Before this season Northwestern featured the greatest expectations ever for the their basketball program. The Wildcats were expected by virtually every prognosticator and fan to make the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Those expectations changed on November 11th when it was announced star forward Kevin Coble had suffered a lisfrac fracture and was likely out for the season. When Coble was confirmed as being out for the season most people wrote the Wildcats off as a potential NCAA team.
Expectations changed again on Tuesday night when the Wildcats traveled to N.C. State and beat the Wolfpack solidly in a 65-53 win to move their record to 6-1 with three wins over BCS foes. At that point many people put the Wildcats back into the NCAA tournament discussion.
I think it is amazing how quickly the expectations from the Wildcats have changed during the last three weeks. Personally, at the start of the year I saw the Wildcats as a team that could win 20 games and would likely make the NCAA tournament. After the loss of Kevin Coble, I didn’t think NU would drop into oblivion, but I have to admit my expectation was more of 16 wins and a bid to either the NIT or the CBI.
Now, I think the question is how to expectations change with the 6-1 record? What does 6-1 mean? Should NU fans temper their expectations? Should they start booking flights to NCAA Tournament spots? These are tough questions because they involve trying to evaluate not only what Northwestern has done, but the actual talent level of the teams they have played to this point.
Looking first at the Wildcats themselves, you have to be impressed with the way Northwestern has played. The Wildcats have gotten spectacular hero performances from a number of different players in their six wins. This proven NU is a very versatile team which features scoring options from multiple positions. Michael “Juice” Thompson seems to have settled into his role as a team leader and go to clutch player. Alex Marcotullio provides some of the fire and three point range fans feared NU might have lost with the graduation of Craig Moore. Jeremy Nash has shown he can start and score and rebound at a starters level. John Shurna has shown he is a high-level athlete that can get to the hoop and finish with authority. All of these players have stepped up at times and looked like players who can take NU to never before seen success.
On the other hand, NU hasn’t been exactly prefect this season. They still lack a solid producer at the center position. On given days Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic, and Davide Curletti have looked fantastic and awful. Though he isn’t a true center, I still think Curletti might be the most consistent of the three as he makes less mistakes. However, Rowley and Mirkovic probably have stronger upsides so I understand why Coach Carmody uses them more often. Another player who has moments, but who NU needs to step up a bit more is Drew Crawford. The freshman guard had 22 points against Liberty, but hasn’t shown much consistency with his outside shot. Given his clear ability to drive, I think showing more consistent three point range is a key to Crawford’s future success.
Looking at the teams NU has beat shows some positive and negative signs as well. Northern Illinois looks like a team which will compete for honors in the MAC. While the MAC isn’t exactly the Big Ten the fact NU hammered the Huskies speaks well of NU.
Iowa State looked great to me at times (better than Notre Dame), but according to the experts doesn’t exactly look like a team which is going to challenge Texas or Kansas for the Big 12 title. After the loss to NU, they then lost to Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa should probably win the Missouri Valley. Still, if Iowa State is good enough to be even a middle-tier Big 12 team, that means they’re probably better than at least 3 or 4 Big Ten teams.
N.C. State is probably a weaker team than ISU. Tracy Smith inside is a stud and Scott Wood is supposed to be a shooter, but overall N.C. State struggled with ball control and shooting. Still, N.C. State is an ACC team that NU beat on the road and I was impressed with the Wolfpack crowd. Therefore, even if N.C. State wasn’t a super team, NU at least showed the ability to win in a hostile environment.
The real benchmark to answer how could is NU at this point might be Notre Dame. Notre Dame entered the NU game ranked #23. Then again, the Fighting Irish didn’t distinguish themselves to me in that contest. I really thought Iowa State was the better of the two teams NU faced at the UIC Pavilion. However, Notre Dame did have a great player in Luke Harangody that NU handled fantastically in the post. Defensively, Luka Mirkovic played his best game at NU. Notre Dame did miss a number of open shots, but perhaps that was because of how NU frustrated the Irish with some fantastic defense.
The truth is while NU hasn’t beaten a great team yet, they’ve beaten some good teams. Even more importantly, the Wildcats have excelled defensively. They held two of the three BCS teams they beat to less than 60 points. NU has also shown significantly improved strength in rebounding this year. Even guards Jeremy Nash and Alex Marcotullio have hit the glass with authority. Considering that defense and rebounding should show up every game I think NU should be able to compete with everybody they play. Does that mean they’re a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament? Okay, probably not. But those who wrote the ‘Cats chanes of making the Big Dance off after the loss of Coble clearly made a mistake.