The Jerry Wainwright era is over in Chicago, and the Oliver Purnell experiment (wait, wasn’t the Oliver Purnell Experiment the name of a 1970’s British prog-rock band?) is underway. As well-liked as Wainwright was, his tenure at DePaul was an outright failure, a 59-80 overall record, one winning season, one NIT appearance, and a backwards slide to a total of 16 wins over the last two years combined. So the program needed some new blood and some excitement, and Purnell brings that with his up-temp pressure-based style, that he most recently had success with at Clemson. However, despite Purnell’s three straight NCAA Tournament bids, six straight post-season tournament bids, and six straight non-losing seasons, there is a little bit of a blemish on that record: three straight NCAA Tournament first-round losses and a reputation for his team to play its best basketball in December and January, rather than in March. All that considered, Blue Demon fans would take a first-round tournament loss over the past five years without hesitation.

But, while the coaching change brings some excitement to the program, the roster is more or less a disaster, with the Blue Demons two leading scorers headed for greener pastures: Will Walker graduating and Mac Koshwal becoming the second talented Demon in two years to make the somewhat questionable decision to declare early for the NBA draft. To make matters worse, 6-10 freshman recruit Walter Pitchford has asked for his release from his signed letter of intent, although as of today, that release has not been granted. What remains is a rag-tag group of returnees, two other Wainwright recruits and the first of Purnell’s recruits.

Incumbent point guard Jeremiah Kelly is the guy with the most tangible claim on a starting spot, and as a result, probably the guy with the most pressure on him, but he is a limited player. He takes care of the ball, but doesn’t create a whole lot either for himself or for his teammates. Best case scenario for the Blue Demons: incoming freshman Brandon Young overtakes Kelly for the starting spot; Young is a tenacious defender with a versatile offensive game. Senior Michael Bizoukas is also in the mix at the point, but despite his hard-work and scrappiness, he doesn’t really have Big East athleticism. He could get spot minutes at either guard spot, however, just on his shooting ability alone.

The Demons are most talented at the wings, with guys like Eric Wallace, Tony Freeland, Mike Stovall, Devin Hill, and incoming freshman Moses Morgan all in the mix there. It is anybody’s guess who will get the starting spots out of these guys at the two or the three (all four of the returnees got at least seven starts last season, but none started more than 20 games), but this is a decent group of athletic guys who could fit in well in Purnell’s system.

Up front, DePaul will certainly miss Koshwal, but a few players remain. 6-11 junior center Krys Faber will likely take over in the post and he is a fairly athletic shot-blocker, but he’ll need to improve his offensive game.  Kene Obi, a 7-2 junior, may get some minutes in relief of Faber, but it is possible that Pitchford will take those minutes if he winds up at DePaul after all. Pitchford is a raw athlete with little game outside of the paint, but some definite upside. At the four spot, Purnell brought in his first recruit, Cleveland Melvin, who once committed to Connecticut but withdrew. Melvin is a very good athlete who is good in the open floor and good on the glass, but with very little approaching an offensive game elsewhere; he may, however, shine in Purnell’s system. If Melvin can’t claim the four spot, it is possible that DePaul goes small and one of the wings takes over the four, perhaps Hill, whose 6-9 frame can fill the slot pretty well.

While it will take Purnell some time to turn things around in Chicago, he can take comfort in the fact that there is at least some talent here, and the incoming recruiting class has plenty of promise. And, while there isn’t a lot of offensive polish up and down the roster, it is possible the Blue Demons can manufacture some offense through the artful application of Purnell’s press. Certainly DePaul is not ready for prime-time quite yet, but they could be there earlier than most rightfully expect.

If things weren't bad enough already for Connecticut, news came on Friday of a notice of allegations from the NCAA of eight major infractions in recruiting, specifically in regards to the recruitment of Nate Miles, who never played a minute for the Huskies since he was expelled from school for allegedly abusing a female student. While I said in my post below that the new contract extension given to Calhoun this offseason gives the program the appearance of stability, this announcement on Friday undermines any recruiting goodwill that extension may have engendered. While Calhoun stands only accused of "failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance", already, two UConn assistants have fallen on their swords and have been let go. Seth Davis sees this leading to recruiting restrictions placed on the UConn program, and for a school located in the hinterlands of Storrs and with a 68-year-old head coach with a history of health problems, additional recruiting limitations are the last thing they needed.

We'll find out more on October 15, when Connecticut representatives, including Calhoun, will appear before the NCAA.
On the heels of Jim Calhoun’s team missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years and Calhoun’s second health-related leave of absence in the past seven years, the University of Connecticut proposed and Calhoun accepted a $13 million extension of his contract, locking him up as the Husky head coach through 2014. While the UConn administration made sure the appearance of stability at the head of the program (and, to be clear, this is very much Calhoun’s program, built into a national power from the ground-up), there is no such luck with the roster, as three of the four players on the team that averaged more than 30 minutes per game have departed (Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards); those same three were 3/4s of the players on the team that averaged over 10 points per game. The sole remaining returnee to fit into both of those categories is point guard Kemba Walker, returning for his junior season with the need to prove that he is capable of being the unquestioned team leader. Walker is a lightning-fast true point who made significant strides on improving his outside shot as a sophomore. Further improvement of that outside shot, combined with his already devastating penetration ability could make him a nightmare for opposing backcourts around the Big East.

Beyond Walker, the roster has more question marks than declarative answers. Senior Charles Okwandu, sophomore Alex Oriakhi and redshirt sophomore Ater Majok split the majority of the starts at the four and five spots last season, and they will likely do the same in 2010-11. Majok has the most upside of the trio, with his massive wingspan and improving post game, but he was a model of inconsistency in his first year in the Husky rotation. Oriakhi has been the most consistent of the three, a solid rebounder, inside defensive presence and interior finisher, but his offensive game is decidedly lacking. Okwandu is most notable for his ability to pick up fouls at a startling pace, and he’ll need to correct that in order to ever be a significant contributor on this squad. Along with that trio, center Jonathan Mandeldove will return for his senior season, having missed the entirety of 09-10 attempting to correct academic issues. Also, reinforcements arrive in the form of 6-9 freshman power forward Tyler Olander and 6-10 freshman center Michael Bradley. Bradley could get a redshirt next season in order to improve his strength, but Olander, a raw but strong back-to-the-basket player, could scoop up a few minutes in his freshman year.

Robinson’s wing spot will likely be inherited by sophomore Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, an athletic defender whose offensive game and shooting will need to improve. Pushing him will be incoming freshman Roscoe Smith, a versatile performer with a ready-made offensive game who could step right into a starting spot should Coombs-McDaniel leave the door open.

The final available starting spot is alongside Walker in the backcourt. Senior guard Donnell Beverly may be a contender that role, but he has a very limited offensive game, and with the relative lack of offensive punch from the big guys on this team, Calhoun may need to find more of a scoring threat at the two-guard. Incoming freshman Jeremy Lamb is a natural scorer at the two and he could slide into a starting spot. He could use some more strength, but handles well and has a big wingspan for an off-guard. Sophomore Darius Smith could also contend for some minutes after getting just spot duty in his freshman year. Another contender to take the second backcourt spot is 5-10 incoming freshman Shabazz Napier, a tiny scoring point guard with a ton of confidence. While a Walker/Napier backcourt would be among the quickest in the nation, both players are best with the ball in their hands, and their lack of size could be taken advantage of on the defensive end. Fact is, there is no clear-cut best option here for Calhoun, and it is possible that the fifth start could be a revolving door depending on matchups.

A year out of the Tournament for the Huskies, and looking at a roster with question marks in abundance. This is not your typical UConn team with hopes for a deep March run. Putting on the rose-colored glasses for a minute, however, Calhoun has a history of developing big men, and if he can get Majok or another of the big guys to take a big step forward offensively, there is some hope here. There is no dearth of talent here, but there is a dearth of experienced consistent production, a void that will need to be filled for the Huskies to go dancing.

The Bearcats will play their sixth season as a member of the Big East conference and Mick Cronin will enter his fifth season as their head coach in 2010-11. In all of those years, the Bearcats have failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Put two and two together and you’ll find Cronin squarely on the hot seat next season. To make matters worse, Cincinnati’s two leading scorers depart (Deonta Vaughn to graduation, Lance Stephenson as an early entrant to the NBA Draft, despite his earlier and wiser claims that he was quite ready for the NBA), leaving the Bearcats at a point where they are not quite starting over, but need to find a new identity.

While Stephenson and Vaughn were the faces of the program last season, the real strength of the team lay in their athletic and hard-working front line, and for the most part that will return. Yancy Gates was the team’s leading rebounder last season and is their leading returning scorer, and he is certainly an enormously gifted young man. However, he has been known to give Cronin migraines from time to time, either due to lack of effort or poor decisions. If Gates can clear up those mental issues in his junior season, he is a very skilled post player who can emerge as a team leader. Alongside Gates in the post will be junior center Ibrahima Thomas, a nice long rebounder and shot blocker. Rashard Bishop will likely start at the three-spot in his senior year, and he may be the Bearcats most consistent returning offensive player, capable of both knocking down the three and slashing to the hoop.  Two seniors will return to provide depth off the bench up front: 6-11 center Anthony McClain, who played sparingly and is mostly distinguished by either his height or his awkwardness, and 6-7 forward Darnell Wilks, an athletic rebounding forward with surprising three-point range.

In the backcourt, Cashmere Wright got a few starts in his redshirt freshman year as a third guard, and will take over the point guard duties full time next year. He is a speedy pass-first point who sometimes let his speed get the best of him. According to Cronin, the player with the best chance to take over at the two-guard will be redshirt freshman Sean Kilpatrick, an excellent scoring guard in high school. Competing with Kilpatrick for that role will be quick sophomore Jaquon Parker, who was a very effective offensive player for the Bearcats in his limited minutes as a freshman. Also figuring into the backcourt mix will be senior Larry Davis and junior Dion Dixon, both of whom have reputations as excellent long-range shooters despite their mediocre percentages last year.

And then there are the reinforcements, in the form of an intriguing two-man recruiting class. Justin Jackson is a 6-8 power forward who is an active, athletic finisher who has shown some pretty impressive skills both running the floor and handling in the open court. Then there’s 6-10 center Kelvin Gaines, another athletic specimen who can get up and down the floor and be a presence in the paint. Both will have plenty of chances to earn minutes throughout the season.

There has been talk that this team has had a chemistry problem in years past, and further talk that the source of that chemistry problem is now gone. And just to be clear, surprisingly enough, that wasn’t Stephenson. The Big East has seen a couple of cases of “addition-by-subtraction” lately, and if the Bearcats suddenly have a united locker room, maybe some of those two and four point losses last year turn into two and four point wins. But regardless of the chemistry side of the equation, the fact is that the Bearcats have to find players to step in and pick up the slack left by their departed backcourt. If Wright can be the efficient point guard he is capable of and if Kilpatrick lives up to the expectations that his coach has for him, that would be a great start, but in the end, Gates putting behind the inconsistencies of an immature ballplayer and turning into a consistent force in the Big East is the only way that Cronin gets his team to the Tournament and gets invited back for another season. That may not be an easy task, but for Cronin to prove his worth as a major-college head coach, he’ll need to make sure he has Gates on board.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Michigan State
  2. Purdue
  3. Ohio State
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Illinois
  6. Minnesota
  7. Northwestern
  8. Indiana
  9. Penn State
  10. Michigan
  11. Iowa
The Big Ten looks loaded this year. A quick look at the all-conference teams below shows that this is a very experienced conference (eight seniors and a junior on my all-conference squads), and with a 09-10 Final Four team (Michigan State) and a team that was a key injury away from being a Final Four contender (Purdue) returns almost all of their key contributors, clearly the top of the heap here is very talented. Given those two squad’s past success and key returnees, they are the co-favorites in the league with the Spartans getting a bit of a nod due to slightly fewer question marks.

However, the next tier of teams, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois, will likely be right on the heels of the leaders all season long. Ohio State and Illinois both feature intriguing mixes of returning experience and incoming talent, while Wisconsin is Wisconsin and you can pencil them in for about 12 conference wins and 25 wins on the season today.

Those top two tiers in the league are the teams that should be fairly comfortable on Selection Sunday with their lot; the next tier (Minnesota and Northwestern) is made up of teams who could be a little nervous that day. An early guess? Both teams get in.

And then there’s the bottom tier, teams that are either rebuilding or should be rebuilding. Penn State and Indiana both have some players that could carry their teams at times, but lack the overall roster to compete for an upper-division finish in such a talented league. Michigan could finish higher just on the strength of John Bielein and his system, but Iowa, poor Iowa and new head coach Fran McCaffrey, could have a rough season with a remade roster and a program starting all over from scratch.

All-Big Ten First Team
G Kalin Lucas, Sr, Michigan State
G Talor Battle, Sr, Penn State
F Mike Davis, Sr, Illinois
F Jon Leuer, Sr, Wisconsin
C Jared Sullinger, Fr, Ohio State

All-Big Ten Second Team
G E’Twaun Moore, Sr, Purdue
G William Buford, Jr, Ohio State
F Robbie Hummel, Sr, Purdue
F Kevin Coble, Sr, Northwestern
C JaJuan Johnson, Sr, Purdue

All-Freshman Team
G Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
G Roy Marble Jr., Iowa
F Jereme Richmond, Illinois
F DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State
C Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Last we saw the Badgers they were losing in decidedly un-Wisconsin-like fashion to an upstart Cornell squad, allowing the Big Red to torch them to the tune of 60-some percent from the field and 50-some percent from three, all while getting outrebounded and turning the ball over more than their opponent. Definitely not the kind of thing you expect from a Bo Ryan squad, but once again in 2010-11, you should expect the Badgers to be an extraordinarily efficient club on both ends of the court, to take care of the ball, to clean up the defensive glass and defend the perimeter while pouring in their share of threes.

However, the Badgers will have to replace their starting backcourt and two leading three-point shooters, Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, a task that is easier said than done. Tim Jarmusz started the majority of the games in his junior year as a third-guard/swingman-type, and will likely continue in that role, although he is not a huge impact player, averaging less than three points per game last season. The players who will have the most pressure on them to replace the departed seniors are three juniors: point guard Jordan Taylor, off-guard Robert Wilson and swingman Ryan Evans. Taylor will almost certainly get the starting position in place of Hughes, and despite his mistake-prone tendencies in his early days in Madison, he has turned into a savvy and confident leader for the team. Either Wilson or Evans will take over the two-guard spot, although I suppose it is possible that all three of these guys start and Jarmusz moves to the bench). Wilson is the better shooter of the two, and may even be every bit the equal of Bohannon in that regard, but can also attack the hoop and draw fouls, and has the type of defensive instincts that Wisconsin basketball is built on. Evans is more of the aggressive slasher type, but also still an excellent defender. All three of these guys have had plenty of experience in their time on campus, so while losing a backcourt with the amount of experience that Hughes and Bohannon had is never a good thing, the Badgers won’t exactly be flying blind.

Up front, things are a little more settled for Wisconsin. Keaton Nankivil started every game for the Badgers last year, and will likely do the same in his senior season. And Jon Leuer started most of the games last year and was very effective, despite missing nine games due to a broken wrist. Leuer is just a perfect example of a Ryan big man: some guard skills, great post moves, pick-and-pop three-point range, tough fundamental rebounder, good passer – just an all-around great college big man. Nankivil’s offensive game is not as polished as Leuer’s, but he is a streaky three-point shooter from the top of the key, passes and rebounds well and does all sorts of little things that make Wisconsin big men so fun to watch. Depth up front will be provided 6-7 sophomore bruiser Mike Bruesewitz and 6-10 junior center Jared Berggren, both of whom played limited minutes last season, but given Ryan’s track record of developing frontcourt players over the course of their careers, could be due some larger roles this season.

Ryan also brings in a four-man recruiting class, the highlight of which is 6-11 center Evan Anderson, a physical fundamental center who Ryan will likely bring along as slowly as he has his other big guys. Anderson may redshirt his first year, or barring that, could play sparingly. The two guards in the class, 6-2 combo guard Ben Brust and 6-4 point guard Josh Gasser, are both high IQ guys that could step into some minutes immediately. The final new Badger will be 6-8 swingman Duje Dukan, a pure-shooting Croatian who could fit in very well in Ryan’s swing offense.

Despite the personnel changes in the backcourt, expect this iteration of the Badgers to be quite similar to previous versions: efficient, tough, and smart. And while teams like Purdue and Michigan State, and even to a lesser degree Illinois and Ohio State, get the majority of the buzz in the Big Ten, don’t be surprised to look up in late February and see Wisconsin sitting right there in striking distance near the top of the Big Ten standings. 

Boilermaker habitués have to have somewhat mixed feelings about the 2009-10 season. Yes, their very legitimate chances at a national championship likely ended with Robbie Hummel’s mid-season ACL tear, but at the same time an undermanned team came together and despite a really ugly performance or two (the Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota comes to mind) won a couple of NCAA tournament games as underdogs before bowing out in the Sweet Sixteen round. Now, the team leader and hero in Purdue’s 2nd round win over Texas A&M, Chris Kramer, is gone, and backcourt mate Keaton Grant has graduated as well, but if the Boilers can get Hummel back at full strength, some improvement out last year’s freshman class and a contribution or two from this year’s incoming freshmen, the Boilers are on the short list of top contenders for the 2011 national title.

When guard E’Twaun Moore and center JaJuan Johnson announced that they would be returning for their senior years rather than heading to the NBA, the health of Hummel was the last big remaining question mark for head coach Matt Painter, but Hummel has begun rehabilitation following his February knee surgery, and is about ready to return to basketball-related activities. While it may take him some time to regain his comfort level on the court, he should be ready to play a full season and be ready to go at full strength by the time the Big Ten season rolls around. Both Moore and Johnson stepped up their game in the absence of Hummel and should continue their strong play in 10-11.

Joining those three seniors in the starting lineup will likely be junior point guard Lewis Jackson and versatile sophomore forward Kelsey Barlow. Jackson returned from ankle surgery in November to forgo a potential redshirt season and help the Boilers make a push in the Big Ten. While by no means a great, or even good, shooter, Jackson is a pestering defender and a quick penetrating ballhandler who is a sparkplug at point. Barlow, meanwhile, is a point-forward type player in a big strong body, a smart passer and ballhandler who can take pressure off the point guard while also providing a strong defensive and rebounding presence.

There is plenty of talented, if somewhat inexperienced depth for Purdue. Junior guard Ryne Smith is a shooter and a scrappy defender, junior guard John Hart is a combo guard with a good three-point stroke, D.J. Byrd is an athletic sophomore wing and sophomore power forward Patrick Bade is a hard working interior player with a undeveloped offensive game. The four of those players averaged between seven to 12 minutes per game last season. Additional depth is on the way this season, with a four-man incoming freshman class, plus redshirt freshman forward Sandi Marcius. The recruiting class has no superstars in it, but it is a solid class, highlighted by versatile combo guard Terone Johnson, the freshman most likely to find an immediate role. Shooting guard Anthony Johnson, forward Donnie Hale and center Travis Carroll round out the class.

The starting lineup for the Boilermakers is mostly a known quantity. Purdue will defend, they’ll force turnovers, they’ll take care of the ball and they’ll be the type of Purdue team that Gene Keady began and Painter has continued. And if everything breaks their way for once, specifically everyone staying healthy, the Boilermakers will have a lot to say about what goes down next March.

Last season was a tremendously disappointing one for Penn State basketball and head coach Ed DeChellis. Coming off a season in which they just missed the NCAA tournament, then went on to win the NIT championship and post 27 wins on the season, they returned three starters, including all-conference-type point guard Talor Battle and hopes were high that the Nittany Lion program would take the next step. Instead, they lost their first 12 conference games, Battle got little help, and they limped home to a last place Big Ten finish and an 11-20 overall record. In hindsight, the holes caused by the losses of Stanley Pringle and Jamelle Cornley to graduation were never patched.

DeChellis will return in 2010-11, as will Battle, but unless the PSU program makes great strides, this could be his swan song in Happy Valley. The early news in the offseason was not great, however, as center Andrew Ott and guard Adam Highberger both announced that they would not be returning next season for their final seasons of eligibility, as both had graduated and decided to move on. Further, junior guard Chris Babb and sophomore guard Bill Edwards both announced their decisions to transfer. Of those four personnel losses, Babb’s hurts the most as he started the majority of the games at the two-guard last season and was expected to do the same next season.

But, all is not lost for the Lions. With Battle back for his senior year and point guard Tim Frazier back for his second year, the Lion backcourt could already be set. Battle could certainly slide over to the two and play alongside Frazier in the backcourt, although Frazier, a jitterbug point, will need to take care of the ball better. If Battle remains at the point, incoming freshman Taran Buie could take over the two-guard role. Buie is a very highly anticipated recruit for the Nittany Lions, and could provide the second scoring option for the team. Tre Bowman is another incoming freshman off-guard who could provide depth. Cameron Woodyard and Jermaine Marshall will also provide backcourt depth.

Up front, David Jackson, Jeff Brooks and Andrew Jones all return as starters. Combined, they are an active, athletic frontcourt, if a bit undersized. The fact that the 5-11 Battle led the team in rebounding makes the pretty obvious point that they need to improve drastically as a group on the glass. Outside of the starters, however, there is little depth. There is hope that Sasha Boronjvak will develop into a legitimate post player in his sophomore year, but it is more likely that he will suffer growing pains, and Billy Oliver has shown little more than the ability to be a warm body in his two years on campus, but given the lack of frontcourt depth, may still be relied on for minutes. The coaching staff still has some feelers out for a couple of other frontcourt players, and may add a player or two over the summer.

The Lions collapse last season was simply unacceptable. While they did lose significant contributors to their NIT run, the entire team underperformed. In order to live up to their talent level, the front line will have to become more consistent, both on the glass and in the offense. Battle will need to improve his game inside the arc and work to get his teammates involved, Frazier will have to play more under control, and it would be real nice if Buie was able to come in and be an effective offensive contributor right off the bat. This team has enough talent to be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, but the coaching staff will need to develop that talent better or else polish their resumes.

Thad Matta has got a little bit of a thing going on in Columbus. Sure, the Buckeyes lose the national player of the year Evan Turner to the NBA. But the way Matta is rolling right now, he just reloads with the number one recruiting class in the nation (according to ESPN – has them as the third best recruiting class). And it’s not like the cupboard was emptied after last season’s sweet 16 run: four starters return, seniors David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale and junior William Buford.

But, things of course will have to be shaken up a bit to replace Turner, as none of the four returnees can run the point for the Buckeyes, and the two players that gave Turner a bit of a blow running the offense, P.J. Hill and Jeremie Simmons, were both seniors. Into the fray will step one of two freshmen points: Aaron Craft or Lenzelle Smith, two very different point guards. Where Craft is a small, quick, energetic guard, Smith is more of a power guard with a big body and the ability to back down smaller defenders. Whoever wins the battle for the starting spot will be spelled by the other, as an excellent change-of-pace reserve.

Alongside the winner of the battle for the point guard position will likely be at least three of the four returning starters. It would be surprising if any of Lighty, Diebler and Buford do not start in 2010-11, but Lauderdale may be in for a battle for his position, as Jared Sullinger, one of the top five recruits in the nation (ESPN’s #2, Scout’s #4) joins the squad. Sullinger is an excellent offensive center with post moves and shooting range out to 18 feet, and he may force Lauderdale – a player whose offensive range is “a dunk or closer” according to Bill Raftery – to contribute as a reserve. Freshman forward DeShaun Thomas, a guy who is either an undersized four or a very strong three, will also make a push for a starting spot, but given that you can only start five, may have to settle for making his impact off the pine.

The recruiting class is rounded out by scoring guard Jordan Sibert and Sullinger’s high school teammate, J.D. Weatherspoon, an athletic, high-flying combo forward. Additional depth will come from senior power forward Nicola Kecman and junior center Zisis Sarikopolous, both of whom will have to improve drastically to get any type of serious minutes.

There will be as much talent in Columbus as ever next season (which is saying a whole lot), but the season could hinge on getting one of those freshman point guards to play like something other than a freshman by the time March rolls around. While neither Buford, Lighty nor Diebler are great ballhandlers, each are good enough that they can ease the demands on the point, which should allow Matta’s athletic and talented offensive players to excel. While Michigan State and Purdue may remain co-favorites in the Big Ten (depending on the decisions of Purdue’s E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson), Ohio State will again be a sleeper to take down the conference title.

Last year was the year that the Wildcats would be invited to their first ever NCAA Tournament, or so the thinking went. But then, before the first ball was even in play, senior leading scorer and rebounder and All-Big Ten candidate Kevin Coble went down with a broken foot. Bill Carmody’s team still fought and scrapped its way to a 20-14 record (an excellent record at a place like Northwestern) and an NIT bid, but more or less tabled the big expectations for a year. In 2010-11, the Wildcats will have Coble back for his delayed senior season, but they’ll also have a group of guys alongside him who got plenty of experience and playing time in his absence. The Wildcats lose sneaky-good guard Jeremy Nash and big man Kyle Rowley has decided to continue his college career elsewhere, but beyond that, everyone returns, including Coble and senior swing Jeff Ryan, another Wildcat who missed 09-10 (or at least all but 14 minutes of it) due to injury.

Coble is highly skilled and versatile big man who fits perfectly into Carmody’s offense; he can hit the 3, rebound well, put the ball on the floor a little and even finish with creativity. Junior forward John Shurna stepped up his game in a big way in lieu of Coble, leading the team in scoring, rebounds and blocks (oh, and turnovers too, but we won’t mention that – oops, too late). One way or another, Coble figure to be paired in the Wildcat starting frontcourt. Certainly joining those two will be Michael “Juice” Thompson, a senior point guard who can be effective both inside and out. Replacing Nash at the two is a bit of a question mark. It is possible that sophomore Drew Crawford will pair up with Thompson in the backcourt, but he is more of an undersized three, an athletic slasher with a sweet little midrange jumper. Given that Thompson is not exactly a pure point, it is possible that Carmody will need a better ballhandler at the two in which case it is possible Crawford continues to start at the three alongside Shurna and Coble up front, in which case either sophomore Alex Marcotuillo and freshman Jershon Cobb would have to earn the starting two-guard spot. If Crawford does move into the backcourt, junior center Luka Mirkovic will likely retain his starting spot alongside Shurna and Coble in the frontcourt, creating a lineup that would likely put the most Wildcat talent on the floor at the same time.

Providing depth for the Wildcats will be the aforementioned Ryan, returned from an ACL injury that robbed him of most of his 09-10 season. He is a tough, undersized scrapper at the three that defends the perimeter well, but is not much of an offensive threat. Davide’ Curletti, Mike Capoccia, Nick Fruendt and Ivan Peljusic will also provide depth up front, but there will not be a lot of backcourt depth for the Wildcats.

The expectations for Northwestern in 10-11 will be very similar to what they were in 09-10: the first-ever NCAA Tournament bid in school history. If Coble returns to form without a hitch, the Wildcats will have a chance to live up to that goal, but finding a suitable replacement for Nash in the backcourt will be an important step along the way.