By Max Jones
There comes a time in every man’s life when he realizes that fairy-tales don’t actually come true. For me, that time came March of last season, right about when Jared Sullinger was making all ten of his free throws in overtime against Northwestern and Ohio State was eliminating the Wildcats from the Big Ten Tournament. Once the Wildcats’ heroics against the heavily favored Buckeyes fell short, I took a long look at my expectations for Northwestern basketball and came to a sad conclusion.
Last year was our best chance, and maybe our last for a while.
It would be nearly impossible to underestimate the loss of four-year starting point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson after last season, but I still think plenty of people will. Juice was, on any given night, the strongest leader in the gym, the most creative offensive player in purple, the most indefatigable athlete. Replacing 37.3 minutes per game of offensive production will be hard enough, but replacing a player who set Northwestern records in assists and minutes played just won’t happen. Even if touted recruits Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewski step into Juice’s role or returners JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio use their experience to run the point, Juice’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the Wildcats’ core.
While Thompson was the Wildcats’ greatest on-court leader, John Shurna is vying to be the best player in Northwestern history. Shurna’s outrageous start to last season was derailed by injury, but his healthy minutes of basketball were an awe-inspiring collection of perfect three-pointers and incredibly adept plays above the rim. In his senior year, Shurna is poised to inherit Thompson’s leadership role and his humility and ability to lead by example—though a stark contrast to Juice’s brashness--should steady the Wildcats this season. If the Wildcats miss the NCAA Tournament, it won’t be because of John Shurna.
Still, senior leadership only goes so far as indicated by last year’s disappointment. The 2010-2011 season fell apart in the key as Northwestern was simply overpowered by any team with a solid, physical frontcourt. If Northwestern is going to make the leap this season, senior Luka Mirkovic will have to elevate his game to newfound heights and Davide Curletti, also in his senior season, will have to replicate his best moments from last year. Freshman forward Mike Turner is the closest thing to a big-man in this year’s recruiting class, but he won’t be ready to see significant minutes. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, with Jared Sullinger returning to Ohio State and Robbie Hummel coming back from injury at Purdue, the conference is poised to once again bully Northwestern in the paint.
If the Wildcats had a chance to prove themselves in non-conference play, they could make up for any stumbles in Big Ten games. However, yet another year of uninspiring opponents will do nothing for our chances at an NCAA at-large bid. A tournament victory at the Charleston Classic is practically a necessity and having must-win games in November is not a recipe for basketball success. While Northwestern could very well enter Big Ten play undefeated and ranked, it’s unlikely that wins over Baylor and Creighton will really matter when Selection Sunday rolls around.
All this isn’t to say the Wildcats won’t overachieve. Shurna has the potential to finally bring the Northwestern name to the NBA (provided the NBA exists next year) and both Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb have the sheer athleticism to become truly special players. With some seasoning, the incoming recruiting class will be vital in sustaining Northwestern’s level of success despite the consecutive departures of perhaps the program’s two all-time greats in Thompson and Shurna.
Even so, it just isn’t enough to make the leap. The holes in the frontcourt are too large, the challenges of a lackluster schedule too great, and the chance of a let-down without Juice too real. An honest look at this year’s team brings about a difficult conclusion: If they couldn’t do it last year, then why should this year be any different?Return to the basketball preview
By Gabi Remz
For years, or decades really, the question has always been the same. When? For 71 straight years, the Northwestern men’s basketball team has entered the season looking to make their first NCAA Tournament. Over seven decades, the team has fallen short. Even the Cubs have suffered less. No championship, sure, but at least they made the playoffs. So why this team? What can make the 2011-2012 ‘Cats the team to finally make history? Coming off back-to-back 20-14 seasons and with four starters returning, these ‘Cats have an unprecedented level of experience and accomplishment that should have them dancing in March.
The key to the ‘Cats success this year will be preseason second team All-American John Shurna. The 6’9'' senior forward is on this season’s John R. Wooden Award pre-season top 50 list and has been one of the ‘Cats biggest offensive weapons the last two years (he averaged 18.2 points per game in ’09-’10 and 16.6 last season). With his 3-point range developed and rebounding solid, Shurna is already a star in the Big Ten. But without star point guard Juice Thompson, who graduated last year, the pressure will be on Shurna to provide not just points but also veteran leadership. He has stepped up time after time for Coach Bill Carmody, and he should be able to do it again in his biggest role yet.
While Shurna may lead this team, several other players are primed for breakout seasons. Despite struggling with a hip injury at the tail end of last season, JerShon Cobb was solid in Big Ten play, averaging 8.8 points a game. Cobb, the first four-star recruit in Northwestern history, started 25 solid games as a freshman, but he can do more this year. As a 6’5'' guard, has the size and athleticism to be a standout at his position in the Big Ten. If Cobb can harness that potential, he should be a lethal complement to Shurna.
Similarly, junior forward Drew Crawford has been a consistent contributor in Evanston, averaging 12.1 points and 4.7 boards a game last season. The 6’5'' Crawford will need to take more of a leadership role this season, but his scoring touch from inside and out should give the Wildcat offense some real versatility. With starting center Luka Mirkovic back in the fold as well, the ‘Cats have a starting five that certainly has the ability to compete with any team in the Big Ten.
The ‘Cats’ play in conference will be crucial, as the non-conference schedule doesn’t appear to pose much of a threat. The only real challenges are Baylor, whom Northwestern faces at home, and Creighton, a consistently good mid-major coming off an appearance in the CBI finals. However, Northwestern easily handled Creighton last season and should be able to again this year. Northwestern could have some interesting match-ups in the early-season Charleston Classic, with a potential game against Virginia Commonwealth (last year’s NCAA cinderella) looming as the toughest fight. All in all, the ‘Cats shouldn’t have more than two losses going into Big Ten play.
With the expanded 68-team tournament in effect last season, three 19-win Big Ten teams (Illinois, Michigan State and Penn State) received NCAA tournament invites, as did 20-win Michigan. Northwestern’s schedule should allow them at least 20 wins, the same as last year’s total. With a quality non-conference win against Baylor or a Charleston Classic crown, along with an upset or two in the Big Ten, Northwestern has the potential to pull of its best season ever. A 22-win season (11-1 in non-conference play, perhaps, and 11-7 in the Big Ten) — while on the very optimistic side of the spectrum - could even be within reach.
Northwestern is ready to play at the next level, with Shurna, Crawford and Cobb leading the way. The team’s continued development is finally coalescing with a core of upperclassmen leaders ready to take the reigns. The favorable schedule only helps. If the ‘Cats can pull out a couple of close conference victories and play up to their capabilities, Northwestern could be primed for its best season ever and trip to the NCAA tournament come March.Return to the basketball preview