Coble a key for Northwestern

Northwestern's Kevin Coble is one of the reasons the Wildcats have a winning record after two seasons of sub-.500 play. The Gophers will have to keep him in check as part of their game plan in the opening game of the Big Ten tournament Thursday.

Going solely by the numbers, Northwestern junior Kevin Coble hasn't improved a lick since last year.

His scoring average has dropped from 15.9 to 15.3. His rebounding average has dipped from 5.4 to 4.7. All of his shooting percentages are slightly worse than last season.

But when the all-Big Ten teams are revealed, don't be surprised if the slender 6-foot-8 forward goes from an honorable mention pick to a first- or second-team selection. Coble's expanded repertoire — and we're not just talking about his array of tricky shots that might have been handed down from Larry Bird — has been a big reason why the Wildcats have gone from 8-22 and 1-17 to 17-12 and 8-10 heading into this week's Big Ten tournament.

Northwestern settled for the No. 9 seed and faces Minnesota on Thursday with league champ Michigan State looming in Friday's quarterfinal.

Blessed with more talent around him at both ends of the floor, Coble hands out 1 more assist per game this season and also owns more blocks and steals.

Of course, he also retains the ability to take over offensively when necessary. Remember when the Wildcats won at No. 7 Michigan State on Jan. 21? Coble poured in a season-high 31 points as the Spartans couldn't handle him.

It's victories like those — and veteran forces like Coble and senior guard Craig Moore — that have the Wildcats believing they should belong in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

"I think we feel that we are," Coble said in the Daily Herald after NU won at Purdue on March 4. "I think you see glimpses of us. If you could take that glimpse and make that a consistent thing where it's night-in and night-out, then I don't think there's any question. It's just a matter of us continuing to get better...it's going to be really important that we're just focused on each game."

Northwestern's spot on the bubble became more slippery with Sunday's 52-47 loss at Ohio State. The Wildcats rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit and held several brief second-half lead, but they scored just 2 points in the final 3:38.

NOTES

  • Northwestern set a school record with three victories over ranked teams. The Wildcats picked up No. 3 at 19th-ranked Purdue on March 4 as they went on a 22-3 second-half spree to turn a 10-point deficit into a 9-point lead. NU held on for a 64-61 triumph. The Wildcats' other upsets came on Jan. 18 (at home vs. No. 18 Minnesota) and Jan. 21 (at No. 7 Michigan State).

  • One of the reasons Northwestern pulled off its upset at Purdue? For just the second time in Big Ten play, the Wildcats won the battle of the boards. Both of Northwestern's victories, however, have been by just one rebound as Bill Carmody's crew maintained its customary place at the bottom of the league's rebounding-margin charts. The Wildcats were outrebounded by slightly more than 5 rebounds per game this season, which sounds bad but they cut last season's national-worst margin in half.

  • Led by senior Craig Moore, who owns 103 3-pointers through regular-season play, Northwestern leads the Big Ten in 3-point percentage. The Wildcats head into the Big Ten tournament shooting 38.8 percent from long range (238 for 613).

  • Senior G Craig Moore won the Big Ten's regular-season 3-point title as he buried six 3-pointers on Sunday at Ohio State. That gave the defending champ a school-record 103 3-pointers and also made him the 11th player in Big Ten history to eclipse the 100 mark.

  • Sophomore PG Michael Thompson gives the Wildcats a second perimeter threat that's just as deadly as Moore. In addition to averaging 10.1 points and a team-high 3.8 assists going into the postseason, Thompson shoots 42.9 percent on 3-pointers as he made 48 during the regular year.

  • Freshman C Luka Mirkovic played a huge role in Northwestern's comeback win at Purdue as he racked up six points, eight rebounds and five assists off the bench. He didn't enjoy nearly the same success against Ohio State's bigger B.J. Mullens and Dallas Lauderdale. Mirkovic finished with no points, two rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes.

  • One of the biggest differences in this Northwestern team from previous editions is Bill Carmody's ability to go deep into his bench. For example, senior swingman Sterling Williams (ostensibly the team's 10th man), played a huge role in Northwestern's comeback win at Purdue on March 4. Williams played six key minutes late and contributed a season-high four points. Carmody can mix and match depending on the opponent's personnel, though freshman center Luka Mirkovic and junior guard Jeremy Nash are 20-minute-plus staples off the bench.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual starters — PG Michael Thompson, SG Craig Moore, SF Kevin Coble, PF John Shurna, C Kyle Rowley. Key Subs — G Jeremy Nash, C Luka Mirkovic, G Jeff Ryan, G Sterling Williams, F Ivan Peljusic.

    IN FOCUS: The Wildcats split their regular-season series with the Gophers. After earning a 74-65 home win on Jan. 18 that just might have turned their season around, they suffered a 72-45 whipping on Feb. 22 at Williams Arena. NU had a few players under the weather for the latter game, but the simple fact is the Wildcats can't afford another 30 percent shooting effort. Senior guard Craig Moore seemed so lackluster, Bill Carmody put him on the bench early in the second half and left him there for the duration.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "That was big, but this was a little bit more validation for us. It wasn't just a fluke. Any team can beat anybody any night, but we've put together some nice wins this year and we're playing some good basketball and I think we're on a good trajectory." — Northwestern forward Kevin Coble comparing the Wildcats' March 4 win at Purdue favorably with their Jan. 21 win at Michigan State.


    GAME REVIEW:
    Northwestern 55, Iowa 49
    Northwestern 64, Purdue 61
    Ohio State 52, Northwestern 47

    GAME PREVIEW:
    vs. Minnesota, Thursday, March 12 (Big Ten tournament first round)


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