I'd like to rip the Wildcats (and I will) but I should be careful. The last place team in conference who managed just 2 wins, earned one of those wins on the road in Minnesota. What used to be one of the toughest places to play in the league...well that's another topic. I guess the rest of the college basketball world knew this and I'm just now learning that Northwestern is the only BCS conference school who has NEVER been to the NCAA tournament. That is kind of sad really and sadder yet is that we'll be talking about this dubious streak again next year.
Coach Bill Carmody hasn't had the kind of success that Northwestern fans had hoped for when he brought the secretive and wiley Princeton offense to the Big Ten. What Carmody found was that the system doesn't matter when you are lacking in talent. The Wildcats are still lacking in talent but they do have a young nucleus that should be "more" talented than last year.
Northwestern isn't as bad as they are perceived. I've read a few Big Ten Previews that joke how you can pencil in the Wildcats as #11 every year. Not exactly true. Last season was an ugly 2-14, but the previous 3 seasons were 6-10, 6-10 and 8-8. Obviously not NCAA Tourney seasons but also not the bottom of the league. Here are the kids who will work to improve on last year's 2-14 and avoid the cellar for the 2nd straight season...
PG - Michael Thompson - smallish but talented incoming freshman. Incoming talent is a good thing for Northwestern but a freshman PG running a Princeton style offense is kind of scary. Thompson isn't exactly a 4 or 5 star recruit coming in, but he is an upgrade in talent and given time should be a solid guard in the league. Getting athletes that belong in the Big Ten is the first step and Thompson does meet this minimum qualification.
''I think I'm going to put the ball in that kid's hands,'' Carmody said. ''He'll never get you 20 [points] in a game, but he'll help you. He'll run the team. Tough as nails. Smart. Good decision-maker. And I think he'll be a good decision-maker right from the get-go. I'm not going to be afraid to let him take over, because I think we need somebody like that.''Those are nice words to hear from your head coach before you ever step foot on the court in uniform. I look forward to watching Thompson this season.
SG - Craig Moore - here is some experience in the starting 5. Moore led the team in 3's last year and will need to increase those numbers this year. Extending the defense is a critical element of the Princeton offense so Moore needs to improve on his 32.8% from behind the arc to open things up for team's talented forwards.
SF - Jeff Ryan - talented sophomore who has the physical tools to be the best player on this team. As a freshman his outside shooting was awful, but like the rest of his team he worked very hard on his outside shooting to improve. Coach Carmody says that the 6'7" Ryan has incredible ball handling skills. Put that with his great work ethic and you have a kid who just might turn into a very good B10 player.
PF - Kevin Coble - Coble is the team's most talented player. As a freshman he started 28 games, was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and led the Wildcats in scoring(13.4) and rebounding(5.2). Not bad for a kid who wasn't all that highly recruited. Here are some interesting comments from his current coach...
''If you look at Coble's game, you say, 'Well, is he real fast? Not really. Is he real strong? Not really. Is he a great passer? Well, he's OK. Is he a great shooter? Eh.' '' Carmody said. ''But then you take the parts and the sum is greater than the parts.Kind of funny how your best player isn't very strong, fast or isn't a great scorer or passer. Which probably makes him a perfect fit for the system he is in. A system that takes a great shooter, a great passer and a group of great decision makers is a good fit for Coble. I haven't seen him play but he looks to be the leader of this young group who hopefully can lead Northwestern to a weekend tourney in March. Coble has reportedly worked hard in the offseason to improve his strength and shooting range, I am interested to watch him play and see just how good he can become.
C - Nikola Baran - redshirted freshman from Croatia. Baran will probably start some games and and Ivan Peljusic will start the rest, depending on matchups. The center position in the Princeton offense has to be a good passer and make excellent decisions. Coach Carmody isn't convinced the pure shooter Baran has what he wants in a center but time will tell.
Key Bench - Ivan Peljusic - the other redshirt freshman center from Croatia. Peljusic is more of an athletic, low-post scorer and I'm sure he'll see plenty of time off the bench and a handful of starts.
Key Bench - Mike Cappoci - true freshman who is very athletic. He won't start but look for him to be a key member off the bench as he gains valuable experience.
Key Bench - Jason Okrzseik - the 2nd year transfer from Rice and lone senior on the team. Okrzseik could see some starts as I'm sure Carmody will tinker with different starting lineups till he finds what he likes.
Prediction - This team is young and marginally talented. The talent level is improving but it is not at Big Ten standards yet. Of the eight players I anticipate who will contribute the most there is one senior and 1 junior. The four freshmen and 2 sophomores will be the nucleus of this team over the next couple years. This year should be a step forward but getting more than 5 or 6 conference wins (remember 2 extra games) would be an improve year and something they can build on for 2008-09. Personally I look forward to watching them and seeing the young talent grow throughout the season. Unfortunately for Wildcat fans they'll have to wait another year to see the benefits reaped from this group.
UPDATE: If Coble comes back from his leave of absence Northwestern finishes 9th in confernce with 6 wins. If he is not back or is obviously not the same from his time with his sick mother, then they will finish 11th.