04 February 2010

ReNUed Hopes: Part I

In the buildup to the 2009-10 men’s basketball season the general consensus was that this would be the year that Northwestern finally ditched its albatross and made the NCAAs field of 65. Then lightning struck in the form of a Kevin Coble season-ending Lis Franc injury that occurred on an innocuous play during a late preseason practice. Coble, a senior and three-year starter, was NU’s star player and expected to shoulder much of the load in the Wildcats’ run to the tourney. In 2008-09, Coble led the Wildcats in both scoring and rebounding en route to being named second team All-Big Ten by both the media and coaches.

And then, quite befitting for a program with NU’s moribund history, lighting struck twice. This time it was Jeff Ryan, a versatile senior and key sub, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during NU’s first game of the year. In a week’s span the air was completely expelled from the media-hyped balloon. In its place was that all-too-familiar pall hanging over the program.

The beginning to Northwestern’s season did nothing to dispel notions that NU’s goal of making the NCAAs was now no more than a pipe dream. The first game after Ryan’s injury was against a ranked Butler squad. Last season the Wildcats gave NCAAs-bound Butler all they could handle in a narrow NU loss at the Bulldog’s Hinkle Fieldhouse. In the rematch that was supposed to be an early measuring stick for how much NU had improved, NU proved to be no match for the fundamentally skilled ballers visiting from Indianapolis.

Next up was a home contest against lightly regarded Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley Conference. This game was originally intended to be a glorified scrimmage for Northwestern, but it turned into a monumental struggle. Incredulously we watched as Northwestern trailed by eight points with only five minutes remaining in the game. But, Juice Thompson donned the Superman cape and willed NU to a 16-1 run to close the game and steal the victory. An audible sigh of relief could be heard emanating from Evanston, but there was this disheartening and inescapable feeling that this was not the kind of game NCAA-bound teams play, even when bringing their “D” game.

But just when all hope seemed lost a funny thing happened: NU righted the ship. While most people were still recovering from their Thanksgiving-induced food comas Northwestern’s hardcourt heroes went out and defeated Notre Dame and Iowa State and won the Chicago Invitational Challenge championship. Suddenly, the once thinkable that had become unthinkable was once again thinkable. Yes, it no longer seemed like just lip service from the players and coaches that the goal of making the NCAAs was unchanged in the aftermath of NU’s injury woes.

Over two months have passed since the CIC championship. While NU has not played itself into the NCAAs field just yet, NU is still in position to make a very realistic run at the NCAAs. Northwestern’s record currently stands at 15-7 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten play. At this time last year NU was 13-8 overall but had the very same 4-6 conference mark.

You don’t have to be some graduate student locked away in Tech’s sub-basement to understand that NU is now in a similar position to last season with respect to the Big Ten conference. Despite the identical conference records, there is one significant difference between the two seasons: the remaining schedule.

Last season NU played six of its final eight conference games against teams that would ultimately make the NCAAs. Depending on how one views Minnesota’s chances of making the NCAAs, NU will only face one or two NCAAs-bound teams during the remaining portion of this season’s schedule. In other words, NU’s stretch drive is much easier this season than last.

Thus, it is fair to say that NU is in good position to improve upon last year’s regular season conference record of 8-10. Even if NU were to only improve on its conference record by one game, a 9-9 conference record (and 21-10 overall), NU would land on the NCAAs bubble.

So now we have established that NU has in fact rescued its season and the hopes for a NCAA bid. But we still haven’t answered how exactly they were able to do it. Carmody Court’s answer to that question will be provided in the other two parts of this series.

‘til next time, Go ‘Cats Go!