With the NCAA tournament almost over, college basketball will be a footnote in the sports world for the next five months. While attention from the outside world will focus on baseball, along with the hockey and basketball playoffs, teams will start preparing for next season.
On the campus of Northwestern University, the preparation will start in order to send the 'Cats to their first NCAA tournament in program history.
Finding a way to beat in-conference powerhouses without the services of point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson will be a challenge. However, the baby-faced assassin, power forward John Shurna, will look to carry the team on his back.
Drew Crawford and the new-found diamond in the rough, Alex Marcotullio, both will have a larger role in the Princeton offense next season.
There is one man though that could be labeled as the proverbial "X-factor" on the 2011-2012 team.
Over the course of the history of Northwestern University basketball, there is one position that has put the team at a disadvantage.
With the exception of Evan Eschmeyer, Northwestern has never had a center that could handle the physicality that comes with playing down low in the Big Ten. While other teams sent out future lottery picks, the 'Cats had scrawny players that were afraid to use their body. This is seen by the fact that Northwestern has never out-rebounded its opponents this century.
In the Princeton offense that Northwestern features, the center is never seen as a scoring threat, but still must have the ability to rebound. What has to change to finally send this program over the hump is that a dominant center, who can score as well as rebound, must emerge.
Enter Luka Mirkovic.
Mirkovic comes across as a stereotypical Northwestern center. A lightweight postman with an unusual name, who is handicapped by big men who can score and box out such as JaJuan Johnson and Jared Sullinger.
However, Mirkovic brings aspects to the table that separate him from centers of the past. The man plays with a swagger that is not common with a team that has the name of such a distinguished institution on their chest.
Wearing a mask that makes him look like a poor man's Richard Hamilton, Mirkovic is the prime target of opponent's student sections. He embraces the taunts and uses them as motivation.
After draining threes at the conference opener at Purdue, Mirkovic threw three fingers in the air, which prompted the Boilermaker faithful to scream profanities. The center claimed that it was not indicating the points he just put up on the scoreboard, instead a gesture to his country, Serbia.
His 7.6 PPG and 5.2 RPG last season are not outstanding compared to the other centers in the nation, but by Northwestern standards, they are above average. These stats were not seen when the likes of Nikola Baran and Ivan Tolic patrolled the post.
The recent postseason appearances can, in part, be a credit to Mirkovic's increase in play. Still, the Serbian center must continue to get better. His perceived lackluster numbers have not translated to an NCAA tournament appearance yet, making this year important.
Coach Bill Carmody knows what he will get from a healthy John Shurna and what the combo of Crawford and Marcotullio will provide, but Mirkovic is always a mystery. Mirkovic has shown in spurts that he can play with the big boys, but must show it every game, especially in Big Ten play.
It is difficult to imagine a team making the NCAA tournament with a center that gets tossed around every game.
If Northwestern wants to get the monkey off its back and finally go dancing, Mirkovic must continue to crash the boards, especially on offense. Mirkovic must find enough confidence in his shot that he will take the open looks on the key that are given to him when Shurna is double-teamed.
Every time he gets the ball above the free throw line, a collective "No" should not be slipping from NU fans' mouths.
The mentality is there for Mirkovic, but the skill must compensate with that toughness. Trips to the weight-room and hours practicing his jump shots will pay dividends for Mirkovic's game. This will be the difference between the typical ending of another season without dancing and a historic campaign for a program vying to be the next Butler Bulldogs.