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Has Carmody earned another year at Northwestern?

Wildcats fall just short of NCAA bid, microcosm of season, coach's tenure

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

10:43 PM CDT, March 11, 2012

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By all means make Iona the latest four-letter word screamed in the name of Northwestern basketball.

Mimic every bracketologist who hasn't seen sunlight since February in pointing out Iona played the 144th-toughest schedule and never beat a team in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index.

Mock Iona's dancing Gaels mascot, Killian, if it helps mask the pain of 73 years' worth of NCAA tournament futility — and counting.

But realize that Iona didn't keep Northwestern out of the 68-team field announced Sunday. The Wildcats can thank themselves for that. Northwestern got what the program earned — its fourth straight NIT berth.

That's not the kind of momentum coach Bill Carmody had hoped to carry into recruiting and next season. That's the type of memory that fades by Memorial Day.

With only one win over a top-50 RPI team, Northwestern couldn't sneak into the NCAA tournament with its strongest selling point that it had no bad losses. It couldn't lose to Minnesota, the 10th seed in the Big Ten tournament, on a neutral floor and possibly hope to be on the right side of the bubble 72 hours later.

As a result, the Wildcats fell just short of celebrating something special, a microcosm of the season and, frankly, Carmody's tenure. So close, yet still so far away.

The near-miss came on a day Illinois unofficially declared there would be no madness created within its borders by March this year; none of its 13 Division I schools qualified for the tournament. A basketball state of delirium, this isn't.

The Wildcats' whiff stung most. The committee was looking for the 37 best teams as at-large bids; not the 37 best stories. Northwestern's narrative always was better than its qualifications. Of the teams that woke up Monday disappointed, Northwestern — which had the second-highest RPI of teams left out (61) — had less reason to feel snubbed than Oral Roberts, Miami, Nevada and Drexel. They reportedly were the first four out.

Suffice to say there was more regret than suspense as the Wildcats gathered. The only analyst who projected them into the field was Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com but those faint hopes faded when South Florida and California appeared on the TV screen as opponents in the final play-in game. Carmody said the room grew silent.

Immediately, Selection Sunday for Northwestern had more to do with athletic director Jim Phillips choosing a direction for the future of the program. I don't envy Phillips, a dynamic leader who must pick between embracing the status quo and embarking on a new era of Northwestern basketball.

Keeping Carmody can be defended. But after 12 seasons of not making the NCAA tournament, I would lean toward starting fresh. That's a long time to stick by any coach, even one as classy as Carmody. If Northwestern cannot make the field during the career of the school's all-time leading scorer, John Shurna, you start to doubt Carmody ever can. Shurna's class set a record for wins at Northwestern, yet it was still at least one short of what was necessary to make the NCAAs.

Carmody hasn't done anything wrong as much as he hasn't done enough right. One argument says firing Carmody would be an overreaction given Northwestern lost three games in overtime and three more by a total of five points. Those on the other side of that argument can't help but wonder if another coach might have coaxed at least a couple of wins out of those losses that would have put Northwestern over the top Sunday.

Yes, Northwestern's facilities are limited, its admission requirements are rugged and unique challenges exist. But the basketball standards should be higher so that making four straight NITs isn't considered a positive.

Vanderbilt plays Harvard on Thursday — and not in the NIT. Notre Dame and Duke look on course for a third-round NCAA matchup of brainy kids who can shoot. It can be done. Northwestern is the only school from a Big Six conference where it never has. Bringing back the same coach to try the same approach a 13th year would seem to deny the sense of urgency felt Sunday night by fans, alums and some administrators.

You won't have to look far this week to find examples of a coach revitalizing a basketball program or campus culture. Illinois began looking for that kind of coach Friday, costs be damned. The six league teams in the tournament already have one. The going only will get tougher in the Big Ten before it gets easier again for the Wildcats.

It was agonizing for Northwestern not to see its name in the NCAA bracket. But now comes the hard part.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh