I know what you’re thinking. We’re all of a sudden going to overcome 70 years of history and make the NCAA Tournament? Please.
Well, why not? Let’s think for a second.
Last season was Northwestern’s winningest in school history, and four of last year’s top five scorers are returning.
Michael “Juice” Thompson will lead at the point for his senior year. He’s one of the Big Ten’s most efficient passers – he ranked second in assist-to-turnover ratio last season – and he is a marksman from deep. He made 41.1% of his threes last season, good for third-best in the conference. Drew Crawford, who averaged 10 points per game last season while tallying 25 blocks (third-best on the team), looks to build off a stellar freshman year. Center Luka Mirkovic returns after a sophomore season as the team’s leader in field goal percentage at 48%. Junior forward John Shurna, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding last year, returns as well.
Yes, we can lament the choices of a certain 6’8” senior, but he didn’t play last season anyway. After losing Kevin Coble to a season-ending foot injury in the preseason, the Wildcats still went 20-14. And this year, the team has known it will not have Coble’s services and has had time to adjust.
In Coble’s place, fifth-year senior Jeff Ryan will return after his injury last year led him to use a medical redshirt. Ryan has been a role player off the bench for the ‘Cats in the past and can provide needed depth.
Northwestern also boasts one of its best recruits ever in freshman guard JerShon Cobb. Cobb is known for his ability to drive and score, and in the open court of the Princeton offense, he should thrive. His athleticism should complement Thompson’s three-point proficiency well.
Another writer disagrees and thinks that the ‘Cats won’t make the NCAA tournament this year.
As for the games, Northwestern’s easy non-conference schedule is both a gift and a curse. Last year, Northwestern went 13-3 in non-conference play, but its 7-11 showing in Big Ten games made it hard to earn an at-large bid. The same factors are in play this season: a light non-conference schedule, with seven of the first nine games at home against weaker opponents, primes the Wildcats for an impressive, confidence-building non-conference record but does little for the strength-of-schedule factor used in determining an at-large bid.
As a result, Northwestern must be competitive in its own conference. Without having been seriously tested in non-conference play, Northwestern cannot overestimate any successes. Michigan State, Purdue, and Ohio State all look to be national competitors, but Northwestern will be in the middle of the pack. Fellow middling pack members Minnesota lost leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook and key player Damian Johnson, while Wisconsin graduated leaders Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. The Wildcats, with most of their core returning, could have an advantage over these teams who lost key members.
Bottom line: get out your dancing shoes, Wildcats. The NCAA Tournament started at Northwestern, and with a solid core group and some confidence, there’s no reason the ‘Cats can’t end this season there.