In short, Northwestern came so far during Thompson's record-setting four-year tenure...but the program still has a long way to go.
An elongated season that began with fifth-year senior forward Kevin Coble's departure from the squad in late July -- one month before the team's trip to Italy designed to aid the quest for the program's first NCAA Tournament berth -- ended on March 23 with a gutting NIT quarterfinal loss in overtime at Washington State.
So close to Madison Square Garden, but so far away.
The bad news looking ahead? Thompson was the heart and soul of the Wildcats for the last two years. The starting point guard from the moment he walked in the door, Thompson walks out the door as the school's all-time leader in starts (129), games (129), minutes (4,633) and assists (528) while finishing third in points (1,689) and fifth in steals (159).
The good news going forward? While seniors Jeff Ryan, Mike Capocci and Ivan Peljusic all had their roles within the team, Thompson is the only member of the regular rotation who won't be back next season.
Despite playing on a high ankle sprain for the entire Big Ten season and beyond, junior forward John Shurna (16.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 75 3-pointers) remained on pace to become the school's all-time leading scorer. After making the Wooden Award's 30-man list at midseason, Shurna's injuries relegated him to the coaches' all-Big Ten third-team.
Sophomore guard Drew Crawford (12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg) built on his Big Ten co-freshman of the year honors. He provided a burst of energy down the stretch after settling for a less-involved role (i.e., settling for 3-pointers) for a good chunk of the year.
Freshman guard Jershon Cobb (7.4 ppg) started most of the year despite nagging injuries to his hip and back and groin. When Cobb went down near the end of the season, sophomore guard Alex Marcotullio (6.2 ppg) jumped into the starting lineup and averaged 13.0 points over the final six games.
Junior centers Luka Mirkovic (7.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Davide Curletti (4.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg) suffered their ups and downs, but both provided some of the best efforts of their careers down the stretch. Junior guard Nick Fruendt (2.0 ppg) is the only other scholarship player with eligibility remaining.
Northwestern signed three high school seniors in November and still has three open rides. Guards David Sobolewski and Tre Demps (son of New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps) are expected to fill the 40 minutes left open by Thompson's graduation.
--F John Shurna was the nation's hottest shooter through the first third of the season. Shurna averaged 23.3 points and canned 62.3 percent of his 3-pointers (33 of 53) during Northwestern's first 10 games. But during that 10th game, with the Wildcats drubbing Mount St. Mary's on Dec. 23, Shurna suffered a high left ankle sprain that affected him the rest of the year.
Despite wearing a walking boot on his left foot whenever he wasn't on the court, Shurna battled through the rest of the season and never quite recaptured his form. It didn't help matters when he suffered a concussion at Minnesota on Jan. 26 and had to miss the Jan. 29 game against No. 1 Ohio State.
In his 22 games following the injury, Shurna averaged 13.5 points and shot 35 percent (42 of 120) from 3-point range. To be fair, he played nothing but Big Ten and NIT competition during those 22 games. NU played just two postseason-bound teams (Long Island and St. John's) during its first 10 games.
--Northwestern went deeper into the postseason than any team in school annals. Winners of just two NIT games coming into the season, the Wildcats bounced Milwaukee and Boston College to double their total. The win over Milwaukee on March 16 marked the program's first postseason win since 1994.
FINAL RECORD: 20-14, 7-11, eighth in the Big Ten
2010-11 SEASON RECAP: Northwestern finished with the same overall and Big Ten record as the year before -- which means it tied the school record for wins -- but the route the Wildcats took to repeat their feat was anything but a straight line.
The long road began way back in the middle of the summer. Expecting big things due to the returns of fifth-year seniors Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan (they missed the previous year with injuries) and the arrival of four-star freshman guard JerShon Cobb, Northwestern raised a chunk of money from its top boosters and booked a 10-day trip to Italy for late August. The goal was to integrate Coble, Ryan and Cobb with the four returning starters and other expected contributors.
But a month before the trip began, a long-term disagreement between Coble and NU's coaching staff over his foot rehabilitation led to Coble's departure. Since he was the team's leading scorer and rebounder in each of his first three seasons, it was viewed as a monstrous blow...even though he was more likely to return as the team's sixth man.
Nonetheless, NU rolled through its mediocre pre-conference schedule with a 9-1 record. In the Wildcats' final warmup for Big Ten play, top scorer John Shurna suffered a high ankle sprain that bothered him the rest of the season. Right around that time, Ryan injured his back and the team's valuable perimeter reserve never played in 2011.
With Shurna ailing and most of the other regulars struggling to make up the difference, Northwestern never quite earned a breakthrough victory in Big Ten play. A 1-point home win on Feb. 5 over Illinois (when No. 24 in the coaches' poll) served as the closest thing, though the Wildcats probably became best-known for battling top-ranked Ohio State to the bitter end twice.
The first time came on Jan. 29 at home without Shurna (a 58-57 loss) and the second time came in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals (a 67-61 overtime loss in Indianapolis). Buoyed by that game, Northwestern earned a No. 4 seed in the NIT and knocked off Milwaukee and Boston College (the latter on the road) before suffering a 69-66 overtime loss in the NIT quarterfinal at Washington State.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have so much to work on with our guys, but they're willing to work and they can get better. It's hard right now to say if you're pleased with things, but certainly looking back they came on awfully strong toward the end." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody offering a brief 2010-11 summation minutes after the Wildcats' NIT quarterfinal loss in overtime at Washington State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THE GOOD NEWS: For the first time in Northwestern history, every returnee on the roster knows nothing but winning seasons and postseason play. With three straight NIT berths under their belt, the Wildcats finally get over the hump and earn the school's first NCAA Tournament berth.
Senior forward John Shurna averages more than 20 points per game and shatters Billy McKinney's career scoring record and makes his first appearance on the Wooden Award's final ballot. Junior swingman Drew Crawford becomes the ultimate wingman and provides 15 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 2 steals per game.
Senior centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti use their experience to be steady influences in the post while junior guard Alex Marcotullio joins Shurna and Crawford in averaging at least 2 3-pointers per game. Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, the player most capable of creating his own shot, builds up his core in the offseason and that enables him to play 30 minutes per game and average double figures.
Perhaps most important, one or both of the team's two freshmen combo guards (David Sobolewski and Tre Demps) proves up to the task of directing a Big Ten offense. Already decent shooters, they show they can keep their turnovers to a minimum.
THE BAD NEWS: Though merely a third-team all-Big Ten selection, graduating point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson might have been the most indispensable player in the league. There are many reasons he played 2,549 of a possible 2,745 minutes (92.9 percent) during his final two seasons -- including the fact that they struggled to get the offense rolling without him.
Freshmen David Sobolewski and Tre Demps are deemed as combo guards who ought to be able to handle the point, but Thompson was a rare breed who could come right in and start as a freshman. If both Sobolewski and Demps struggle, then junior Alex Marcotullio likely will shift over to run the show. That ought to affect his shooting percentages due to the increased effort necessary to run the point.
KEY RETURNEES: Northwestern retains four starters and seven of its top eight scorers. Rising senior forward John Shurna (16.6 ppg) already has second-team and third-team all-Big Ten honors on his resume and could be a first-teamer on next season's preseason listings. Rising junior swingman Drew Crawford (12.0 ppg), sophomore guard JerShon Cobb (7.4 ppg) and junior guard Alex Marcotullio (6.2 ppg) are the next-biggest threats on the perimeter and all could be above-average players next season.
Seniors-to-be Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti combined for 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds last year and ought to improve each of those numbers a couple of notches next year.
--Senior PG Michael "Juice" Thompson, a third-team all-Big Ten honoree, leaves Northwestern with four career records and spots in the top five on three other charts. Thompson set the marks for starts (129), games (129), minutes (4,633) and assists (528). He wound up second in 3-pointers (276), third in points (1,689) and fifth in steals (159).
--Junior F John Shurna led the team in scoring (16.6 ppg) for the second year in a row. Though he averaged 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore, that number dropped to 4.9 rpg this season as his leaping ability was compromised for the final two-thirds of the year due to a high ankle sprain. He grabbed a season-high 9 rebounds in NU's season-opener against Northern Illinois, but didn't grab 9 rebounds again until the team's final two NIT games.
--Freshman G JerShon Cobb missed five games in the final month of the season due to hip/groin/back issues, but he returned for the final two games of the year. Cobb played 10 minutes in the NIT second-round game against Boston College, but saw just 4 minutes in the finale at Washington State as coach Bill Carmody stayed with the same four perimeter players for the entire second half and overtime.
--Look for Northwestern to make some noise during the April signing period. The Wildcats have three scholarships at their disposal and are hunting high school seniors and junior-college players who can handle the "5" in the Princeton-style offense.