WORCESTER, Mass. – The past, of course, is an extremely poor place to live, but if you’re a mid-major fan, particularly the Ivy League, you couldn’t help but root for Bill Carmody at Northwestern. For 12 seasons, he tried mixtures of magic potions and illusions that seemed to rival the Copperfields and Blaines of the world, trying to get the Wildcats to their first ever NCAA Tournament (one of five with St. Francis Brooklyn, Army, The Citadel, and William & Mary who have been a Division I institution since the beginning in 1939 and never gone to the NCAAs).
While it was tough sledding, Carmody always had an upset or three in him, and from 2010-2012, looked to have gotten over the hump. In each of those three seasons, Northwestern ranked in the top 30 nationally in offensive efficiency, with a deliberate style that almost never turned the ball over, and seemed to miss shots even less (as he did at Princeton while going 92-25 in Ivy games from 1996-2000). He won 20 games in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but just fell short of the NCAA bubble. The Wildcats started 10-1 in 2011-12, but finished 8-10 in the Big Ten, the last two losses coming in overtime to ranked Michigan and by a pair to Ohio State, who eventually ended up in the Final Four. The verdict, once again, was NIT.
Soon after that (two seasons later), Carmody’s sleeves were out of tricks and he was fired.
He took last year off and thought about retirement, but – now 63 years old – decided he couldn’t turn down Holy Cross.
One look at his current team sees it’s a work in progress. Carmody cringed Wednesday every time a Crusader made a wrong cut in the Princeton offense, he had a 5’10” point guard playing the spot usually reserved for someone with a lengthy wingspan at the top of his 1-3-1, and his team may not quite understand all his defensive calls quite yet, but there were glimpses of the old Princeton and Northwestern Carmody in there.
Like when 6’11” center Matt Husek drilled a three-pointer off a pick-and-pop at the top of the key. Or when his awkward 1-3-1 caused Sacred Heart to throw the ball directly into one of his player’s hands. And there was the end result, of course, a 69-60 win on just 61 possessions and seven turnovers. The Crusaders are just 2-3 to start the season, but already they are 350th nationally in adjusted tempo (quicker than only fellow Princeton disciple Mike Brennan and American) and 39th in turnover rate (14.3%).
“I think we just have to get better at it,” Carmody said. “It’s not like my stuff is that much different than other coaches. It’s basketball: if there’s an open shot, you have to make it; if there’s an open player, you have to guard them. The ball goes up on the glass, go get it. Everyone has different things they do offensively and defensively, but it still comes down to making shots and playing defense.”
Holy Cross got major contributions out of two of Carmody’s first recruits to Worcester in Karl Charles (15 pts., 7 rebs.) and Matt Zignorski (13 pts.), who had originally committed to Fordham. Charles, from Piscataway, N.J., told a pretty scary Thanksgiving story for the rest of the Patriot League going forward.
“His (Carmody’s) pedigree was the main reason I wanted to come here,” Charles said. “His pitch was, ‘If you know how to pass, shoot, and score, then I’m the coach for you.’ I did my research and saw the success he had at Princeton and Northwestern, and then I looked at the academics of Holy Cross and the Patriot League, and I was sold. From the moment he offered me the scholarship, I was coming here.”
What else did we learn in the Wednesday matinee at the Hart Center?
- Sacred Heart was ready for the tricks, but lost anyway
The Pioneers weren’t surprised by the 1-3-1 Holy Cross threw at them (full disclosure: my favorite defense when I was coaching) and even beat it fairly easily in the first half. But, although Cane Broome was much more productive in the second half (19 points, after scoring only 1 in the first 16 minutes), the Pioneers could not find anyone else to knock down shots after halftime (Broome had all four of Sacred Heart’s second half three-pointers). When the shots weren’t falling, they began to panic a little, which played right into the hands of Carmody and the Crusaders, with nine of their 14 turnovers coming after halftime.
“The biggest thing was what they do defensively kind of breaks your rhythm and gets you out of sync,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “They played maybe three possessions of man-to-man, but mostly matchup zone and then the 1-3-1. I thought we did a good job in the first half, but they really stifled us in the second half.”
2) More defense still needed, too
Giving up 69 points doesn’t sound bad, but Holy Cross posted 1.13 points per possession in a slow, Carmody-like pace (60 possessions), so it wasn’t good. The Crusaders, who are slowly being conditioned not to worry about offensive rebounding all that much, still grabbed 12 (33.3% rate), and Sacred Heart’s normally aggressive defense got only three steals (Holy Cross had only seven turnovers). After holding Quinnipiac to 0.80 ppp in the season opener, Sacred Heart has not kept an opponent below 1.00 ppp in its four losses.
“The bad news is we’re not playing how we want to play, or I think what we’re capable of. The good news is, no one else in our conference is either right now,” Latina said. “Teams have a choice, what direction are they going to go in? Are they mentally tough enough to absorb this? I think that’s the challenge because it’s not going to get any easier the next month or so.”
3) Best is yet to come?
As Latina alluded things don’t get much easier for the Pioneers going forward, at UConn and Towson, home for defending Patriot League champ Lafayette, at Hartford, Northwestern, and Hofstra before starting NEC play at Robert Morris.
But keeping things in perspective is key for Sacred Heart and all members of the NEC, really. No one in the conference has really impressed so far, most with extremely difficult schedules. So while there is plenty to work on, with Cane Broome and Tevin Falzon in tow, you still have to think that Sacred Heart will be a contender once NEC play opens in January.
“I make reference to our baseball team a lot,” Latina said. “They started 1-14 last season and ended up winning the NEC. Why can’t that be us? I hope we don’t get to 1-14, obviously, but the point is it’s about how you finish the season, not how you start. You have to believe in the process, you can make an argument that we should be 3-2, but we’re not, and that’s the way it is. We’re not getting an at-large bid, so it’s about that we’re improving on a daily basis and playing our best basketball when it matters.”
Holy Cross is in a similar position with teams like Harvard, Rhode Island, Albany, and someone named Kansas coming up. But as the team gets used to his system more and more, it would not be a shock to see the Crusaders in the hunt of a balanced Patriot League.