The Cats need more of this from Shurna, and less not thisTwo years ago, Northwestern entered the 2009/2010 season tabbing it as the year they would finally crack the NCAA tourney, returning four starters and four of their five top starters after their first post-season appearance (in the NIT) in nearly two decades. With Juice Thompson a rising junior and John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic rising sophomores, the future seemed bright. A pre-season injury to senior leader Kevin Coble derailed the Wildcats near-term plans, but surprising things happened. Shurna, the fourth option on the previous year’s team, broke out, scoring nearly 19 points a game as he, Michael Thompson, and true freshman surprise Drew Crawford led the Wildcats to a near identical finish as the year prior, despite missing Coble. Last year, then, became “the year” for the Wildcats. This time, no injury derailed them – they just had a near identical season. Shurna played slightly worse, Thompson played slightly better, and Crawford remained the same guy he was as a freshman.
Now, the Wildcats see their window of opportunity slamming shut. Thompson, their most consistent player over their mini-renaissance, is gone. Shurna, always a reluctant “star” will be depended on even more. Crawford needs to show progress, and the Wildcats badly need improvements from guards Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb.
Northwestern really only does one thing well – shoot. This was the nation’s 18th best offense, 20th best shooting team, and in the top 50 in 2-point, 3-point, and free-throw percentage. They excel at taking care of the ball (though this may decline without Thompson’s 4:1 assist/turnover ratio), and adequately protect the defensive glass, thanks to Luka Mirkovic. After that, there is nothing this team does that is even remotely average. They yield high shooting percentages, can’t force turnovers, and foul surprisingly often.
The Wildcats were hoping that true freshman Tre Demps could fill Thompson’s role as a scoring point-guard, but torn ligaments in his shoulder over the summer make that unlikely. The job, then, will likely fall to Marcotullio, a solid shooter and adequate ball-handler who can at least guard the ball (he’s the only person on the roster who has shown himself capable of stealing the ball).
With essentially the same roster, it’s unreasonable to expect defensive competency here, the only improvement will need to come by squeezing every drop from an already high-functioning offense. The key will be with the star – can Shurna step up and the man? Shurna, at times, was a shrinking violet last year, watching his team lose as he only took 5-7 shots – hardly star material. Shurna is a phenomenal shooter – probably the best in the conference, he just needs to be 20 point scorer he was the year prior.
Crawford and Cobb, for their part, need to adjust the focus of their games. Between the two of them, they took 238 three-point attempts despite combining for 32% shooting behind the arc. Both are tall, rangy players capable of slashing to the basket – perhaps it would be better to leave the bulk of the shooting to Shurna and Marcotullio. Both, also, need to step up on defense. On a roster visually bereft of athletes, Crawford and Cobb are the only candidates to have some defensive acumen. Of course, as the season begins, Cobb finds himself benched for virtually un-recruited true freshman Dave Sobolewski.
Northwestern looks again be a middle-of-the-pack club in the Big 10, possibly battling Nebraska, a youthful Illinois squad, and an improving Hoosier team for the league’s final NCAA bids. If it doesn’t happen this year, Carmody’s window may be shut – with Shurna a Senior, it’s hard to see a Crawford/Cobb/Marcotullio nucleus reaching the tournament.