For about four days, Northwestern fans got a taste of what it feels like to be excited about basketball in March. On March 4, the Wildcats upended Purdue (ranked in the top 20 at the time) in West Lafayette. The win pulled the Cats' record to 17-11, and 8-9 in conference play. They were staring down a matchup against Ohio State in Columbus for the regular season finale, and the Buckeyes were coming off a near loss to Iowa. During this four day span, I wonder how many purple sweatshirts made their journey from the back of the closet. Heck, I'm pretty sure I even saw a couple of Vedran Vukusic jerseys in Chicago. I can't blame the fans for being a bit shy about their team -- it's now common knowledge that Northwestern has never before been to the NCAA Tournament. And they really did come so close last season.
But unfortunately, Northwestern didn't win another game after Purdue. They lost at Ohio State, got trounced by Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, and Tulsa finally put them out of their misery in the NIT. It's a sad ending to what was a pretty nice story.
The turnaround from 8-22 to 17-14 consisted of a lot of factors. And give Coach Bill Carmody credit, because many of them were his doing. One of the offseason projects from Carmody was clearly to get taller. Northwestern ranked 267th in Effective Height in 2007-08, but they improved to 18th in the country last year. Carmody welcomed five freshmen last season, all of whom were at least 6-5. Three of them instantly became the tallest guys on the team. Here are a few areas where that height helped:
Offensive Rebounding %
Defensive Rebounding %
That's across-the-board improvement in all of the areas we would expect height to play a major factor. Well, except one...
Opponent Block %
Geez, just how many of Michael Thompson's layups are getting swatted?
Mind you, Northwestern wasn't exactly good in any of these categories last year. But they were a cut above "horrific," which is where they were two years ago. Other than those improvements, this was largely the same team. They shot lots of 3s, took care of the ball, and created tons of turnovers with their zone defense. On an individual level, Kevin Coble and Craig Moore provided the bulk of the scoring. Thompson was steady and efficient at the point guard spot, and freshman John Shurna showed flashes.
That said, there's a window here, and it's closing. The Cats lose Moore from last year's team, and after this season they'll lose Coble. After that happens, there might not be enough talent left on the roster to make another run at the Dance. I'll explore Northwestern's chances for this season tomorrow.