Forman: Schapiro sings for Wildcats

Matt Forman

On Friday afternoon, University President Morton O. Schapiro told The Daily he knew the importance of the nonconference season. With or without senior star forward Kevin Coble, Schapiro stressed the importance of the early going.

“If we don’t have a really good non-Big Ten record, it’s really difficult (to make the NCAA Tournament),” he said. “How many losses can we afford outside of the Big Ten, two? One, probably. If we only lose one, then we’re really well positioned. If we lose two, we’re OK. If we lose three or more, unless we have another miracle, it’s tough.”

Just more than eight hours later, an excited Schapiro was singing Northwestern’s fight song at Welsh-Ryan Arena after a season-opening 77-55 win over Northern Illinois.

With aspirations of making the first March Madness appearance in school history, NU put one slash in the win category. And every victory counts. See, the general rule of thumb for earning a berth into the field of 65 is as follows: Win your conference tournament and you’re in. Otherwise, win 20 games and finish in the top half of your conference to earn an at-large bid.

The Cats have 13 nonconference games, many of which are “gimme” wins – Tennessee State, Liberty, North Carolina A&T, North Florida, Central Connecticut State, Texas-Pan American and Chicago State. Two of them are against Big Six conference opponents, though the teams are supposed to have down years – Stanford and North Carolina State.

And two are against top-flight opponents – No. 10 Butler and Notre Dame, who is receiving votes in the AP poll.

But Northern Illinois didn’t fit into any of those categories. The Huskies are the classic mid-major danger: an athletic squad who is expected to finish at the top of the Mid-American Conference West. That résumé worried coach Bill Carmody last week as his team prepared for its first contest.

“It was a really good first game,” the 10th-year coach said. “I don’t know exactly how the division stacks up, but it was a good MAC team. It was a good coach. I didn’t want to play that game.”

Regardless, NU showed up. Mike Capocci threw down an emphatic dunk, Jeremy Nash scored a career-high 20 points and Luka Mirkovic provided a spark off the bench. And the team’s most important cogs outside of Coble – Michael Thompson and John Shurna – didn’t have to shoulder the scoring load.

Even without the senior star, NU had no shortage of confidence. The Cats’ offense rarely ran the shot clock down to single digits, taking advantage of mismatches and shooting when open. And after Friday’s win, the team should be riding even higher. The combined effect of increased confidence and non-regular scorers provides an outline for how the season should go. There’s no Craig Moore to shoot a long trey when the offense breaks down. There’s no Coble to hit an off-balance shot and silence the crowd. Every player must have a certain role within the offense.

A season ago, the Cats posted a 17-win season, thanks in large part to a 9-2 nonconference regular season schedule, the best mark yet during Carmody’s tenure. As Schapiro said, with a 13-game non-Big Ten calendar this year, they’ll have to post at least 11 wins in that stretch.

Friday was a good start, but Wednesday’s game against Butler will go a long way in defining the 2009-10 squad.

Schapiro and his family have high expectations. In a few months, they’ve become big NU fans. His son answered the game’s trivia question about where Carmody went to college: Union.

If Schapiro has anything to do with it, he’ll get to sing the fight song in March, too.

Sports Editor Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]