MADISON - Going through his 22nd year coaching in the Big Ten, Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close is the person to seek out when wanting to know about Big Ten history over the past 30 years. If you want to take a minute to hear about the history of Northwestern basketball, the big question you'll ask yourself is what will you do for the other 30 seconds?
In his 13 seasons on the bench at Iowa as an assistant, Close saw the Hawkeyes go 24-2 against the Wildcats. Iowa had one head coach (Dr. Tom Davis), made nine NCAA tournament appearances, advanced to the Sweet 16 twice and the regional final once. During that same time span, Northwestern had more head coaches (three) than winning seasons (two).
"They had a decent team every once in awhile, but they just couldn't do it on a consistent basis," said Close of the Wildcats, which compiled a 17-145 record in Big Ten play during a nine-year stretch in the 1980s and '90s. "They just weren't competitive night in and night out."
Wisconsin's recent history against Northwestern suggests times haven't changed. When the Badgers (14-5, 3-3 Big Ten) host the Wildcats 8 p.m. Wednesday, the Badgers will be looking to move to 13-0 all time at the Kohl Center against Northwestern and coach Bo Ryan to 15-3 as Wisconsin coach in the series.
But while the Badgers are 12 of their last 15 against the Wildcats, it's evident things are changing with Chicago's Big Ten team.
Northwestern (12-5, 2-3) is coming of a victory over No.6 Michigan State on Saturday, started its season 10-1 for the third time in school history and is ranked No. 25 nationally in the RPI through games played Sunday based on the fact it has played the fifth toughest schedule in the country to date and four of its five losses have been to ranked teams.
With 13 games left before the start of postseason play, the Wildcats are poised to make their first postseason appearance since … ever.
It's hard to believe. The Wildcats are the only BCS school never to have qualified for the NCAA Tournament, a span that extended to 73 years after last season. Northwestern hasn't won a Big Ten Championship since 1933, but finally have some pieces under coach Bill Carmody in his 12th season.
In Carmody's first 11 seasons in Evanston, the Wildcats have recorded at least six Big Ten victories seven times. The program totaled six or more conference wins just five times in the previous 31 years prior to Carmody's arrival.
He's also helped push for the Wildcats big $4.5 million renovation project that added player lounges, flat-screen televisions, new team meeting rooms and a remodeled locker room in 2007. Throw in the fact that Welsh-Ryan Arena has gotten updating this season, it's helped Carmody on the recruiting trail and on the court.
"Knowing Coach Carmody, knowing the job he does, how hard he works and how hard those players work, it's everybody's goal first of all to compete and finish as high as you can in the conference," Ryan said of Carmody, who is 172-181 in his Northwestern tenure. "If your body of work in the nonconference and conference enables you to go to the NCAA Tournament, I am sure it's something everybody would enjoy.
"I do know Coach Carmody has worked hard establishing a heck of a program." And it's because Carmody has found past players like Kevin Coble, Tim Doyle, Craig Moore and Michael "Juice" Thompson that have bought into his Princeton offense filled with back-door cuts and fundamentals and 1-3-1 zone predicated on discipline, allowing him to get the most out of his players.
Add the fact that Carmody has senior John Shurna leading the Big Ten with an average of 19.1 points per game and junior Drew Crawford third-leading scorer with 17.6 points per contest, the Wildcats have become even tougher to scheme against.
"Their talent definitely is significantly better, which takes time, and they've worked real hard at it," said Close. "They've found some guys that were overlooked, which is great recruiting. You always thought if they got better and better talent, they would be more difficult to approach."
Imagine how much tougher the Wildcats would be if they could have secured a verbal commitment from Wisconsin sophomore Josh Gasser. Originally learning toward the Wildcats before a late scholarship offer brought him to Madison, Gasser grew close to Carmody during the recruiting process and the way the coach approached things. Ironically, Gasser repaid Carmody for his kindness by registering Wisconsin's first triple-double in history with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in UW's 78-46 victory at Evanston last season. "Coach Carmody is a nice genuine guy and I have a good relationship with him," said Gasser. "He always seemed pretty quiet and laid back but once the competitive juices started flowing, he always gets fired up, and that's what you want as a coach. He's dedicated to his way of doing things, and it's been working. They know when they get a little sliver of space, they are going to knock shots down, and they have a lot of guys who can knock them down."
While the elusive NCAA Tournament appearance has hung over the program, Northwestern has been building momentum the last three seasons. The Wildcats have played in the postseason for a school record three consecutive seasons (qualifying for the NIT) and have won 57 games over the past three years, the most for any three-year stretch in program history.
The NCAA Tournament field is expanded to 68 teams this season. If Northwestern keeps up this pace, the Wildcats might not need it. One thing is for sure, Wisconsin is cheering for them, except during its only meeting Wednesday.
"I know the players and the coaches pretty well, so it would be nice to see them get over the hump," said Gasser. "They've been on the edge the last couple years. I think once they get there, it will spark their tradition a little bit and start believing that they can win and get their every year."
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