Why Northwestern will or won't make the tournament
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    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.

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