Northwestern finds itself in a funk, having lost six of the past eight games, including two straight 20-point poundings. The Wildcats are in need of some juice.
NU received a needed break with a five-day layoff between games. During the week, they received a visit from former teammate Michael Thompson, who was in from Germany to visit with family, friends, and his old teammates.
Thompson was Northwestern’s undisputed leader last season, and helped spark the team on a late-season run, though it would fall short of the NCAA tournament. Now, Thompson’s illustrious career at Northwestern is over, and this team is John Shurna’s team. Shurna hopes to leave a lasting legacy with the program, just as Thompson did.
During Thompson’s time in Evanston, he went to dinner with Shurna. The two friends talked about what it takes to be a leader, and how to deal with the burden of making Northwestern history by making the NCAA tournament.
“(Shurna) basically said how he wants to win and get to the tournament and as a senior,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot of pressure on him because it’s his last go-around. As a friend I gave him examples of my experiences with that last season and how I felt and dealt with things.”
Thompson had a simple solution to the pressure during his senior season: hard work.
He lived 15 minutes away from Northwestern’s campus, but was rarely at home. Instead, he was in the Welsh-Ryan gym, working on improving his game.
Thompson’s hard work carried over to the court. He played with desperation, and became the Wildcats’ go-to scorer, leading the team to the NIT quarterfinals—a record run for the Northwestern basketball program.
During their dinner, Thompson told Shurna what it takes to lead the Wildcats toward the tournament.
“I just told him, what’s meant to be will happen,” said Thompson. “He has to play every second and possession as if it’s his last. I tried to get him to understand that he has been playing with pressure all of his career, so just because his senior season of college is coming to an end, he shouldn't feel that there is more pressure just go out there and play basketball. He knows how good he is and what he is capable of.”
Shurna currently sits as the Big Ten’s leading scorer, averaging 19.2 points per game. Thompson feels that Shurna isn’t reaching his capabilities.
“I also went on to say: you’re only averaging 20 points,” Thompson told Shurna during their dinner. “Don't get me wrong, that’s a great average, especially in such a tough conference, but I've seen you play for four-plus years and I know what you are capable of I think you could average 30-plus points per game.”
Thompson offered up one final message for Shurna.
“I didn't tell him that to boost his ego or lie to him,” said Thompson of Shurna. “I have that much confidence in his skills, talent, and him as a person.”
Northwestern looks to right the ship after a rough stretch of games. The Wildcats’ record sits at 12-7, and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They return to action on Saturday afternoon, when Purdue returns to Welsh-Ryan for the first time since January, 2010, when Thompson led NU to an upset over the then-sixth-ranked Boilermakers.
Thompson believes this Northwestern team can reach the program’s first ever NCAA tournament. The team’s key is continuity, starting with John Shurna, their leader.
“This current team has to stick together, and stay focused,” Thompson said. “It’s a long season, they have been playing well, but let a few games slip away late. They still have a great chance to make the tournament they just have to put together some wins.”
With three home games ahead two weeks, the Wildcats face a chance for some much-needed wins. Maybe a little juice will give them a boost.