The College Basketball Notebook

December 22, 2010 8:18 AM

Northwestern's Year Is Finally Here

Shurna.jpgThere's only one team in a BCS conference that's never made the NCAA Tournament and that team is the Northwestern Wildcats. When the bids go out again in March, that stigma is going to be removed. Northwestern finally has the team that will take it to the Big Dance.

When you look at the Wildcats' personnel you realize that it's only the streak that makes this prediction at all notable. Everything starts with power forward John Shurna, who's ringing up 24 points a game. Shurna is balanced from the outside by point guard Michael Thompson and swingman Drew Crawford who average 15 ppg. They have rebounding help down low with 6'11" sophomore Luka Mirkovic grabbing seven boards a game. The pieces are all there. Now it's a question of translating that into victories. For the most part, NU has done that, including a win over Georgia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. They had a setback last night in losing to an improved St. John's team. But there are no excuses this year in Evanston. It's the Dance or bust.

Northwestern has what it takes to also compete for the conference championship, although the competitiveness of the Big Ten makes that unlikely. Ohio State is the best of the bunch so far, with fantastic freshman Jared Sullinger manning the blocks and a trio of quality backcourt people who all run 6'5 and 6'6" and score double-digits. The Buckeyes are being chased by Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois. The Boilermakers have as a good a point guard-post man combination as there is in the nation with E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, but the supporting cast is not up to snuff. Illinois has the reverse problem--they have four solid contributors and balance between the backcourt and frontcourt. I'm just not sure they have the one go-to guy that's necessary to bring them to the highest level. Given that Ohio State has both balance and an excellent top gun in Sullinger, it will take a team that's truly complete to outlast them in the conference race.

Michigan State is the top program in this conference, but it's been a rough December with losses to UConn, Syracuse and Duke and narrow escapes against Chaminade and Oakland, and a lot of ire directed by Tom Izzo towards his team. The Spartans will get it turned around--they have outstanding guards in Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Lucious Green off the bench. Draymond Green hits the boards hard. The one thing missing is a real big man--Green is only 6'6", and this missing element is what keeps Izzo from another league title. Minnesota has a profile very similar to Illinois--they've got a good overall team, with no demonstrable weaknesses. Whether they have the star power to push past Ohio State is the big question.

Beyond the title contenders, Michigan and Wisconsin are both hoping to make NCAA Tournament runs. The Badgers have become a staple of the Big Dance, but there's a lot of youth and the league is tough this year. They'll go as far as senior forward Jon Leurer can carry them. Michigan is a team with some possibilities--they're also breaking in some young players, but it Darius Morris, Tim Hardaway and Jordan Morgan grow up fast, they'll have all facets of the game covered.

Only Indiana, Penn State and Iowa have no shot at the NCAAs, and only Iowa really looks hopeless. The Big Ten promises an interesting race for its championship and the likelihood of history being made in Evanston by the time its over.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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