Coming off a 13-18 season with a 2-14 mark in the Big Ten, the Northwestern men's basketball has a lot to prove.
With eight returning players, including three starters, and the addition of two freshmen, the Wildcats are looking to bounce back this year and surprise the rest of the conference.
NU head coach Bill Carmody is happy to have a bulk of his roster back wouldn't go as far as saying it was a major advantage.
"We only won two games in the Big Ten, so it might not be an advantage," Carmody told BuckeyeSports.com. "We've got a few guys back that I like, a couple of freshmen that I think are pretty good, and Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble, so that's going to help."
Coble, a 6-8 forward, made the Big Ten all-freshman team last season and became the first rookie ever to lead the Wildcats in both scoring and rebounding. Carmody said Coble's development will be a key to the team's success and that Coble is more than capable of becoming a premier player in the conference.
"I think he has got to get stronger because he is sort of a marked man this year," Carmody said. "He's got this scoring mentality. He was very consistent for a freshman, and you usually see a guy up and down. He has to improve in all phases, but I think the strength and physicality is the main thing, and he has been working on it."
Ryan, a 6-6 sophomore guard, and junior guard Craig Moore complete the trio of returning starters, and both will have to play an increased role this season with the departure of Tim Doyle and Vince Scott.
"We lost a real good player in Timmy Doyle, who was sort of like a throwback player," Carmody said. "He scored 12 to 13 points a game, he passed the ball well and just seemed to make everyone a little bit better. We're going to miss him."
With two starting spots open, Carmody said he expects several players to see significant playing time this season, including his four freshmen.
"We have four newcomers – two guys that we redshirted and two freshmen – and we're going to have to get help from those guys if we are going to be successful," the coach said. "Just from the individual workouts, I've been impressed with the two freshmen."
Forward Mike Capocci and guard Michael Thompson are the two true freshmen Carmody has such high praise and high hopes for.
"Thompson played at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, which is a very good program," Carmody said. "He's a little guy, but he's tough and he runs the team well and makes good decisions. Capocci is a 6-6 lefty. He's a pretty good scorer and rebounder. He's an athletic guy, and we haven't had many (of those), so that's good."
Nikola Baran and Ivan Peljusic, a pair of Croatian centers, round out Carmody's group of newcomers.
"We're small, so both of them are going to play," the coach said. "Ivan has looked pretty good. He's looked the better of the two. He's 6-8, long and runs well."
Along with the impact of the young players, the Wildcats are expected to benefit from improved play from other returning veterans, including senior guard Jason Okrzesik, sophomore guards Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger, and junior forwards Patrick Houlihan, Jean-Marc Melchior and Sterling Williams.
"I think the veterans are anxious to play better than they did last year because they are all capable guys and it seemed like they all had off years," Carmody said. "The older guys have to lead a little bit just because of their experience."
He added that the two starting spots are up for grabs, but he seems to be favoring the two true freshmen.
"Practices will tell me who are going to be the top seven guys," he said. "Early on to me, those freshmen look pretty good."
Whomever Carmody decides to start must be prepared for a tough early season schedule, which includes a home opener against Stanford and road games against DePaul and Virginia, as well as the grueling Big Ten schedule.
"It's a little rough beginning," Carmody said. "I'm just not that smart. Scheduling is the worst part of the whole job, and you get them when you can. We're going to get thrown right into it."
Last season was a tough one for NU, and going from the bottom of the Big Ten to the top in one season just isn't likely. But Carmody said he likes the talent on this year's team and is keeping the goals for this year's team realistic.
"You want to win as many home games as you can and steal some on the road," he said. "Most teams can win at home and we feel the same way."
NORTHWESTERN AT A GLANCE
Last year's record: 13-18 overall, 2-14 Big Ten
Head coach: Bill Carmody, eighth season
Record at Northwestern: 95-113
Leading returning scorer: Kevin Coble, 13.4 ppg
Leading returning rebounder: Kevin Coble, 5.2 rpg
Season opener: Stanford, home, Nov. 15
Big Ten Preview: Northwestern
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