Last season was supposed to be the year for the Northwestern Wildcats.
After wins over the likes of Seton Hall, Illinois and Michigan State, "Chicago's Big Ten team" was poised for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history behind senior John Shurna's third full-time season in Bill Carmody's Princeton-style frontcourt. But it wasn't meant to be: The Wildcats lost a bubble-burster to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament that left them in the cold.
Now they're picking up the pieces from another let-down season. Shurna is gone, reserve big man Luka Mirkovic is gone and frontcourt reserver and sometimes-starter Davide Curletti has departed.
But everyone else returns, including All-Big Ten Third Team swingman Drew Crawford, starting two-guard Reggie Hearn, starting point guard Dave Sobolewski and part-timer JerShon Cobb in the backcourt. And Carmody has landed two big-name transfers to shore up his vacated frontcourt in Louisville reservist Jared Swopshire (6-8) and former TCU sometimes-starter Nikola Cerina (6-9). Both will be eligible for this 2012-2013 season
With all the pieces in place, can the Wildcats make another run at a bid and hold on to their national attention?
Northwestern's downfall in the Shurna-era was poor defensive play. The Wildcats ranked dead last in the Big Ten last season in defensive efficiency, allowing their opponents to score 1.02 points per possession. They were also last in each of the previous two seasons before that. The problem? Defensive rebounding. Curletti, the Wildcat's best offering in the metric last season, barely cracked the Big Ten's top 30 in defensive rebounding rate (14.4). Shurna (13.1) ranked 32nd.
If you need more evidence, consider that in each of the last seven seasons the Wildcats have allowed their opponents to pull down offensive rebounds in conference play at a higher rate than any other Big Ten team. In fact, only 18 teams in the nation allowed opponents to grab o-rebs at a higher rate last season. That's embarrassing.
Enter Swopshire and Cerina. Swopshire recorded a nationally-ranked defensive rebounding rate in his junior season (19.3 percent) that would have ranked seventh among Big Ten players last season. Cerina's sophomore season defensive rebounding rate (18.7 percent) would rank eighth.
That's great and all, and, finally, a fix for that leaky frontcourt defense, but on the other end Swopshire and Cerina couldn't hope to replace the shooting stroke, ballhandling and tenacity of John Shurna. Shurna accounted for 28.9 percent of NU's scoring and was on the floor for 92.3 percent of their total minutes. Luckily, the Wildcats have a veteran backcourt that is ready (and long enough) to fill Shurna's scoring void. The pressure shifts, but Crawford, Hearn, Sobolewski and Cobb seem more than capable in Carmody's fast-moving system.
The Wildcats' biggest hurdle to finally punching that ticket may be off the court. As Northwestern fans have become all too aware, a ticket to the big dance for Northwestern in the hyper-competitive Big Ten means earning an at-large bid. That's where scheduling becomes important, and Northwestern isn't good at it.
While they may well have the talent one the floor, the Wildcats won't have many opportunities to make an impact on the selection committee. Their non-conference highlights include hosting Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, playing at Baylor and hosting Butler. Sure, they have a whole slate of Big Ten games to get through, but matchups against TCU, Stanford and Texas State offer the potential for disaster for a re-tooled frontcourt early in the season that could dash NU's resume.
Life post-Shurna isn't as bad as Wildcats fans might have foreseen. Finally NU is well-rounded on both ends of the floor and is poised to compete again for that elusive bubble-beater.