If Northwestern is going to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since it started playing the sport 104 years ago, decades before the tournament ever began, then the Wildcats will have to accomplish it without their leading returning scorer and two of the four seniors on the roster.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said Sunday night senior forward Kevin Coble will miss the 2009-10 season with a foot injury, barring some unforeseen diagnosis Monday afternoon when Coble goes to see another specialist.
But Carmody said he has already spoken to Coble about redshirting this season and returning for a fifth season in 2010-11. Coble averaged a team-best 15.5 points a game for last season's NIT Wildcats. The Wildcats were already prepared to lose then senior Craig Moore and his 14.3 points a game. So that means the Wildcats do not return a double-figure scorer for this season and need to replace a total of 29 points off last season's 17-win team.
Carmody said Coble would opt for surgery and need four months to recover.
"Basically the bones are out of alignment [in his foot] and he needs to get this done for stability," Carmody said. "He has no choice."
Carmody said Coble was just taking a shot during practice last week, took a long stride for the layup, came down and turned his ankle a bit. Carmody said he thought Coble had just twisted his ankle on the play since it didn't look that traumatic.
The news on Coble comes on the heels of the Wildcats learning that senior Jeff Ryan was gone for the year, too, with an ACL knee injury.
Ryan suffered the injury to his left knee in the first half of Friday's season-opening win over Northern Illinois. Ryan averaged just 2.1 points a game last season but he had started 22 games and appeared in 80 career games.
"He's a good player for us, making steals, tipping the ball and then this happens," Carmody said. "He got an MRI [Saturday night] and we got the news (Sunday) that he's done."
The Wildcats, who play Butler (No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) Wednesday in Evanston, will now lean heavily on senior Jeremy Nash, who scored 20 points in the win over NIU, guard Michael Thompson (12) and forward John Shurna (11) to handle the brunt of the scoring. Luka Mirkovic (15), Ivan Peljusic (7) and freshman Drew Crawford (2) will all have to be significant contributors, too.
Carmody started Nash in Coble's place against the Huskies. The depth he was once thrilled to have is now gone.
"We're losing a lot of points and minutes," Carmody said. "How we distribute them we'll still have to see. I still think our seven or eight guys are OK. Thompson , Shurna and Mirkovic will have to come through. Instead of Thompson taking eight shots, he'll have to take 12. Shurna can't have 18 points in one game and six in the next. He's got to be a consistent 14 points a game for us to be good."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Sunday night he felt bad for the Wildcats as he and other Big Ten coaches were looking forward to competing against Coble and a full-strength and well-respected Northwestern this season.
"He was their best player," Weber said of Coble. "But if he does take the redshirt year, a year from now they'll have everybody back and be pretty good."
Carmody said a fan came up to him after the Northern Illinois game and tried to be optimistic, too, saying that maybe it would be a blessing that Coble would return when the Wildcats would be even stronger, more experienced and deeper in 2010-11.
"It's not a blessing," Carmody said. Northwestern remains the only team from a power six conference that has never been to the NCAA tournament. When ESPN.com visited the Wildcats in October the staff and players were confident that this would be the season they break the streak. "But it does change things a bit. We'll see. We'll try to keep the same goals and go after it."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.