Bigger man on campus

New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris has been away from college basketball for five years now, but the sight of Northwestern 6-foot-8 forward Kevin Coble making backdoor cuts during pickup games at ATTACK Athletics over the summer took him right back to his Big Ten days.

"He said he got out of college, so he didn't have to deal with that," Coble said while laughing.

For six weeks this summer, Coble trained, played and hung around with some of the NBA's biggest names, guys like Harris, Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady, at ATTACK Athletics on Chicago's West Side. He witnessed their work ethic and dedication. He went right up against their talents. He saw what it took be an NBA player, and he didn't feel overmatched.

"It was nice to see the benchmark and see where the jump is from college to that level," said Coble, who averaged team highs of 15.5 points and 4.8 rebounds last season. "I realize I'm never going to be an NBA superstar, but I can be out there and play the game and be able to knock down a shot and spread the floor for the guys.

"[What I learned] was being there every day, seeing the same faces over and over each day doing the same thing, taking care of the stuff they needed to, just always wanting to be in the gym. I really liked playing with Gilbert Arenas. He was really cool. I guarded him some of the games he was out there. It was impressive being able to see him cut and move and seeing his strength."

For Coble, much of the six weeks was concentrating on building his own strength. When he and Northwestern coach Bill Carmody sat down after last season, they pin-pointed his physical strength as where he needed to improve the most for his final year. Too often during his first three seasons, Coble was knocked around by stronger Big Ten players.

"That's the flaw in his game," Carmody said. "He was pushed off his drive sometimes. They'd force him to go wider.

"He sort of became accustomed to going out wider, and that's maybe how he developed some of those nifty shots of his."

Through a weight program set up by ATTACK Athletics owner Tim Grover, Coble added 10 pounds of muscle to his body and is up to 210. He can feel a difference.

"Just seeing my strength increase was personally satisfying for me," Coble said. "You see those strides in the six weeks. You see a change in your body and carry it over to playing."

Carmody hasn't been able to watch Coble all that much before practice starts on Friday, but does believe he's improved.

"He's scoring in a lot of ways," Carmody said. "He's getting to the basket now. He looks good. He's primed to have a good year."

Coble's draft prospects should be improved with the added strength, but for now his mind is set on one goal -- getting Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament. A year ago, the Wildcats flirted with that possibility and ended up in the NIT. It was a big step forward for a program that had won a total of three Big Ten games and lost 40 overall in Coble's first three seasons, but still it wasn't enough for him.

"That's the ultimate goal and why I came to this program," Coble said. "For me, it would be a letdown if we weren't able to do that in my four seasons.

"I always thought it was realistic even my freshman and sophomore seasons when our conference record was poor. I always felt we were close. You saw glimpses of it in the games we played. You saw it last year. You see those parts.

"It keeps you going from day to day and year and year. It's special for us seniors. We're going to be close."

NOTE: Northwestern is not hosting a Midnight Madness event.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.