But this year's team isn't short on tourney experience. Just ask Jared Swopshire, whom the Wildcats hope will help get them over that hump come March.
Part of four tournament teams at Louisville, including last year's Final Four squad, Swopshire brings his big-game chops to Northwestern as a fifth-year transfer. Affectionately known as "Swop," the 6-foot-8 forward has been a major asset to the program since his arrival in Evanston.
"First and foremost, he's had winning experiences and that translates right away," said associate head coach Tavaras Hardy. "We have a pretty veteran team—we're expecting some of these new guys to help us, but when you look at the core of our group, Drew and those guys have played a lot of minutes. To have that winning edge with Swop coming right in, that fits us perfectly."
It's been a long road to Northwestern for Swopshire. Hailing from St. Louis, his path began at Fort Zumwait West High School in nearby O'Fallon, Missouri. He transferred to the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for his final two years of high school and ended up a four-star recruit on his way to Louisville.
Swopshire proved a valuable piece for the Cardinals his sophomore season, averaging 7.1 points and 6.8 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. But a significant groin injury wiped out his entire junior year, which he sat out without a medical redshirt. Last season Swopshire carved out a smaller role, averaging 13 minutes, 3.3 points and 2.8 rebounds as a senior.
Due to the seriousness of his injury, NCAA rules allowed Swopshire a fifth year of eligibility as a graduate student at another institution. He quickly found the right blend of academics and basketball at Northwestern. Now settled as a Wildcat, Swopshire couldn't be happier.
"The coaches are great, my teammates are great," said Swopshire. "We have a lot of fun together on and off the court. For my last year I couldn't have asked for a better package: the system, players and academics. It's definitely a blessing."
Teammates call Swopshire "mild-mannered," appreciative of his calm demeanor and hard-working mentality. Thanks to his wealth of experience, the cerebral forward quickly grasped the Princeton offense and continues to learn its nuances. Described by one coach as an "old man," Swopshire can often be found putting his teammates' basketball knowledge to the test.
"One thing that's great about Swop is that he asks a lot of questions," said senior Drew Crawford. "Before and after every practice he's always coming up to me asking about certain cuts and certain reads in the offense. He's learning quickly, picking up things real well and he's going to do a great job in the offense this year."
Film sessions and additional work with the team's core of returners helped Swopshire ease into Northwestern's system. In addition, the NCAA's new summer practice regulations aided NU's entire group of newcomers, allowing the coaches valuable offseason practice time with the team.
"[The new rules] really helped me and the freshmen out a lot," said Swopshire. "Just to get used to the system, get used to playing with one another and trying to pick things up. The transition's been smooth."
Swopshire has the chance to play a leading role for Northwestern after the graduation of John Shurna, a major increase from his duties at Louisville. Although he's been pegged by many to succeed the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer, Swopshire isn't worried about those expectations.
"Shurna is an awesome player," he said. "I have so much respect for him, but we're different players. I just want to come in and impact this team the best way I know how. I bring leadership going into my fifth year. [I'm] just competing and trying to help guys improve every day in practice."
The skilled Swopshire provides Northwestern with a variety of new offensive looks, able in the post and on the perimeter. He's solid on the glass and willing to do the dirty work. But the team's attitude has centered upon dividing Shurna's scoring load, not replacing him. There's an air of confidence around Welsh-Ryan arena these days, and Swopshire is simply one important part of the equation.
"I don't think [Swopshire] has to take that pressure," Hardy said. "The great thing about our offense is that it evolves around the guys that we have. He may start in [Shurna's spot], but Shurna played it differently than the guys before him and Swop's going to play it differently than Shurna. He's going to pick and choose his spots where he's going to be successful, and guys are going to put him in position to do that."
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