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Tough Big Ten makes figuring out Northwestern even tougher

Northwestern Vs IowBig Ten Basketball.  Northwestern Head Coach Bill Carmody with dejected team bench.  March 14Th 2013 I

Northwestern Vs Iowa Big Ten Basketball. Northwestern Head Coach Bill Carmody with a dejected team bench. March 14Th, 2013 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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This being the Big Ten Conference, you knew there would be 12 teams involved.

Bad math, yes. Good ballclubs, absolutely.

The entire dozen didn’t play Thursday at the United Center during Day 1 of the conference tournament — top-seeded Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin got byes until Friday — but their presence sure could be felt.

How? Well, No. 5 seed Michigan (now 26-6 after beating lowly Penn State 83-66 in the afternoon) is, according to the AP poll, the sixth-best team in the nation. Think of that. Ranked sixth among hundreds of teams, fifth among 12.

Is this a tough conference or what?

Indeed, it’s a decent bet the national champion will come from the Big Ten. The harder part is predicting which team it might be.

Indiana has been ranked as high as No. 1 in the country. So has Michigan. Ohio State reached No. 3. Michigan State reached No. 4. Illinois made it to No. 10. Wisconsin has gotten as high as 16, and even sinking Minnesota once was No. 8. Right now there are four Big Ten teams in the top 10, five in the top 25.

If you think Gonzaga, Duke, Louisville, Georgetown, Kansas or Miami has a better chance of snatching the NCAA crown than a Big Ten team, good for you. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

What you should bet on — and take it to the bank — is that three Big Ten teams are bottom dwellers, have been for some time and will be no factor in any national anything except wins given up.

We’re talking about Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern, which among them have 43 conference losses this season, excluding the tournament, where they have three more. For our purposes, we’re going to drop Penn State and Nebraska, since those are football schools which may never think of winter as more than weight-room-and-supplement season.

That leaves us with Northwestern, a problem child in basketball if ever there was one. The Wildcats have not been to the NCAA tournament. Ever. That’s 74 years without a Big Dance ticket.

It’s one of those streaks — like the Cubs’ 104-year drought — that seems more difficult to maintain than to break.

We hear that Minnesota coach Tubby Smith is in danger of being fired after his Gophers started the season 15-1 and ended it 5-11, finishing with a last-second 51-49 loss to Illinois in the first game of the Big Ten tourney. But Smith once won a national championship with another school, so we’re not worried about him, either.

But Northwestern — what do we do?

Coach Bill Carmody has been there 13 years, and this is one of his worst teams ever. Yes, this season, everybody but Willie the Wildcat was injured, and maybe the feline was, too. Who knows what’s inside that big gray head.

But as one watches the Princeton weave go on and on and the Wildcats fall behind Iowa by scores of 9-0, 36-24, and, oh, what difference does it make? Northwestern lost to Iowa, 73-59, and finished the season at 13-19, with nine of those wins coming against nonconference teams. In the Big Ten, NU went 4-15.

What can you say?

The Big Ten is a tough conference. It is in football. And it is in basketball, too. And, as they say, if you want to play with the big boys, put on your big boy pants.

An easy thing to do would be to fire Carmody, pat him on the back and say, ‘‘Nice job, bro — go fishing and relax.’’

But the question is, who can do better?

Any coach will be faced with the same things Carmody has: bad facilities, low booster cast, not much help from alums. And one reason for that? There hardly are any Northwestern alums, maybe just 1,700 new ones a year, compared to the tens of thousands churned out by the big state schools.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the Pat Fitzgerald-led football team. Nor has it stopped second-ranked Duke, another small, elite, private school.

The thing is, as one NU basketball alum put it at the press table, ‘‘Fitz is a rock star.’’

Unstated was that Carmody is not. And yet he has a stud recruit, Jared Sina from New Jersey, who says he likely won’t attend NU if Carmody is canned. And what of all those injuries? Is it fair to judge the guy now?

As the purple curtain dropped once more, every observer had to make a call on Carmody — fire or not.

I could take one more year. I think.



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