It’s national signing day for football and that gives me a reason to look to the future of the basketball program as well. I know this season is far form over and it is even possible that Northwestern could post a four game winning streak and be back at .500 in the Big Ten and ready for late February/early March push towards the NCAA tournament if they learn from their near upset of Ohio State as they face a favorable portion of the schedule. However, I think in this lag between games thinking about next year isn’t unreasonable.
One of the popular frustrations I hear from NU fans is that if this year isn’t “the year” then we’re in big trouble because next year is going to be terrible without Juice Thompson. Let me say I’m a big fan of Juice and I very much wish NU would have put the ball in his hands with 40 some seconds left in the Ohio State game, but I also don’t think losing him instantly means NU is going to revert to the bottom of the Big Ten. Sure, the point guard is a key position in college basketball, but a close look at the Princeton Offense reveals it isn’t as dependent on a point guard as other offensive systems. NU won six Big Ten games with former walk-on Michael Jenkins as the starting point guard in the 2005-06 season. The reason the PO can work without a great point guard is because every player on the court in the PO must be a good passer/distributor and be able to set up teammates for baskets. In other systems, the point guard is the only the player who does this. Certainly, Juice is valuable when teams press NU, but the Big Ten doesn’t have a ton of teams who press and I don’t think that’ll change next year. In fact, if you look closely, Juice has at times this season handed off point duties against non-pressure teams to JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio. This has probably allowed Juice to get more shots, but it has also given JerShon and Alex good experience which they might need next season. Both of those players have shown a good understanding of how the Princeton Offense works and both will no doubt improve from the heavy minutes they have played this year. Also, both have shown the ability to get to the hoop which is the major aspect of Juice’s game that I’d be worried about losing. What will need to happen for next year is that Alex and JerShon will need to learn from Juice’s aggressiveness when an opening presents itself or the shot clocking is running down. Actually, with his quickness, I’d like to see JerShon Cobb starting to get more aggressive to the hoop right now.
Another reason why I think NU will be just as good next year is that I’m banking on John Shurna staying healthy. Last year, Juice was my MVP for NU because he really made NU function. This year, John Shurna will most likely get the nod for that award because it was clear how NU’s entire season changed when he got hurt. Shurna has become one of the best all around scorers in the Big Ten and one of the deadliest shooters in the nation when he’s 100%. If he’s 100% next year, I think NU will work to get him 15 shots a game or more. That means that the team’s point guard will likely have to take less of a scoring role and therefore someone like Marcotullio or one of NU’s two guard recruits Tre Demps or David Sobolewski can likely handle that responsibility.
I also have to say I have a lot of confidence in Demps and Sobolewski. Yes, NU’s big man recruiting has been hit or miss under Bill Carmody, but NU’s consistently brought in solid guards. T.J. Parker, Craig Moore, and Juice all played well as freshmen. No reason exits to think either Demps or Sobolewski won’t be able to do the same.
Plus, those two will benefit from not only having Shurna on the court, but Drew Crawford who is a multi-year starter and Cobb who has started every game he has been physically able to play and Luka Mirkovic who will also have years of starting experience under his belt. Basically, next year’s team will be one of NU’s most experienced. In college basketball experience isn’t an automatic ticket to success, but for a team like Northwestern where talent has to be developed over time, experience generally does help.
Simply stated, I think this year’s Northwestern team and next year’s Northwestern teams are going to be very similar. I’d logically expect about five more Big Ten wins and an NIT bid from this year’s group and I think an 8-10 Big Ten record next year with Shurna and Mirkovic as seniors is logical expectation as well. Now, will four years of the NIT and no NCAA tournament be acceptable to the NU fan base at large—maybe not. But I think to assume NU is going to go back to winning just a handful of Big Ten games next year isn’t correct either.
What does everybody else think? Do you see progress next year or will NU drop back to the bottom of the Big 1o (12)?