NU Tips Off The 2009-10 Season Friday Night
Northwestern is scheduled to play at least 32 games this season including the regular season and at least the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. In order to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time, I believe Northwestern must win at least 20 total games. While not great, I believe that with a 20-12 minimum record that NU’s RPI will be high enough the Wildcats could make the NCAA Tournament as a #12 seed. I also believe that should the Wildcats make the tournament they would have a decent chance to pull an upset based on the unorthodox Princeton-style offense they run. So will the Wildcats get to that magical 20-win plateau? I believe the answer is yes.
In order reach that spot with an RPI which is solid enough to make the NCAAs, it is my opinion NU must post at least an 11-2 record in their 13 non-conference games and at least a 9-10 record in Big Ten games including the Big Ten Tournament. Also, while NU can lose to either Butler or Notre Dame they cannot lose to both of their marquee non-conference opponents. The Wildcats need to beat at least one of those teams to ensure a strong RPI when they enter the Big Ten season. Right now I believe NU has a better shot to win in Welsh-Ryan against Butler than they do playing at a neutral site against Notre Dame. NU’s other likely non-conference loss is on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against N.C. State. Certainly N.C. State is not dramatically better than NU (the Wildcats might actually have the better overall roster), but I believe the long trip and short turnaround after the end of the Chicago Invitational Challenge will not help the ‘Cats. Overall in non-conference play, though, I do expect the ‘Cats to post that 11-2 record and will be very disappointed if they finish worse than 10-3.
As far as the Big Ten season, NU has their word cut out for them. The Big Ten returns every all-conference player from the first team and features three teams I see as legit final four contenders in Michigan State, Purdue, and Ohio State. The Big Ten also has multiple first round caliber NBA players with guys like Evan Turner, Manny Harris, and Raymar Morgan. In some ways this is the worst possible year for NU to be as good as they’ve ever been because many other teams are significantly above average as well. What gives me hope NU can at least split the league season is the ‘Cats came with in a game of doing so last year. Actually, if not for three epic collapses they would have added wins over Penn State, Purdue, and Illinois. The Illinois loss was about the worst thing I’ve ever seen on a basketball court (and I saw NU score 6-points in a half once), but other than a less than spectacular effort the very next game against a beatable Michigan team, NU rebounded very well from that disaster. That’s a credit to NU’s players and coaches, but this year NU can’t afford such disasters. NU needs to strive to play at the level they played at in the wins on the road last year against Michigan State and Purdue at all times. They need to make sure a win is a win.
For NU to reach that level they need to find a consistent outside shooter to replace Craig Moore. Moore didn’t have his best games in those to wins (which should give NU fans hope), but he did knock down big shots in each. His shot against MSU when the Spartans started to cut the lead might have been the game’s biggest shot. Obviously, Kevin Coble is a candidate to take of Moore’s role as the go to guy, but teams will focus on Coble and he can’t lead NU alone. Michael “Juice” Thompson will provide outside shooting, but I believe NU’s most important player is John Shurna. Shurna showed last year that he is a streaky, but effective when on, outside shooter. He also showed he was probably NU’s best offensive rebounder and shot blocker. Those skills can change a game and a Shurna who is one year better at his overall game could become NU’s best player.
The other guy NU fans are looking to is freshman guard Drew Crawford. If Crawford scores double figures that’ll be a great lift for NU, but what I think he must do to help NU win is play defense and rebound. Crawford is a better scoring threat than Jeremy Nash, Mike Capocci, or Jeff Ryan, but if he is really going to take minutes away from those upper classmen than he has to be able to play defense the way Nash and Ryan do and rebound like Capocci can. Nash has the ability to change games at the top of NU’s 1-3-1 and either he or Crawford will have do so if the ‘Cats want to start a new collection of upsets that match last seasons run.
NU’s deepest, but really unproven, spot is center. The Wildcats have four players that could play this position. Kyle Rowley got the majority of the starts last season and at 7-0 280 pounds he is among the biggest players in the Big Ten. If Rowley is just a tab bit more comfortable on offense and more aggressive on defense he could become a force inside. Right now, Luke Mirkovic is getting the start at center because Rowley is out with an injury. Mirkovic is a good passer (essential for a Princeton-style center), but I’d like to see him become more comfortable shooting. Mirkovic had flashes as a shooter last year, but a consistent three point shot from Mirkovic would be nearly impossible to defend. NU’s other centers are Davide Curletti and Ivan Peljusic. Curletti is a force defensively and might offer NU somebody who can shot from the five. Peljusic is another plus-level athlete that if he can cut down on turnovers could really help NU off the bench.
Without a doubt this is Bill Carmody’s most talented NU team, and while the talent at NU is continuing to get better, I think Kevin Coble will be a tough loss at the end of this season. Therefore, I believe this is a critical year for Northwestern and Carmody. The good news is Coble is the type of player who can carry a team and if NU gets close to the dance in his senior year, which they will, I think he’ll have one of his 30-plus nights and push them over the top. I look for this in the Big Ten Tournament. Therefore, I say NU makes the NCAAs this year by winning 20 games in the regular season plus a Big Ten Tournament game for a record of 21-12 and a #12-seed.
Note: Expect a preview of the NIU game to be posted either tomorrow night or Thursday. An early preview is online at Carmody Court check out this link: http://carmodycourt.blogspot.com/