That's not a fault of the players, it's a fault of the system —which shows its holes in Big Ten play.
Make no mistake, this team has talent. Senior John Shurna is likely the best-known player, followed by underrated junior Drew Crawford. Even former walk-on Reggie Hearn has turned into a solid contributor and freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski has filled in admirably after the Cats lost Juice Thompson last season.
But even with this much talent — the most a Carmody-coached team has ever had — this team can't succeed. It's a team running a system built to succeed in the Ivy League.
Carmody's system, the Princeton offense, is what he brought to Northwestern from Princeton after serving as an assistant and head coach for the Tigers. It's a system that has worked well for mid-major programs, especially when they play teams with superior athletic talent.
However, at Northwestern, the system has failed, mainly because the Wildcats don't have the right personnel for it to work.
The offense relies on outside passing in order to keep the defense in motion, while keeping a post player at the top of the key. When it works to perfection, the Cats are able to find open backdoor cuts or get a defensive player out of position for an open three.
NU has a number of pieces for the offense in place, such as solid outside shooters who also have success driving the lane, but it's also essential to have a solid big man in order to draw attention away from outside shooters. If defenses are forced to double-team the big man, that almost always creates a wide-open three-pointer.
However, Northwestern has yet to find a big man capable of being successful in the Princeton offense. This year, neither Luka Mirkovic nor Davide Curletti has been good enough to draw extra defensive help, meaning Northwestern has been unable to score inside, and ultimately has had to settle for contested three-pointers at the end of the shot clock.
Relying on the three has made NU extremely inconsistent. It has led to some big wins — a thriller against Illinois and near upsets of Ohio State last season — but has also led to some bad losses — a blowout loss against Wisconsin last season and a close loss to Illinois and blowout against Ohio State this season.
The number of big wins has never been able to make up for the bad losses, and unfortunately for NU, that means it has come up just short of making the NCAA Tournament.
We're seen the current Northwestern model work for less-talented teams in the NCAA Tournament. Without a solid big man, these teams rely on threes, and if they are able to get hot, they can pull off big upsets.
However, while it might lead to improbable wins, that gameplan is too inconsistent for sustained success.
For Northwestern to finally become a tournament team, something needs to change. That doesn't necessarily mean a coaching change, but Carmody must be willing to change the way he recruits or change his system, because the player he brings in aren't fit for the Princeton offense.
If Carmody wants to keep his current system, he has to recruit a solid big man. He has been able to land good forwards — Shurna and Crawford both fit that mold, and frankly, have the ability to run the Princeton offense to perfection, as they can shoot outside and drive the lane.
However, Carmody hasn't been able to find a true big man who can create attention in the post. That's unacceptable, especially for a system that relies on one.
It's hard to believe that Carmody has never had the opportunity to recruit a solid post player. More likely, it's a misjudgment on his part, focusing on outside shooters instead.
But what's done is done, and with a surplus of outside shooters and no solid post player, it may be time to scratch the Princeton offense altogether. In basketball, it's not that difficult to change systems, especially when your players are better fit to a different style. And if Carmody wants to continue his current recruiting practices, he'll certainly have to make a change.
The answer right now might be to scrap playing with a true big man altogether and play the best five players in the lineup. The Cats would be undersized, but Shurna and Crawford are both more effective than either of the current post players.
Regardless of what changes, be it recruiting or the system, Carmody must do something different, because the current system isn't working.
Because in its current state, this team doesn't have the ability to compete day-in and day-out in the Big Ten, much less make the NCAA Tournament.
The script for every season is the same — close, but too inconsistent for the big dance . That script won't change, either, unless there is some sort of change.