Northwestern's counterintuitive optimism

Last night, the news that senior Northwestern star Kevin Coble was not, in fact, going to return from last year's season-ending injury to play his final year of eligibility at Northwestern -- instead planning to devote his time to academics -- came as something of a surprise. Coble was Northwestern's best player in 2008-09, and his addition would have theoretically given Northwestern a legitimate shot at making its first NCAA tournament ever. (Frequent readers will know that I say that a lot about Northwestern, but it's not because I'm trying to be mean. Promise. It just happens to be the most salient fact about Northwestern basketball. And it blows my mind.)

Anyway, Coble was going to put last year's downright competent 20-win Wildcats over the top. That was the plan. Now the plan is kaput. So Northwestern should just go ahead and shelve that whole NCAA tournament idea, right?

Not so fast, actually: The Only Colors makes a rather salient point about Northwestern's performance in 2009-10 today, which is that sophomore forward Jon Shurna essentially was Kevin Coble:

Further, as I've previously observed, the way Shurna blossomed this past season, he effectively replicated Coble's precise role and level of production in the offense. Having two tall, lanky forwards (both were listed at exactly 6'8", 210 pounds) who can score from all over the court would certainly be an asset, but how much would their roles overlap and end up negating each other? [...] Which brings me to a final point: Ultimately, Northwestern's success in 2011 will hinge on whether they can start to play effective defense more consistently. And, as good a player as Kevin Coble was, he was much more of an offensive threat than he was a defensive difference-maker.

Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway concurs. A cursory glance at Northwestern's adjusted efficiency numbers tells you all you need to know about the 2009-10 Wildcats. They were great on offense -- the No. 33 most efficient team in the country. They turned the ball over infrequently, attempted 3s at an incredibly high rate and made enough of their shots that their deficiencies on the offensive glass didn't much matter. With most of their starters, including Shurna, returning in 2010-11, it's fair to expect the same level of offensive success from Bill Carmody's team.

The problem was, and will be, defense. NU was the No. 169 most efficient defense in the country, which basically means that it didn't stop anybody. (And the Wildcats fouled everybody.) That has to change.

Would it have been nice to have Coble? Absolutely. Could he have formed a dynamic frontcourt duo with Shurna? Possibly. Would he have changed the essential nature of his team? Doubtful. So, sure, Coble's decision is something of a bummer for Northwestern fans, but whether Northwestern will break that incredible tourney-less streak in 2010-11 will have far less to do with Coble's absence and far more to do with whether Carmody can get his team to play even mediocre defense.

See? Optimism. Sort of.