Big Ten Summer Check In: Northwestern WildcatsPosted by Deepak Jayanti on July 25th, 2012
The Northwestern Wildcats play their home games at the Welsh-Ryan Arena which is located about 10 miles north of Wrigley Field — home of the “lovable losers,” the Chicago Cubs. Over the last two seasons, Wildcats and Cubs fans have something in common: Both fan bases are used to the phrase, “there is always next year.” The Cubs have not been to the World Series in over six decades and Northwestern hasn’t received a bid to the NCAA Tournament in 74 years. Despite being competitive for three seasons runnin, the Wildcats have not been able to seal the deal during key stretches of February and March, and as a result have left their fans second guessing several key possessions or officiating decisions at the end of the season.
Evaluating Last Year: Last season stung the Northwestern fan base more than ever before because they had their chances, especially at home. Bill Carmody’s crew lost three games at home by fewer than four points — to Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State. Their two losses to Michigan might have singlehandedly cost them a bid to the NCAA Tourney. During both of games against Michigan, the Wolverines came from behind to tie the game in regulation and hammered the Wildcats during the overtime period. On February 21, the Wildcats were 16-10 with five games remaining in the conference season. Three of those games were at home and included tough but winnable games against Michigan and Ohio State. But an overtime loss to Michigan and a two-point loss to Ohio State essentially popped their bubble as they finished the season 18-12. The phrase “control your destiny” might be cliché in the world of sports, but the Wildcats had their shot over the final several games but couldn’t take advantage, which resulted in an NIT bid and a second round loss to Washington to finish the season at 19-14.
State of the Program: The optimistic fan would consider the Northwestern program to be on the upswing under Bill Carmody after four consecutive winning seasons. Three straight years with at least 19 wins and in the NCAA Tournament conversation is definitely a positive sign for a traditional bottom-feeder that suffered six losing seasons from 2002-09. On the flip side, the pessimistic fan would wonder if Carmody’s best shot of making the Dance passed him by with the departures of John Shurna and Michael Thompson. Shurna was arguably the best basketball player in Northwestern history and Thompson was a bona fide leader. Carmody will still bring in some decent recruits but he may not have a team with three legitimate scorers like he has enjoyed with Shurna, Thompson and Drew Crawford. It takes a skilled recruiter to lure elite talent to a program where NIT appearances are considered a successful season and the school’s high academic standards make it tougher. Other private schools such as Vanderbilt and Stanford have shown the ability to field competitive squads in its conference despite high academic standards, so it can clearly be done. Carmody continues to maximize his players’ talent but he might be on a shortening leash if he doesn’t finally secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament in the next two seasons.
Players Not Returning: John Shurna’s 20 PPG will need to be replaced next season, as he has clearly been the go-to guy for this offense over the past two seasons. In addition to his offense, Shurna’s attitude on the team clearly separated him from the rest. He was a true Wildcat and definitely embraced the challenge of leading his squad to the NCAA Tournament. His maturity was evident in his shot selection during conference season when he averaged 56% eFG%. Shurna, along with senior Luka Mirkovic, have been a significant part of Carmody’s rotation during their time in Evanston. Mirkovic was particularly effective at home, averaging 5.9 PPG and 3.8 RPG, and provided some size in a rugged conference. David Curletti’s 3.7 RPG will need to be replaced after his graduation as well but overall, the seniors’ departures will create big holes in the offense and rebounding.
Immediate Needs: Who will be the second scoring option after Drew Crawford? Big Ten defenses will zone in on Crawford, who returns for his senior year after averaging 16.1 PPG during his junior season. But when Crawford draws the defense, Carmody needs some of the younger players to hit the open shot. Even with Mirkovic and Curletti around, the Wildcats still only ranked 11th in offensive rebounding last season. But without those two underneath, rebounding will be another big question mark for this squad. Conference play has hurt this program over the last two seasons and will continue to set the Wildcats back unless they hit the boards better against superior rebounding teams such as Ohio State or Indiana.
Key Player(s) to step up: Drew Crawford will pick up where he left off last season and will clearly be the leader of the young Wildcats. But returning point guard Dave Sabolewski will need to pick up the slack to help Crawford. He has great ball-handling skills and showed decent touch from beyond the arc last season (36% 3FG). Sabolewski’s 8.3 PPG will increase because he will hoist up more shots, but he needs to be more effecient with his shot selection. Incoming three-star freshman Kale Abrahamson is a 6’7″ wing who can get some playing time if he can contribute on the defensive end during the non-conference season. Another wing, Reggie Hearn, needs to help with the scoring but the Wildcats’ rebounding needs will not be met immediately. Hearn and Crawford must use their size to crash the boards, especially on the defensive end. Without good rebounding from the wings and due to their lack of true size, the Wildcats will struggle during conference play in a league that takes pride in its toughness. New recruit and 7’2″ center, Chier Ajou can help with the rebounding issues as well.
Conclusion: The 2012-13 season may not result in an NCAA Tournament bid for this Northwestern program but they should remain competitive in the Big Ten. It is probably unrealistic to expect the Wildcats to crack the 20-win barrier but producing another winning season should be considered a success for this young squad. Another NIT appearance will leave Carmody searching for some answers but at least he will have held steady with a young core of players led by Sabolewski to make a run for the NCAAs in 2013-14.