A weekly feature in which author Benoit Denizet-Lewis follows the fortunes of the only BCS school to have sucked so consistently and spectacularly that it has never made the NCAA tournament, Northwestern. Current record: 12-4. Tournament prospects: Still goodish? Maybe?
Last week: @Michigan, W, 68-62; Wisconsin, L, 60-50
Upcoming: Purdue, @Ohio State
If this week's installment feels at all rushed, or phoned in, or as brief and unsatisfying as a Lane Kiffin coaching tenure, then I beg your forgiveness. When I inexplicably agreed to write this little column for not nearly enough money, I forgot that I don't write well on airplanes, and that's where I'm spending much of this week on tour for my new book. (One could argue that I don't write well on land, either, but you didn't hear that from me.)
Before I get to what you're all waiting for (your weekly injection of Northwestern hoops!!!!!), let me address a criticism from some of you about last week's column. In said column, I spent some time crying about NU's second straight overtime loss in a bowl game and lamenting the fact that Northwestern football gets about as much respect as, well, Northwestern basketball. I also mentioned — and here is where the trouble began — that Northwestern has won more Big Ten football championships since 1995 than Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, yet year after year the school gets picked to finish in the bottom fourth of the conference. (And, virtually every year, NU exceeds expectation and "shocks" the Hawkeyes. NU has won three straight in Iowa City. When do our wins stop being "shocking" and start being expected?)
This upset some of you greatly. In your comments, and in your occasionally clever emails, you argued that I was a "statistical cherry picker" and a "Northwestern retard." One of you went so far as to say that I should "keep fucking that chicken." (I tried very hard to not picture myself fucking a chicken, but it's kind of like someone saying, "Dude, whatever you do, don't picture yourself in a sweaty threesome with Charlie Weis and Mark Mangino.")
So, was I cherry picking the data to make my point? Of course I was! But what the hell else are sports statistics for? I could have decided to look at the last 10 years, or 20 years, but 15 years best made my point, which is that Northwestern is actually pretty good at football. Besides, can't you throw a lowly Northwestern fan a bone? Historically, there haven't been a lot of ways to massage the stats to make the Cats come out looking good. I find one, and you're giving me shit?! (Just be thankful I got the math right. I never quite nailed down the multiplication table. I am to numbers what Lou Holtz is to cogent thought.)
But back to the hardwood. The week started on an uplifting note, as the Wildcats traveled to Ann Arbor and came back from 17 down to beat Michigan. Things weren't looking good early, but NU freshman guard Drew Crawford (son of NBA referee Danny Crawford, who was in attendance) spent some quality time in the zone, scoring 11 straight points to pull the Cats to within striking distance at the half. The boys picked up the defensive intensity in the second half and kept feeding Crawford, who finished with 25 points.
Crawford is the kind of freshman you don't see very often at Northwestern. That is to say, he actually looks like a college basketball player. He is muscular, rangy, and can jump really high. "[NU] has never had athletes like Crawford," Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game. Wake Forest wanted Crawford, but like a number of talented prospects in the past couple of years, he gave Northwestern a serious look.
The man to thank for that is not Bill Carmody. Carmody is one of the best X's and O's coaches in the game, but a brilliant recruiter he is not. No, the man behind Northwestern's recruiting awakening is 29-year-old assistant coach and NU alum Tavaras Hardy, who also landed super sophomore John Shurna. When I reached Hardy by phone recently, I asked him how he went about selling Northwestern basketball.
"Northwestern is actually a great product to sell in many ways, because we're in the Big Ten, we have great academics, and we're right next to a great city, Chicago," Hardy told me. "But we don't have a tradition of winning championships, and our facilities aren't as good as many other Big Ten schools. So we're trying to get kids to look beyond that. We're saying to them, ‘Come here, get an incredible education, play early, and be part of history — be part of something special.' But it takes a special kind of young man to buy into that, and we have to work that much harder and be that much smarter about recruiting."
His hard work has paid off, as the Wildcats are now in the mix for a handful of top 150 players. And they sure could have used one or two of them on Wednesday at home against Wisconsin. Northwestern was up two with 5:28 left to play, but the Badgers went on a late run to pull away and win 60-50, handing the Cats their fourth loss of the season.
But things are still looking up. (And I'm still not on crack.) A win at home tomorrow against Purdue would be nice. And even if that doesn't happen, I'll be back here next week, fighting the good fight, spreading the gospel of Northwestern basketball in a world that seems significantly more interested in watching Jersey Shore. Stay classy, everyone.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a writer with The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life. He can be reached at www.benoitdenizetlewis.com or on Twitter.
Photo via ChicagoNow