Role upped

Expected before the season to continue his role as a defensive stalwart, Northwestern senior Jeremy Nash has done a lot more. Like, A LOT. Purple Reign looks at what Nash was supposed to do this season, and how he has thus far shattered those expectations.

Whether or not he started, it wasn't hard to guess the kind of season that Jeremy Nash would have. A three-year sparkplug off the bench, he figured to get some minutes, get some steals and maybe a few points each outing. But not too much else.

Before the season began, coach Bill Carmody talked about how Nash could start – but how, at the same time, he might just stay on the bench. And that either way was fine.

"Nash will probably start," Carmody said at Big Ten media day. "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."

Well, that was all pre-Lisfranc – or pre-Kevin Coble's foot injury, in English – and things changed. Things changed even more when Jeff Ryan went down in a heap in the season-opener.

All of a sudden two players who were supposed to log serious minutes would be unavailable. Which meant a player who was supposed to log not-so-serious minutes – Nash – would have to step in.

And step in, he has. After averaging less than 19 minutes per game in each of his first three seasons at Northwestern, Nash is now second on the team in minutes, first in assists and fourth in scoring. The USA Today said that Nash "was scheduled to be Northwestern's sixth man again this year…(but) has proved to be a revelation."

Revelation. Not bad for a career backup.

You can't really call it a resurgence. But Nash's, uh, surgence is certainly one of the reasons Northwestern sits at 7-1 and No. 44 in the RPI. And one of the reasons – with North Florida coming to Evanston on Wednesday and Stanford on Saturday – that NU has every chance to enter conference play with but one loss.

Like Carmody said, Nash was playing more minutes that other bench players. Still, he wasn't playing that much. He averaged 17.8 minutes and 18.7 as a sophomore and junior, respectively, and with pretty much the entire roster back from last season, he figured to average about the same this time around.

He was viewed – at least based on the rhetoric – as a defensive stopper, a guy who could, for the third year running, be among the team leaders in steals and energy.

"I'd say Nash is pretty good," Carmody said in the preseason, "not just because he steals balls but because, when he wants, he can keep his body in front (of his man)."

So heading into the 2009-10 season, Nash was: A guy who would "probably start," who "energizes," who "is pretty good," and who can "keep his body in front" on defense. Didn't sound like one of the team's best players. A cog, sure, but hardly a star. After all, he did start just one game in his first three seasons at NU.

Things changed, of course, when Coble went down with a foot injury. There was suddenly a quest to find players to replace Coble's minutes and point and rebounds and shooting.

Even then, though, it wasn't a certainty – a hunch, at best – that Nash's role would evolve so much.

"Do you go deeper or do you just give more minutes to the guys?" Carmody wondered aloud in an interview on "Do you stay big, do you go with (6-foot-8 junior Ivan) Peljusic, same size kind of guy, can score a little bit? Or do you go smaller with Nash, which is my feeling right now."

Carmody did indeed turn to Nash. And he hasn't disappointed.

Nash is averaging more than 34.6 minutes per game – second on the team – and his stats bare out the increased time, resulting in career bests in numerous categories. He's getting 9.1 points per game; he averaged just 3.5 as a sophomore and junior. He's dishing out a team-high 4.1 assists per game – previous best: 1.4 in 2008 – and he's snaring 4.0 rebounds per outing.

And Nash's calling card, steals – well, he's still getting those too. He is averaging 2.13 per game after setting a career high last season with 1.13.

What's more, the increased time hasn't affected Nash's efficiency. He's shooting a career-best 38.2 percent from beyond the arc, and a career-best 90.9 percent from the free throw line. He also has a 2.4 A/T ratio, his best ever and 10th best in the conference.

Compare these numbers to Nash's former self, the one whose career role was, as Daily Herald sports writer Lindsey Willhite put it, "to deliver a spark off the bench -- primarily as the indefatiguable (sic) defender atop the 1-3-1 zone trap."

* Nash has 13 three-pointers this season. He set his career-high last season, when he canned 14.

* Nash has made 20 free throws this season. His previous best was 17.

* Nash has made 20 field goals this season, well on his way to shattering last season's high-water mark of 39.

* Nash has 73 points this season. He'll surely pass last year's 109.

* Nash has 33 assists this season – his career high, 34, is probably within reach.

* Nash has already set a career high in blocks with seven.

(Another interesting statistical note is fouls. Playing less than 19 minutes per game the past few seasons, Nash averaged about 2.4 fouls; he fouled out three times last year. This season, however, playing nearly twice as much, he's averaging just 2.75 fouls per game.)

Purple Reign has duly noted the impact that some of Northwestern's players have had on this young season – see here and here. But Nash is another in the list of Cats who, like the team itself, is playing above expectations.

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