1 overall seed, not to mention everyone's pick to be this year's mid-major tournament darling. But that didn't stop the Redbirds -- thanks to Tyler Brown's two clutch free throws and two misses in the last six seconds from WSU's Toure' Murry and Garrett Stutz -- from shocking the Shockers all the same. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Wichita State doesn't have much to worry about in the way of its NCAA tournament seed, of course. But every team along the bubble line, including many of those mentioned below, should be terrified. If Creighton suffers the same fate at any point this weekend, the Missouri Valley will send three teams to the NCAA tournament and steal one bid from a bubble that is destined to shrink even further down the stretch.

Could that third team be Illinois State? Why not? When you beat Wichita State on a neutral court, you deserve the benefit of the doubt.

No. 2 Syracuse 58, No. 18 Louisville 49: This was always an uphill battle for Louisville for one obvious reason: The Cardinals can't score. Louisville can defend. It can rebound. It can get stops when it needs them. But when you have the Big East's 11th-best offense on a per-possession basis, when your effective field-goal percentage ranks outside the nation's top 200 teams, when you turn the ball over on 21.8 percent of your possessions (national rank: No. 241) and your task is to break down Syracuse's smothering 2-3 defense in the Carrier Dome, well, good luck. Syracuse played its typically potent brand of extended defense, forcing Louisville a downright awful 2-of-23 mark from beyond the arc, and that's pretty much your game right there.

It's going to be interesting to see how Rick Pitino tries to adjust this team as he heads toward the NCAA tournament. A few weeks ago, Pitino told ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt that he liked to speed the game up and take more risks in the tournament; in his experience, too many coaches slow down in the tournament, fearing disorganization and disarray. This might be his only course of action in March. The Cardinals can't find any offense, but they can press and trap and slap and claw and hope to get easy buckets from turnovers and bad shots in transition. At this point, with this anemic, predictable offense (prediction: Peyton Siva won't see a defense guard him over the top on another ball screen all season), does Pitino have any other choice?

Variously Questionable Bubble Losses

West Virginia 50, South Florida 44: The Mountaineers desperately needed this win. Before this week's victory over DePaul, WVU had lost seven of its previous nine games and seen its once-certain at-large tournament bid -- WVU was once a No. 5 seed in Joe Lunardi's bracket; now it's a No. 12 -- become an entirely precarious matter. This win obviously helps, and not just because it was a win: It also put a ding on one of WVU's potential bubble rivals, South Florida, which has surged into the bubble conversation in recent weeks thanks to a gaudy Big East record and consecutive victories over Cincinnati and Louisville. A win Saturday might have put the Bulls on the right side of the bubble in official fashion. As it is, their profile still looks much better than it used to, but with a 5-10 road record and a 2-8 mark against the RPI top 50, some positive results in the Big East tournament may well be necessary.

UCLA 75, Washington 69: First things first: This was a really nice win for UCLA. It hasn't been the easiest week for the Bruins (that's a candidate for understatement of the year), but with back-to-back good wins (a blowout of Washington State and this plucky victory over the league's standings leader) at least they finished on a positive note. As for Washington, the loss might well have cost the Huskies the outright Pac-12 title. Cal still needs to win get a likely but hardly guaranteed win at Stanford, but either way, the Huskies' argument -- that an outright regular-season conference title in a high-major, albeit really bad, conference should guarantee a spot in the NCAA tournament -- looks even more specious now. Washington, like the rest of this league, has nothing in the way of nonconference results to point to as proof that it is considerably better than the RPI's impression of the Pac-12 as the 10th-best league in the country. It will be fascinating to see how the committee treats UW, and the Pac-12 as a whole, but if I'm the Huskies I'm planning on making a very deep run through the Pac-12 tournament, just to be safe.

Marshall 79, Southern Miss 75: Will a loss at Marshall damage Southern Miss's bubble chances? Doubtful. Marshall is a quality team -- a deep fringe bubble candidate in its own right -- and a four-point loss in the Herd's building isn't, or shouldn't, be the kind of thing that damages a team's bubble chances. What's more, the Golden Eagles still own an RPI within the top 20. In the past 16 years, no team with an RPI of 20 higher has ever missed the tournament. (The closest was 2005-06 Missouri State, which didn't have nearly as strong a profile as this team.) They should be fine.

Maintenance-Minded Bubble Wins

Xavier 72, Charlotte 63: Xavier's final home win of the season wasn't what the Musketeers would have planned heading into the season. To wit, from the AP: "It was a bittersweet day for Xavier, which had grown accustomed to ending its final home game with a spray of confetti and a few celebratory snips of the net. The Musketeers' streak of five straight A-10 regular-season titles was snapped this season." That dream was over weeks ago. Xavier has bigger fish to slice now. The Musketeers are as close to the bubble as you can be (Lunardi's most recent bracket has them as the first team outside the field). A win won't necessarily change that, but a loss would have been disastrous, and Xavier is now in at least slightly better position as it heads into A-10 postseason play.

Northwestern 70, Iowa 66: It was very easy to imagine Northwestern -- which missed marquee wins (Michigan, Ohio State) in soul-crushing fashion twice in the past two weeks -- losing at Iowa. The Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin and Indiana at home in recent weeks, Northwestern would no doubt be feeling the historic tournament pressure, and so on. But this was an impressive victory, or at least as impressive as a victory over Iowa can ever be. This is a little like Xavier's win: It doesn't provide a bubble bump, but it does prevent a potentially disastrous move in the wrong direction at the worst possible time of the season. Is Northwestern in right now? I'd guess yes. But it's hardly a done deal. Like nearly everyone else on the bubble, the only way for Bill Carmody's team to enter Selection Sunday with any measure of confidence is to play well in next week's conference tournament. That much is clear.

Miami 77, Boston College 56: Same situation here: A loss would have been a dream-killer. A win doesn't move the needle. Miami basically has two tourney-worthy qualities on its profile: A win at Duke (huge) and a home win over Florida State (slightly less huge, but still important). But other than that, there's not much there. Can the Hurricanes knock off one of this league's top four teams -- especially Duke or UNC -- on a neutral floor next week? That might be the baseline requirement going forward.

Connecticut 74, Pittsburgh 65: The Huskies have spent much of the past three weeks looking downright determined to overcome their computer numbers (a top-five overall strength of schedule and a top-20 nonconference figure) and somehow, some way, miss the tournament. This week's loss to Providence was an apparent punctuation mark on a pretty much horrible Big East season, or at least horrible relative to this team's elite talent. After this win, though, it looks like UConn will -- just barely -- hold on to a spot above the bubble fray.


EVANSTON, Ill. -- Was it too much to ask?

Was it too much to hope that just one time -- this time -- would be Northwestern's turn as fate's chosen beneficiary? Was it too much to think that maybe, despite all the reasons to believe the contrary, the Wildcats might just catch a break? Could Northwestern fans, besieged constantly by reminders of their program's historic futility, finally feel the freedom of belief?

The short answer? No.

"It's very tough," Northwestern guard Drew Crawford said.

"Disappointing," forward John Shurna said. "Kind of a tough way to go out."

Wednesday night was Shurna's senior night, an honor he shared with Davide Curletti, Nick Fruendt and Luka Mirkovic. Shurna & Co. are the school's all-time winningest class, one that also set a school record with three consecutive postseason appearances.

Of course, none of those postseasons has been of the NCAA tournament variety, which is why Wednesday night's game was so much more than a disappointing loss, so much more than an emotional senior night spoiled by a 75-73 defeat.

Indeed, the game against Ohio State was one of the biggest in Northwestern's history. That title is fresh, because we said the same exact thing in the wake of Feb. 21's home loss to Michigan. And we could say the same again Saturday, when Northwestern travels to Iowa to play its regular-season finale. At this point, every game Northwestern plays is abnormally important for reasons that go beyond conference record or pride or graduating seniors or even a one-year bubble scenario.

Why? You know why: The Wildcats are still searching for their first-ever NCAA tournament bid. This is the only team in a major conference to never visit the NCAA tournament. You have heard about this ignominious distinction more than a few times in the past few weeks (and months and years) because it's impossible to talk about this program without dwelling on its unique, defining story of woe.

Wednesday night was merely another page in that book. At first, the action looked predictable enough. After a quick six minutes of dominant interior play and hot shooting, a focused and freewheeling Ohio State team -- one that looked vastly different from the weekend's home loss to Wisconsin -- had opened an 18-8 lead. By the five-minute mark, the lead was 30-18.

Just before the half, it was all the way up to 39-26, before Shurna made a 3 to cut the deficit to 10, but no matter. Clearly, the Buckeyes were in control.

Ohio State was moving the ball seamlessly against Northwestern's zone, using skip passes and penetration to find easy first looks. Better yet, when the first looks didn't drop, OSU forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas pounced. Together, they combined for 15 offensive rebounds (and 28 total) and carried the Bucks to an eye-popping offensive rebounding percentage of 62.5 percent.

Northwestern -- for which Shurna, who shoots nearly as many 3s as 2s, counts as an interior player, and a team that plays 6-foot-1 guard David Sobolewski in the baseline of its 1-3-1 zone -- had nothing remotely close to an answer.

"They destroyed us on the backboards," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.

His team's only answer was hope: hope that enough 3s went down to stay within striking distance, hope that Ohio State caught a few bad bounces, hope that the game was just close enough to steal in the end. Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. The Wildcats gradually cut OSU's lead throughout the second half, first to six, then to five, then to four.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's John Shurna and Drew Crawford
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter clawing back to tie visiting Ohio State, Northwestern's John Shurna, left, and Drew Crawford suffered another difficult loss.
And although Ohio State seemed to have an answer each and every time -- an Aaron Craft 3 here, a Sullinger putback there -- the Cats, led by Shurna and a 13-of-27 mark from 3, and aided by said bad bounces (and a huge JerShon Cobb steal), found themselves down by three. With the ball. With 16 seconds to play.

You've probably already seen what happened next. Guard Alex Marcotullio, against the advice of his better angels, launched what felt like a 30-foot 3. Like all great last-second shots, it seemed to hang in the air forever before splashing through the net and sending Welsh-Ryan Arena into convulsions of euphoria and disbelief.

The only problem: There still were 7 seconds on the scoreboard and Thad Matta called a timeout, and before you could realize it -- before Welsh-Ryan could process what was happening -- Craft was sprinting down the court and heaving the ball ahead to Sullinger, who had established the perfect position to quickly turn and score with his right hand, and now there's 3 seconds left, and Shurna is hoisting a half-court shot that hits the front of the rim and misses, and ... wait. What just happened?

A cynical fan -- or an out-and-out jerk -- probably would say Northwestern happened. This is what Northwestern does, especially in recent seasons. It takes its fans to the brink, to the point of ecstatic belief, before revealing some fresh new horror.

Frankly, if the aforementioned cynic said this to you, it'd be pretty difficult to disagree.

But while the short answer above might have been "no," it was impossible to talk to Crawford and Shurna after the game and not sense some lack of emotional weight. Both were positive, even upbeat, or at least as upbeat as a human being can be after what they had just seen. (Before shooting the above video, I cursorily asked Shurna, "How's it going?" His response: "Ha. I've been better." Note to self: Never use that phrase on a dreary Monday morning again.)

"Obviously it's tough," Crawford said, "but we played great down toward the end of the game, and we're all proud of our team. I think we're a resilient bunch, and we'll be ready to go on Saturday."

Maybe Shurna and Crawford are used to all the will-they-or-won't-they talk by now. Maybe they've chosen to ignore it. It was surely no surprise that every question, press-room murmur and speculative amateur bracketologism Wednesday night dwelled on whether this team would be the one to finally, mercifully end college basketball's most infamous streak.

It was the first question Matta faced when he sat down for his postgame news conference: Is Northwestern a tournament team?

"Yeah," Matta said. "Oh yeah. ... I know this. I would hate on Selection Sunday to have Northwestern come across, to have to play them."

Shurna was quizzed about how, with so much pressure and bubble speculation compounding in the final week of the season, his team could rebound. ("Gotta win," he said.) Crawford was asked whether Wednesday's loss "proved" anything to the selection committee about Northwestern's makeup.

"I don't think a loss means too much," he said, flashing a better understanding of the selection process than his inquisitor.

The truth is, a loss doesn't mean much, if anything. The good news, however, is this: Other bubble teams lost Wednesday night, too, and in Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket update, the Wildcats were still listed as the last team in the tournament. Nothing is guaranteed, but in Northwestern's case, that's a good thing. The Cats might not be safely in the tournament, the way they would have been had Shurna's final prayer been answered, had Matta and and Craft and Sullinger not so ruthlessly executed their final four-second game winner. But this group isn't obviously out of the field, either.

"Had we won the game, it would have been a great win for us," Crawford said. "But that's not really going to keep us down at all. We're excited to finish this season strong. And it starts in practice tomorrow."

And so another five days -- or 11 days -- of bubble speculation will continue. Can this star-crossed program get it done? Can Shurna go out on something more than disappointment? Can Northwestern fans, against all reason and rationale and evidence to the contrary, dare to believe?

The short answer, at least Wednesday night, was no.

But the long answer? Let's wait and see.
Click here to read our afternoon recap. Now back to the lecture at hand, which comes in three parts:

The Rivalry

No. 2 Syracuse 71, Connecticut 69: One of the many things to love about this Syracuse team -- besides its great zone defense and incredible depth and talent and length and pretty much everything besides defensive rebounding -- is how well it handles close games. Since the Jan. 21 loss at Notre Dame, Syracuse has taken respective best shots from Cincinnati, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville, South Florida and now at UConn, and each time the Orange have either pulled away late or made the key stop down the stretch to preserve the narrow win. It's a real skill, and it isn't entirely intangible; when you have a defense this good, you tend to get a lot of stops, and there's no reason why that wouldn't be true in the final minutes of any given game, too. But however you quantify it, the Orange win close games. Such traits tend to come in handy in March.

As for Connecticut? While the Huskies didn't get the win, they appear to be rounding into form, or at least starting to figure a few things out. UConn had its fair share of issues with Syracuse's zone, and there were plenty of bad shots to be had, but the Huskies were much more balanced (four players finished in double figures, while Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier combined for 13 assists) and competent on both ends of the floor in the second half. Unless it suddenly begins shooting the ball from outside at a much higher clip, this team probably has a ceiling. But there are plenty of realistic improvements to be made. Even better, many of them appear to be in progress. Let's not bury this team just yet.

The Upsets

Purdue 75, No. 13 Michigan 61: When Purdue guard Ryne Smith was asked what he thought about guard Kelsey Barlow's dismissal from the team last week, he was direct, even curt: "Addition by subtraction," Smith said. Apparently he was right. Whatever the reason, Purdue played its best game of the season Saturday at the most important time, containing Michigan's outside shooters and slowly stretching a second-half lead thanks to the heady play of point guard Lewis Jackson, forward Robbie Hummel and, most importantly, guard Terone Johnson, who scored a career-high 22 points and made a handful of key plays down the stretch, including two big and-1 finishes around the rim. Purdue is an unconventional team with no true post presence; the Boilermakers rely on Hummel's outside-in versatility and an extended, guard-oriented style. This makes them a great matchup for Michigan, and, in their own way, a dangerous team.

In any case, Purdue can now feel entirely safe about its at-large NCAA tournament chances. Beating Michigan at home -- the Wolverines' first home loss of the season -- is most definitely a signature victory. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

TCU 83, No. 21 New Mexico 64: Let's hear it for TCU! A round of applause is most definitely in order. At this time in 2011, the Horned Frogs were in the midst of a season-ending 13-game losing streak, en route to an 11-22 finish. This season is an entirely different story: TCU is playing its best basketball down the stretch, having won four of its past five (and eight in a row at home) and toppling ranked UNLV and New Mexico and a good Colorado State squad in the process. The key: great 3-point shooting. The Horned Frogs lead the league in long-range makes in conference play, and they're undefeated at home as a result. What a difference a year makes.

In the meantime ... um, what happened to New Mexico? Last Saturday, we watched in near-awe as the Lobos thoroughly dominated UNLV, which came just a few days after a 10-point win at San Diego State. Steve Alford's team, once a relatively unheralded efficiency darling with few good wins to show for it, looked set to run away with the Mountain West and make a deep run into March. Since then, the Lobos are 0-2 and are now in a three-way tie. A loss at Colorado State makes some sense; we know the Rams are tough, particularly at home. And this is not to take away from TCU, which (as you just read above) is giving everyone more than they bargained for in February, particularly in their own building. But a 19-point blowout loss? Isn't this the team that just rolled UNLV in the Pit and moved to 8-2 in the league? It's kind of weird, right?

Georgia 76, No. 11 Florida 62: This is an upset, of course, but I'm not sure we should be all that surprised. Frankly, I'm not sure if a Florida loss should ever truly catch us off guard. Don't get me wrong: The Gators are good. But they're a specific kind of good. When their steady diet of 3s are falling, they can shoot opponents off the floor before said opponents even have a chance to catch their breath. But if the shots aren't going down, Florida has no Plan B. Patric Young is the only true post presence, and his offensive game is still a work in progress (and he's still underutilized as a scoring threat to boot). The Gators' defense -- which ranks fifth in opponents' points per possession in SEC play, No. 10 in opponents' 3-point field goal percentage and No. 10 in block rate -- still isn't good enough to hold opponents in check when the shots clanging off the iron and the opponents start turning long rebounds into secondary breaks and easy buckets. Florida might yet get there on the defensive end, but it isn't yet. If this UF team has a lower ceiling than it should, well, that's why.

The Bubble Specials

Alabama 67, Mississippi State 50: It was instinctively easy to write off the Crimson Tide when coach Anthony Grant suspended Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green; it was easy to predict a late collapse, even a fall off the bubble, for a team whose two leading scorers would be missing such important games down the stretch. Instead, the Crimson Tide keep, well, rolling. They've now won three in a row and prevented any hint of a collapse. Mississippi State, on the other hand, appears to be doing exactly that: The Bulldogs are collapsing. This is the Bulldogs' fifth consecutive defeat, a stretch that has included some good basketball (in the near-miss vs. Kentucky this week) but also some baffling losses (the loss at Auburn especially). It's no stretch to say Mississippi State -- which for much of the season looked like a tourney near-lock -- could wind up missing the tournament after all. The Bulldogs are, after all, 6-8 and tied with rival Ole Miss in the SEC standings. Ouch.

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
Rob Christy/US PresswireJohn Shurna's free throws pushed Northwestern past Penn State -- and kept an NCAA bid in sight.
Northwestern 67, Penn State 66: Breathe a big ol' sigh of relief, Northwestern fans: In the chase for their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, the Wildcats remain very much alive. Senior forward John Shurna made the game-winning free throws with just 2.6 seconds remaining, giving Bill Carmody his first win in State College since 2002. Big challenges still lie ahead: Ohio State comes to town on Wednesday, followed by next weekend's season-ender at Iowa, a team that just knocked off Indiana and Wisconsin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But for now, some minor rejoicing is in order. Northwestern's tourney hopes are still very real.

Rutgers 77, Seton Hall 72 (OT): Let's not take Seton Hall off the bubble just yet, eh? The Pirates got a great win over Georgetown this week, one that could have firmed up a previously shaky at-large profile. All Seton Hall needed to do the rest of the way was avoid bad losses. Well, losing to a young, 13-16 Rutgers team at home is just that. Next weekend, the Hall travels to DePaul. If the Pirates lose there, all the good vibes from the emphatic Georgetown victory will have almost entirely faded from the picture.

VCU 89, George Mason 77: First things first: Thanks to Drexel's one-point win at Old Dominion on Saturday afternoon, VCU's win over George Mason won't give them a share of the CAA title this season. Bummer, sure, but the Rams would surely settle for a spot in the NCAA tournament, something to which they're at least a little closer after this victory today. As a league, the Colonial's top teams (Drexel, VCU and GMU) didn't get quality nonconference wins (VCU's best came against South Florida, for example), so any at-large consideration will have to come from separation at the top and perhaps a pair of deep runs for both Drexel and VCU in the CAA tournament. A win here was a must, and Shaka Smart's team got it, behind Bradford Burgess' career-high 31 points.

Dayton 76, UMass 43: A home loss to UMass can't be called "bad," but for a team like Dayton -- which is desperately scrapping for a spot in the NCAA tournament -- it could have been disastrous. Instead, the opposite happened: UD won, and won big, looking very much like one of the A-10's best teams and a squad worthy of a tourney bid in the process. We'll see how the Flyers finish up, but if they're one of the last four in, they might just be one of the play-in game candidates, which are held in -- you guessed it -- Dayton!

Saint Joseph's 82, No. 22 Temple 72: Speaking of somewhat fringe Atlantic 10 tournament hopefuls, the A-10 can't offer a bubble team a better shot at a marquee win than Temple on its own floor late in the season, but the Hawks still had to overcome Fran Dunphy's typically peerless bunch, which had won its previous 11 games and 13 in the 15-game stretch beginning with its Jan. 4 victory over Duke. Phil Martelli's team is now 9-6 in the league and 19-11 overall, and it added the one thing it desperately needed to its profile: A legitimate top-25 RPI win. Temple is most definitely that.

Penn 55, Harvard 54: Just when you think it's time to plan a long-awaited Harvard hoops coronation, Penn's Zack Rosen comes along, scores 20 points, makes a huge jumper down the stretch and ices two game-winning free throws in the final 30 seconds. And all of a sudden the Ivy League race is legitimately up for grabs with both of these teams having two losses. (Another one-game playoff for the Crimson? Oh boy.) As an at-large entity, Harvard is still in decent shape, but its profile isn't so strong that it can afford to lose at either Columbia or Cornell in its final two games, lose out on the Ivy auto-bid, and still feel safe about being picked to join the group of 37 at-large teams. Big days ahead for Tommy Amaker's team.

Washington 59, Washington State 55: For the first 10 or so minutes of the first half, it looked like Wazzu was going to hand its in-state opponent the type of loss that would severely damage Washington's at-large chances. But the Huskies fought back and, as the AP report notes, won the game's most important battle -- at the charity stripe: "Ultimately, the game came down to free throws. WSU (14-14, 6-10) went 11 of 12 to keep the game tied at 28-all despite shooting 27 percent in the first half. In the second half, the Cougars shot 6 of 20 from the free throw line, while the Huskies, who only went 2 of 5 in the first half, finished 17 of 24." The win keeps Washington on the right side of the bubble for now, but UW's marginal profile might not be able to survive a loss at either USC or UCLA going away.

Xavier 65, Richmond 57: Kenny Frease's season highs in both points (19) and rebounds (14) helped carry Xavier to an ugly but ultimately victorious Saturday. A loss here would have kicked Xavier off the bubble for good and almost certainly, barring an upset in the A-10 tournament, ended Chris Mack's 100 percent NCAA tournament hit rate in his XU tenure. Instead, the Musketeers live to fight another day.

No. 21 San Diego State 74, Colorado State 66: The Rams pass at least two NCAA tournament bubble tests: The RPI/SOS numbers are great, and they sure do look like a tournament team. But will that be enough? A win in Viejas Arena would have provided a tidy bookend to this week's huge victory over New Mexico, but the loss isn't a huge deal. Colorado State, which is undefeated at home in Mountain West play, hosts UNLV in Fort Collins in just three days' time. Win that one and the Rams are probably set.

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