Exhibition games start next week, which means the long wait for college basketball to start again is almost over. Last week important individual players were profiled. This week it's time to look at the teams and make some predictions.
First up is Northwestern. The Wildcats had one of their most successful seasons in history last year when they went to the NIT. The fact that the previous statement isn't hyperbole is the perfect example of how far the program still has to go - and how little history Northwestern had before. This season the Wildcats will try and go one step further and earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament. With an experienced squad, it's certainly possible.
Last season: 17-14 (8-10 Big Ten)
'08-'09 Pomeroy Profile: 70th overall (49th on Offense, 106th on Defense)
Departures: SG Craig Moore
Arrivals: G/F Drew Crawford, G Alex Marcotullio
Key Non-Conference Games: Nov. 18 v. Butler; Nov. 27 v. Notre Dame (UIC Pavilion); Dec. 1 at N.C. State; Dec. 19 v. Stanford
Summary: Northwestern has a lot of expectations this season. During the 2008-09 season the Wildcats were wildly inconsistent - to be expected of a team that shoots a large number of three-point shots - finishing 301st in Division I in consistency according to Kenpom. When Northwestern was shooting well it beat all comers - including Michigan State and Purdue - but when the offense faltered things like a loss at Iowa happened. If the Wildcats want to be a tournament team in 2009-10 those things can't happen.
Consistency starts on the defensive end. The Wildcats are going to have to buckle down on defense and get more stops to help them slog through those nights when the offense isn't on fire. While the defensive statistics improved last season, rebounding and a strong interior presence will be even more important.
That's the reason why the loss of Kyle Rowley might be significant for the Wildcats. Northwestern needs him to return as soon as possible in order to provide bulk in the paint. While not essential during a non-conference schedule that includes a number of directional schools and only a few dominant post presences, he'll be vital during Big Ten play. The rest of the frontcourt, with Kevin Coble - a sleeper All-Big Ten and even All-America candidate, Luka Mirkovic and John Shurna should be solid. Also, for a freshman, Drew Crawford has a body that's ready to bang in the low post a bit. Jeff Ryan could be a solid rotation player as a swingman this season as well. He had some great plus/minus games last season.
Crawford might also help on the perimeter where the Wildcats are a bit thin. Michael "Juice" Thompson has to stay healthy the entire season, because Northwestern has no one who can replace him. There will be nights when Thompson racks up close to 40 minutes of playing time with very few breaks. He is vitally important to running the Northwestern offense efficiently. Jeremy Nash will give the Wildcats a tough defensive starting look replacing Craig Moore, but big question is if his shooting from beyond the 3-point line will improve from last season's 34.1 percent. Alex Marcotullio could possibly see some playing time at shooting guard if the Wildcats need someone to stretch defenses.
Best Case Scenario: Rowley is healthy, Coble becomes a dominant player, Shurna shows he learned a lot with Team USA over the summer, Nash controls the perimeter, Thompson stays healthy, Mirkovic provides solid interior minutes and Marcotullio and Crawford are ready from Day 1. If all those pieces fall into place a 20-win regular season (something like 21-9 or 20-10 overall) and an NCAA At-Large berth is definitely possible.
Worst Case Scenario: The exact opposite happens. The biggest problems will come if Shurna isn't ready to take on a bigger scoring load, Nash can't provide the same defensive impact in more minutes and Coble is swarmed by defenses. This would end up in a significant step backwards, possibly a below .500 record (something like 15-16 overall). A season like this would be absolute heartbreak for Wildcat nation and might end in the firing of Bill Carmody.
Chicago College Basketball's Bold Prediction: I'd like to go on record that I think the Best Case is far more likely this season. I expect Northwestern will fall just short of a 20-win regular season, but a win in the Big Ten Tournament will be enough to secure the Wildcats' first ever NCAA Tournament berth. Getting into the tournament is the key, because I think, given the right seeding scenario, Northwestern is exactly the type of team you don't want to play on short preparation.