The more things change...

The first seven games of 2009 have looked a lot like the first seven games of '08. Sans, of course, last year's two leading scorers, including Craig Moore (left). The scoring, rebounding and assist numbers, among others, are holding steady, just like the 6-1 record. Purple Reign looks at how NU has stayed the same without at all staying the same.

Northwestern figured to have a different look this season. The Wildcats were supposed to win some games, sure. But without last season's two leading scorers – Kevin Coble and Craig Moore, who were also among the team's leading rebounders and assist men – the blueprint was going to change.

Maybe the Cats would shoot more threes – or maybe less. Maybe they'd have to score some more points – or hold teams to fewer. Maybe they'd have to play a little more one-on-one, or maybe they'd have to share the ball even better, or maybe…maybe nobody knew.

Well, through seven games, the 2009-10 incarnation of the Northwestern Wildcats has looked eerily similar to last season's. From the record – 6-1, same as in 2008 – to the way NU is doing its damage, the upheaval in personnel hasn't phased the Cats. Indeed, Coble's injury and Moore's graduation have, thus far, done little to alter the game plan or the results.

Let's start with the points, the stat that common sense suggested would take the biggest hit with the loss of Coble's 15.5 and Moore's 14.3 points per game*. Through seven games last season, NU was averaging 66.9 points per game. That total included a few outliers, like the 81 scored against Central Arkansas and the 53 scored against Butler. But still, 66.9 is indicative of NU's offensive output: the Cats scored between 63 and 73 in four of their first seven games.

* Those are Coble's and Moore's season totals, but they are reflective of what happened in the first seven games as well. Those two combined for 29.8 per game on the season; in the first seven games, they teamed up for 29.6.

Comfortingly, little has changed on the scoring front this season. Well, that's not exactly true; a ton has changed, what with Coble and Moore gone. But the output is still the same. Through seven games this season, NU is averaging 67.6 points per game, .7 more than last year, a truly negligible difference. The Cats have scored between 63 and 73 five times.

How has the scoring stayed stagnant? A similar cast of characters is playing a different set of roles. Michael Thompson, who last season averaged 9.9 points, has nearly doubled his output thus far, up to 17.4. And John Shurna has gone from 7.3 points per game last season to 15.3 thus far in '09. Thompson's 17.4 and Shurna's 15.3 more than compensates for the 30-or-so that Moore and Coble averaged. And, as was the case last season, there are a handful of players scoring between 3.0 and 7.0

While the consistency in scoring is a welcome surprise, what is possibly even more head-scratching is the uptick in three-point shooting. Through seven games in '08, the Cats canned an average of 7.3 points per game – and that includes a 14 three-pointer game at Brown in which Moore hit a school-record nine treys by himself.

This season, NU is hitting 8.6 threes per game, 1.3 more than last season. That is all the more surprising when you remember that Moore is the school's all-time leading three-point shooter and that Coble hit at a 39.5 percent clip last year. So NU lost two three-point artisans – including one of the best in Big Ten history – yet the Cats are hitting more threes than they were at this point last season.

Helping offset the loss of Coble and Moore is Alex Marcotullio, who has hit 13-of-26 three-pointers this season. Jeremy Nash has also hit 11 this season; he hit just 14 all of last season. And Thompson, who has 17 thus far, is on pace for about 70 threes, whereas last season he had a total of 48.

Another stat in which the Cats have paradoxically stayed steady is rebounding. Coble, of course, led the team in rebounding in each of his first three seasons, averaging 4.8 boards last season. And Moore was tied for second on the team with an average of 3.2 per game.

But still, the Cats are snaring an average of 32.6 rebounds per game, compared with 33.6 through seven games last season – a dip, sure, but not a devastating one. Shurna has upped his average from 3.0 per game to 7.0 this season, and Nash has gone from 2.2 to 3.9, including a game-high eight versus NC State. And freshman Drew Crawford is gobbling up a Moore-esque 3.1 per game. So between the increased production from Nash and Shurna, and the new production from Moore, the Cats are rebounding at an almost-identical clip*.

* There has been a slight drop-off in offensive rebounding. NU had 71 through seven games last season, including an 18-O-board game against Florida State. This season, the Cats have a total of 60 offensive rebounds, or about 8.5 per game (compared to more than 10 per game last season).

One more stat: assists. Moore and Coble were the second- and third-leading assist men, respectively, last season; Thompson was first. Yet despite not having two of the top distributors on the team, NU is averaging 16.1 assists per game; the Cats averaged 16.0 through seven games last season.

It's been a team effort. Nash is getting an even 4.0 per game. Shurna is getting just above three per game, and Thompson just below three per game. Collectively, the assist numbers have been solid.

It must also be mentioned that the first seven opponents this season have been a lot like the first seven opponents last season. Here is the beginning of the '08 gauntlet:

Central Arkansas
Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Brown
Butler
UC Riverside
Florida State
DePaul

Here's '09:

Northern Illinois
Butler
Tennessee State
Liberty
Notre Dame
Iowa State
NC State

That's really pretty similar. Florida State and Butler would count as tough games at the outset of last season; Notre Dame and Butler would count as toughies this time around. (If anything, having faced improved Iowa State and North Carolina State teams, this season's slate has been tougher.) There were, of course, some cupcakes thrown in both years, and that's fine. Just thought that, since we only have a seven-game sample size, that was worth a mention.

Much has already been made of Northwestern's hot start this season. Not many people probably expected the Wildcats to be at 6-1 and looking as good as they've looked. But it isn't just that NU is doing well. It's that the Cats are doing the same things they did last season.

The blueprint hasn't changed even though so much else has.

To reach Purple Reign, please write to Northwestern.Scout@gmail.com.


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