Kevin Coble’s departure (should we call it retirement?) from basketball has made many national writers once again declare NU’s tournament hopes DOA. Four national writers at Rivals.com all said NU has basically no chance to make the tournament. They cite a tough Big Ten and Coble’s presence (or lack of) on offense as their primary reasons. NU fans, though, still hold out hope. Perhaps the reason is that as NU fans know Coble wasn’t NU’s most important player. NU will still field a strong front court with John Shurna, JerShon Cobb, and Luka Mirkovic. They’ll also have decent backups in Ivan Peljusic, Jeff Ryan and Davide Curletti. Where NU is very thin, though, is in the backcourt. That’s why it seems clear that Juice Thompson is truly NU’s most important player.
Last year Thompson was second on NU with 14.2ppg and led the team by making 41.1% of his threes and 82.9% of his free throws. Even more important, Juice is second all-time at NU in assists and has been the Wildcats point guard for three seasons. Last year whenever anybody else handled the ball it was hit or miss in terms of avoiding turnovers, but Thompson posted 139 assists against only 59 turnovers despite the fact that he played virtually every minute of every game. If NU had lost Thompson last year I doubt they would have won 10 games. Coble didn’t play at all last year and NU still won 20. Yes, NU won’t have Coble this year, but they can still get to 20 wins again. The key to breaking past 20 wins and making the NCAA tournament is going to be the same (or even better) play from Thompson because once again NU is limited at point guard. At least Jeff Ryan should give NU someone else who can handle the ball, but Ryan’s poor free throw shooting means that Juice has to play in the clutch because he’s the guy coaches and fans are going to want with the ball when a team is fouling and sending NU to the line hoping for a collapse. Having seen NU collapse a number of times over the year, I can’t being to describe how valuable it is that Juice can make free throws under pressure even if he’s played the game’s first 39 minutes. He also is probably the NU guard best suited to find guys like Drew Crawford or John Shurna if pressure comes his way. A less experienced point guard might throw the ball to Luka Mirkovic or Davide Curletti and while those two aren’t awful free throw shooters or ball handlers, I don’t think Coach Carmody really wants them at the line down the stretch or trying to dribble down the court vs Michigan State's press.
Bottom line, Kevin Coble will be missed, but Juice Thompson is the player that really makes NU a good team. It’ll be great to watch him for one more season and I really hope NU’s class of 2011 point guards, Tre Demps and David Soblewski, can live up to the standard he sets.