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.

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