It’s pretty easy for sports fans to convince themselves of grandeur in the preseason. Before the opening kickoff or opening tip-off or opening pitch, before a team’s weaknesses are exposed on the field – and can instead be rationalized out of existence – it’s easy to believe that things will be peachy.
Of course, high expectations in the preseason do not always equal in-season success. All preseason pub really means is that (a) more people will be watching the teams that get the hype, (b) more people will see that team struggle should it struggle, and (c) fans will likely be a bit more bummed if things go south.
Still, NU basketball is getting a lot of good preseason press. This is news to no NU hoops fan – and there are plenty of you out there. But what’s really interesting about NU’s uptick in publicity is that it is so incredibly different than what we saw at this time last season, when people were more down on NU hoops than Sean Hannity was on Barack Obama.
Remember last October? October is generally a wonderful time of year, when basketball fever sweeps across the nation, infecting every hoopshead in its path. Well, that fever wasn’t kind at all to Northwestern. Coming off of the woeful 2007 season, in which the Cats stumbled (to put it kindly) to an 8-22 record, and 1-17 in the Big Ten, people were taking some preseason shots at the Cats. Considering the ’07 campaign, you can understand why the press was negative. But still…
Athlon Sports opined:
For the last eight years, Bill Carmody has tried to craft a respectable product from substandard talent. He employed a junky 1-3-1 zone defense to offset a lack of size. He made guards into forwards and forwards into centers. He did anything to close the gap between Northwestern and its opponents, a gap created in part by his poor recruiting.
As Carmody enters his ninth year, he’s under increased pressure to produce results.
Big Ten Geeks, a site devoted to Big Ten sports, wrote this:
That about sums up Northwestern's 07-08 campaign. Were it not for the heroics of Craig Moore, the Wildcats would have gone winless in conference….
The Wildcats will be satisfied that they are no longer in the basement of the conference.
Maddux Sports wrote:
In 2007-2008, the Northwestern Wildcats (8-22 overall, 1-17 Big Ten) finished in last-place in their conference. For head coach Bill Carmody, it was another year of losses, failed attempts and substandard talent. Carmody starts his ninth season with Northwestern and desperately needs to show improvement….
More: the sixth-annual Unauthorized Big Ten Basketball Writers Preview pegged NU as the second-to-last team in the conference, and while Purple Reign doesn’t like citing Bleacher Report, the fan site hypothesized that NU would finish dead-last in the conference.
So yeah, the coverage was, um, unflattering. Again, that’s somewhat justified considering NU’s woes in 2008. Still, there was a nary a preview of NU’s 2008-09 season that was upbeat or optimistic.
This season, though, things have changed; the tone of the rhetoric couldn’t be much different. Mares sense, too. After all, Northwestern is returning pretty much everyone from a team that flirted with the Big Dance. And there are stats to back up the optimism as well. NU was No. 22 in the nation in three-point shooting last season. That was tops in the Big Ten, and 49 spots ahead of No. 71 Iowa. The Cats were solid elsewhere as well: No. 10 in assist-to-turnover ration, No. 25 in scoring defense, No. 13 in turnover margin. Plus second-team all-Big Ten player Kevin Coble is back, sophomore John Shurna will no doubt improve on his 7.3 points per game average, and 6-foot-5 freshman guard Drew Crawford – who finished third in Illinois’ Mr. Basketball voting – should contribute immediately.*
* The crux of this article really is the media perception of Northwestern basketball – not so much the nuts and bolts of this season’s team in terms of personnel and stats. At times, Purple Reign can be a stat dork’s paradise. For proof, just look here and here and here at some no-longer-premium stories about the football squad. Promise: There will be plenty of hoops stats in the future. For now, though, back to the preseason buzz.
So if the quasi-smack talk in 2008 was justified, then the anticipation this season is as well.
From the USA Today:
Since Northwestern never has qualified for the NCAA Tournament, the program's success usually has been calculated with inchworms rather than yardsticks. But after last year's grand achievements, the Wildcats are ready to start using the same measuring system as the rest of the nation's major-college teams….
The Wildcats never have played in the NCAA Tournament, but this team has more preseason hopes than any NU team in a generation or two. With many of their best players being freshmen and sophomores -- and the team's recruiting seemingly improving by the month -- the future is brighter than at any time in the last 40 years.
Ahhh. That’s nice, no? Well, there’s more. Like this from the Chicago Tribune:
"We have a great buzz going," said Wildcats point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson. "We're working hard and listening to everything the coaches tell us so we can keep that buzz going and hopefully make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time."
Thompson said the typical comment he hears is: "I can't wait to watch you guys play this year."
So even though the Wildcats are a Cub-like 0-for-71 in reaching the Big Dance, there's a palpable sentiment that, well, It's Gonna Happen.
And from ESPN Chicago:
(Kevin) Coble's draft prospects should be improved with the added strength, but for now his mind is set on one goal -- getting Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament. A year ago, the Wildcats flirted with that possibility and ended up in the NIT. It was a big step forward for a program that had won a total of three Big Ten games and lost 40 overall in Coble's first three seasons, but still it wasn't enough for him.
"That's the ultimate goal and why I came to this program," Coble said. "For me, it would be a letdown if we weren't able to do that in my four seasons….
"It keeps you going from day to day and year and year. It's special for us seniors. We're going to be close."
And finally, from the NU hoops-obsessed blog Carmody Court:
Fun fact of the day: 304 teams have made the NCAAs. That means NU will be the 305th team (or perhaps T-305th) to play in the NCAAs come this March.
A lot of this, of course, is generic preseason fan-speak and coach-speak and player-speak. Of course Carmody says that he is excited to get the season started. And of course Coble says that he wants to go dancing in March, and Williams that people on campus are excited. After all, this is the time of year when everyone is excited.
But the rhetoric itself isn’t the noteworthy part. What’s interesting is that people – national media people and Wildcats alike – are talking about NU and the NCAA Tournament. Like, seriously talking about it. And at this time last year, all anyone seemed able to talk about how horrible that 1-17 Big Ten mark looked, and how anything that exceeded embarrassment would be considered a good season.
Now, though, 2008 seems a world away. Now NU players and coaches and fans have the audacity – the justifiable audacity – to speculate about the tourney, and say that it’s on their minds, that it’s the goal.
And for the first time in years, it’d be a good thing if NU lives up its preseason billing.
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