Like the basketball season as a whole, John Shurna didn't get off to a hot start this year.Northwestern, of course, began the season 2-1, a stretch that included an underwhelming home loss to Butler and a waaaay-too-close comeback win over Tennessee State, which to this day has won just three games.
But, like the basketball season as a whole, Shurna, a 6-foot-8 forward, has more than picked up the pace.Since the fifth game, an upset win over No. 23 Notre Dame in which Shurna set a career high with 25 points, Northwestern and Shurna have been rolling. And Shurna has shown that he is willing to play the role of injured NU star Kevin Coble: the Wildcats' go-to scorer who, despite being the focal point of every defense, can lead the Cats.
With last night's win over UTPA, Northwestern has now won 10 of its last 12, a stretch spurred in large part by Shurna's hot hand. Against UTPA, Shurna, who averaged 7.3 points per game last season, dropped 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. It was the fifth straight game in which he's topped 20 points.
"Shurna is definitely taking on more of the scoring, and you saw that tonight," Bill Carmody said afterward. "He wasn't shooting the ball too much. He was letting the game come to him, but then he saw the direction the game was taking so he starting taking some shots which he had to do."To put Shurna's scoring spree in perspective, Coble didn't score 20 points in five straight games once last season. He didn't even score 20 in four straight games. He once had a three-game stretch of 20, 31 and 21, but that was the only time he notched even three straight 20-point outings. Also, Shurna is averaing 7.8 rebounds per game, 3.0 more than Coble got last season. So, Shurna's getting 18.0 and 7.8 this season compared to Coble's 15.5 and 4.8 last season.
To say Shurna is picking up Coble's slack is an understatement. And Shurna's production has been a huge key to Northwestern's success – a fact that Carmody was talking about way back in November."(Coble's production) is hard to replace," Carmody told NUSports.com on Nov. 12, in the wake of Coble's season-ending injury. "Some people say, ‘Well, it's an opportunity. C'mon, Shurna, you can't just give us seven points a night. This is your time.…'
"I just think we're going to have to go more with some of these veterans and hope the guys from last year play like veterans….I'm trying to think of guys who can possibly score some points for you. At the end of the day, you have to be able to score."Able to score, Shurna has been. He's averaging 26 points over his last five, and after netting just 12 points per game entering the Notre Dame game, he has been one of the conference's – and nation's – elite players. He's getting 20.4 per game starting with the win over the Irish.
Shurna is ranked third in the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding, the only player to appear in the top three in both categories. And he has been rewarded for his hot play with a pair of Big Ten Player of the Week awards, one last week – after he averaged 28 points, 6.5 boards and 4.0 assists against Illinois and Michigan State* – and another on Nov. 30, after he dropped 25 on ND and 23 the next day against Iowa State. He is the first NU player to win multiple Player of the Week awards since Evan Eschmeyer won the award three times during the 1998-99 season.
* That second Player of the Week award is all the more impressive considering Shurna earned it after going against Illinois and Michigan State, two staunch defensive teams. Shurna's 27 against Illinois and 29 against MSU are the most points that either team has given up to a player all season.
Against NU's four toughest opponents – Notre Dame, Butler, Illinois and Michigan State – Shurna is averaging 23.8 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor and 100 percent – 16-for-16 – from the free throw line. Common sense says that Shurna's production will go down as the conference slate stiffens, but there is no evidence to back that up.And Shurna, of course, is doing this as the focal point of every defense he the Cats face. That – like Shurna's increased role – was forecast by Carmody in the preseason.
"The other thing that happens, which I think is the key, Johnny was going to be guarded by the fourth best guy," Carmody said. "Now the best guy's going to guard Shurna. He was going to reap the benefits of them trying to wipe out Coble. Now it's not going to happen. They're going to say, ‘Well, who's their good forward? Let's go on that guy.'"Shurna isn't the only Cat to have evolved since last season. Luka Mirkovic is averaging 6.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 blocks. And after averaging 9.9 points per game last season, Michael Thompson is getting 15.3 this season. Also, with a 3.0-to-1 assist-to-TO ratio, Thompson ranks 24th in the nation in that category; he has 27 assist and six turnovers in his last four outings. And Jeremy Nash's performance has already been documented at length here.
But really, NU's fate may come down to Shurna. After all, like Carmody said, you have to be able to score if you want to win. And Shurna is definitely scoring.Now, as for the winning, we can only wait and see.
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