The expectations for Northwestern are relatively high this year. After a season where the Wildcats finished 17-14 and qualified for the NIT, some think this might be the team that makes NU's first trip to the NCAA tournament.
Though they started slowly last year by dropping their first four Big Ten games, their play improved considerably as the year advanced. Northwestern finished 8-10 in conference, including road wins over expected conference favorites Michigan State and Purdue.
Last season could have been even better if not for some tough losses. The Wildcats lead at Butler by 11 at halftime, only to lose late, and also coughed up double-digit second half leads against Purdue, Illinois, and Penn State.
Most of that team returns intact, though they do have one major loss to deal with. Can they build on last season's success and gain some respect as a program?
PG—Michael Thompson, 5'10" 182 JR
Two-year starter Michael "Juice" Thompson returns at the point. He was coach Bill Carmody's third leading scorer at 9.9 PPG last year and also led the team in assists with 3.7 per game.
Thompson is a steady lead guard that doesn't really look spectacular on paper. However, he is easily NU's strongest ball-handler. He limits his mistakes and is quick with the ball in the open floor. He is also a capable shooter when left alone.
His only real weakness is his size. Though he can penetrate the defense, he sometimes struggles to finish over larger defenders. He can also be a liability on defense when he is stuck on taller players in the 1-3-1 zone.
This year, Michael may have to shoulder more of the load on offense. Last year he was content to pick his spots, averaging only 7.7 shots per game. He enters this season as the likely number two scoring option, so that number should rise.
SG—Drew Crawford, 6'5" 185 FR
Craig Moore graduated last season and the Cats will miss him dearly. He was NU's second leading scorer at 14.3 PPG and by far their most dangerous long range shooter. He hit over three three-pointers per game last year, many of them from far behind the arc. Northwestern's other players could have a tougher time on offense without him spreading the floor.
His starting spot is up for grabs, but my guess is that Crawford will get the nod. I have yet to see Drew play, but I have heard nothing but good things about him. The First Team All-State selection from Naperville Central is one of the most talented recruits that NU has signed in recent years. He was a deadly scorer in high school and could make an early impact if he can adjust quickly to the Princeton offense.
If Crawford or one of the other underclassmen could step up and be a consistent scorer for NU, it would be a huge lift for the team. While the Cats had much better depth than usual last year, they relied very heavily on their top three scorers to carry the load. A little more balance would make Northwestern far more dangerous.
SF—Kevin Coble, 6'8" 210 SR
Coble has been Northwestern's best player essentially from the minute he joined the roster four years ago. He is their leading returning scorer at 15.5 PPG and was a member of the All-Big Ten Honorable Mention team from numerous publications.
Kevin is without a doubt their best and most versatile scorer. Though it doesn't always look pretty, he can create his shot against most defenders because of his length and can score from anywhere on the court. He is most effective at hitting mid-range jumpers, but is also an effective finisher, a solid long-range shooter, and if the matchup is right, even an option in the post.
The one thing stopping the senior from being a true star at the college level is his athleticism. He is not particularly quick, nor is he an explosive leaper. While it normally isn't an issue for him, Coble can struggle to find quality shots at times. This is somewhat understandable given the defensive attention he receives, but it really hurts NU when he is struggling.
His athleticism is also an issue on defense. While he can make plays with his length, he doesn't have the quickness to stay in front of most wing players. The team can avoid this by playing him against bigger opposing players, but the stronger and more athletic big men also give him trouble.
All that said, he is still a major reason that there is any optimism surrounding this team. Without his offensive talents, the team would really be in trouble. His ability to create points out of nowhere makes their offense work with this roster.
PF—John Shurna, 6'8" 210 SO
The expected improvement of Shurna will be one of the big keys for the Cats this season. As a freshman, he was their fourth leading scorer at 7.3 PPG despite averaging barely 18 minutes per game. You could debate whether he's really the SF or PF, especially considering that NU usually plays a zone defense, but his skill set seems to fit better here right now.
The sophomore forward has the potential to be a difference maker for this team. He has great length and good athleticism for his size. He is capable of stepping out and hitting jumpers as well as doing the dirty work inside. He has a similar skill set to Coble, but he was nowhere near as polished last year.
He could make a difference on defense, as well. In the past, NU has been short on height, but Shurna lets them play a huge lineup with two 6'8" forwards. He has the mobility to switch to perimeter players without getting torched as well as the length to bother their shots and hit the glass.
If he can play with more consistency and avoid some of the silly mistakes that sent him to the bench too often as a freshman, he could be a matchup nightmare and a key part of their defense.
Center—Kyle Rowley, 7'0" 280 SO or Luka Mirkovic, 6'11" 235 SO
I listed both players as the starter because I am not sure about Rowley's injury status. While he would likely be the starter, he broke his foot in the offseason. I do not have any inside information regarding his return date. Mirkovic would likely start in his place and may overtake him during the season, anyway.
True centers are few and far between at Northwestern, but the Cats have two of them right now. This increase in length that is also apparent at the forward positions gives them far more lineup possibilities. While NU will probably start with this lineup, I expect them to go small fairly regularly when the matchups allow it.
Rowley is clearly a work in progress, but he sees the court because of his size. If NU needs to limit the shots for a bruising big, Kyle can slow him down just by standing in the lane.
However, he is not very agile and his footwork needs significant progress. He has good touch around the basket, but doesn't have the post moves or agility to take advantage of it, frequently traveling or throwing up an awkward shot when given the ball in the post. If he can develop his rather raw basketball skills, he could be an extremely rare dominant low post option for NU.
Mirkovic is the more skilled player and the better fit for NU's offense. The offense seems to run much better with him in the high post than with the other bigs. He is a solid passer and ball-handler for his size and is a decent shooter. He doesn't look quite as comfortable in the low post, but that could come with time.
Both players could go a long way towards solving what has historically been Northwestern's biggest issue: lack of interior defense and rebounding.
This is probably the deepest and most talented group of players I've seen since I started following Northwestern. While they're not exactly stashing All-Americans on the pine, this group is far more athletic than I am used to seeing and has a few players that would have seen more playing time in past seasons.
Besides the previously mentioned center that doesn't start, senior guard Jeremy Nash will probably be the first player off the bench. Nash is a very solid defender with good athleticism and solid length at 6'4". He also has some ball-handling and offensive ability, but probably not enough to make him a consistent offensive threat.
Senior Jeff Ryan and Junior Ivan Peljusic are two other veteran options off the bench. While neither is particularly skilled, they both have good length and athleticism and can be useful in spurts when their starters get in foul trouble. However, they could also be pushed out of the rotation to make room for underclassmen.
Sophomore Davide Curletti also could see significant time up front. He has some game experience, but played sparingly. He is listed at 6'9" and 232 pounds and is one of their more explosive leapers. I could see him being used as a defensive specialist, though Coach Carmody didn't seem particularly confident in him last year.
Besides Nash and the starters, I'm not sure how many guards will crack the lineup. Given that Coble will likely play a lot of small forward and Nash should get heavy minutes as the backup guard, there isn't much playing time available for the remaining forwards.
Mike Capocci is an interesting player that could either be a key player off the bench or a bench warmer. At 6'6" with impressive athleticism, he could be a nice energy guy. He has also shown some offensive ability in his limited appearances. My guess is that in the past he has made too many mental errors for Caromody's comfort.
One player I expected to play more frequently than he did last year is Nick Fruendt. The dangerous high school sniper never made his way into the rotation, supposedly because of defensive concerns. I don't really know what to expect from him. The same could be said of freshman Alex Marcotullio, who is supposedly a deadly shooter, but was fairly lightly recruited.
NU should be a competitive team in the Big Ten. They have two veteran contributors as well as a handful of talented young players that could make an impact.
Those younger players will ultimately determine their fate. They will need someone to step in and replace the dependable scoring ability of Craig Moore. At least one player needs to step up and be a solid complement to Coble and Thompson, preferably more than one player.
If it happens, this team should place somewhere in the middle tier of the Big Ten. Though they're still far from the most athletic team in the Big Ten, their size and athleticism has improved significantly over past seasons.
They have to get over the dry spells that have plagued this team in the past. They have a habit of hanging with teams or even building a lead only to see it disappear when their opponent increases the defensive pressure. Consistency offensively and defense will be of great importance for Northwestern.
While they're not likely to be a factor in the race for the conference championship, they could win enough games to be a tournament team for the first time in their history. However, they don't have as much margin for error as some other teams in the conference.