When star forward Kevin Coble announced this summer that he was giving up basketball, it left Northwestern without the player who had led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding in each of his first three seasons on campus. Although Coble missed the 2009-10 season with a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot, he was expected to rejoin his teammates this season.
"It surprised us," junior forward John Shurna said. "We found out a couple of hours before the press did. It kind of threw everybody off the guard a little bit."
It also threw a bunch of people off Northwestern's bandwagon.
Northwestern is the only program from any of the six major conferences never to reach the NCAA tournament, but Coble's potential return had generated plenty of preseason buzz that the drought could finally end. That talk died down once Coble made his announcement, but it hasn't reduced the optimism in Northwestern's locker room.
The Wildcats went 20-14 and reached the NIT without Coble last season, so they believe they can survive his absence again this season. Actually, players say that now that heralded freshman JerShon Cobb has been added to a roster that features four returning starters, they would consider it a disappointment if they don't earn that elusive NCAA bid.
"We're working hard to making it into the NCAA tournament," senior guard Michael Thompson said. "That's our ultimate goal. When people don't reach their goal, they're disappointed. That's what we're aiming toward and working toward."
But the loss of Coble undoubtedly hurts. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2008-09 and clearly was Northwestern's best player in each of his three seasons in uniform. He delivered one of the most memorable performances in the program's history two years ago when he scored 31 points in a road upset of a Michigan State team that would go on to reach the national championship game.
Then again, it isn't as though the Wildcats are unaccustomed to playing without him.
"I don't think it changes our expectations," Shurna said. "We've got a strong core coming back and a very good incoming freshman in JerShon. There are high expectations for us."
Northwestern survived Coble's absence well enough last season to earn its first Associated Press national ranking in 41 years. The Wildcats headed into the second week of February believing they had a realistic shot at an NCAA invitation. A late-season fade forced the Wildcats to settle for a second consecutive trip to the NIT, marking the first time they had reached the postseason in back-to-back years.
Northwestern has at least an outside shot of ending its NCAA tournament drought mainly because of its outside shooting. The Wildcats return their four most prolific 3-point shooters from a team that ranked fifth in the nation -- and first among teams from the six major conferences -- in 3-pointers per game last season. Here's a look at the top 10 teams in 3-pointers per game last season, along with their records. Cornell and Sam Houston State were the only ones to make the NCAA tourney.
Northwestern doesn't have to look far to figure out why it fell short of its ultimate goal. The Wildcats were 2-9 on the road last season and won only one Big Ten game away from home. Most of those road games followed a distressingly familiar pattern.
"Each game on the road, the other team would get off to a double-digit lead or close to it,'' Thompson said. "The rest of the game, we'd try to claw and fight our way back into it.
"That's tough. It wears teams down at the end of the game. We need to get mentally focused and get off to better starts."
Perhaps the Wildcats can work out those problems this week when they play a handful of games thousands of miles from home. Northwestern defeated AB Latina 67-61 Monday in its first game of a nine-day Italian tour that is allowing the Wildcats to try out various lineup combinations now that they know Coble won't be on the floor. Butler made a similar international tour last summer before making its Cinderella run to the national championship game.
"I can only imagine how it's going to help our team," Thompson said before the Wildcats headed overseas. "It's going to be great for our team bonding. It will create tremendous chemistry for our team and will help us down the road with those extra days of practice and to get some experience playing professional teams."
A change in the NCAA by-laws this year allows freshmen and transfers to accompany teams on these international trips, assuming they have attended summer school. That adjustment allows the Wildcats to see how Cobb meshes with this veteran roster.
Cobb is the No. 103 player in the 2010 class and is the first top-150 prospect to sign with Northwestern since Rivals.com began covering basketball recruiting in 2003. Cobb averaged 23.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game as a senior while helping Decatur (Ga.) Columbia win a Class 4A state title.
"He brings everything to the team," Thompson said. "I know in high school he was labeled a big-time scorer, but he's playing great defensively, is picking up the offense really fast and is finding spots to help the other guys score as well. He's an all-around great guy who will make significant contributions right away."
Cobb's addition gives Northwestern a solid nucleus even without Coble. Shurna earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year while setting a school single-season record in points (619). Drew Crawford, a 6-foot-5 swingman, became Northwestern's first Big Ten freshman of the year. Thompson has been an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick in each of the past two seasons. Northwestern also returns 6-6 senior swingman Jeff Ryan, who averaged 12.5 minutes per game two years ago before suffering a season-ending knee injury last November.
The Wildcats again should be deadly from long range. Northwestern ranked fifth in the nation with 9.3 3-pointers per game last season and returns four players who made at least 41 treys in coach Bill Carmody's Princeton-style offense.
But Northwestern will have to be much better merely to match last season's accomplishments in the vastly improved Big Ten. Final Four contenders Purdue and Michigan State headline a conference that could be as strong as any league in the nation.
Coble's return would have given Northwestern a much better shot of finishing in the top half of the league. His departure means the Wildcats must hope Cobb emerges as an immediate factor and all the holdovers also help pick up the slack.
Northwestern's path to the NCAA tournament just got a whole lot bumpier, but the Wildcats aren't exactly feeling sorry for themselves.
"As long as we continue to work hard and continue to stay together as a team," Thompson said, "I think the sky's the limit."