Fighting for Carmody

Northwestern watched its losing streak continue after falling in a winnable game against Penn State on Thursday. With coach Bill Carmody on the hot seat yet again, it's time for his players to step up and finish the season strong.

If it ends now, it ends with a whimper.

Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune – as insider as Northwestern sources come – tweeted during Thursday's game against Penn State. He said he would be "surprised" if coach Bill Carmody returned next season.

We can always joke that the "Fire Carmody" cries never disappear. But suddenly, everything felt real. For better or for worse, Carmody has become the steady face of Northwestern basketball. And even this season – with practically an entire starting lineup of injuries – his job is in serious jeopardy.

We can debate potential replacements. Duke assistant Chris Collins, who has never been head coach in the collegiate ranks, might move to Evanston. He would inherit the most promising team in program history – though that says little. They might also promote assistant Tavaras Hardy.

I proposed Keno Davis, who once led Drake to the NCAA Tournament. That was quickly shot down after a Providence fan (where Davis coached from 2008-2011) tweeted me a picture of a train wreck. After all of the speculation, I had never seriously considered any alternatives.

NU went on to lose for the seventh straight game yesterday. It marked Penn State's first conference road win in two years. Someone turned to me as media entered the press conference room.

"This will take a long time," he said. Traditionally, after difficult losses, coaches linger in the locker room. They presumably need to settle down and air grievances. Only then do they emerge, prepared to tersely answer questions.

But within the minute, Carmody and his emotional seniors filed in. What is there left to say?

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It seems like ages since the mood was anything but somber inside that room. Alex Marcotullio and Reggie Hearn sat behind the table and leaned towards the microphones. Instead of celebrating, they were forced into Carmody defense mode.

Marcotullio insisted the ownership fell on the players. It's a frequently used argument. Last night, as with many recent nights, it was true. Simply put, Northwestern should never have lost to Penn State, regardless of the lineup.

The young frontcourt made Sasa Borovnjak look like Cody Zeller. They gave the Nittany Lions – who shoot 29 percent from three – open perimeter looks for 40 minutes. Let's be honest: this did not come down to the Wildcats' game plan. It hinged on execution, and NU lost to the worst team in the conference on Senior Night.

Both players understandably cited injuries in their defense. In the long run, these doomed NU's chances, with Swopshire the final straw. But at some point, either against Michigan State or in the Big Ten Tournament, the players need to rally if they want to save their coach.

Lost in the discussion of Carmody was the horrendous performance from NU. The game was only close because Marcotullio happened to have the game of his career on Senior Night. They turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 15 times, and were rattled by a shockingly basic 1-2-2 three-quarter court press. They shot less than 35 percent from two-point range, and 28 percent overall when you take Marcotullio out of the equation.

The injuries could no longer be used as a crutch. NU lost to a weaker team, putting Carmody squarely on the hot seat.

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I don't think Jim Phillips has made up his mind. There are at least two games remaining, which is easy to forget. They stumble to Michigan State on Sunday, and have an opportunity to steal a Big Ten Tournament win next week. After, Phillips will meet with Carmody. He does every year.

Against Baylor earlier in the season, Northwestern had no reason to compete. Drew Crawford was clearly at half-strength. They had been struggling early in the season. They won with emotional energy. Dave Sobolewski looked the part of leader. The Cats executed and held on.

Both recent games against Ohio State showcased a team rallying for itself and for its head coach. The same was true against Indiana. We were quick to dismiss Carmody, and quick to argue that he did – objectively – outcoach Tom Crean and Thad Matta.

When the players put the ownership on themselves, it was fair. It felt real. Carmody faced a difficult hand, but there's no denying it: his job is in danger.

So there are two chances left, perhaps more, for NU to make a statement. I think it would jeopardize next season if they fired Carmody, but my opinion doesn't matter.

The pressure is squarely on Jim Phillips to field a tournament team next season. And if he doesn't feel Carmody is the best man to lead the group, he'll let him go. It would lead to a tumultuous offseason.

Defeat seeped into Welsh-Ryan Arena for the final time this season. Next year, with Crawford and others returning, there will be new hope.

Whether Carmody will be there to watch it happen might depend on the final stretch.

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