LOCATION: Evanston, IL
CONFERENCE: Big Ten
LAST SEASON: 15-14 (.517)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 6-10 (8th)
STARTERS LOST/RETURNING: 2/3
COLORS: Purple & White
HOMECOURT: Welsh-Ryan Arena (8,117)
COACH: Kevin O'Neill (McGill '79)
record at school 25-31 (2 years)
career record 165-151 (10 years)
ASSISTANTS: Bob Beyer (Alfred State '82)|
Billy Schmidt Wake Forest '92)
Steve Evans (Union '94)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 5-7-7-10-15
RPI (last 5 years) 234-230-204-188-83
1998-99 FINISH: Lost in first round of NIT.
The theory of relativity for Northwestern basketball means more than the Eschmeyer brothers. To examine the Wildcats' monumental progress in two seasons under Kevin O'Neill, you need to see where the program has been and to remember to bring your hip waders. Northwestern has hosted the NCAA Tournament several times. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they've never been invited to play in it, not once in the event's 61-year history. Part of the problem is that Northwestern has never won 20 games in a season. It has lost 20 games 11 times. But that's not exactly the "Fun with Numbers" exercise O'Neill had in mind. The Wildcats have never won 19 games. They did win 19 times in a span of three seasons from 1994-97, however. The winningest record in school history was 18-12 in 1982-83 under Rich Falk, now a Big Ten assistant commissioner. Falk, a former Northwestern player, was his alma mater's head coach for eight years. That was his only winning season. The second-highest victory total came in 1930-31, by far the Wildcats' most successful season. Northwestern earned its only outright Big Ten title with an 11-1 conference record and was 16-1 overall under Arthur Lonborg's inspired leadership. Lonberg coached the Wildcats for 23 seasons from 1927-50. But if you walked along a gorgeous lakefront and asked 50 students on campus, "Who is Arthur Lonborg?" 49 of them wouldn't know and the other would say, "He wrote Death of a Salesman.."
"Death of a Program" perhaps, or "After the Fall," if you examine Northwestern's lack of success for more than 60 years. In the last half-century of basketball, the Wildcats have had 11 coaches. That's an average of roughly 4.5 seasons per coach. And they have combined for exactly nine winning records. Some schools have had more than that in the 1990s. So don't point the finger at O'Neill or at Lonborg, Harold Olson, Waldo Fisher, William Rohr, Larry Glass, Brad Snyder, Tex Winter, Falk, Bill Foster or Ricky Byrdsong for failing to put Northwestern on a par with Purdue. A simple bogey would be fine. For the first time in memory, the future looks brighter than the past with one huge "if." O'Neill's commitment to the program is as huge as any factor in a complex equation. If he leaves for a better job, and there are plenty of them out there, the mudslide begins again. O'Neill has had nine jobs in the last two decades, none of them longer than a five-year stint at Marquette that ended with back-to-back 20-victory seasons and a trip to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 in 1994. So it's a bit unreasonable to expect a 42-year-old human volcano to complete his career in Evanston. The best scenario is probably for him to get the Wildcats to middle-of-the-pack respectability in the Big Ten, help earn their first NCAA Tournament invitation and leave a clean program in good hands. If he can meet the first two of those objectives, O'Neill won't be able to say no enough times. His first season at Northwestern had to be a culture shock for the returning players and for everyone in the athletic department who didn't understand how winners do business. One of the first things they try to do is to disassociate themselves with losers. If O'Neill ruffled more feathers than one would find with ostriches in a wind tunnel, so be it. If that hadn't happened, the Wildcats could never have gone from seven victories in Byrdsong's last try to 10 victories, then to a 15-14 record and an NIT appearance the last two seasons. "The Kevin and Evan Show," starring O'Neill and the elder Eschmeyer not older than O'Neill, but close drew decent ratings from the game's harshest critics. None can be tougher than O'Neill, who drives his players to be all they can be and reminds each one that he hasn't arrived yet. His decibel level is great if you're hard of hearing. And if you happen to be wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, you're in for two hours of vocabulary enrichment. Last year's freshmen got an earful from the day practice began. And this year's newcomers, an impressive group by Northwestern standards, has probably heard the horror stories. But before anyone starts talking about a meteoric rise in basketball, similar to the Wildcats' back-to-back Big Ten football titles in 1995-96, there are two big differences in those challenges. Though football success is harder to accomplish, it can also be fleeting. Anyone see Gary Barnett or a winning team in Evanston lately? O'Neill might have to back up to move forward in the standings. If his team is 6-10 in the conference in 2000, he will be a candidate for Big Ten Coach-of-the-Year honors. Eschmeyer is off to the NBA, and injured again, which means he won't have a record seventh year of NCAA eligibility. But if his production (19.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg, .584 FG) will be missed, the limits he put on Northwestern's style of play won't be. It was almost impossible for the Wildcats to drive last season with three defenders waiting under the basket. Whether this year's Wildcats can make those plays is open to debate. But the future rests with three sophomores 5-11 point guard David Newman (8.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 77 assists, .810 FT), 6-5 small forward Steve Lepore (7.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, .853 FT) and 6-8 power forward Tavaras Hardy (6.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) who combined for 73 starts last season. The lone senior is 6-11 center Aron Molnar (3.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg), the only player left from the Byrdsong years. He will have a shot to start, as will limited 6-2 junior Sean Wink (7.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg, .380 3 PT), a long-range specialist. If Molnar and Wink contribute what they can, Northwestern might be able to hang with anyone. That's especially true if the best of six freshmen come through. Tops on the list is 6-3 shooting guard Ben Johnson, a prolific scorer from De La Salle High in Minneapolis with a great shot to start. Johnson was highly regarded he made Blue Ribbon's 100 More Stars of the Future list a year ago and was ranked No. 60 in recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons' Top 100 list. Johnson helped lead De La Salle to two straight Minnesota 2A championships in his last two seasons. He averaged 23.0 points as a senior. O'Neill, long known as a crafty recruiter, took advantage of coaching changeover at Iowa State and Iowa the last two years and mined that state for some talent. Brody Deren, a 6-7, 223-pound power forward from Harlan (Iowa) Community High School, is the most physically mature player on the roster. Deren, who averaged 19.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.6 blocked shots, also played football and baseball. He was a Big Ten prospect (as a quarterback/tight end) in football. O'Neill signed two centers from Iowa, but one will probably be redshirted. Both Adam Robinson (6-10, 210) and Aaron Jennings (6-11, 200) need to spend a lot of time in the weight room. The one who pumps up the most will be in uniform this season. Robinson averaged 14.0 points, 4.0 blocks and 3.0 assists for Cedar Falls High. Jennings averaged 18.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks for Benton Community High in Atkins. O'Neill also got lucky two times in Plano, Texas. Two freshmen from that city will battle for minutes. Winston Blake, a 6-5 small forward, is a slasher who can get to the basket. Blake prepped at Plano Senior, where he averaged 18.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Jason Burke, 6-7, played at Plano East High, where he averaged 10.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.0 blocks.
Blue Ribbon Analysis
BACKCOURT B- BENCH/DEPTH C-|
FRONTCOURT C INTANGIBLES C
Kevin O'Neill's team used to try to get the ball to Evan Eschmeyer, then get out of the way. That won't happen this season, which could be good or bad. Ten of the team's 12 scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores. That should cut them some slack. These Wildcats won't be held to the same standard of excellence as those from Kentucky or Arizona. It's amazing that last season's team was ever 6-4 in the conference. Its freshmen probably ran out of gas. The final surge was a victory over Penn State in the conference tournament and a near-upset against Michigan State. It's Northwestern's turn to be athletic for once, though that might not translate to victories with a tougher pre-conference schedule. O'Neill's team is definitely on schedule to make us realize the Wildcats didn't give up the sport in 1931. By 2001, opponents should know that, too.
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