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March 8, 2012The Northwestern Wildcats are heading into the most significant week in the program's lengthy, dreary history. Never before have the stakes been higher heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
National media outlets have flocked to Evanston to cover the one BCS-conference school to never have reached the Big Dance. With a record of 18-12, 8-10 Big Ten, the Wildcats are perched atop the slippery tournament bubble, and most experts, including ESPN's Joe Lunardi, currently have them as one of the last four teams in.
If the Wildcats win one game, they have a three-pointer's chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Win two and it's a layup. Win three and it's a backboard-shattering slam dunk.
Lost in the commotion of all that may occur over the next few days in Indianapolis is that Bill Carmody has a chance to silence his critics and enter his name into Northwestern lore.
This could be a legacy-defining weekend for perhaps the most polarizing figure in all of Northwestern athletics, the East Coast outsider who has endured an avalanche of criticism and calls for his job, even during the season that may go down as the greatest of his coaching career.
The bull's-eye has never been more zeroed in on his back than this season. Three consecutive NIT appearances have advanced the program to a level of success it has not seen since the invention of the color television, but has also instilled a previously unseen hunger in the fan base that has threatened to swallow Carmody whole.
"Ricky Byrdsong (RIP) and Kevin O'Neill were not great coaches and did not have great talent. They took NU to the NIT. That's all I'm asking. Just the NIT. Beat up on some cupcakes then finish 6-10 in the conference."
That was the second-ever post on the blog notoriously entitled "Fire Bill Carmody" on January 19, 2006. Well, it's more than six years later and despite the trio of NIT berths, the two, historic 20-win seasons, and becoming the second-winningest coach in Northwestern history (Arthur Lonborg is No. 1), the blog continues to exist, as do the corresponding Twitter and Facebook pages.
Carmody, it seems, cannot really win. The more improvement the team shows, the more the last 72 years of failure cause fans and alumni to grow impatient.
He's also had his share of tough breaks in the last few years when he has fielded his best teams. It is hard to imagine last season's NIT-quarterfinal team would have missed the NCAA field of 68 with a healthy Kevin Coble, who missed a year due to injury and then decided to quit the team. Then, leading scorer John Shurna sprained his ankle and never fully recovered. Fans never got a chance to see what the four-heading scoring monster of Coble, Shurna, Michael "Juice" Thompson and Drew Crawford would have looked like.
Should Northwestern ultimately fall to Minnesota on Thursday and narrowly miss March Madness once again, this team that never was could wind up being Carmody's nadir in Evanston. With with a pair of victories in Indianapolis, however, Carmody will be hailed as the hero who, after a 2-6 start in conference, calmly steered the ship on the right course and delivered the dream to those same fans who wanted to see his head on a platter.
The blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages may continue to exist even with an NCAA Tournament invitation. But if Northwestern's name is called on Sunday, despite all the criticism, Carmody will always be known as the man that ended the most infamous drought in all of college basketball.
There have been accomplished coaches who have walked through the Welsh-Ryan Arena doors -- Hall of Famer Tex Winter among them -- but none have accomplished what Carmody has the chance to do this weekend. In his 12 seasons at the head of Northwestern basketball, he has been given more chances than a majority of coaches around the nation.
Now, he has the opportunity to validate each one of them.