NU's Kevin Coble chooses academics

Northwestern was a few wins away from its first NCAA tournament berth last season without Kevin Coble.

The assumption was that if the senior forward returned from a season-ending foot injury a year ago that the Wildcats would finally break the infamous streak, especially with three more berths to be had with the expansion from 34 to 37 at-large bids under the new 68-team format in 2011.

Coble isn’t going to play again for the Wildcats, officially deciding to call his career over and focus on graduating in December. Coach Bill Carmody told ESPN.com Tuesday night that he saw this coming after multiple conversations with Coble over the past few weeks. Coble made it official Monday when he met Carmody in his office in Evanston after Carmody had returned from the road recruiting.

Maybe Carmody was camouflaging his disappointment over the decision but he wasn’t glum when reached by phone Tuesday night. The Wildcats were 7-11 without Coble last season, 20-14 overall and return leading scorer John Shurna, who joined other college players practicing against the U.S. National Team in Las Vegas last week.

Add the return of top scorers Drew Crawford and Michael Thompson in the backcourt, Luka Mirkovic inside with Shurna and fifth-year senior Jeff Ryan, back from an ACL injury, and Carmody sees another team that can be a factor in the Big Ten. The Wildcats add freshman guard Jershon Cobb, who is expected to contribute immediately.

“We’ve got good players,’’ Carmody said. “We’re going to have a nice year.’’

The Wildcats, sans Coble, beat NCAA-bound Notre Dame, Purdue and Minnesota during the regular season before losing at Rhode Island in the first round of the NIT.

One of the reasons for Carmody’s optimism lies with the Wildcats' well-timed trip to Italy next month. Coble wanted to make sure Carmody knew prior to the trip, or the 10 practices that are allowed, which will start on Aug. 16 before a Aug. 28 departure. He didn’t want to be wavering, go on the trip and then not play. That’s fine with Carmody. Now he knows he won’t have to figure out if Coble will be on the squad. Ryan isn’t cleared to play, but he’ll be on the trip to continue to be a leader. Carmody expects Ryan to be ready for the season. Cobb can go on to Italy under a new rule allowing freshmen to travel on summer foreign trips.

If the Wildcats are going to bond, find their identity and purpose for this season without Coble, the timing of the trip to Italy is perfectly placed.

“When I took a team at Princeton on a trip like this it turned out to be fantastic for us,’’ Carmody said. “We ended up having a nice year. We don’t start school until late September. So this is going to be real important for us. The practices are going to be something that will get us ready for next year.’’

The Big Ten has at least two national title contenders in Michigan State and Purdue. Ohio State won’t be too far behind with the addition of possible national freshman of the year in Jared Sullinger. Expect Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to be NCAA tournament teams, as well. Iowa, Penn State, Michigan and Indiana are projected to be in the bottom four in some order and out of the postseason contention.

That leaves Northwestern in the middle, just like a year ago, with a chance to go in either direction. Having a healthy Coble may have tipped the Wildcats finally toward a bid. Knowing he’s unavailable in July and going on the trip to Italy in August to jump start the season should give the Wildcats a chance to figure out if they can finally be relevant on Selection Sunday.