On the bench

Bill Carmody has mentioned Northwestern's depth as part of the fuel for this preseason's optimism. "I can look down the bench and think, 'That ninth guy's OK," he said at Big Ten media day. Well, Purple Reign looked, too, taking a gander at the players who figure to comprise the top nine spots on the depth chart. And Carmody's right: There's a lot to like.

There is a line in The Simpsons when a one-episode character named Jacque – a Frenchman played by Albert Brooks – is getting ready for a much sought-after date.

While splattering himself with cologne, he opines:

To the most beautiful moment in life. Better than the deed, better than the memory, the moment... of anticipation!

Well, that's where we're at now. Anticipation. And Jacque's right: It's pretty great.

The preseason chatter leading up to the college hoops season has been so different than the build-up to seasons-past. There is an earnest expectation – both from inside the program and without – that this is the squad to take Northwestern to the Promise Land – that elusive NCAA Tournament bid.

Of course, it's ill-advised to anticipate blindly, to simply hope that things will go well when there isn't evidence to support it. (By the way, Jacque, who was so pumped for that date, was stood up.) And that's what fun – and indeed liberating – about this basketball season. There is darn good reason to be optimistic.

And a lot of it – if you listen to coach Bill Carmody – has to do with depth. Carmody has been lauding this squad's depth throughout the preseason, and if the bench ends up being as good as he says, the Cats should definitely best their 17-win total from a year ago. And definitely go dancing.

"Well, you know, I can look down the bench and think, 'That ninth guy's OK,'" Carmody said at Big Ten Media Day. "You didn't have many options before. If a guy's playing bad, you say, 'OK, let's hope he plays through it.' Now I have an option. He can play through it or I can get someone else in there. That's a big thing."

Indeed it is. So let's look at that Top Nine.*

* And the Top Nine is probably more important than the Starting Five. Only three of last season's five normal starters played more than 19 minutes. John Shurna started all 31 games, but he averaged just 18.5 minutes. Jeremy Nash started zero games, and he played 18.7 minutes per game. And Kyle Rowley started 28 games, yet he averaged only 13.3 minutes. Jeff Ryan had zero starts, and he played 12.5 minutes per game. So who the five starters are is less important than who is in the rotation.

Sure, Kevin Coble, Craig Moore and Michael Thompson all played 33-35 minutes last season, and that's fine. But Carmody spreads minutes around, making depth that much more important. It was the same deal in 2007-08. Three guys averaged about 35 minutes, and six more averaged between 13.5 and 24.4. Same in 2006-07, when two players got more than 31 minutes a game, and six others got between 10 and 28. So, about that Top Nine...

First off, there's 6-8 Coble, who has led the team in scoring and rebounding each of his three seasons in Evanston. Enough said, but let's say a little more anyway: Last season, he was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection, good for 15.7 points, 4.8 boards and 1.67 steals per game. He broke the 20-point plateau seven times – including a 31-point, 10-of-16 from the floor outburst at Michigan State – and shot an outstanding 82.5 percent from the line during the conference season. He will likely go down as one of the best players in NU history. At the very least, you can bank on him starting.

Same with Shurna, also listed at 6-8, who averaged 7.3 points and 3.0 boards last season despite playing just 18.5 minutes per game. He shot a stellar 46.6 percent from the floor and better than 34 percent from downtown. With more minutes – and after a stint with the gold medal-winning U-19 USA National Team – Shurna is sure to be even better this season.

Those two will start alongside 7-foot sophomore Kyle Rowley. Rowley is currently recovering from a broken bone in his foot, and Carmody has been a bit vague (or maybe unsure) about his return.*

*At Media Day, Carmody said, "He's been basically staying off it for a while, but now he's back just starting to walk a little bit, jog a little bit, and he's doing stuff in the swimming pool. It'll be nice to get him back, and I don't have a timetable on that, not sure about it exactly. We're waiting to see, make sure it's healed, and being cautious there."

But even if Rowley's return is not imminent, he certainly figures to be in the starting lineup when he does get back – he did, after all, start 28 of 31 games last season.

At the point will be junior 5-10 Michael Thompson. Thompson started every game last season and ranked fourth in the conference with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.19. He also started all 30 games as a true freshman, so the likelihood of him starting is close to the likelihood that it will be cold in Evanston this winter.

The fifth starter is a bit of a wildcard. It will be between 6-5 Drew Crawford and 6-4 Jeremy Nash – youthful upside versus seasoned experience. Crawford, a freshman from Naperville, was a first- or second-team All-State player – depending on the publication – and he seems likely to nab the 2-guard spot.

"Crawford, I'm going to throw in there…" Carmody said. "I'd like to get Crawford in there, get him in, screw up, take him out, get him back in, like that kind of thing. He doesn't have to do quite so much."

"Some guys," Carmody also said, "can jump and don't accomplish that much. With (Crawford), it's productive jumping; it's in the course of the game. He gets rebounds with two hands. He tips the ball in. He has good timing.

"It's not like he's the best jumper in this conference. But now we have one of those guys."

Juxtapose that against Nash, a career backup who played 18.7 minutes per game last season and 17.8 as a sophomore in '08. Nash played in all 31 games last season and is a defensive cog, nabbing 35 steals (1.18 per game), third on the team behind Coble and since-departed Craig Moore, who both had 41. And remember that Nash played just 18.7 minutes, about half as many as Moore and Coble, who each topped 34 per game.

"Nash will probably start," Carmody said. "I'll ask him, 'Do you want to start, Jeremy?' If he says, 'Yeah, coach, it's very important to me,' I'd probably start him. But…I like when he comes of the bench. He energizes, he gets you going. He's still playing a lot more minutes than a lot of guys and he'll do the same thing."

Read into that what you want: "Nash will probably start," and "he'll do the same thing" he has been.

Crawford's athleticism and upside – the fact that NU now has "one of those guys," as Carmody said – seems like it'd be tempting to put him in the starting lineup. Four different freshman started last season, so it's not like Carmody is averse to starting youngsters.

Either way, both those guys will play; the one who doesn't will get plenty of playing time. Who is the sixth man remains a mystery, so for now, let's just lump Crawford and Nash together and call them the 5.5th man. Whichever guard comes off the bench could be starting.

And indeed, it's that bench, that depth Carmody has mentioned as a source of optimism. Nash/Crawford will be one of those players, and right on down it's looking good.

There's also 6-11 sophomore Luka Mirkovic, who figures to fill Rowley's starting slot until the foot is heeled. Mirkovic shot better than 46 percent from the floor last season and 52.6 percent in conference play. And Carmody seems particularly excited about his improvement.

"Luka looks really good to me," Carmody said. "He's probably about 235 pounds now. Last year he might've been 215, I forget, but something like that. He doesn't look as robotic as he did last year, he seems more rounded and smooth."

He added: "I don't think any of us would be surprised if Shurna had a good year, but Luka is the guy. He looks like he's worked really hard and he had an internship this summer down in Chicago. He had to be there at 8:30 (a.m.) but I'd come in the office around 7 and he's in there shooting on the shooting gun thing four days a week, at least. So he went to work a little bit. He looks a little bit better….he seem to have put the time in so I think if he has a good year then we can be really good."

Last season Mirkovic, formerly a two-star recruit, averaged just 3.9 points and 3.2 boards per game. But he also only average 18.7 minutes per game. If you do the per-40-minute math on those numbers, Mirkovic averaged 8.4 and 7.0. The 8.4 is fine, but the seven rebounds is potentially huge. Coble, who led the team, nabbed just 4.8 per game, and his 40-minute total is 5.6 – 25 percent less than Mirkovic. So if Mirkovic is 20 pounds stronger than last season, and if he garners more minutes – which he certainly figures to – then the Cats may have found, if not a solution, at least some help on the glass.

Another expected bench contributor is Jeff Ryan, who appeared in 28 games last season. Ryan is no phenom, but he's solid. He notched a nine-point, eight-rebound and three-assist outing in the Cats win over Florida State. He also had season-highs of four assists and three steals in Iowa City.

Ryan only averaged 12.5 minutes, but in each game in which he played more than 20 minutes, Ryan had at least six points. Again, nothing to get worked up about. But when Carmody talks about looking down the bench and being content, he's talking about looking down at guys like Ryan.

If Crawford and Nash combine to represent the fifth/sixth man, then junior Ivan Peljusic and freshman Alex Marcotullio will be the ninth/10th man. Peljusic, a 6-8 forward, averaged 9.8 minutes last season and appeared in 24 games. His numbers – as you'd expect for a guy who averaged less than 10 minutes – were pretty pedestrian: 2.4 points and 1.9 boards.

Marcotullio could get some minutes too. His rep is as a pure shooter, and shooters – especially in a Carmody offense – seem to always find a way to get on the floor. And with the graduation of Moore, NU's all-time three-point marksman, there is backcourt time up for grabs. Marcotullio, a Michigan native, was a second-team all-state players according to the Detroit Free Press, and he averaged 16 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. Pretty good. It will be interesting to see how much the 6-3, 180-pounder gets on the court.

Indeed, Carmody can be more comfortable looking down the bench this season. It'll be nice to not have to start freshman, which he pretty much was forced to do last season with Shurna and Rowley. And if Carmody does start a freshman, it will be Crawford, and it will be because that freshman happens to be a stud – not that his hand was forced by a lack of depth.

Because depth, like Carmody said, is one thing that the Cats have this season.

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