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Dynamic Duo Gives Northwestern a Realistic Shot at March Madness

Aaron MorseCorrespondent IDecember 8, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 12:  Michael Thompson #22 of the Northwestern Wildcats drives against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 12, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern men's basketball is for real. I have no doubt about that. Everyone wrote them off after both Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan were declared out for the year due to injury.

But sophomore forward John Shurna and junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson, have put the 'Cats on their backs and NU currently stands at 6-1 on the year. It's not a soft 6-1 either; they knocked off a ranked Notre Dame team on a neutral court.

Then they came back the next night and beat Big 12 foe Iowa State. A few nights later, they went on the road to a hostile ACC environment and helped the Big Ten get the win in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge by defeating North Carolina State.

Oh and by the way, all three of those teams were undefeated at the time they took on the Wildcats. The notable thing about the NC State victory, was the fact that NU was able to win in front of a crowd of over 11,000 fans. A road win like that shows the maturity of this team. It sure beats losing by 40 at Virginia like they did two years ago.

Shurna and Thompson may not be household names in the Big Ten yet, but they will be by the end of the year. It's clear Shurna's time with the USA U19 National Team, helped his game tremendously.

He's second on the team in scoring, pouring in over 15 points per game, but more importantly his rebounding has been OUTSTANDING, as he's averaging a team-leading seven boards per game.

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If there's one thing that's absolutely killed the 'Cats the past few years, it's been their struggles pulling down rebounds. Shurna has showed he can hang with and even flat-out outplay the big boys in the low post (including All-American Luke Harangody and All-Big 12 star Craig Brackins).

Not only that, the kid just has FUN out on the court. He is the most cheerful basketball player I've seen in my life. It must be very disconcerting to his opponents as he smiles his way to 15 points and seven rebounds per game.

Even when Shurna has an off night (he struggled with his shooting a bit against NC State), Michael "Juice" Thompson has been there to pick up the slack and then some.

In fact, Juice leads all Wildcats with 17.4 points per game, including a game-high 22 against NC State. Thompson is a quiet guy who played well his first two seasons, but this year he's taken on a much bigger leadership role. He can often be seen being very vocal on the court and his aggressive drives to the hoop are impressive to watch.

Shurna and Thompson have made the biggest impact, but freshman guard Alex Marcotullio and senior guard Jeremy Nash, deserve a lot of recognition as well.

Marcotullio has knocked down 50 percent of his three-pointers this year, while Nash leads the team in assists and plays some of the best defense you'll see in the entire conference. He's also improved his shot to the point that NU fans can feel comfortable with him taking a three every now and then.

Right now, the 'Cats haven't played a game since the December 1st victory over NC State, but they will resume their schedule this Sunday against North Carolina A&T.

Stanford is the only remaining challenging non-conference game for the 'Cats, a victory over the Cardinal would leave NU with a 12-1 record outside the Big Ten (with the lone loss being to a ranked Butler team). A record like that would mean that NU would only have to get to a .500 record in Big Ten play and they'd be serious NCAA Tournament contenders.

If they do make it to March Madness AND the NU football team wins the Outback Bowl, this will be the greatest sports year in school history.

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