(Almost) Perfect 10

It's not hyperbole: The Wildcats are off to a historically good start. And with one game left before the conference season begins, Tuesday against Central Connecticut State, Purple Reign gives you a 2,000-word power ranking of NU's first 10 games -- a look at how the Cats are on the cusp of their best start since the Great Depression.

Let's not dwell on the start of the basketball season, which could be kindly described as inauspicious and bluntly described as disastrous. Kevin Coble broke a bone in his foot before the season even began, and Jeff Ryan blew his ACL in the first half of the first game.

You know how the story began. Not well, to say the least.

But pretty much everything since then – the 9-1 record, the away-from-home wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina State, the emergence of the freshmen, etc. – has been good. And not good simply in light of the gut-wrenching beginning. No, it's been good compared to any season in Northwestern basketball history.

With a win over Central Connecticut State on Tuesday, Northwestern will equal the 1993-94 squad's mark of nine straight wins, the last time a Wildcat team won nine in a row. A win over CCSU would also give NU its best start since the 1930-31 season, when Wildcats started 12-0. The best start in 79 years – that's a long, long time.

It hasn't always been easy – a loss to Butler will attest to that – nor has it always been pretty – uh, Tennessee State? But nonetheless, NU has only one loss with conference play looming, so how about a look back at how we got here?

Here's a power ranking of NU's first 10 games, worst to best:

10. Butler The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein had an awesome lead to his recap of the Butler game:

If this was a preview of what Northwestern will look like without Kevin Coble, then cover your eyes.

Touché. It was ugly, and since it was just the second game, there was reason to think that this is how NU would look this season without Coble, whose injury was still fresh in everyone's minds. The 67-54 defeat was gruesome all around. The Cats trailed by 21 at one point in the second half, made just 41.3 percent of their shots and had two steals to Butler's 10.

Now, Butler was ranked No. 11 at the time; there is no shame in losing to a top 15 team. But this was definitely the nadir of the young season. At 1-1 and without much of an identity yet – again, people's heads were still spinning from Coble's foot – one could be forgiven for thinking this was a precursor for a long finish to 2009. It wasn't.

9. East Tennessee State A win that didn't feel much like a win. This was the first game after the Butler defeat, and while it pushed NU's record to 2-1, it was a distressing way to go about getting a win.

Trailing 61-53 with 5:26 to play, the Cats needed every one of Michael Thompson's 31 points. Thompson sparked a pretty remarkable run, scoring eight points in the span of a couple minutes and knotting the score at 62 after a pair of free throws. The best part may have been with about 3:50 to go: Thompson missed a three, and Drew Crawford went and snared the rebound. He kicked it back out to Crawford who decided, What the heck? and pulled another three. He mad it, of course, and NU won going away. Still, though, this one was ugly.

TSU, by the way, is now 3-9, so this would have been a really bad loss. Purple Reign made this point earlier, but it is worth repeating: Agonizingly close wins over sub-par (read: crummy) teams don't necessarily indicate problems. There can be problems, sure, but there doesn't seem to be a direct correlation between why-was-that-so-close? games and ensuing problems. This TSU win was the first of eight straight (and counting). The football squad pulled a similar stunt by beating Eastern Michigan on a last-second field goal, even though EMU was truly dreadful – they were winless on the season.

8. Liberty The power rankings get muddled here. Alas, there are no bad or especially ugly wins from here on out. So, know that there is nothing wrong with Nos. 8 through 1.

Liberty is 6-6 on the season and was 1-4 when it played NU, so the win was expected. One thing, though, that definitely stood out was Crawford, who netted a then-career-high 22 points. He canned five three-pointers and had four assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block. It was a nice precursor to his 35 points a few games later, and an early sign that he is among the nation's better freshmen.

Shurna added 14 and nine, and Jeremy Nash had seven assists.

7. Northern Illinois This 77-55 season-opening win was pretty nondescript. NIU still has just one win on the season – ironically, it was an easy 28-point victory over the same Tennessee State team that gave NU fits – and this game wasn't particularly memorable, really. NU led by 14 at halftime, which was nice, but the Cats had fewer assists, fewer blocks and fewer field goals than NIU. They also shot a pretty miserable 23.8 percent from downtown and 39.6 percent from the floor.

The one thing that, in hindsight, is interesting about this game is Nash's performance. Dude had 20 points and 10 made free throws. The most free throws he'd ever made in a season before this year was 20. This game was an omen of just how much Nash's role and importance to the team would evolve. And how much he'd be up to the task.

6. North Florida This 84-54 blowout was a bit of a snoozer not because the Cats didn't play well. It's more like they played too well.

NU hit 14-of-28 threes. Every starter scored in double figures and shot at least 50 percent. No one had more than six rebounds but NU still outrebounded North Florida by eight. It was a dismantling through-and-through.

5. Iowa State Northwestern's 67-65 win over ISU started a three-game losing streak for Iowa State, but the Cyclones are still having a good season. They're 8-3 and just pounded Bradley – which beat Illinois in late November – by 19.

This win earned NU the Chicago Invitational title, and it was a truly team effort. Shurna had 23 points, Thompson had 16 and Nash had 10 to go with five assists and two steals. Marcotullio nailed a pair of three-pointers and nabbed three steals. What's more, it was a nail-biter most of the way, so NU has shown it can win a close one.

Coming one day after the win over Notre Dame (see below), this capped off a heck of a weekend.

4. Stanford The Cardinal may only be 5-5, but they've had some rough luck. Stanford lost by two to Oral Roberts, by one to Oklahoma State and in overtime to unbeaten Kentucky. So this 70-62 win is a good one.

The game ball would probably go to Nash, who continued to fill up the stat sheet by scoring seven points, grabbing six boards and getting three steals. This one was extra encouraging because NU overcame some woeful three-point shooting; the Cats were six-of-25, just 24 percent. Crawford, Shurna, Nash and Marcotullio were a combined two-for-16. And as was written about here, Northwestern often lives and dies by the three: When the Wildcats miss 19 of their 25 attempts, they're supposed to lose. That they didn't, that it was especially ugly, made this game that much prettier.

3. North Carolina A&T A 25-point win over a team that is currently 4-7. Yawn, right? Well, not exactly. Sure, this one might be ranked a little high. But it featured a pretty remarkable individual performance – by far the best of the season and maybe one of the best in NU history – especially for a freshman – plus a record-setting team effort from downtown.

Crawford hit eight three-pointers and NU hit a school-record 20 en route to this 90-65 win. Crwaford, who played just 25 minutes, was eight-of-13 from beyond the arc and four-of-four from inside it. He also had five rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Thompson hit five threes himself, and Marcotullio added three. No, NC A&T is not good. This game, though, was.

2. Notre Dame The only thing that has this game at No.2 – behind the NC State game – is the fact that it was in Chicago and not truly on the road. Really, the 1-2 spots are interchangeable, because there is no doubt this was a big-time win.

Coming into this one, ND, currently 10-2, was 5-0 and simply murdering teams. The Fighting Irish were winning by an average of 20.2 points with the smallest margin of victory being 18. They were scoring 86.8 and giving up 66.6. Five players were averaging at least 8.2 points, and three were getting at least 11.8.

They were also ranked* No. 23, but Northwestern led by three at halftime and ended up winning by 14, 72-58. This was the beginning of a new season for Shurna. Coming into this one he was averaging just 12 points and had not shot better than 50 percent in any of NU's four games. But against ND he went off for 25 – on just 18 shots – and grabbed eight rebounds. In the five games since ND, he is averaging 14.6 points, a five-point outing in the 25-point win against North Carolina A&T weighing down his average. Basically, he's been on a tear recently, and it started here.

* Speaking of rankings, why isn't NU ranked yet? There are 12 teams with two or more losses in the AP Top 25, yet NU is still just "receiving votes." Butler, the only team to beat NU, is ranked 20th. Maybe eventually...

NU entered this game at 3-1 with three so-so wins. But this was the moment the Cats declared that this was not a lost season.

1. North Carolina State This didn't seem like the best win the moment it ended – that honor belongs to Notre Dame – but the miracle of hindsight shows how nice this one was. You know why? NC State still hasn't lost to anyone else. Yet NU went to Raleigh and won by 12, 65-53.

NU led by 10 at the half and withstood a few mini-surges from the Wolfpack, keeping them at bay with timely scoring by Marcotullio (eight points) and Thompson (22 points). The Wolfpack pulled to within four, 47-43, after a huge breakaway dunk. With the crowd going bonkers, Marcotullio nailed a three from the corner. Then, a moment later, after the Wolfpack clawed to within 53-47, Thompson got a layup. He hit another clutch layup with the scored at 57-52. On the second lay in he was fouled; he converted the three-point play to put this one on ice.

Luka Mirkovic got himself four blocks, confirming that he is going to be a defensive force this season. And Nash continued his do-a-bit-of-everything routine, scoring 12 and snaring eight rebounds. He is the only Cat this season to have games of 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

That brings us to Central Connecticut State, currently 3-5. I don't want to jinx anything; I fear I did that with this bit of future-reading a few weeks back. But the Cats should win this one. And when – whoops, I mean if – they do, they will enter conference play as hot as any team in the Big Ten. And as hot as any Northwestern team since 1930.

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