25 Most Intriguing Teams for 2010-2011: #8 Northwestern Wildcats

A traditional pre-season top 25? They’re fairly ubiquitous this time of year. Everyone has one, but from Duke to Mississippi Valley State and in between, there’s a lot of intriguing teams for the upcoming college basketball season.

In ascending order of squads that pique our interest, our list consists of teams with a rare chance to make noise, have a lot to prove, quirky schedules, or are just named Kentucky.

Follow along. Story lines aren’t just for the nation’s elite.

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Heading into last season, Kevin Coble was the guy. A silky smooth scorer with range from the outside, the 6'8" senior from Scottsdale, Arizona was supposed to be the kid to send Northwestern dancing for the first time in school history. But in the days leading up to the start of the year, Coble landed awkwardly in practice and his career quickly flashed before his eyes. The diagnosis was swift: A broken foot that needed surgery. Doctors estimated four months of recovery time at a minimum. Northwestern fans, coaches and fellow players were literally crushed by the news. Even a rival coach, Illinois' Bruce Weber, offered up some sympathy:

He was their best player. But if he does take the redshirt year, a year from now they'll have everybody back and be pretty good.

And that's what everyone assumed would happen. The medical redshirt was there for the taking, and a hard-working kid like Coble seemed eager to get back on the court. The underlying theme across the country was that Northwestern would use the 2009-10 season to develop some youngsters, and then make a serious push for the NCAA Tournament in 2010-11 with Coble back in the lineup. Easy enough, right?

But with their go-to scorer on crutches watching from the sidelines, head coach Bill Carmody's team began to rally around the players that were still in uniform. It didn't take very long for outsiders to realize that Northwestern's roster had much more talent than anyone had imagined. Four monumental non-conference victories over Notre Dame, Iowa State, North Carolina State and Stanford all happened before Christmas. And before anybody had a chance to write Carmody's squad off as a non-contender, they were sitting pretty at 10-1 with wins over schools from the Big East, Big-12, ACC and Pac-10.

The Wildcats would eventually succumb to the rigors of Big Ten play and once again narrowly miss out on an NCAA bid. The fact that they were even in the discussion, however, brought everyone back to that initial mindset: In 2010-11, with Coble on the floor, this team could be very, very good.

The development of players like Michael Thompson and John Shurna would prove to be more crucial than anybody knew at the time. That's because in late July, Coble dropped a bombshell. The fifth year senior announced that he wasn't going to be returning to the team and would instead be shifting his focus entirely to academics (he's slated to graduate in December). It was a bitter pill to swallow for sure, but not one single person had a right to question his decision.

So instead of this season serving as the 'Kevin Coble Revival Tour', the spotlight remains locked on Thompson, Shurna and sophomore guard Drew Crawford. The three combined to average 42.4 points per game in 09-10, and are easily one of the most intriguing trios in all of college hoops. But can the Wildcats finally land on the right side of the bubble for the first time? In the end, that's the only question that matters.

What happened this summer?
Seven foot center Kyle Rowley transferred. Carmody took his players to Italy for a combination of hoops, bonding and pasta. Injured last year, fifth year senior Jeff Ryan was selected co-captain along with Thompson. Former Northwestern player Joe Kennedy was named Director of Basketball Relations.

Games that really matter

  • 11/30 vs. Georgia Tech
  • 12/31 @ Purdue
  • 1/3 vs. Michigan State
  • 1/6 @ Illinois
  • 1/15 @ Michigan State
  • 1/23 vs. Wisconsin
  • 1/26 @ Minnesota
  • 1/29 vs. Ohio State
  • 2/5 vs. Illinois
  • 2/27 @ Wisconsin

Most intriguing player
John Shurna (6'8" forward; junior) – When Coble went down, Shurna's friends and family were quietly high-fiving each other. Though he isn't quite the same type of rebounding presence, Shurna immediately saw a massive increase in playing time and did a masterful job of filling Coble's role as the resident big-shot artist. The local product not only led the team in scoring with 18.2 points per game, but he rarely ever came off the court for a breather (36.2 mpg). The Sporting News named him their Most Improved Player by season's end, an honor he wholeheartedly deserved. Now that Coble is off working on his political science degree, Shurna has the green light to improve upon his Big Ten-leading 2.9 three pointers per game number. With the size to keep you honest on the inside and the three point accuracy to make you pay if you give him an inch, we might be looking at a darkhorse conference POY candidate right here.

What’s on the line?
A little bit of everything and nothing at the same time. Northwestern's NCAA drought is well-documented, and another near-miss with this current roster would be quite brutal. With that said, the Wildcats haven't finished in the top four in the Big Ten standings since 1968, so the though of reaching for the stars might need to be put to rest. Four-star recruit JerShon Cobb, the 90th overall prospect according to Rivals.com, is a nod to the future and should make a noticeable impact right away. Cobb is exactly the type of player that this program has been craving, and his signing might pave the way for more top prospects to flock to Evanston.

Projected finish
Carmody's Big Ten schedule certainly won't do him any favors as the Wildcats open with Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana. All four schools have aspirations of reaching the dance much like Northwestern does, so the competition will be steep right from the get-go. Thankfully there isn't much on the non-conference schedule, meaning that another hot start to the season should be right around the corner. The key is to parlay that into Big Ten success, and that's never an easy task. The experience of Shurna and Thompson, two surprisingly consistent scorers, really can't be discounted here either. Although we aren't going to run to Vegas and put our money where our mouth is, we like the Wildcats to make history and end their excessive drought in 2011.

    -  Conference: 6th
    -  Postseason: NCAA 1st Round (seriously)

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