Regardless of whether Bill Carmody returns, the fundamental flaw of Northwestern basketball remains. The Wildcats are consistently destroyed on the glass by conference opponents. Yesterday, like so many crucial games in recent memory, the rebounding deficit was enormous.
Iowa forward Melsahn Basabe singlehandedly dominated on the interior, grabbing seven rebounds in the first four minutes. He had 11 by the time NU reached 14, another embarrassing statistic.
Alex Olah even played well. The freshman center, inconsistent in conference play, began the process of improving his game and his rebounding.
Perhaps you can blame Carmody and his staff for this disparity in recruiting. NU brings in talented guards and wingmen – as they will next season. Unless a Carmody departure leads to their de-commitments (it likely won't), Jaren Sina and Nate Taphorn form the small but promising 2013 class. They were proven winners in high school, and Sina is the most highly-touted NU recruit since Jershon Cobb, who returns next season following an academic suspension.
So, if athletic director Jim Phillips chooses to make the switch, the new coach needs one central focus. Change the tradition. And I don't mean that in the vague sense, which involves "ending the tournament drought." We have to identify how that happens. Academic entrance obstacles are part of the issue. But with the right player development and system, the NU program can probably make the tournament. There's no way around it. The team needs big men.
If you asked why the talented 2011-12 bunch led by John Shurna failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, the majority of fans and analysts would cite poor rebounding. If they succeeded, it was usually in spite of their major weakness. In the heart-wrenching, fate-sealing home loss to then-No. 10 Ohio State, NU was out-rebounded 42-16. Forward Jared Sullinger had more rebounds than Northwestern. Think on that one for a second. It's terrifying.
Now, we move onto the excitement and anticipation of next season. Even if Carmody returns, the fan base expects the long-awaited tournament run. Drew Crawford returns. So do Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin. As well, the decent young core has one year of Big Ten basketball under its belt. The defense improves tremendously. The team's perimeter game looks to improve, with Crawford an essential weapon.
What is there to worry about? You can probably guess.
Despite the progress of Olah, NU will struggle on the glass next season. Kale Abrahamson might play the 4-spot, a sign of foreboding doom. They need more than one raw freshman center to fix the overarching problem. The Cats should compete next season, but in the end, can they rebound well enough to win?
Mike Turner, as hard as he tries, will never be a passable Big Ten center. If Chier Ajou can earn minutes and back up Olah, the coaching staff might move Turner to the 4-spot, hoping to play "big." Even that's relative. No signs point to Nikola Cerina – heading into his last year of eligibility – being anything but the last-ditch option.
It might be too late to salvage the center position next season. It is due time for a change in approach. Of course, this is easier said than done. I'm not familiar with every nuance of recruiting, though I can recognize rebounding problems when I see them.
The Luka Mirkovic-Davide Curletti combination provided anything but the solution. They were inconsistent and barely did anything right. It was, at several junctures of last season, difficult to watch. Then, after adding Milos Kostic to this class, NU chose to drop him. He looked that bad.
Olah marks the once-elusive step in the right direction. But he needs help in the frontcourt.
That next step towards the NCAA Tournament involves shoring up the frontcourt. It requires a process and needs the emphasis.