Optimism and success take on new meaning every season around Northwestern basketball.
Given a program that has not enjoyed a winning Big Ten season since 1968 and has never played in an NCAA tournament, Wildcats fans are thrilled that coach Bill Carmody has brought them 53 wins in the last four seasons. Even Big Ten observers recognized Carmody's success by voting him Big Ten Coach of the Year last season for leading a team that finished 14-15.
Carmody, who averaged 23 wins per season in four years at Princeton, chuckles at the supposed success he has had at Northwestern.
"You're always setting records around here, but it doesn't necessarily mean anything," he said.
This season it may mean something if the Wildcats can break that NCAA tournament barrier. Northwestern loses top scorer and playmaker Jitim Young but returns four starters and six letterwinners. The Wildcats also bring in heralded transfers from Duke and St. John's -- a reversal of the recent trend that had more players leaving than coming. The Wildcats played with just eight scholarship players last season, giving Carmody plenty of room to recruit.
He found players with size and athleticism. The Wildcats may even start scrapping his pass-and-cut offense and play some good ole Big Ten basketball.
"We might not have to be a cutie-pie, trick-'em kind of team this year," he said. "Maybe we can just throw it in there and have someone stuff it. Other teams do that to us."
FRONTCOURTThe optimism Wildcats fans have this season starts down low with two maturing sophomores, two versatile forwards and the biggest addition, 6-foot-10 Duke transfer Michael Thompson.
Thompson, a former McDonald's All-American, will not be eligible until January, but Wildcats fans are counting the hours. He averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds in high school but never got much playing time in a season and a half at Duke. He brings size and force down low that Wildcat fans haven't seen since the late '90s.
Carmody also is expecting a lot from improved sophomores Vince Scott and Ivan Tolic. Scott played in 25 games last year but struggled to keep up with the size and strength of the Big Ten competition. Tolic started 13 games but was hampered by sore knees. One or both will have to anchor the middle until Thompson is eligible.
Returning starters Vedran Vukusic and Davor Duvancic are both versatile forwards who are as valuable for their passing as for their scoring.
Vukusic, who redshirted in 2002-03 because of a shoulder injury, came back and averaged 14.3 points to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season. He shot 38 percent from 3-point range and dished out almost three assists per game.
Duvancic, who is Northwestern's only true senior on scholarship, played key roles in big games all last season off the bench.
BACKCOURTThe backcourt has carried the Wildcats since Carmody arrived and still likely will provide much of the scoring this season.
As a sophomore last year, T.J. Parker led Northwestern with 115 assists. Parker, the brother of Spurs guard Tony Parker, has started all but one game in his collegiate career and again will lead the Wildcats at the point.
Another junior, Mohamed Hachad, has been right at Parker's side the last two seasons, starting 42 consecutive games. Both are adept at running an offense that ranked third in the nation in assist-to-field goal ratio.
A backcourt scoring boost could come from sharpshooter Evan Seacat and St. John's transfer Tim Doyle. Seacat should get plenty of open looks when opponents double down on Thompson. Doyle, who practiced with the team last year while sitting out, is what Carmody calls a "throwback" player who can dribble, pass and shoot.
FINAL ANALYSISCarmody's formula for success in the Big Ten is simple -- win at home, split on the road. Northwestern won at home last season, going 10-3 and beating nationally ranked Big Ten opponents Illinois and Wisconsin.
If the Wildcats can improve their 3-9 road record, they have a shot at breaking the .500 mark in league play. If that should happen, Northwestern could earn that elusive NCAA tournament bid. Then Carmody could celebrate real success.