Men’s Basketball Cover Story: Wildcats shooting for first chance to dance

Danny Daly

When Kevin Coble committed to Northwestern four years ago, he knew what he was getting into. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native had been reminded of the Wildcats’ lack of basketball prestige – they had only finished in the top half of the Big Ten once in the past 35 years and hadn’t put together consecutive winning seasons since the late 1960s. Most importantly, they were the only team from a major Division-I conference that had never earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Coble saw the potential to be a part of history, to break a streak of futility stretching back to 1939 and make the field of 65 for the first time ever. Now a senior, the 6-foot-8 forward finally has the chance to realize that dream.

“People really know we’re close to doing something special,” Coble said. “Last year, when we were so close, everybody looked back and saw the points that could have made the difference between the National Invitation Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”

The 2008-09 season will go down as one of the best in NU history. The Cats more than doubled their win total from the previous year and beat a number of quality teams, including both national runner-up Michigan State and Sweet 16 participant Purdue on the road. They notched four other wins over NCAA Tournament qualifiers and finished the regular season with a 17-13 record.

But NU also let some games slip away, blowing double-digit leads in the second half against Butler, Penn State, Purdue and Illinois. Losing those contests cost the Cats a trip to the Big Dance. Instead NU went to the NIT, losing at Tulsa in the first round.

Still, it was just the fourth postseason appearance in NU history. The team learned some valuable lessons, especially from those close losses.

“We competed with every team in our conference, and we proved we could play with them,” sophomore forward John Shurna said. “Now we just have to be able to close them out.”

The Cats return 10 of their top 11 scorers from a year ago, including Shurna, who averaged 7.3 points in 18.5 minutes per game. He, along with fellow sophomores Kyle Rowley and Luka Mirkovic, will have to step up to give NU an inside threat.

NU is counting on their progression this season. The sophomores received significant playing time as freshmen and had their ups and downs. Now they’re veterans in 10th-year coach Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense, and the team only has two newcomers to integrate – guards Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio.

“Last year, we were coaching five freshmen, and we needed help from them,” Carmody said. “This year, whatever help the two freshmen give us is good, but they’re not going to have to impact the game. They may, but they just have to be out there and do what they can do because we have some guys who have played a lot.”

Though the Cats only graduated one regular contributor, shooting guard Craig Moore, his loss will be felt at first. Moore was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Coble and topped the conference in 3-pointers made.

Just as important as Moore’s shooting prowess was his leadership. The team looked to him at crucial moments late in the game, or when the shot clock was winding down. His departure means his former partner in the backcourt, junior point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson, will be expected to take charge.

It’s a challenge that Thompson embraces.

“I’ve been trying to work on being a leader in my own way,” he said. “Craig made my transition to college basketball so much easier, so that’s what I’m trying to do for Drew and Alex, just to be a mentor and help them as much as I can.”

Thompson and his teammates put in countless hours of offseason work, and they are starting to see it translate on the court in practice. Playing with Crawford, Marcotullio and Rowley, Thompson won the MVP of the Sonny Parker Summer League, and his team captured the championship.

Coble worked out for six weeks at Tim Grover’s Attack Athletics camp, going up against star NBA players, while Shurna was selected for the United States team that won a gold medal at the U19 FIBA World Championships. And in his preseason press conference, Carmody raved about how much time Mirkovic spent practicing his shot.

The extra effort has helped the Cats get in sync quicker than they have since the start of Thompson’s career.

“The entire team has come a long way,” he said. “My first two years, it took a long time to pick up the offense as a team, but this year we have a lot of experience and we’ve meshed together pretty fast.”

NU did not make any major scheme changes during the offseason, but it figures to improve in certain areas. One of those is rebounding, which is surprising since the Princeton offense usually doesn’t produce strong numbers on the glass.

But with 11 players listed as 6-foot-5 or taller, the Cats will try to take advantage of their size.

“I haven’t stressed hitting the offensive boards because I don’t like to give up baskets on the break,” Carmody said. “But with this team, I might say, ‘Go on in there.’ Keep Mike back maybe, keep (senior wing Jeff) Ryan back, but let most of the other guys give it a shot.”

Last season, NU was outrebounded by 4.9 boards per game. It was a vast improvement over the season before, in which the Cats were on the wrong end of a 34.8-24.0 rebounding margin and had no player taller than Coble.

That height also makes an impact on the defensive end, as the long reach is important for closing off passing lanes in Carmody’s zone sets.

“We look a lot more athletic,” Thompson said. “When we play our 1-3-1, that causes a lot of chaos for the opposing team, that causes a lot of turnovers and gets our hands on a lot of loose balls.”

Carmody should also have plenty of options off the bench, which hasn’t always been the case in previous years.

“Coach is more comfortable this year going eight, nine, maybe even 10-deep in some games and not having as big of a drop-off,” Coble said. “That’s something that’s hurt us in the past, is that these other teams can go to at least 10, and the difference between their one and 10 is small. … People will be surprised to see the rotations and how much everyone has improved.”

The non conference slate sets up nicely for the Cats, featuring marquee matchups against likely NCAA Tournament teams Notre Dame and No. 11 Butler. NU only plays one of its 13 non-Big Ten games outside the state of Illinois.

While the Cats have shown promising signs of improvement, Carmody has a few concerns. His team is capable of catching fire from beyond the arc, but establishing a post presence is still critical so his offense remains balanced.

“I don’t want us to just turn into a catch-and-shoot 3-point team,” Carmody said. “Kevin is very good on the block, and I’d like Johnny, who seems like he’s improved, to do that, too. He can shoot the ball, but I’d like to see him turn into a scoring threat inside.”

If the Cats can manage to do that, they’re in prime position to live up to the hype.

“There’s been a little buzz around the team,” Shurna said. “Everyone’s talking about it, but now we’ve got to walk the walk.”[email protected]