And so it begins. Northwestern's quest for an ever elusive NCAA Tournament berth begins anew tonight at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Robert Morris at 7 p.m. (For $10 it's probably worth the chance of saying that you were there from the beginning in this potentially historic season.)
If you do end up heading up to Central on the Purple Line to check out the Wildcats here are three keys to watch in tonight's game.
#1. Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. Northwestern is never going to be an elite rebounding team. The 1-3-1 zone and Princeton offense just don't lend themselves to large volume rebounding numbers. That said, an NCAA Tournament caliber squad can't rank 316th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 286th in defensive rebounding percentage - as the Wildcats did last season. (The only NCAA Tournament teams not in the top 300 in offensive rebounding percentage last season were: Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State and Utah.) Robert Morris likes to crash the glass so this will be a good test for the Wildcats in that regard.
#2. A year older and a year wiser. Big Ten Geeks did some excellent work showing how players improve over the course of their collegiate careers. Quick summary: On average players take the biggest jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons and that jump on average is the same as the development between their sophomore and senior seasons. Northwestern has a bunch of sophomores, including two key ones in John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic. (Kyle Rowley will also play an important role sometime this season, but he's currently injured.) How Shurna and Mirkovic play will be important for the season.
#3. The long-range element. With Craig Moore departed the Wildcats need to find another player who can consistently knock down the three-point shot and scare defenses. Last season Shurna shot a respectable 34.7% from beyond the arc, but that pales in comparison to Moore's 40.6%. I don't want to see Kevin Coble (39.5% last season) drifting out to the perimeter more, so Shurna and Michael Thompson (pictured above, 41.7% last season) need to step up and knock down some big shots. Is there a spot for Alex Marcotullio in this role as well?
Bonus: Who is the backup point guard? Alright, so there's one more thing I'm really interested in tonight. Since Northwestern should have a comfortable lead at some point during this game it would seem likely that the reserves will get a lot of playing time. Who will be the offense's initiator in that group? The Wildcats crumbled at times when Thompson had to sit down due to foul trouble. While changing his position in the 1-3-1 might help with that a bit, there's going to be a game or two where Northwestern will have to do without him for a long stretch. Moore nobly filled that role in 2008-09, but he wasn't well suited for it. Will Jeremy Nash step into that role? Is Marcotullio able to run the offense? Is Drew Crawford a "point-forward"? That's the other thing to watch tonight.