EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern's season was supposed to be over by now.
As soon as it was announced in November that star Kevin Coble would miss the entire 2009-2010 season, the Wildcats were expected to fold. It was assumed they would hang their heads, beat a few subpar non-conference teams, lose to the better non-conference ones, get knocked around by the Big Ten and see another season pass by without a NCAA Tournament berth.
Well, Northwestern is now 11 games into the year, and its season still isn't over. If anything, it's quite alive.
With Tuesday's 74-54 win over Central Connecticut State, the Wildcats improved to 10-1. They lost early in the season to a ranked Butler squad, a team which even if they had Coble, the result might have been the same, and have knocked off quality teams in Notre Dame, Iowa State, N.C. State and Stanford. It wouldn't be out of the question for Northwestern to start receiving votes in the polls.
Sure, everyone around the country is surprised about the Wildcats, but so are the people who see them every day.
"I wouldn't have thought we'd be here now with this record," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "I'm just really happy. The guys should be happy and proud of what they've done, enjoy it for a few days.
"I actually want them to relax, put your feet up, eat whatever you want, lasagna, turkey, roast beef, whatever else you eat."
The Wildcats now have three days off to enjoy the holidays with their families, but basketball will certainly still be on their minds. Michael Thompson already has plans to get some shots in at Welsh-Ryan Arena during the break.
"You can't take it and reflect on it," Northwestern senior guard Jeremy Nash said. "Yeah, it's a good first 11 games. Now, we have to move forward and look forward to the Big Ten conference season. We know it's going to be tough. Everyone is stepping up from the different teams from Indiana to Purdue. We can't live on the past. We have to live in the future and prepare for Illinois first."
Whether Northwestern is simply a feel-good story or the real deal should be known quickly when play resumes. The Wildcats kickoff the Big Ten season at Illinois on Dec. 30 and follow that up by hosting ranked Michigan State on Jan. 2. A win in either one of those games would be big.
If Northwestern is going to continue its non-conference success in the Big Ten, it especially needs Thompson, sophomore John Shurna and freshman Drew Crawford to keep doing what they've been doing. The trio is the main reason why Northwestern's season still has hope.
Thompson has stepped in perfectly to be the leader and go-to guy that Northwestern lost when Coble went down. If the Wildcats have needed a basket, Thompson hasn't shied away from getting them one. He has averaged 17 points and 3.5 assists in 37.5 minutes a game. He had 14 points and seven assists against Central Connecticut State.
Shurna has elevated his game in his second season. He's gone from being a contributor to being a scoring threat. Against Central Connecticut State on Tuesday, he showed off his wide array of skills. He knocked down two three-pointers, he hit mid-range jumpers, he scored in the post and he scored in transition. He finished with a career-high 29 points.
"He's taken accountability for us winning and losing," Carmody said. "Sometimes, he realizes he's the man."
Finally, Crawford has lived up to the hype as a big-time recruit. He was shoved into a larger role earlier with Coble's and key reserve Jeff Ryan's injuries, but he's held more than his own. After a slow start, he's averaged double figures in his last four games, which included a career-high 35 points against North Carolina A&T. He had 15 points and four assists against Central Connecticut State.
Thompson has also seen the entire Wildcats' team come together through adversity.
"I think it has a lot more to do with us winning and all the obstacles we overcame from the beginning of the season that we dealt with as far as injuries go," Thompson said. "Everybody came together as a team, and that made us stronger.
"We're just going to continue to work hard and try to ride this win streak out that we have. We're going to try to come to back focused and continue to work hard."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.