Cats’ elder statesmen struggling early in the season

Jim Martinho

Northwestern men’s basketball coach Bill Carmody welcomed his most impressive recruiting class in three years to Evanston in September, but no one expected the freshmen would have to shoulder such a heavy load in NU’s first 11 games.

A roster featuring three seniors — the most at Northwestern since 1997 — and a junior in his third season as a starter lent confidence to the idea that the Cats would be able to rely on veterans during the 2002-2003 season.

But NU’s senior trio of Aaron Jennings, Winston Blake and Jason Burke has been inconsistent during the nonconference portion of the Cats’ schedule, forcing Carmody to count on NU’s talented contingent of younger players for both scoring and leadership.

Although the Cats will enter their Big Ten opener against Iowa Wednesday night with an 8-3 record, Blake and Jitim Young, NU’s leading returning scorers, have yet to hit their stride.

Blake, who led the Cats with 13.6 points per game last season, was struggling even before suffering a right ankle sprain that kept him out of the Cats’ loss to North Carolina State on Dec. 4. The forward is averaging 8.6 points per game and is shooting only 24 percent from beyond the three-point line.

Young scored 29 points in NU’s win over New Hampshire, but the shooting guard has yet to take on the role as the Cats go-to guy as was expected. With the addition of freshman point guard T.J. Parker, Young was supposed to score more since he wouldn’t have to focus on bringing the ball up the floor. But Young went scoreless against the Wolfpack, and his scoring average has fallen to 10.7 points per game, which still ranks third on the team.

FRESH FACES: NU has survived their veterans’ struggles due to the emergence of two freshmen.

Parker was expected to shine for NU after his speed and intelligence impressed coaches in the preseason, and the Illinois native has yet to disappoint, scoring in double figures in each of his past 10 games (including a career-high 23 against Fordham) and driving coast-to-coast for the game-winning basket against Bowling Green on Dec. 7.

His lineage also is impressive. His older brother, Tony, won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award last year playing for the San Antonio Spurs.

“I love the way T.J. has played all along,” Carmody said. “He makes open shots and puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He’s been really consistent for us.”

Parker’s maturity at point guard has been a key in the Cats’ taking care of the ball, as the freshman has turned the ball over only four times in the last three games and just 17 times all season. Overall, NU has committed 13 less turnovers than opponents while dishing out 32 more assists.

Classmate Jimmy Maley has joined Parker as a regular in the Cats’ starting lineup, scoring 15 points on five three-pointers in his first start after Blake’s injury. Despite constantly being outweighed, the 6-foot-6, 175-pound forward has shown a lot of resilience, averaging 26 minutes a game.

BIG MEN ON CAMPUS?: After injuries to each of their three starters in the frontcourt, the Cats have yet to find a consistent inside presence on the boards or in the low post.

Center Aaron Jennings’ troubles began even before the season, as shin splints restricted his practice time throughout the preseason and limited him to only 18 minutes in NU’s Dec. 22 win over Fordham. But after going scoreless in a Dec. 19 loss to Illinois-Chicago, the 6-foot-11 senior has come on strong of late, scoring a career-high 19 points on Dec. 30 against Buffalo and 11 against Long Island on Jan. 4.

Sophomore forward Vedran Vukusic was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in the Cats’ final exhibition game, and Blake’s ankle has hampered his mobility. Sophomore Davor Duvancic stepped up to score 12 points against Fordham but hasn’t developed into a consistent inside presence.

To make matters worse, 6-foot-9 freshman Ivan Tolic has yet to make his NU debut. The back-up big man suffered a knee injury before the team started practice.

Rebounding was expected to be a point of concern this season, and NU has lost the battle of the boards in all of its losses, including a 42-15 differential against Illinois-Chicago.