Dec. 3, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

In 2006, Jeremy Nash was one member of a five-player recruiting class at Northwestern. One of the goals that class set for themselves was simple – make the NCAA Tournament before they graduate.

Many incoming freshman across the nation come in to college with that goal – in fact you’d be hard pressed to find one that didn’t – but at Northwestern, it’s a little bit of a different story. The hard-lucked Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament. Not once since the tournament originated in 1939 when it was, ironically, hosted by Northwestern.

That’s why when this season approached and many were eyeing Northwestern as a potential NCAA tournament team, it was a big deal.

Then, it happened.

On a routine play in practice on Nov. 10, one of the players that set that goal with Nash, Kevin Coble, also the team’s best player, went up for a rebound of one of his own misses. He landed awkwardly.

“I just thought he stepped on someone’s foot and he had a sprained ankle or something like that,” Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said.

It was worse than that.

The harsh reality was that Coble, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in each of the past three seasons, had suffered a Lisfranc injury and would e sidelined for the entire year.

Three days later, about ten minutes into Northwestern’s first game of the season, fellow senior Jeff Ryan, the team’s versatile sixth man, suffered an ACL knee injury. He too would miss his whole senior campaign.

The end result is that Nash is now the lone senior playing significant minutes for the Wildcats as he tries to achieve the goal they set three years ago. The other two members of that class ware Ivan Peljusic, who is averaging less than eight minutes a game and still has a year of eligibility remaining after redshirting in 2006-07, and walk-on Matt Steger, who has battled injuries of his own and has not yet played this season.

“It’s strange being out there on the court, but those guys are at every practice cheering us on, so it s like they’re out there even when they’re not,” Nash said about his injured teammates. “Sometimes I feel like they’re on the court with us.”

The players healthy enough to take the court for the Wildcats, however, have been picking up the slack. Northwestern is currently on an impressive three-game win streak with wins over Notre Dame, Iowa State and NC State. The first two wins came en route to the Wildcats winning the Chicago Invitational, and the latter came on the road in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. At the time of its matchup with Northwestern, each of those teams was unbeaten.

“It’s been incredible,” Nash said. “Every guy is stepping up to the plate. Nobody has been lacking. Everyone is staying together and keeping everyone positive, and we’ve been able to pull out some big victories.”

Nobody has stepped up more than Michael Thompson and John Shurna.

Thompson, the junior point guard, is someone that coach Carmody, especially with the injuries, wanted to get more out of this year both on the court and as a leader. He has delivered.  Thompson is averaging a team-high 17.4 points a game and even scored 22 points in Northwestern’s win over NC State. He has also served as a positive influence on his teammates in the wake of Coble’s injury.

“I realize that I’m the leader and I need to try to keep my guys focused,” Thompson said. “I need to make sure everyone is motivated and feels like we still have a chance to compete. I think the guys did a tremendous job of adjusting to that on the fly.”

Shurna has also shined playing a bigger role. Only a sophomore, Shurna was named MVP of the Chicago Invitational after scoring a combined 48 points in the wins over Notre Dame and Iowa State.

“He came back this year a lot more confident in himself and his abilities.” Thompson said of Shurna, who spent this summer playing for the United States in the Under-19 World Championships. “He’s so versatile. He can shoot the three. He can post up. He can put it on the floor and he really stretches the defense.”

The scoring provided by Thompson, Shurna and even Nash, who is averaging nine points a game, has been paramount since the team not only lost Coble to injury, but also lost Craig Moore to graduation. Moore, who was a key player for a squad that went 17-14 and made the NIT last year, was second on the team with 14.3 points a game.

“We have found ways to win this year,” Carmody said. “Guys have come through with big plays when they really had to. In the past, it was either Coble or Craig Moore that came up with the big plays. Now it’s Thompson, Shurna and Nash, and even the freshman Alex Marcotullio.”

Marcotullio has made his impact from behind the arc, making 13 of his 26 attempts on the year. In fact, much of the Northwestern team has been feasting from 3-point land.

“We stress it,” Carmody said of using 3-pointers in the offense. “That’s the way the game has been going for the last several years. I worked for coach Carril at Princeton for a number of years and he said ‘an uncontested shot from whatever distance is better than a contested shot, even if it’s in close in the post’. Just because you get it close doesn’t mean it’s automatic, and I think the 3-pointer is an easy shot for a lot of guys. We really work hard at trying to get better at it.”

Currently, the only Big Team team that has hit more 3-pointers than Northwestern is Ohio State. Three-pointers account for nearly 40 percent of Northwestern’s offensive output.

Nash, who hit his only two 3-pointers against NC State, is shooting 38 percent from 3-point range as he carries the torch for his senior class.

“Nash has really gotten better,” Carmody said. “He had a nice year for us last year. I think he shot about 33 percent, but I think he should have been much better than that. He really went to work this past spring and summer and he’s zeroing in.”

With a 6-1 record and three resume-building wins already, Nash could also be zeroing in on his goal of making the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats, whose only loss came to then- No. 10 Butler, will likely need at least a winning record in Big Ten play to make the tournament. The past three wins, however, will certainly give them clout with the selection committee, which has stated this year that it will increase emphasis on a team’s entire body of work throughout the season – lessening its stress on a team’s play late in the season.

Despite dealing with injuries and departures of key players, this team has adjusted and made the best of it. It’s a new team, and come March, the Wildcats are looking for a new result.

That’s exactly what Nash and his class were thinking from day one.
“First, we just wanted to learn how to play together,” Nash said of his recruiting class. “Then, we started to hear that Northwestern has never made it to the tournament. So, our goal was that before we leave, we were going to make the tournament together.”

Fast forward a little more than three years and you also have a team scrambling to come together and find an identity.

The goal is the same. And they’re on their way to achieving it.