Riddle me these

With the hoops season set to tip off tonight, Purple Reign looks at some of the more pressing questions heading into this highly anticipated campaign. Along with the impact of Kevin Coble's injury, PR takes a gander a few other factors that could help determine the fate of the season.

There will be a moment in tonight's season-opening basketball game against Northern Illinois where everyone settle in, the season is officially underway and all of the preseason chatter is totally mute, totally history.

Maybe it'll be after the under-12-minute media timeout. Maybe even sooner. But at some point, all of the anticipation and guesswork of the preseason is relegated to the past, and regular-season play – not preseason prognosticating – is all that matters.

Once this shift from expectation to execution occurs, Northwestern fans will start to get a better idea of what this 2009-10 team is all about. Now, of course a season-opener against Northern Ilinois won't be a tell-all about the remainder of the long, 30-plus-game season. Not only did the Huskies go 10-20 last season, but one game is just one game. The Wildcats will likely be a different team two weeks from now, and a way different team two months from now. And the absence Kevin Coble – who suffered a foot injury Tuesday – means that this is definitely not the same team that it will be when the calendar flips to 2010. So one game, again, doesn't mean everything.

But the opener means something. And entering a season bubbling over with NCAA Tournament hopes, the regular season can't come soon enough. So as we embark on this journey – one that hopefully ends with NU's first-ever pair of dancing shoes – Purple Reign poses a few questions, the answers to which could help define the season.

1) How much will Kevin Coble's injury hamper the team? News of Coble's foot injury – suffered at Tuesday's practice* – is a sobering blow. It really throws a wrench in the plans heading into the season.

* Everyone knows about the Sports Illustrated Curse. Hopefully there is no Purple Reign Curse. This story, titled Coble Certain to Climb, was published here a matter of hours before Coble's fateful awkward landing. The story speaks confidently about how Coble would play about 33 games this season – the entire regular season and then a few postseason games. Injuries were taken into account, but looking at Coble's game log, health didn't seem to be an issue. He missed a bunch of games early in the 2007-08 season, but that was because he took a leave from the team to be with his mother, who was battling cancer. Outside of that, Coble missed two games as a freshman and not a one last season as a junior. Surely there is no correlation between the article and the injury; it is still a crummy coincidence that the article and injury were on the same day.

"You have 35 minutes you have to give now," Bill Carmody said of replacing Coble. "You have 16 points, leading scorer, leading rebounder. You take, I don't know, Kobe (Bryant) out, what happens to the Lakers? You take your best guy out of there in both areas. Then, besides the scoring and the rebounding, he makes the other guys feel like they belong out there, you know what I mean? He lifts guys, like (Michael) Jordan lifted Steve Kerr and all those kind of guys. 'We can play. We belong out here.' I think he did that to some of our guys. That hurts too."

Added junior guard Michael Thompson: "It definitely feels like, 'Why now?' Everybody on the team is talking about it now. We just have to come together. That's part of the game. People get hurt. Some people have to step up and fill his void. We're there for him, we're supportive. We're just hoping he can come back sooner than expected."

Heading into the season, this much seemed a safe bet: Coble was going to be the team's leading scorer (which he has been each of his three seasons in Evanston) and likely the team's leading rebounding (a feat he's also accomplished three times). Now, who knows?

This will be an interesting test of the NU's depth, which Carmody has lauded prior to the season and prior to the injury. On paper, this team is indeed different than any of Coble's other three, which (hopefully) decreases the scope of NU's reliance on Coble and the impact of his injury. As a freshman, when Coble averaged 13.4 points per game, there was only one other player who averaged more than 8.2 points per game. Basically, Coble had to score a lot. And after scoring 15.9 per game as a sophomore, Coble's numbers "devolved" to 15.5 last season. But that devolution* was evidence of the team's evolution. Craig Moore was good for more than 14 per game, Michael Thompson – who's back this season – netted 9.9, and sophomore John Shurna had a stellar 7.7-point-per-game freshman campaign.

* That's not to say Coble wasn't important last season. NU doesn't win at Michigan State last season without Coble's 31 points, nor does it edge Ohio State by three if Coble didn't go for 26. So Coble didn't let the team down; the team lifted itself up. Which looks to happen again this season.

All told, 10 of the team's top 11 scorers are back, Moore being the only exception. Shurna and fellow sophomores Kyle Rowley and Luka Mirkovic will all be a season better, plus Thompson has proven that he can get 10 a game himself. Throw in ballyhooed 6-foot-5 freshman Drew Crawford – who Bill Carmody says will start from the outset – and who knows? Maybe Coble won't be quite as important.

"I still think now, it's not like the world stops because of this," Coble said. "I don't think the goal or anything has changed from 24 hours ago to now."

Whether or not the expectations change may depend on how much the team has changed.

2) What will Crawford's impact be, especially early on? All preseason – and especially now with the injury to Coble – it's seemed a sure thing that Crawford is going to get his minutes.

"Crawford, I'm going to throw in there…" Carmody said a few weeks ago. "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 added, "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."

So yeah, it looks like Crawford will start, probably alongside Shurna, Mirkovic, Thompson and Kevin Nash. (Rowley, who started all last season, will likely start for Mirkovic once he recovers from his own foot injury.)

Crawford's upside, his athletic ability and Carmody's non-aversion to playing freshmen – three freshmen averaged at least 13 minutes last season – make him a player to watch this season. The don't-take-the-first-game-too-seriously philosophy is especially important with freshmen, because while the team is sure to be better a month into the season, freshmen are generally a lot better a month into the season. Shurna, for one, had minute totals of 10 and 11 in the first four games last season, but ended up playing more than 18 minutes in each of the team's final nine regular season games. So if Crawford logs eight or five or 11 minutes, that doesn't mean he won't play more and more as the season goes on.

3) How much will the sophomores improve on last season? Just like Crawford's production, this question becomes much more pressing with Coble's injury. Even before the injury, Carmody was lauding his sophomore class, three of whom played significant minutes in 08-09. Coach said:

Last year we had five freshmen, and we knew that three of four of them were going to play significant minutes and that's what happened. Three guys played a lot: Shurna, Rowley and Mirkovic. This year those guys are sophomores… Shurna had a very good summer. He made the Under-19 USA team where he played for about two weeks down in Colorado Springs, made the team, and went to Sydney, Australia, for three or four days then to New Zealand and he was a significant part of that gold-medal winning squad. So he's confident. Luka looks really good to me.

Well, everyone is going to have to be that much better without Coble. Shurna will now likely be the focal point of opposing defenses, and Mirkovic and Rowley – when healthy – will absolutely have to clean the glass without Coble's team-best rebound production.

More than how quickly Crawford adapts to college ball, the progress and production of the sophomore class could define where this team is at when Coble gets back. (If, that is he comes back. We should know for sure soon. So knock on wood or cross your fingers or do whatever it is you do…)

Everything changes with this "mid-foot sprain" to Coble. If he comes back in four to six weeks – which, as of Friday morning, was the best-case – then the team should still be in a fine position to make the expected tourney push. If he's out for the season – the worst-case – then who knows?

Luckily, with the start of the season imminent, we should have some preliminary answers soon.

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