- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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With a persistent hammering disrupting an answer about his mental state during a conference call, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody joked, "That's me banging my head against the wall."
What a cut-up. No, that's the metaphor for Northwestern's basketball program. Forever building.
Carmody is in for Year 13 as the outlier of major college basketball, the Northwestern Wildcats, strives on to make that first NCAA tournament, which is probably one of the most embarrassing streaks in sports, and yes, definitely worse than the Cubs' World Series streak.
Carmody doesn't think that amazing statistic -- Norfolk State won a tournament game this year -- weighs on his players. After all, these are college kids, not history majors. In the last four years, aka the John Shurna era, the Wildcats are 76-54, despite never having a winning conference record or compiling too many statement wins.
Each year ended the same -- early knockout in the conference tournament before shuffling to the NIT.
Carmody's year-end review was supposedly moved up a week or so to stem the rumors about his job status. Both Carmody and athletic director Jim Phillips said there was nothing to the reports that Carmody was on thin ice. His tenure goes on.
With the exception of Michigan State and Tom Izzo, every other Big Ten school has changed coaches, most several times, since Carmody left the leafy confines of Princeton for the eternal fixer-upper job in Evanston. Every other school, with the exception of newbie Nebraska, has made the tournament in that span. Iowa, Penn State and Minnesota have combined for eight tournament appearances in that time.
There is reason for hope. After all, the Wildcats have made four straight NITs, nearly making the NIT final four last year and losing in the second round last week.
That's impressive, given the context of the program. Not so impressive when you consider the goal is to simply be one of the seven or eight Big Ten teams to make a 68-team tournament.
I asked Phillips what makes him hopeful that next year will be any different. And by different, of course, I meant making the NCAA tournament and making the NCAA tournament only. Baby steps.
"I stand by what I've said, relative to who we have coming back, relative to we had sitting out and who we have coming in, the program is going to be in better shape," Phillips said. "Bill assured me, the staff assured me, and I see it. This was the first year we were really, really close and in the conversation to make the NCAA tournament. To some people that's not progress and they would say our expectations are too low. I don't think they appreciate what we're trying to do here and what we've tried to be."
Phillips rightfully believes Northwestern is a little different than other schools, given its high academic standards, but he admitted he didn't want to sound like a "Pollyanna," only looking at the bright side. Carmody said he enjoys heightened expectations as well.
Certainly the program is better, much better, than when Carmody replaced Kevin O'Neill.
Recruiting has picked up with assistant, and former player, Tavares Hardy making a name for himself as a canny pied piper, leading decent recruits to Northwestern's high school gym. Carmody speaks highly of TCU transfer Nikola Cerina, who averaged 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds in his last year with the Horned Frogs.
"He's the best athlete we have on our team," Carmody said.
I don't really have a bone to pick with this decision. Phillips is a strong AD and Carmody is an honest coach who has done honest work. But I wonder if the decision to keep him on isn't just hammering a broken nail.
This rebuilding job, seemingly, could go on forever.
Illinois, of course, did fire its coach, Bruce Weber. And now AD Mike Thomas' failure to land its top candidate, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, looks an awful lot like his inability to land a big-time coach for football.
Quick: Name Illinois' new football coach.
Time's up, it's Tim Beckman from Toledo.
Now, the remaining pool is far less starry. There's Duke assistant Chris Collins, son of Doug and the guy always sitting next to Coach K. Collins gets big recruits, he's hot on the trail of Simeon junior Jabari Parker, the top player in his class, but he has no head coaching experience.
The school is reportedly trying to focus on African-American coaches, considering Illinois has never had a black head coach in football or basketball, and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton would certainly fit the bill.
The most interesting part about this search is that it brings up a debate, one I've tried to stoke on Twitter: Where does Illinois rank as a national program?
Weber failed to turn the Illini's run to the championship game in 2005 into recruiting bait. The program has a very high winning percentage, but doesn't win championships, or even get very close (Weber was the first coach to get to a championship game).
I say Illinois is currently the fifth-best program in the Big Ten, and that downgrades an upwardly mobile Michigan and Purdue, and ranks somewhere in the top 20 or 25. I can think of 16 programs that rate above it, as far as landing top recruits and advancing in the NCAA tournament, and another 18 or 19 that are in Illinois' range.
The best Chicago kids want to go elsewhere to pro-style programs. I don't know if anyone could change that notion.
This leads me into another topic.
The recent success of Ohio's men's basketball team has left me a little loopy. I've been just shy of insufferable on the Twitterverse (though I did brainwash several people into picking Ohio over Michigan). During my time covering the team as a young sportswriter in college, the program never sniffed the NIT. Now, it's in the Sweet 16. Ok, so it's only been 11 years since I graduated, but I still feel like I'm stumbling down the brick-laden streets of Athens, forever a senior.
Needless to say, I'm in rare spirits lately. Ohio faces North Carolina and its NBA-caliber front line Friday and while I don't expect the Bobcats to win, if the Tar Heels don't have point guard Kendall Marshall, I think Ohio can exploit Carolina's weaker defenders on the perimeter with D.J. Cooper, Nick Kellogg (Clark's son) and Walter Offutt.
I wrote presciently about Ohio's chances against Michigan last week (I did the same two years ago when the Bobcats upset Georgetown, which should earn me a waiver on student loans, right?) because of junior point guard Cooper, a South Side product with a penchant for hitting big shots. Cooper has proved me correct.
Cooper averaged 20 points and six assists over the first weekend, and has been more efficient than one could imagine of a career 37 percent shooter. He's 12-for-23 and has hit 5 of 12 3-pointers.
He joins a future No. 1 draft pick, Kentucky's Anthony Davis (15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocks and four assists over two games) as the two best Chicagoans left in the tourney.
While Cooper carries the mantle of Chicago point guards, and shows how Illinois and DePaul let local guys fall through the cracks, it is coach John Groce who should be of real interest, as I wrote last week.
Groce, 40, could be a strong candidate for the Illinois job. He should be, anyway. He's a strong recruiter -- he landed Cooper, who had never heard of Ohio until Groce put on his full-court press, and as an assistant at Ohio State, led Greg Oden and Mike Conley to the Buckeyes.
Groce already knows the Big Ten and has a strong footprint from Ohio to Illinois. He could also battle Tom Crean for Indiana recruits.
He's definitely making a name for himself. Could he turn into the name that takes Illinois back to the top 10?
By keeping Bill Carmody, Northwestern's future is uncertain.