Big Ten Basketball Preview: Northwestern

Chris Chambers

Despite being as close to an NCAA Tournament bid as they've ever been, Northwestern figures to take a step back in the rugged Big Ten as John Shurna, one of the best players in program history, departs.

Northwestern


Last season

19-14 (8-10), T-7th in the Big Ten

0-2 vs. Michigan (66-64 OT L in Ann Arbor, 67-55 OT L in Evanston)

Entering the last few weeks of the season, Northwestern had the resume of a stereotypical "bubble team" that needed an elusive marquee win to get into the NCAA Tournament; the Cats had a good non-conference record against a pretty mediocre slate of opponents, they had a record that was close to .500 in a power conference, and they had one huge win -- a home upset over Michigan State from mid-January. They needed a few more key wins -- two heartbreaking overtime losses to Michigan, a narrow road loss to Indiana, and a comeback that just fell short at home against Ohio State each could have propelled Northwestern into the tournament -- but they fell short once again. The attached stigma that goes along with never making the tournament followed the program around, which was too bad, considering that the team had plenty of star power with John Shurna and Drew Crawford. Unfortunately the duo never made it in -- Shurna's senior day was the brutal overtime loss to Michigan -- but Shurna and Crawford were two of the better players in the conference. Bill Carmody is prone to criticism, but even getting Northwestern to the precipice of getting that elusive tournament bid is impressive. Still, a second-round loss in the NIT was an incredibly disappointing finish, considering that Northwestern was one of the last teams not to make the cut.

Conference-Only Four Factors

OFFENSE DEFENSE

B1G Rank
B1G Rank
Effective FG % 54.0 1 53.3 9
Turnover % 17.1 4 19.1 5
Offensive Rebounding % 25.6 11 37.7 12
FT Attempts / FG Attempts 37.7 4 33.1 5

As per usual for the Carmody era, at least lately, Northwestern's potent offense had to carry its porous defense. For the fourth consecutive year, the Wildcat offense ranked in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, and for the fourth consecutive year, its defense finished below 100th. This past year rebounding was the most obvious problem -- between Shurna and Luka Mirkovic, there wasn't nearly enough size inside. On the plus side, Northwestern shot the ball better than anyone else in the conference, and even though a lot of that had to do with Shurna's absurd efficiency, there were several other solid shooters.

Significant Departure

  • F John Shurna -- 20.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.8 APG

    Shurna exits Northwestern as its career leading scorer and could very well have been its best player ever. His goofy three point shot was lethal, he was a deft finisher around the rim, and he was very deserving of his first team All-Big Ten selection a year ago. His offensive output will obviously be missed, but him playing the five at points down the stretch really helped shore up the frontcourt. Shurna will be missed not only as an elite shooter and scorer, but also as the best five -- by far -- on the roster last year.

Notable Returnees

  • F Drew Crawford -- 16.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG

    Like Shurna, Crawford is a prolific scorer who shot over 40% from three point range last year. He doesn't have many flaws in his game -- Crawford can shoot extremely well, he can put the ball on the floor, and he's able to play around the rim. With Shurna's departure, Crawford should get even more opportunities on offense, and he'll be counted on to carry Northwestern on that side of the court.

  • G Dave Sobolewski -- 8.3 PPG, 3.7 APG

    Even though he played in the same class as Cody Zeller and Trey Burke, Sobolewski had a very impressive freshman season in his own right. The diminutive point guard doesn't have great athleticism, but he's a good passer, doesn't turn the ball over often, and shoots pretty well from three. He'll have an increased role this year and should benefit from another year of experience.

  • G Reggie Hearn -- 7.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG

    Hearn, a former walk-on, has carved out a nice niche for Northwestern -- he's a good defender, shoots the ball fairly well from the wing, and is an efficient overall player. He's not going to be counted on to handle the bulk of the scoring for Northwestern, but he's certainly a nice option to have as a role player.

Recruiting Class (ESPN star ranking)

  • SF Kale Abrahamson (***)
  • C Cher Ajou (**)
  • C Alex Olah (**)
  • SF Sanjay Lumpkin (**)

Games vs. Michigan

Jan. 3 in Evanston. Jan. 30 in Ann Arbor.

Outlook

Simply put, the loss of John Shurna is devastating. Northwestern rebounded well when Kevin Coble decided not to use his whole eligibility, and they'll still have a very solid scorer in Drew Crawford, but Shurna was that type of singular talent that is uncommon for lower-tier programs (and Northwestern, until they make it into the tournament, will never be more than a consistently successful lower-tier program). He's irreplaceable. Carmody's slow tempo, Princeton-style offense and his frustrating 1-3-1 defense should give Northwestern a competitive advantage due to their uniqueness, but a star like Shurna -- as well as solid supporting players like Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn, and Luka Mirkovic -- could be what Northwestern needs to take the next step. Crawford, to his credit, will carry some of the scoring load, but he wasn't as versatile nor as efficient as Shurna. Another concern could be the Cats' depth inside: Shurna played in the post occasionally, and Mirkovic and Davide Curletti, Northwestern's other big men, also depart. Losing promising junior JerShon Cobb to aseason-long suspension is another bit of concerning attrition. Overall, it's hard to see where improvement can be made in the wake of Northwestern's losses -- they'll still be an efficient, three point shooting team with a dearth of rebounding big men and a poor defense. It figures that the Cats will take a step back because they won't have the one-two punch of Shurna and Crawford to carry the offense this year (although if Crawford emerges as a better player when he's the only scoring threat, Northwestern could surprise) and because they won't have the inside presence necessary to stay competitive with the league's top teams.


Up tomorrow: Iowa

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