By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) Section 110, Row 4, Seat 20.
That’s where Jim Phillips sat at the United Center Thursday night. Calmly.
The normally fidgety director of athletics for Northwestern looked on as the Wildcats failed to score a point in the first 7:28 of Thursday’s opening round Big Ten Tournament contest and eventually lost 73-59 to Iowa, leaving Phillips nowhere to go but home to evaluate the state of his basketball program.
Forget the quality of play on the court — that has been suspect since Bill Carmody’s roster was ravaged by injuries and a key suspension months ago. Instead, it was hard not to notice what was going on around the court.
Inside Chicago’s largest home for basketball, “Chicago’s Big Ten team” was outnumbered at least 2-to-1 by Iowa Hawkeyes fans, a reality surely not lost on one of the conference’s most competitive athletic directors.
Even the University of Illinois, Northwestern’s most threatening territorial competitor in the area, had more fans the ‘Cats, despite tipping off nine hours earlier in the morning session that required different tickets.
Somewhere in the 300 level, NU had a section of seats reserved for students, but they were nowhere to be seen or heard from either.
Other than a few splotches of purple here and there, Northwestern’s cheering section was confined to eight or so rows reserved for school administrators and players’ families behind press row.
And that’s where Phillips sat. Calmly.
Occasionally during breaks or during free throws, he would look at his phone. But for the most part, Phillips kept his eyes on the game, rarely showing any emotion. At halftime he stood up and gave the Wildcats nothing more than a polite golf clap as the band played “Go U Northwestern” in the background.
But the songs were about all the noise the band made Thursday night at the United Center. There wasn’t much to cheer about.
Such is the problem with Northwestern basketball. There hasn’t been much to cheer about for too long.
And head coach Bill Carmody may indeed take the fall for that.
On one hand, he deserves credit for establishing some level of consistent success in Evanston. And indeed, he deserves some leniency for the way his roster was gutted this season.
But let’s be honest, what might be a pat on the back for almost making the NCAA Tournament in Evanston is nothing but criticism and angst at nearly any other basketball program that regularly visits the NIT.
So when does “almost” become unacceptable at Northwestern? Perhaps as soon as Friday as the ‘Cats know they won’t be playing in a postseason tournament. Carmody said he and Phillips will sit down in the next couple of days and discuss the program as they do every year, but from the sounds of it, this year’s discussion will be much different.
The general consensus is that Carmody’s job is in the hands of Phillips right now, but a new question was raised after Thursday’s loss: Does Carmody even want to return?
“I don’t think this is the time for that,” the head coach said when asked about his desire to return. “I just assume have a discussion with Jim and we’ll go from there.”
Not exactly a yes.
Moments later, Carmody voiced obvious and fair frustrations about the lack of suitable facilities at Northwestern.
“Everyone’s goal is to get into the NCAA Tournament and we haven’t been able to accomplish that. In 100 years, we haven’t been able to accomplish that,” Carmody said. “There’s not that much different now about what Northwestern offers than there was when Kevin O’Neill was here, and Ricky Byrdsong and Bill Foster.
“Everyone knows, people have talked about it, it’s sort of like an arms race so the gap might be widening that way.”
It is widening. And whether Carmody is fired or not, he has a very valid point. Even though Northwestern is building new facilities along the lakefront for its student-athletes, Welsh-Ryan Arena and the basketball practice facility is a long ways away from being upgraded.
“The administration knows this, we have to sort of move ahead facilities-wise,” Carmody said. “The big step is being made with the lakefront facilities and the money coming in is fantastic and down the road that’s going to help us also.”
But that’s down the road. Meanwhile, the road is a lot shorter for football, as it should be.
“Money comes in from football, people have said 85 percent and basketball is like 13 percent, but our administration knows that and they are going to do something about that,” Carmody said. “It’s just a question of you have to pick something first and I think we’ll benefit from some of things that are in this lakefront facility academically and training facilities, and we have to move on to Welsh-Ryan and our practice facility.”
Carmody gets it. He knows where basketball is on the pecking order and he knows he hasn’t won enough. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been playing with a short stack the last 13 years. He has.
So will a new basketball coach. At least until recruits can come to Evanston and dream about playing their home games in something other than what is essentially a large high school arena.
In the business of college athletics, Carmody’s resume probably says it’s time for Northwestern to move on. But there’s a lot that might be telling Carmody it’s time to move on too.
He’s not the biggest problem.
Welsh-Ryan Arena is.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.