Monday, February 22, 2010

Northwestern Basketball: The Class of 2010

Seniors Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger with NU's Chicago Invitational Challenge Championship Trophy

Thursday of this week at least two seniors, Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger will play their final Big Ten home game. It’s also possible a third, Jeff Ryan, will also see a Big Ten opponent in Welsh-Ryan for the last time. I’m not a big fan of basketball program keeping Ryan in limbo as they pursue a recruit for next season, but that’s simply the nature of college athletics. You have to recruit the best possible players to be successful or you aren’t employed. I just wonder what the uncertainty of his future is doing to Jeff’s academic and career plans. Whatever the case, I certainly hope NU takes time to honor Jeff with Matt and Jeremy in case he doesn’t come back. It he does return, he can join Michael Jenkins and Ivan Tolic as players with multiple senior days.

What I think is most special about this senior class is that they’ve seen some of the lowest lows and highest highs in NU basketball history. They arrived in 2006-07 to a team which lost a number of senior starters, most notably Vedran Vukusic. As a result, Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble (who would have been honored as a senior if not for his injury) got the chance to crack the starting lineup. Ryan started ten games that year and played perhaps the best game of his career when he scored 18 points in a narrow loss to #3 Wisconsin at Welsh-Ryan while subbing for an injured Coble. Ryan’s sub-30% three point percentage has been a point of distress for fans during his three years of play, but he made an amazing banked-in three on that day to help NU almost pull of a shocking upset. I’ll never forget the frustration on Bo Ryan’s face as Jeff consistently blew by defenders. Clearly the Badgers weren’t prepared for Ryan playing instead of Coble and it showed.

Unfortunately for Ryan and the ‘Cats, the 06-07 season was mostly filled with close losses like that Wisconsin game. The ‘Cats went 2-16 in the Big Ten. They beat only Minnesota (in a blowout) and Penn State by two, thanks to a Craig Moore miracle heave towards the hoop with the shoot clock running down. The Wildcats were 13-18 overall that season, but I doubt the players look back with much fondness on wins over North Florida by 1 point and Wheaton College by 2 points. Still, the fact that Coble, Ryan, and every once and a while Jeremy Nash, got solid minutes did probably help develop what would become a solid team two years later.

Sadly, before that solid team emerged in 2008-09, NU faced the 2007-08 season. When I said this group faced the lowest of lows, I was talking about this season. Northwestern finished that year 8-22 overall and 1-17 in the Big Ten. Many of those Big Ten losses weren’t close and that was the year the movement to fire NU Coach Bill Carmody really picked up steam. In fact, during player introductions while starters such as Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble were introduced, the NU student section other gave voice or displayed signs indicting their desire to see NU hire a new coach. The sentiments in the stands probably didn’t make a huge difference of the floor, though, Craig Moore did once to tell group of anti-Carmody students to shut up. Bottom line, playing in a situation where they lost virtually every game and faced uncertainty about their program’s future had to be tough. It was probably especially tough for Jeff Ryan who also ended up missing the season’s final eight games due to injury. While Ryan was out at the end of the season, though, classmate Jeremy Nash made his first major impacts on NU’s basketball program. Nash, who missed the season’s first eight games, started to appear more in the role of defensive stopper and posted career highs in points and rebounds that February before making his first start in the Big Ten Tournament that March. NU lost that BTT game to Minnesota after holding a 10-point, a trend which would depressingly continue the next year, but that game at least showed despite their 1-17 Big Ten record, Northwestern’s basketball team had life.

That life appeared much more clearly in 2008-09. This was the year this class experienced some of the highest highs in NU basketball history, maybe the highest highs since the National Championship of 1931. With Jeremy Nash causing havoc at the point of the 1-3-1 zone, Northwestern upset #7 Michigan State in East Lansing 70-63. It was the Wildcats first ever win at the Breslin Center and their first win over a top-10 team in a decade and a half. Later in the season, the ‘Cats beat Ohio State for the first time in more than a decade and won at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana for the first time ever. Jeremy Nash was active in all those victories, but for classmate Jeff Ryan, the biggest win came when NU won at #19 Purdue. NU’s primary defense in 08-09 was the 1-3-1. However, NU decided to take the rare step on playing man-to-man against Purdue late in the game. When that occurred, Ryan got matched up on Purdue superstar Robbie Hummel and competelly shut him down for a seven minute stretch when the Wildcats surged into the lead.

This season, Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble have been out virtually all year. Even walk-on senior Matt Steger has spent the majority of the year in street clothes on NU’s bench. As a result, the only senior to any significant time has been Jeremy Nash. With the leadership spotlight on him alone, Nash has responded. People often talk about players making themselves better, but Nash has taken that concept to a whole new level. A guy who looked like he couldn’t through his jump shot into Lake Michigan from the Lakefill as a freshman, Nash now converts about 30% of his threes. That’s not great, but it’s enough that a defense has to respect him as a shooter and that’s given him a much more well-rounded offensive game. It’s the reason he’s second on the team in assists and fourth in scoring. Speaking of Nash making threes, he made what I think is the current front runner for shot of the year when he hit a three to put NU ahead against Illinois on January 23rd. Now, the season isn’t over yet and I hope, and know Jeremy does as well, that both he and his teammates have many more big shots in their future, but it’s impressive that a player who was such an offensive liability in the past can be the guy who made the season’s biggest offensive play. I think it is safe to say that if some players with more talent had Nash’s work ethic they would be far superior to what they are today.

Speaking of work ethic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this post with some words of praise for Matt Steger. Thanks to injury Steger, like Coble and Ryan, has spent most of this year sitting behind the bench. But for three years he practiced just as hard as any player on the NU roster and did so not because he needed to get ready to play and beat teams like Michigan State and Purdue, but so his teammates could be ready to beat Michigan State and Purdue. The legacy of this senior class will not doubt be their contributions to some of NU’s best basketball moments, but let’s please remember the member of this class that helped set those moments up even if we as fans didn’t often see him do so.

Finally, best wishes to Jeremy, Jeff, and Matt in their future, whatever that might be, but let’s remember they’ve got at least two more home games and a big Big Ten Tournament at which they could use our support before they leave Evanston.

Go ‘Cats!

Go 2010 Seniors!

1 comment: said...

Carmody was quote recently as saying they'll get two players back next year from injury. There have been other indications that Ryan will be coming back and according to several on the Rivals message board, his family will pay for another year so he can stay on the team without a scholarship.