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Worth the wait

Northwestern's Jeremy Nash has taken more field goals, three-pointers and free throws and scored more points through 15 games this season than he did in any of his previous three full seasons. Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Jeremy Nash always felt he was capable of giving Northwestern more.

It's not that he undervalued his role. He knew coming off the bench and providing a defensive spark was important to the Wildcats. It was just that he had forever been known as an athletic scorer growing up in Chicago, and through his first three seasons at Northwestern his identity had changed.

The toughest part for Nash to accept was it was mainly his own fault he wasn't the same player. Between suffering a few early injuries and taking a backseat to his other offensive-minded teammates, Nash misplaced his scoring ability. He still believed he could make things happen offensively, but he wasn't confident or aggressive enough to show it.

Heading into this season, Nash realized this was his final opportunity to return to his former self. He was going to force himself to take more perimeter shots, drive more to the rim and become an overall more assertive player.

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody would have said before the season he welcomed a few more buckets from Nash, but it wasn't a necessity. But when the Wildcats lost Kevin Coble, their leading returning scorer, and Jeff Ryan, a key reserve, to season-ending injuries before their first game, Nash's offensive contributions became vital.

Now as Northwestern boasts a 12-3 record and continues moving closer toward its first NCAA tournament berth, Nash and his offensive game deserve some of that credit. He's taken more field goals, three-pointers and free throws and scored more points through 15 games this season than he did in any of his previous three full seasons.

"I knew I could do it, but now other people are seeing that I can do it," said Nash, who is the team's fourth-leading scorer at 8.3 points per game. "The guys on the team are believing in me. They're not afraid. They're not saying, 'Jeremy's going to get it, he's not going to take the shot.' Now they know I will, and other teams are starting to see that. They have to play a little more honestly. That's a big part of our successful season."

All Nash has ever wanted is to feel a part of Northwestern's success.

"I'm at a loss of words," said Nash, a Marist High School product. "It's wonderful that people can look to me and can say, 'Ok, Jeremy, he's a big part of this team, just as much as everyone else now. He can score; he can defend; he can do such and such.' It's awesome to hear people say that, and let people know we're here, and that I'm here to help this team reach the NCAA tournament for the first time."

Nash proved that right from the beginning. In the season opener, he put up a career-high 20 points against Northern Illinois. After scoring in double figures three times over his first three seasons, he has accomplished it six times this season, including a 16-point, five three-pointer performance against Illinois.

Nash's game hasn't been just points, though. He also is second on the team in assists (3.0) and assists-to-turnover ratio (2.4-1). Plus, he is still contributing his trademark defense with a team-leading 1.7 steals.

"He's kind of like a fire-starter for us," Northwestern freshman Drew Crawford said. "He always has energy on the court whether it's with his defense or with passing ability on offense, and he's knocking down shots this year, too. Jeremy is just an all-around playmaker for us. He's been huge for us this year."

Carmody has come to rely on Nash in all facets of his game.

"He can affect it on the both ends of the court," Carmody said. "He's had a nice year so far."

Nash has had his share of moments this season, but of all of the games he's especially fond of Sunday's win over Michigan. It wasn't one of Nash's better offensive games -- he had four points and zero assists -- but he had a key steal late, and the Wildcats came back from a 17-point deficit to win on the road.

"It showed where our heart was," Nash said. "It showed we were down 17 points, and we can fight back, and we can play with any team in this conference or in this country. It really showed we have the heart to be in the NCAA tournament, and we have the heart to be a great team.

"Before you kept hearing that we haven't made the NCAA tournament still. Northwestern can't recruit. They can't play basketball. We're the worst team. So you kept hearing that and that kept going through you head. You're just like, 'I want to shut all the doubters up and prove we are a good basketball team, and we can win with the basketball players here.""

And now finally he is.

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