This season for the Northwestern men’s basketball team has been about as predictable as cell phone reception in Tech: you never know when either will surpass your expectations, nor can you be sure when they’ll fall short of what you were hoping.
At times, the Wildcats have looked like the kind of team ready to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, with wins over Notre Dame, Iowa State, North Carolina State and biggest of all, their upset of Purdue, then the sixth-ranked team in the country.
However, at other times the ‘Cats have not looked like a tournament team. In blowout losses to Butler, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, the ‘Cats have looked over-matched and ill-prepared to trade blows with the nation’s heavyweights.
A lackluster win over Texas-Pan American left everyone scratching their heads. In short, no one quite knows what to make of this team just yet.
They are on the bubble for making the NCAA Tournament, which is a plus, but not enough. History won’t remember the team that almost made the tournament.
If the Wildcats want to make history, they are going to need some quality wins on the back end of conference play and a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament could go a long way in showing pollsters that the ‘Cats belong in the field of 65 come tournament time.
One of the brightest spots of this season has been the emergence of some of the ‘Cats rotation players in the absence of Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan, the two seniors expected to lead the team this year.
Sophomore forward John Shurna has stepped up, leading the team in both scoring, with 17.1 points a game, and rebounding, with 6.9 a game. Junior point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson has taken the reigns as well, delivering some clutch performances, with the highlight being his 20 point effort that led the ‘Cats over the Purdue Boilermakers.
Freshman Drew Crawford has emerged as the ‘Cats top clutch performer, averaging 10.9 points and 4.5 rebounds despite his shaky start.
When Coble finished his season before the first game even tipped off, and Ryan went down with a knee injury in the first half of the first game of the season, both fans and experts wondered how a Northwestern team that, at the beginning of the season had March Madness on its mind, could possibly keep that dream alive. Eighteen games into the season, the Big Three of Shurna, Thompson and Crawford are showing how it’s done.
More good news for the Wildcats is that they have plenty of time. With 12 Big Ten games to go, including two against ranked teams, the ‘Cats, currently in the bottom three of the Big 10 standings, have a chance to move upward.
Though the ‘Cats are currently an underwhelming 2-4 in Big Ten play, they still have six games remaining against the three other Big Ten teams with sub .500 conference records. The ‘Cats will have their opportunities for signature wins, but gimme wins against the likes of Iowa and Penn State should help move Northwestern out of the Big Ten cellar.
Still, the ‘Cats also don’t have very far to fall, meaning the margin for error is very slim. The biggest chances for the ‘Cats to make a statement are against No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 7 Michigan State. Both those games will prove tough challenges though, as the ‘Cats will have to steal victories in enemy territory.
If the ‘Cats want to be in the field of 65 when the end of the season rolls around, they’ll need at least one more statement game (currently they are 2-4 against Top 25 teams) and are going to have to avoid any more dud performances.
With wins like last weekend’s against Purdue, the ‘Cats have gotten themselves into the tournament conversation. But to make history, they’ll need more than that.