There has been a major developmental component to Northwestern's season from the start. Developing the four freshmen in the rotation became even more important after injuries to seniors Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire.
That's why Sunday night's loss to Michigan State was somewhat encouraging. Freshmen Kale Abrahamson scored a career-high 16 points while center Alex Olah had one of his better all-around games in a 71-61 loss to the No. 10 Spartans.
Whether that's enough for coach Bill Carmody to convince athletics director Jim Phillips that he should return for a 14th season remains to be seen. Carmody's future is the biggest question looming over the program heading into Thursday night's game against Iowa at the United Center in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
"You want to be on stable ground," Carmody said when asked about the state of his program. "You want the talent level to be good enough so that you can compete with all the teams. You want to be in the top half of the conference because if you do you get a bid. That's what we've been trying to do. We had some injuries this year. You're never sure what's going to happen but I think that really hurt this team. But next year I think we're going to be solid. With every program you just try to keep the talent level good in all your classes and when you do that you're usually going to be pretty successful."
An upset in the Big Ten Tournament would help Carmody's cause, although it's a tall order for the injury-depleted Wildcats, who lost to the Hawkeyes 70-50 on Jan. 13 and 71-57 on Feb. 9.
"Obviously, I have tremendous respect for Bill and the job he has done," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "I do know they are a very difficult team to play against and prepare for. We have beat them twice this year but we had lost to them a bunch of times in a row. If you watched them [Sunday] you see how difficult they are to guard when they're making shots. You see the improvement of an Abrahamson and [Tre] Demps. Those two guys in particular have really impressed me. There was the unfortunate injury to Swopshire. Olah has improved. You see a team that has continued to battle despite an incredible rash of injuries no coach would want to endure. We have tremendous respect for this team."
McCaffery tried to convince Abrahamson to come to Iowa before he decided on Northwestern. Abrahamson played for ex-Iowa Standout Jeff Horner at Valley High in West Des Moines.
"There are a few freshman who come in and are really ready to go right from September but most take a little time," Carmody said. "He had nine rebounds in the game against Ohio State and started to be more interested going to the offensive board and overall things are slowing down for him a little bit so he's not quite as anxious. He's gotten to the basket a couple times nicely. It's just the normal growth you have. His feel is getting a lot better. I don't know if it's so much getting open for shots --- I guess that's true --- but he has a better understanding of things and has calmed down some."
Northwestern had won five in a row against Iowa until this year. McCaffery had lost his first four games against Carmody and his Princeton offense, which can be especially effective against coaches not used to defending the back-door cuts that are its signature.
In fact, that could be another factor in Phillips decision to retain Carmody. The stability in the Big Ten coaching ranks means Carmody and the Wildcats will likely not benefit from playing teams not used to their unique style.
"The more times you go against it the better off you are," McCaffery said. "The first time we played them they cleaned our clocks. If I'm not mistaken, they had 14 3s in that game. Last year, of course, with [John] Shurna and Crawford, those guys can make plays and make baskets, particularly at crunch time. This team is different. You've got some new faces. They were expecting Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire. It's still the same offense. You still have to understand that whatever you take away they're going to get you somewhere else, the counters and everything they do is so intricate it ultimately requires a sustained effort by five people working together simultaneously. That's exactly what they are doing on the other side. It's five people working together with screen action and handoffs. You can't let up, especially with the way they shoot the 3."