On the block

It might be a stretch to call it a block party. Maybe a block shindig? A block get-together? Whatever the nomenclature, Northwestern is blocking more shots this season than last – and doing it without 2008-09's leading rejecter, Kevin Coble. Purple Reign looks at who's picked up the swat slack.

Many early-season hoops trends are a bit surprising in light of Kevin Coble's season-ending foot injury. The team's record (8-1), the three-point shooting (39 percent) and scoring (71.9 points) are all pretty constant – if not a wee-bit better – compared to last season.

One stat that has been as surprising as any other is blocked shots. Coble, after all, led the team in blocks last season, and in theory his absence shouldn't coincide with a spike in blocks. But that's exactly what's happened.

NU is averaging 4.4 blocks per game so far this season, good for No. 82 in the nation. The Wildcats averaged just 2.9 a year ago, No. 197.

Now, some of that surely has to do with the early-season slate being a little cushier than the annual Big Ten gauntlet. But even when you just look at last season's first nine games – the point we're at in this year's campaign – NU is still doing better. A year ago, the Cats averaged 3.8 blocks through their first nine – more than half-a-block less than this season. And that included an anomalous 10-block game* against the lowly UMKC, the doormat of the Summit League. In five of the other eight early-season games, NU had three or less.

*To be fair, the Cats have had one huge block game this season, when they got nine against North Carolina State. But…NC State is no UMKC. Northwestern still stands as the Wolfpack's only loss, as well as one of only three games in which NC State has been rejected more than three times. So while 10 blocks against UMKC reeks of a weak opponent, nine against the once-beaten Wolfpack reeks of stout defense.

A big reason for this season's inhospitable attitude around the goal has been 6-11 sophomore center Luka Mirkovic. He has recorded at least one block in six of NU's nine games and, with 12 rejections on the season, is averaging 1.33 per outing. What's more, Mirkovic has been at his best against NU's best competition: He had three rejections against Notre Dame and four against North Carolina State. (He had two more in the Cats' 84-54 thumping of North Florida on Wednesday.)

To put his 12 blocks in perspective, Mirkovic only had 14 blocks all of last season, and never more than three in one game. But this season, he's already had a two-swat game, a three-swat game and that four-swatter against North Carolina State.

But it's not just Mirkovic who's stepped up. Six-five freshman Drew Crawford and 6-8 sophomore John Shurna are also zealously defending the rack. They each have eight blocks on the season – .89 per game. Shurna had just 18 blocks all of last season, so he's nearly halved his 2009 output in less than one-third of the 2010 season. And, with last year's team-high at just .613 blocks per game, Crawford's .89 blocks are certainly a welcome sign.

Jeremy Nash is also chipping in; he has already set a single-season high with seven blocks. (Nash, by the way, is setting career marks across the board.)

Again, block averages will almost certainly go down a bit once the conference season starts. But with sophomores Mirkovic and Shurna – both obviously improved since last season – and the springy freshman Crawford, there is every reason to think that Northwestern will be turning away more shots around the basket than it did last season.

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