In the last few years, I’ve been a pretty harsh critic of the Northwestern Wildcats Bill Carmody. The late season swoons, inability to rebound and the lack of a true man-to-man defense had me at my wits’ end. After the inexplicable loss to the UIC Flames at home I even called for his firing. Well I was wrong, at least for now.
He’s out coached three outstanding head coaches in a row in John Groce, Tom Crean and Tubby Smith with a seriously patch worked roster. He’s down his two best players, two freshman are in the starting lineup and a key transfer has been hobbled by an ankle injury all year. What he’s done wasn’t just unexpected, it’s been remarkable to watch.
The biggest difference for the Wildcats in their recent surge has been the play of Jared Swopshire. The Louisville Cardinals transfer was just a role player for Rick Pitino. At Northwestern he was expected to be much more but didn’t really take the reigns until the Illinois Fighting Illini game. His aggressiveness from the start of games has been paramount for a team that has trouble scoring as it is.
I’ve also been really impressed with the “on ball” defense. In this one against the Minnesota Golden Gophers they rarely gave up open shots. The only way Minnesota stayed in the game in the first place was through the offensive glass. Closing out and putting a hand up might be simple things on paper but Northwestern teams in the past have failed to do that. I give a lot of the credit for this improvement to assistant Fred Hill. The former Rutgers Scarlet Knights head man told Carmody this team was ready to play a lot of man-to-man. He was right.
Of course, while the man was pretty solid, the 1-3-1 zone won the Wildcats this game. Minnesota’s guards became tentative and starting turning the ball over at a high rate. This gave Northwestern easy buckets and much needed momentum to start their 2nd half comeback.
The major difference I’ve noticed compared to years past is how far out Carmody allows the defenders to extend out from the three point line. It makes every pass difficult, especially the cross court feed that is most effective at breaking it apart. Rodney Williams had one beautiful alley oop dunk but that was about it.
However, I’m not all roses and flowers after a big win like this. Northwestern has got to work on their free throws. The rebounding is going to be an issue against these hyper athletic teams. That can be excused somewhat. Not free throw shooting though.
They shot at a paltry 53 percent clip in this one, and aren’t much better on the season at 66 percent as a team. That’s got to be in the 75 to 80 percent range if they expect to pull out many more of these games against ranked teams. Your margin for error is just so much smaller otherwise.
Saturday’s game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers will be a fascinating one for these “baby ‘Cats”. It has all the makings of a “trap game” against a conference foe that only has one win in the Big Ten against the lowly Penn State Nittany Lions. Don’t take them for granted though.
New head coach Tim Miles has this program on the right track and they have played really tough against the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans so far this year. I would expect a grinder as both teams generally struggle offensively. A win sets up a interesting next three games with only one being really “unwinnable” at Michigan. First thing’s first though. Beat Nebraska.
Like my article? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter (@tmichaelcronin). I look forward to your thoughts.