The Last Wallflower

Note: In mid-January, I went to Ann Arbor, MI and Evanston, IL to report a story about Northwestern’s push to make its first NCAA tournament. This is the story. It’s feature-length, so maybe it’s best digested section by section. Thanks very much for reading.

The Last Wallflower

In front of an anxious bench, Northwestern’s Bill Carmody crossed his arms and watched his team fall behind. It was happening again. The Wildcats were at home, in Evanston, playing the no. 6 Michigan State Spartans on the second Saturday in January. Down the line, the great Tom Izzo raged and shouted, willing his team to break down Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone. The Spartans were undefeated in four Big Ten games, while Northwestern was just 1-3. Carmody looked at his assistants, found no answers in their blank expressions, and wrapped his arms tighter. Hunched in his black suit coat, he looked like he might collapse into himself.

There’s a thought that hasn’t left Carmody’s mind for a decade, ever since he accepted the head coaching position at Northwestern. Of the 74 basketball programs in the six major conferences of Division 1, 73 have made the NCAA tournament. Northwestern is the 74th.

This past Sunday, after failing to advance in the Big Ten tournament, the Wildcats gathered at Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch the selection show in a hospitality suite called the “N Closet.” None were really surprised when their name wasn’t called. Despite competing well with the best in the conference from game to game, poor play at critical moments had doomed them again.

The ‘why’ of the problem- the explanation behind the tantalizing flirtations with the NCAA tournament that inevitably fall short- can be seen in microcosm during two games in mid-January. The team’s amazing potential and its agonizing inability to capitalize were perfectly on display against Michigan and Michigan State, and the results linger as artifacts of Northwestern’s latest failure. After a 10-1 start, with quality wins over LSU, Tulsa, and Seton Hall, the Wildcats had lost four of five games, along with every bit of positive momentum. The pessimism surrounding the program had begun to rise again.

As the season hit a critical point, Carmody was faced with the unenviable task of righting the ship against the Spartans.

Michigan State, Jan. 14

When Carmody surveyed the team on the court, he saw a group dominated by upperclassmen. There was John Shurna, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, a thin, 6’9” senior with a tendency to lose weight during the season (“you can’t tell guys to have a few beers every night any more,” Carmody lamented). There was Drew Crawford, the third-leading scorer in the conference, a junior shooting guard who missed practice a day before with the flu and had spent the morning hooked to an IV. There were seniors Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic, and juniors Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio, all fighting for a goal that has eluded every Northwestern basketball player in history.

Carmody knew this could be his last chance. Next year, Shurna would be gone, along with the others. A pool of talent would be wasted, and he’d be left with memories of the three years when it almost happened. Last season, the Wildcats looked tournament-bound until Shurna suffered a severe ankle injury in late December. They finished with 18 regular season wins, far enough off the bubble that they didn’t bother to watch the selection show together. The year before, a Big Ten tournament win against Indiana gave them 20 wins; again, tantalizingly off the bubble.

He wanted the NCAA berth. He wanted the Big Ten wins. But what he really wanted, more than anything, was for his players to actually show the passion he knew they felt. That might make the difference.

“They compete well,” he said in a phone interview three weeks earlier. “But I’m trying to get them to show that on the court. Some of them hide it well. I’m from the east coast, and when you have an edge, it’s important to show it. I don’t think we have enough of it.”

After an overtime loss at Michigan earlier that week, almost every outlet covering the Wildcats, from the major papers to the smallest blogs, expressed pessimism about making the tournament. Some called for Carmody to be fired, though that talk was put to rest when a two-year contract extension was announced on Jan. 10, lasting at least through the 2012-13 season. But defeatism was rampant. The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein called evaluating the program “the ultimate glass half-full/half-empty endeavor.” Was mediocrity good enough? Could you reasonably expect more than the NIT?

A loss to the Spartans would be a big blow, leaving the Wildcats at 1-4 in conference play with a high hill to climb. For the Big Ten’s perpetual losers, the bleak future would stretch out over a new decade. Carmody needed a win.

But Crawford was running on fumes, tired and out of sync. Shurna was coming off a Michigan game where he’d been shoved, bodied, and generally bullied for the entire second half. Though he ended with 21 points, only four of those came in the final 24 minutes of action. In a 57-56 home loss to Illinois a game earlier, the situation was worse; only three of his 20 points came in the second half. The rough play and fatigue in both games pushed him out to the perimeter, where he became increasingly irrelevant.

And now Northwestern had scored just six points in the opening eight minutes. Carmody sat down. He crossed his legs, leaned back, and put his hands on his head. He looked stricken and empty, but that was nothing new. College basketball coaches are theatrical by nature. They have to communicate to players and referees in loud environments, and emphatic body language replaces volume. The ups and downs are expressed in postures and facial expressions, and none are as meaningful as they seem.

Carmody languished in his agony for just a moment before he shook off the grief and rose. Now he yelled, stomped, and waved his arms in the air. A few feet away, Izzo threw out both hands in a plaintive gesture of complaint, pinching his face into a tragic mask as he begged the referee for a call. They were alive in their dual states of anxiety, hoping for the quiet moment of relief after a victory, staving off the gutting lows of defeat.

The Coach

Carmody, a New Jersey product, played his college basketball at Union College in Schenectady, New York. A tough guard, he was a captain his senior season and made first-team all conference. He got his degree in history, and joined the assistant coach circuit after graduation. In 1982, he wound up at Princeton, where he spent the next fourteen years learning the school’s complex offensive scheme under legendary coach Pete Carril. He took over as head coach in 1996, and led the Tigers to two straight undefeated Ivy League seasons and NCAA berths. After four years, in part because of his success at a school with high academic standards, he was hired to coach Northwestern.

It was not a plum job. Seven years earlier, in 1993, 27-year-old Duke assistant Tommy Amaker was interviewed for the same position. The school made him an offer after two meetings, but Amaker turned them down. The rumor that’s been circulating around Evanston for years is that at the very end, Amaker handed the interview committee two résumés, without names, and asked if he could get those players into the school. The interviewers looked at the transcripts, discussed among themselves, and said no. What they didn’t realize was that they’d rejected Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, the duo that had just led Duke to two straight national titles. That was enough for Amaker. He went back to Durham.

Whether or not the story is true, the fact remains that Northwestern’s academic standards have been a significant handicap in attracting talented players and coaches. It takes a unique person to succeed at the helm, and Carmody looked like the right man for the job. He inherited a team that had gone 5-25 under journeyman Kevin O’Neill, so the immediate pressure was off.

Since 1950, none of Northwestern’s ten head coaches had ever managed a career .500 record. The team’s best single-season record in the 15 years before Carmody arrived was 15-14, and you had to go back to 1968 to find the last time Northwestern had a winning record in Big Ten play. With no history, no recruiting footholds in Chicago or anywhere else, and hampered by a strict admissions policy, you couldn’t even call it a ‘rebuilding job.’ This program had never been built in the first place.

The Program

The campus of Northwestern, situated on Lake Michigan about 13 miles from downtown Chicago, is one of the most beautiful in the country. The buildings are mostly in the university gothic mold, with stone towers and archways dominating the landscape amid 200-year-old oak trees. On a snowy winter night in January, with the sun setting back over the city, it’s a setting that deserves a word like ‘idyllic.’ This is the kind of place where even the Starbucks has a working fireplace and a large picture window overlooking the lake. As the only private school in the Big Ten, Northwestern is renowned for its academics, particularly engineering, business, journalism, and music. But unlike other private schools in major conferences, such as Duke and Stanford, athletics are still a work in progress.

Welsh-Ryan Arena, the 8,100-seat basketball facility, has climbing vines on the exterior walls. Inside, the three-point areas are stained a light shade of purple that has an elegance you’d never associate with the color. This is where Carmody paces the sidelines, and where the students who occupy (or, just as often, don’t occupy) the wooden bleachers on the baselines have never seen a team worthy of the sport’s most prestigious postseason tournament.

Carmody led his team to a 16-13 record in just his second season, but the early success proved to be an illusion. For the next six years, his teams sagged below .500. The nadir came in 2007-08, when a 1-17 Big Ten conference record translated to 8-22 overall. But that was also the freshman season of Michael “Juice” Thompson, one of Carmody’s rare Chicago recruits, who would go on to score 1,689 points at Northwestern. When he was joined the following season by John Shurna, the turnaround began. They went 17-14 that year- the program’s most wins in 25 years- and made the NIT tournament. With Drew Crawford entering the mix in 2009-10, the Wildcats reached 20 wins for the first time in school history. In the final game of the regular season, Shurna shot a three-point jumper with nine seconds remaining. If he’d made it, he would have won the Big Ten scoring title. He missed, and Ohio State’s Evan Turner won by percentage points. Again, the Wildcats fell just short of the tournament.

Last year was supposed to be the year it all changed. Juice Thompson was a senior, Shurna was an upperclassman, and Crawford had a year of experience under his belt. The Wildcats started 9-1, but disaster struck when Shurna sprained his left ankle in a blowout win against Mount St. Mary’s. His production slowed immediately, and the Wildcats could only manage 18 wins after a 7-11 Big Ten campaign. They made the NIT quarterfinals, losing to Washington State in overtime. Everything Carmody worked for, over a difficult decade, had been submarined by an ankle injury.

Now, Juice Thompson was gone. John Shurna became a senior, and Crawford a junior. This year’s team came in loaded with upperclassmen, and it didn’t look like reinforcements would arrive anytime soon.

Curletti

Michigan State shot 65 percent from the field in the first half, including 5-7 from three. Draymond Green found the corner of the zone again and again, burning Northwestern as the Spartans threatened to pull away. The 1-3-1 wasn’t exactly working, but it couldn’t be much worse than what might happen if Carmody switched to man-to-man and tried to match Michigan State’s physicality.

With his team trailing 9-4, a senior backup center named Davide Curletti stole an offensive rebound, drew a foul, and hit both shots. A few minutes later, he grabbed another and hit the lay-up. Then he assisted Crawford on an easy bucket, and followed that with a three from the top of the key. A potential blowout had become a 19-16 game. Michigan State pushed back to 25-19, but Curletti struck again with a tip-in after another offensive rebound. Then he registered a block. Then he found Shurna on a backdoor pass for a lay-in. Then he raced out after a turnover, dunked, and was fouled.

Curletti, a Michigan native and the son of Italian-born parents, could easily have been wearing the dark green of the opponent. In high school, he attracted interest from the Spartans (and Michigan) during his junior season, but it disappeared overnight when he suffered a severe back injury. Of the Division 1 schools that had courted him, only Northwestern stuck around.

In that sense, he’s typical of this year’s team. Because of the Wildcats’ unimpressive history, the main recruiting tactic can be summarized as “find a diamond in the rough.” They need players who can compete in the Big Ten, but they’re doomed to lose recruiting battles with other conference schools. So they look for the unknown quantity, the late bloomer with potential. John Shurna wasn’t recruited by anyone until the summer after his junior season, and he never received interest from another Big Ten school. Drew Crawford had offers from schools like Davidson and Wisconsin-Green Bay, but was also ignored by the rest of the Big Ten. So while Curletti’s back injury was a crushing blow to his college prospects, it looked like opportunity to Carmody.

But Curletti has come off the bench for the majority of his four years at Northwestern, a sign that maybe the bigger schools were right to turn their attention elsewhere. When forced to compete with players your competitors neglected, there are lot more Curlettis- tough players, but with limited talent- than anything else.

Still, Carmody calls him “the energizer bunny,” and after struggling to cope with limited playing time his first two seasons, Curletti prides himself on bringing jolts of energy to a team full of stoic players. At 6’9”, with a pale complexion and curly brown hair, he understands his role. He’ll never play in the NBA, and he won’t be a star even on Northwestern. He’s a film major who admires the work of Michael Bay (“all the explosions and stuff,” he says) and wants to work with special effects after school. But in January, he thought about making the NCAA tournament. A lot.

“I wasn’t aware of it as a freshman,” he told me. “But I’m aware of it now. The whole team’s minds are on it. Maybe the underclassmen don’t really understand how hard it is to be able to make that tournament. Hopefully we’ll make it this year and they won’t have to go through that.”

With two minutes left in the first half and Welsh-Ryan Arena erupting, Northwestern trailed by one. Curletti, who averages four points per game and had reached double digits just five times in 92 career games, had single-handedly kept his team in the game with 13 first half points. It was already the best performance of his life.

Michigan, Jan. 11

Curletti was only starting because of Carmody’s frustration with his regular center, Luka Mirkovic. At 6’11”, the Serbian Mirkovic has the potential to be a force underneath. To date, the potential had gone unrealized, and his attitude hadn’t endeared him to Carmody. This is a player who grew up having his pick-up games interrupted by bomb sirens, and who later joined peaceful demonstrations in Belgrade. By the time he entered a private boarding school in Indiana, experience had forced him into an early maturity.

But at Northwestern, he’s better known as an eccentric personality with a questionable work ethic who doesn’t like to talk about basketball during interviews (he’d prefer to speak about passions like mixed martial arts and house music). He’s also the kind of player who had no qualms about telling Carmody that he couldn’t play too much in the overtime loss to Michigan because his foot was sore. And who, when he did enter the game, didn’t jump for rebounds. That led to this exchange in the post-game press conference:

Reporter: Just on the subject of the offensive rebounds, there was one where Luka just didn’t seem to jump…

Carmody: Yeah. I’ve seen that before.

His absence cost Northwestern dearly against the Wolverines. On the Wednesday before the Michigan State game, the Wildcats held a 34-27 lead at halftime after shooting 60.8 percent. But the offense dried up in the second half, and Michigan gave itself numerous second chances with 14 offensive boards. Finally, in overtime, standout freshman point guard Trey Burke looked at his teammates, shouted, “let’s fucking go!”, and scored the final eight points to secure a 66-63 lead. Alex Marcotullio was fouled shooting a game-tying three pointer with a second on the clock, but he couldn’t hit the pressure foul shots, and the game was over.

What Northwestern lacked was a player with Burke’s fire, and Carmody knew it. He looked ashen at the podium after the game, a diminished 60-year-old man empty of the vigor that had kept him going all game. His voice was barely more than a whisper, and the gathered reporters leaned forward to hear the words. When they reminded him of some unpleasant moment, he twisted his mouth and squinted like he’d just tasted something sour. Someone asked him about the string of three timeouts he called to stem Michigan’s run midway through the second half.

“I just wanted to stop the noise,” he said, sounding like a victim of some greater tragedy. “That’s all. I just wanted to stop it.”

This was his lot in life. He had a pair of stars who wouldn’t step up. He had a key guard who couldn’t play. He had a center who wouldn’t jump, and a team that couldn’t rebound. And even when they shot 60 percent from the floor for a half, they couldn’t steal a win.

The Surge

Carmody was desperate to keep it from happening against the Spartans.

Michigan coach John Beilein gave his scout team credit for preparing the starters well for the tricky Northwestern set. The word ‘backdoor’ has become shorthand for offenses derived from the Princeton system, and baskets scored by that method are the most memorable result. But really, it’s a highly complex offense predicated on motion, utilizing double screens, back screens, fake screens, irregular cuts, last-second variations, and, of course, shooting. Watching it in practice, without defenders, it’s a beautiful, interwoven system.

“You have to guard it over and over again, and that stuff still gets you,” said Beilein. “It’s that innovative. It’s that good. This is not your grandfather’s Northwestern team.”

It takes an experienced group to stay focused amid the continuous flow. Michigan, with its crop of upperclassmen, was well suited to the task. But Michigan State played two freshmen and a first-year transfer, and late in the first half in Evanston it was starting to show. Northwestern scored a couple easy baskets on backdoor cuts, and after Curletti willed his team back into the game, Alex Marcotullio came off the bench with his hobbled foot.

According to Shurna, Marcotullio is the most intense player on the team. When you speak with the 6’3” shooting guard, you can’t help but feel that steady energy. He wasn’t big on smiling, and he has an unwavering sincerity that makes you feel bad if you try to joke with him, like you’ve broken an implicit pact to stay on the conversational straight and narrow. He’s a communications major who would like to be a coach or an analyst when he graduates, and, like the others, he wanted nothing more than a tournament berth.

“I think our season won’t be a success unless we get there,” he said. “The whole team feels that way.”

It’s a common refrain for the Wildcats. Over the past three years, they’ve had a heartbreaking tendency to lose close games. The Michigan and Illinois losses were frustrating not because they were anomalous, but because they were so common. Since 2009-10, they’ve played 21 Big Ten games that have gone to overtime or been decided by five points or less. In those games, Northwestern is 7-14. A few more wins, and they might have made the tournament. In January, every player and coach I spoke to noted the need to win those nail biters. When I asked how they could get over the hump, the answer was always the same: ‘execute better.’ I stopped short of continuing the line of inquiry, which could go on forever- why can’t you execute under pressure? Carmody insisted to me that there was “nothing psychological about it,” but if that’s the case, what is it about the close games that leaves Northwestern unsettled?

If execution was truly the answer, Marcotullio took a step toward changing the paradigm. With his team trailing by three with two minutes left in the first half, he calmly hit two straight threes to give Northwestern its first lead of the game. He’d only play 15 minutes total, and afterward he’d limp out of the locker room wearing a walking boot, but his threes changed the game’s flow. With the Welsh-Ryan crowd finally filling the arena with noise, John Shurna hit two threes of his own to end the half, and the Wildcats went into the locker room with a 42-37 advantage.

One of the local reporters stopped by on his way to the media room.

“What do you think?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Good start,” he said. “But I’ve seen this movie too many times before.”

The Message

In the locker room at halftime, the burden of Northwestern’s history weighed on Carmody. He told his players that it wasn’t enough to compete. They had to go out and be the aggressor, to go after it harder. They had to take the game, the way Michigan had taken it from them a few days earlier. He made the urgency clear, and even if he and his players didn’t want to admit it, a loss now, after such a great surge, would be devastating. Carmody spoke to the entire team, but his was message was clearly aimed at his two best players. They were the ones he needed. The role players prevented a runaway, but only Crawford and Shurna could lead them to a win.

Crawford started the game looking haggard and depleted, but as the game went along, he somehow fought through the illness and found his rhythm. “A lot of guys play when they’re sick,” Carmody said afterward. “But not a lot play well when they’re sick.”

Before they took the floor for the second half, Crawford pulled Shurna aside. Both players were from the western suburbs of Chicago, and they’d even played against each other in the state playoffs in high school (Shurna’s team won). Both knew and admitted that morale was low after the two losses, and Crawford spoke with his teammate about the vague process of ‘stepping up.’

“I told Johnny that this is a big game where we have to make plays down the stretch,” he said. Nobody quite knows what makes the difference from one game to the next, but it didn’t matter if they couldn’t define it. Crawford understood that he and Shurna had to become the difference, whatever it was.

Crawford

When he entered Northwestern three seasons ago, Crawford was supposed to be the extra ingredient that would finally propel Northwestern to the NCAA tournament. With Juice Thompson and Shurna already in place, he was the last piece of the puzzle. In fact, it was one of the main reasons he even came to Northwestern, along with the prospect of playing key minutes as a freshman and pursuing a business major for a potential career in finance. The first goal hadn’t worked out so far, but Crawford put together a nice career, with almost every stat improving from year to year. This season, he averaged 16.1 points per game and shot 48 percent from the field. As Shurna showed a habit of succumbing to fatigue early on, Crawford even emerged as the number one option in the clutch.

Against Michigan State, the 6’5” combo guard would finish with 20 points on 8-14 from the field, an effort that verged on heroic considering his circumstances. His biggest moment came early in the second half, when Michigan State crept to within three points and every cynic in the building sensed another collapse. Instead, he coolly nailed two straight three pointers, and the lead was back to six.

But against a team as talented as Michigan State, even Crawford’s unlikely brilliance wouldn’t be enough. As if on cue, the visitors crept back to within three. The large contingent of Spartan fans, who sang the school fight song during timeouts and occasionally made the game seem like a neutral-venue affair, grew in confidence. Northwestern needed one player more badly than anyone else, and everybody in Welsh-Ryan Arena knew who it was.

Shurna

“I worked different jobs,” John Shurna said, by way of answering my question about whether he expected to play Division 1 basketball. “I was a caddie, I was a lifeguard. I loved basketball, but I could never envision myself playing in college.”

Everyone who knows Shurna describes him as “a big kid.” Emphasis on kid. Even when he’s receiving praise from announcers, they use phrases like “baby-faced assassin.” And, truth be told, the description fits. The 6’9” forward wears his hair in an unkempt flop, and is rarely seen without a wide grin that’s made for adjectives like ‘dopey’ or ‘goofy.’ His happy-go-lucky demeanor is obvious the first time you meet him, even before he opens his mouth. He wasn’t recruited by any other teams from the conference he now led in scoring, and he wasn’t on the college landscape at all until very late in his high school career.

Maybe he never had time to become arrogant, but in truth it seems that arrogance was never a possibility. When he walked out of the locker room with Dave Sobolewski, the freshman point guard who told me he feels personally responsible for helping Shurna get to the tournament, the difference in clothing between the two said everything. Sobolewski looked like he’d actually spent money on his attire, and had groomed himself before coming out, while Shurna just ambled along, wearing loose jeans and a sweatshirt, grinning away.

Shurna comes from the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. His dad commutes to the Board of Exchange in Chicago, and his mom works in Pennsylvania helping people find jobs. Growing up, he was active in his Catholic Church, going on mission trips to Kentucky after his freshman year, and Alabama and Mississippi in the aftermath of Katrina. He doesn’t always go to church anymore, but faith remains a big part of his life.

He has tried to downplay the importance of the NCAA tournament ever since he told a reporter that his career would be a failure if he didn’t make it this year. He and his teammates have spent their entire time at Northwestern being asked the same question over and over, and finally, after I became the latest journalist to pry about the weight of the task ahead, he conceded this: “I’d by lying if I said it wasn’t important.”

Just as it’s impossible to imagine Shurna being arrogant or mean, it’s equally tough to picture him fired up in a basketball game, exhorting his teammates in the manner of Trey Burke. You can tell Carmody loves Shurna and respects his easygoing nature, but wishes there for more visible energy on the basketball court. When I asked Shurna about it, he grimaced slightly, like he’d heard the question before.

“I think we get pretty excited,” he said. “But you can’t let emotion change the way you play, I guess. I don’t know if that makes sense. You can’t let your emotion force something. I don’t think it would reflect our personalities that much.”

And it’s back to the essential question- does the visible display of passion matter? Can it influence the outcome of close games? Carmody believed with all his heart that the answer is yes. Shurna wasn’t so certain.

As the Spartans fought back, it was clear that this game would be the proving ground.

The Test

The game had gone according to script. Each player, in turn, had fulfilled a role in putting Northwestern in front. First it was Curletti, then Marcotullio, then Crawford, with bit parts played by Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn. They’d done their part, and with 14 minutes remaining and Northwestern holding on to a 51-48 lead, everything that followed would depend on Shurna.

He wasn’t up to the task against Illinois or Michigan, but now it was do-or-die. He began modestly, pulling down an offensive board over Draymond Green off a Crawford miss, and Reggie Hearn hit a lay-up later in the possession. After the under-12 media timeout, he drove by Green, absorbed a slap on the arm, and laid the ball in. As the fans roared, they were witness to a strange site- John Shurna was shouting. Hearn slapped him on the back, and Northwestern had a nine-point lead.

A minute later, he reached in on an interior pass from Green and tipped it to Curletti for a steal. With ten minutes left, he drew another foul on Austin Thornton and hit both shots. And then, with 8:45 on the clock, his moment came.

Drew Crawford started it by hitting a foul shot. Travis Trice took the inbound and brought it up for the Spartans. He lobbed a crosscourt pass to Appling, but Shurna jumped it. He tipped the pass, and it fell to Reggie Hearn, who flipped it ahead to his teammate. Trice ran over to recover, but Shurna put a quick shake on him and surged into the lane. The voices in the crowd rose in unison as he floated toward the basket, and when he jammed it with two hands, it triggered an explosion.

And there he was, buoyed by the fans, that trademark grin looking a little more vicious than usual. He pumped his fist and fed off the noise as he learned that maybe Carmody was right. The player who couldn’t score in the second half in two heartbreaking losses was now on fire; he got to the line twice more, nailed all four shots, and iced the game with a three after the last media timeout. He would finish with 13 second half points against the best team in the Big Ten. Michigan State never threatened again, and Northwestern secured a win they dearly needed.

The Wildcat fans stormed the court when the buzzer sounded, and the team reveled in the moment. Shurna raised both arms, and when they finally went back to the locker room, he slapped hands with the fans on the way. At the press conference, Carmody kept saying “I’m so happy for our players.” It wasn’t hard to imagine that he meant two players in particular. At long last, they’d played like they wanted to dance.

The Finish

And it would be nice if the story ended with Northwestern earning a tournament berth, but Sunday came and went, and the Wildcat name wasn’t called. After the Michigan State win, they went on the road to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and lost both games badly. Another loss to Purdue was followed by the three straight wins, but as the season continued, the Wildcats seemed to lose every game that might have put them over the top. Cobb came back, but then Luka Mirkovic went down with an ankle injury. They fell to Michigan in overtime and came up just short of a redeeming upset when Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger hit a game-winning shot. The season ended with a good road win over Iowa, where Shurna locked up the Big Ten scoring title.

That led to the conference tournament in Indianapolis. Joe Lunardi had Northwestern as one of his last two teams in the field, but most pundits and fans guessed that to actually make the dance, they’d need a win over Minnesota in the first round and Michigan in the quarterfinals. The Gophers came in having dropped six of their last seven games, including an 11-point loss in Evanston. The question seemed to be not whether Northwestern would win that game, but whether it could avenge two overtime losses against Michigan on Friday

But despite holding a 61-57 lead with four minutes remaining, the Wildcats went cold. Two missed layups, three turnovers, and a missed three at the buzzer by Sobolewski sent the game into overtime, where Minnesota scored six points in the final minute to deal Northwestern a staggering defeat.

The players understood that the loss was a disaster. They only grudgingly lined up to shake hands with Minnesota, and Carmody called it “beyond frustrating.” “It’s just very hard right now,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Was it passion? Talent? Something Tom Izzo said back in January, in the post-game press conference in Evanston, seemed to bode poorly for Northwestern even in the euphoric moments after the season’s best victory. Izzo gave the Wildcats credit, but then turned to his own shortcomings.

“A good coach has always got to find someone to blame,” he said, to some laughs. “Really. Usually it’s an assistant. But I don’t blame any of my assistants.” Here he paused. “I do have a problem with my scout team this week. I did not think they did the job that we needed to do. The day we left, I let them know that.”

In the context of the season, the Michigan State game looks like an anomaly- one of the rare moments when the potential bloomed- while the overtime loss at Michigan was Northwestern personified. A poor effort by the Spartan scout team opened a rare door, but the true character of the Wildcats emerged when it mattered. The big win was always a shot away.

And maybe the weak record in close games isn’t so strange. Maybe it’s just a fundamental lack of talent; in pressure situations, when systems break down and athleticism is paramount, they don’t have the man who can score the big basket. They never have, and despite the great progress Carmody has made, maybe they never will. This year’s narrative has highlighted the difficulty of overcoming a history of failure, from recruiting to game execution to self-belief. For Northwestern, the old Faulkner adage holds true- the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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12 Responses to The Last Wallflower

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  1. Lewis Carroll says:

    Very interesting read! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Andrew says:

    We may have seen Northwestern’s movie before, but I’m glad it’s the handmade life-size indie movie that sticks in your brain and not the bullshit Michael Bay movie full of explosions and stuff (sound ‘n’ fury) that scours it out…thanks man, excellent work. How did Hurley and Laettner get into Duke, anyway? And would they have gotten into Harvard, Tommy A.? Sounds like NW needs a new conference more than anything.

  3. macarthur31 says:

    Thanks for sharing. Given that you’re an outsider to our team, and the easy media narrative, I found it to be nuanced and insightful. You also reminded me why I’m a passionate fan of this team, despite the heartbreaks. These are great bunch of guys who represent our university well.

    I did find the lack of Kevin Coble during your “Program” section to be glaring. Not that I want to talk about that situation any more, or perhaps those you interviewed on the team wanted to discuss it — but if anything, that overall episode would tie into the painful lore that you summarized in that section. Coble was our premier player coming into 10-11, and the prospect of him + Shurna + Juice + Crawford was tantalizing.

    However, I found your closing to be fair – that we still lack the talent to close games, particularly in such a brutal conference like the B1G. On this board, it appears that we’ve focused on Carmody as the heart of that issue – but your piece suggests that there’s a whole system to consider. This is the main reason why I’m skeptical that just hiring a new coach without any significant changes to our system (i.e. facilities upgrades, the new coach bringing in a set of recruiting pipelines, increased resources for assistant salaries, perhaps even adjustment of our academic requirements) isn’t going to change anything.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Excellent piece of work.

    You’ve captured the essence of NU basketball: Great commitment, as hard working as anyone else, probably better prepared than most. Carmody and his team give it their all, and they go exactly as far as their talent will take them.

    Go ‘Cats!

  5. agree with the reply…you can’t talk about the program without coble…he was a 2nd team all big ten guy as an underclassmen, got hurt as a season started, then left right before the next one did. It absolutely defined the team over the previous two years, and no one really will touch what happened and how carmody let him leave.

  6. Rasheed says:

    EPIC piece Shane, wonderfully done. Superb job on the narrative. It’s too bad the Wildcats couldn’t make The Dance this year…

  7. Bzdelik was there from 80-86 I think he deserves a lot of blame for this ignominious streak.

  8. Terry Ott says:

    Outstanding. NU alum and die hard fan here. But for the oversight of Coble, I think you nailed it in virtually every respect.

    The fight goes forward into next season. A big difference will be the coming of age of Jershon Cobb. Crawford, Sobolewski, Marcotulio, will be back with Jershon. And ANY big man who can shoot a little and rebound and defend will be the ingredient that needs to be added — as it has been for years upon years now.

    1. Terry Ott says:

      That would be Marcotullio with 2 “l’s”. Sorry, Alex, it won’t happen again.

  9. I thought you were very generous with Carmody. All his quotes were blaming the players. Well he recruited every one of them and he is ultimately responsible.

    A 12 year experiment is fine, but I think it is time to move on.

  10. Maureen says:

    Agreed with most of the Cat fans here – you’ve gotten the essence of it. What I see is that Carmody’s guys on the court are a reflection of him. He doesn’t seem to SHOW his passion during a game, either, and if he’s not, what makes him think Shurna, Crawford, Sobo, Marco, et al will? As it is, he NEEDS to ratchet up recruiting (and perhaps change his personal recruiting style?) in order to get to the next level. A couple guys that I am aware of that NU was in the final mix for are currently playing significant minutes for other schools which are IN the big tourney this year.

  11. Can I simply say what a comfort to discover somebody that actually knows what they’re discussing on the net. You certainly understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people need to look at this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you are not more popular since you surely possess the gift.

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