Season Preview: The Northwestern Wildcats

In the first edition of the IlliniBoard.com Season Preview, Brumby looks at the Illini's in state counterpart, the Northwestern Wildcats. The major question for the Wildcats this season is how they will be able to replace Jitim Young. Read more to see how the Wildcats expect to fill in the void left by Young's graduation.

When a team has not been to the NCAA Tournament in their school's history, and their last regular season Big Ten Conference Championship was in 1933, you can't blame the Northwestern faithful for being excited over last year's 8-8 conference record that included wins over Illinois and Wisconsin in Welsch Ryan Arena. Last year's 8-8 mark in the Big Ten made up for some major struggles Northwestern saw early last season in the pre-conference schedule. For turning his team around, and the work he did in the Big Ten, Northwestern's Bill Carmody was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year by the Big Ten media.

Heading into this season, Northwestern returns four starters and brings in two Division I transfers from power conferences. When you make the statement like I just did, it helps make Northwestern look better suited than they were last season, but that is because I left out Northwestern's losses which include guard, and All Big Ten Team member, Jitim Young. So what did Northwestern lose with Jitim Young? Basically, twenty eight percent of their offensive output last season, not to mention a rebounder, and a solid passer.

  PPG RPG APG FG% FT% 3P%
Jitim Young 17.9 6.0 2.1 53.4 64.7 31.7
Northwestern 62.9 26.4 15.0 43.7 66.8 31.6

When you look at Jitim's production against the production of the entire Northwestern team last year, you realize that stating Northwestern is returning four starters, while true misses almost the entire story about what they lost. Bill Carmody realizes what he lost in Jitim Young, but he also realizes that this is a new year. He told Boers & Bernstein on Monday morning that he has guys on this team like Davor Duvancic, Vedran Vukusic, Mohamed Hachad, and TJ Parker who "have been around and played a lot of minutes. Now it is time for somebody to poke their heads forward and take over."

So who will be that player to poke their head forward and take over? The good money bet would be on junior forward Vedran Vukusic. Vukusic is the leading returning scorer, and outside of Jitim Young, he was the only Wildcat to score in double figures last season. Vukusic is a match up problem for almost all of Northwestern's opponents, including those in the Big Ten, because of his ability to step out and make the three point shot. It would not be surprising at all to see Vukusic end up on the All-Big Ten First Team at the end of the 2005 Big Ten Conference season.

  PPG RPG APG FG% FT% 3P%
Vedran Vukusic 14.3 4.3 2.9 45.1 76.5 38.3

After Vukusic, Northwestern will look to wing Davor Duvancic, and guards Mohamed Hachad and TJ Parker to keep things running smoothly in Evanston. Duvancic is Northwestern's only true senior, and he will have to adjust to starting basketball games instead of coming off the bench like he did for much of last season. Guards Hachad and Parker are both juniors and have started together in the Northwestern backcourt since their freshman season. The backcourt partners combined to score just under sixteen points per game while dishing out just over six assists a game.

The two transfers, Tim Doyle and Michael Thompson, should see major minutes for the Wildcats. Doyle, the transfer from St. John's is expected to back up the guards and already has a full season under his belt of practicing the Northwestern system.

Thompson, the transfer from Duke and former McDonald's All American, will not be eligible to play until the start of the second semester, just in time for Big Ten play. Thompson will give Carmody something he has never had in his time as Northwestern's coach, a true post presence. Carmody knows what he has in Thompson, but he is working with him in practice to expand his game, especially his outside shot. As Carmody told Boers & Bernstein on Monday morning, "He runs and jumps, and he's strong, but he doesn't really have any bread and butter stuff. If he stands at the top of the key he will make three out of ten in practice, maybe four out of ten. That's not good enough because there's some slippage in a game. You have the ball with his back to the basket on the block, and if you get on one side of him, he is pretty good like a lot of guys are."

The freshman class at Northwestern this year includes two players from heralded prep basketball cities, Flint, MI, Peoria, IL and Chicago, IL, but none of the three players are expected to see much time in what is a rather crowded backcourt in Evanston. Carmody managed to go into Flint and find 6-6 Gary Lee who is known as a solid shooter. Then, Carmody headed down to Peoria, IL, and signed Brandon Lee from Peoria Central. With the signing of Sterling Williams from Chicago, Carmody signed Northwestern's first player from the Chicago Public League since 1979.

SEASON PREDICTION
Every one knows Northwestern and Bill Carmody are going to be a pain in the ass to beat in Evanston, but no one knows how good they will be outside of the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena. The loss of Jitim Young will be huge, both in terms of offensive production and leadership. Young was the heart and soul of the Wildcats last season, and he carried them on his back at times. Carmody will be looking to Vedran Vukusic to pick up right where Young left off. If Vukusic can pick up right where Young left off, which is not likely, the Wildcats should be better this season than they were last year.

How will the loss of Young affect Northwestern's Efficiency Statistics from Last Season?
  2003-2004 Season
Pace Factor 60.59
Defensive Efficiency 103.39
Offensive Efficiency 101.24
+/- Differential -2.15
Points per Shot Attempt 1.079
Points per Possession 1.01

Looking at last season's efficiency statistics, I think the place where Northwestern will miss Young the most is offensively, and that is not a good sign for this season. Last year, the Wildcats were very effective at getting teams to play them at their pace, but they were inefficient on offense and defense, which was highlighted with their overall record of 14-15. Losing Young will hurt those offensive numbers, and highlight even more the defensive weaknesses of the team. The addition of Michael Thompson should help improve the Wildcats' overall defense, but he will not be ready until mid-season, so the Wildcats could struggle early. If Northwestern is going to beat a good team, they will slow down the pace to a crawl where the difference between their offensive and defensive capabilities is negated as much as possible with fewer possessions.

Predicted Conference Record: 6-10 - Teams will be ready for the Wildcats this season, and wins over Illinois and Wisconsin will not happen again in Welsh-Ryan.

Predicted All Big Ten Team Members
Second Team - Vedran Vukusic
Honorable Mention - TJ Parker

Below is a transcript of the Bill Carmody interview on the Boers & Bernstein show on WSCR 670 AM out of Chicago on Monday morning.

Terry Boers: We will be visiting with one of our favorite guys. He is really one of the more brilliant guys in all of college basketball; Bill Carmody from Northwestern is on the phone. Hello Bill.

Bill Carmody: Fellas how we doing? Watch out for that brilliant stuff, all right? Expectations will start to get a little too high for me.

Dan Bernstein: That's what we were talking about when we discussed the fact that we were going to be talking to you today. Can Northwestern be something more than just a pain in the ass to everybody else in the Big Ten?

Carmody: I hope so. When I came here, I sort of thought that there was an opportunity here, and I still think that. But we really haven't done anything except be a pain in the neck and other places. Last year we were 8-8 in conference, but we played very poorly in early December. We are going to have to see this year and come out before we get into conference play and play well, and then continue that through the conference.

Boers: I guess Bill, though, really it sort of starts with being a pain in the heiny, though right? I know that's not enough for you and the other folks at Northwestern, but it's not a bad jumping off point that already you've kind of got people's attention about what can happen with this team.

Carmody: Last year we were 6-2 at home in the conference, but we were 2-6 on the road. You always have to start winning your games at home, and the last few years we have. Now, can we maybe be 7-1 at home and still have a slip up? On the road instead of 2-6 can you go 3-5? All of a sudden you are 10-6 and that is usually a pretty good record in the Big Ten.

Bernstein: How do you replace what Jitim Young did for you?

Carmody: It's a different team, that's all I can say. That guy meant everything to us, on the court, off the court, in the locker room. I'm sure a lot of stuff happened that he just took care of, you know. I just look at it as a different team. Even if Jitim came back this year, it's still a different team because guys are older. We have four starters back. His personality was very strong. Maybe some of the guys could have done some things last year that they didn't do, but now that he's not there, they sort of poke their head up. I come from a big family, and I could never beat my older brothers at anything, and one time all of a sudden I did, and then I realized, 'Hey, I could have been doing this all along.' So, I have some guys: Vukusic, Duvancic, TJ Parker, and Mohamed Hachad. These guys have been around and played a lot of minutes, and now it is time for somebody to poke their heads forward and take over.

Boers: How carefully, and we've probably asked you this before, how carefully when it comes to recruiting do you have to recruit guys and kids that fit into what you want to do? And is your system flexible in any way shape or form that when you have a great player that maybe is not exactly Bill what you want, but is somebody that can kind of be what you want in the end?

Carmody: I think that is just really overrated, that this is not a flexible system. I think I said on this show last year that I see the Nets doing it with this guy Kenyon Martin. He's running all of this stuff the same way we did at Princeton, and we are trying to do here. I'm saying if there was ever a guy I thought would never be able to do it, it's Kenyon Martin. But when he cuts back door, they don't bounce him a pass, they throw it up in the air and he stuffs it. So, you make adjustments to the talent level you have, but he just said, 'Man, I love this stuff because I'm getting a lot of dunks.' Well, the coach looks each year at his players and we have some guys that can actually get up in the air a little bit, so we might throw the ball in the air to a couple of guys this year.

I look for the same thing everybody looks for: guys that can dribble, guys that can pass, shoot, and compete. We want them to work hard when they are out there.

Bernstein: Do you mean that Kit Miller and Artie Duncan couldn't have finished off some of those lob passes with tomahawk jams?

Carmody: Wow, you are talking about two guys who are cemented to the floor, holy mackerel. Two terrific players, but they weren't high risers, let's just put it that way.

Boers: When you look at this then, are kids excited about what you are doing there? You mentioned 8-8 in the Big Ten, certainly nothing wrong with that, a great starting point. But you get the image Bill, and you kind of think 'Who really wants to do it? Who really wants to do what Bill Carmody does?' I guess there are other programs in a lot of places that kids would just be excited about. How do you get that kid, not just to buy into what you do, but to make him excited about what you do?

Carmody: I think that is a legitimate question. We have this guy Michael Thompson. He is a Joliet kid. He went to Duke, and he didn't get much playing time there, and he's back. Here's a kid, and he's about 6-10 and people call him athletic. He runs and jumps, and he's strong, but he doesn't really have any bread and butter stuff. If he stands at the top of the key he will make three out of ten in practice, maybe four out of ten. That's not good enough because there's some slippage in a game. You have the ball with his back to the basket on the block, and if you get on one side of him, he is pretty good like a lot of guys are. If he has the ball directly, he is like Bill Laimbeer a little bit. He couldn't post, you me, or a lot of people up, he would take the turn around jump shot. That's what Mike has now. He's never dribbled the ball. He's always been a big guy and strong. I'm saying, 'Can you get out there and can you dribble the ball a little bit? Can you make a pass? Can you make a cut? Can you do some other things and try to improve as a basketball player?' What if Magic Johnson's grammar school coach, or high school coach said 'Hey when you get that rebound, throw it to the little 5-7 guy, don't you dribble the ball.' Think of all the fun we would have missed out on. Larry Bird wouldn't have taken all those long shots if when he was a sophomore in high school his coach told him to get on the blocks and post up. We would have missed out on a lot of stuff. I am trying to expand the games of all these guys and see if they can do a little more. If they can't, I recognize that in a few weeks, basically.

Bernstein: Isn't it a little late at the college level?

Carmody: Not if they haven't been exposed to it. I don't know if you remember Tavarus Hardy. He is another Joliet guy, and when I came here, he had already played two or three years here and he had never taken a three point shot. I think maybe he took thirteen shots, and he was o-for-thirteen and they were all at the buzzer kind of thing. So, I played three on three with him and his shot looked pretty nice. So, I sat him at the top of the key and he made like eighteen out of twenty-five. He never did it, so we started working him. All of a sudden in his senior year he made about forty threes. He hadn't been exposed to it. Now, if he had been trying it all his life and wasn't very good at it, then you know. I just like to give these guys a chance because some people just get categorized as a one or a two or a three or a four, and they don't become basketball players.

Bernstein: Do you have to be very aware of becoming too scoutable over the course of a season? I would think a more system reliant coach has to be a ruthless self scout going into each match up, and say, 'Look, we've just given them too much to take away from us.'?

Carmody: I think what you do, and most programs you are continually changing. Some of the things you are doing now in November and December, you find out in these early games what you are good at and not so good at. Then you always have adjustments and sort of counters to the things you are doing. I am sure this happens in football, too. You know that they know, so you are going to do something that looks just like that, but the result might come in a different way. So, you are always improving it and shaping it during the season.

Boers: As we let you go Bill, let's talk about the Big Ten a little bit. I guess the Illini and Michigan State, surprise, surprise, sort of listed at the top. Michigan has to be considered up near the top as well, finally they have started to turn this thing.

Carmody: Yeah, Michigan was sort of like us last year. They had a bad early part of the year. I don't know if it was bad, but they didn't do as well as they thought they should with the players that they have, and they have some good players. Then they sort of grew as the year went along and turned it into an NIT Title.

Wisconsin's also going to be very good. I know they lost Harris, but they red shirted a couple of big kids and they got a transfer in, so I think that is going to be a very good team. It's the usual suspects, I mean come on. It's the same teams that have always been there, and somebody's going to knock them off.

Iowa is going to be another team. They have the whole team back, and a very good transfer, maybe their best player from Iowa State.

If we were down last year as a conference, and most people think that we were, I think we are going to be a lot stronger this year.


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