As Northwestern gets ready to start the basketball season, there is gigantic milestone that all Wildcat fans are eyeing: The quest to finally make the NCAA Tournament. The Cats, of course, are one of but a few Div. I outfits that have never been fitted for dancing shoes in March. And with last season’s jaunt to the NIT, and with this season’s roster looking a lot like last season’s – save the fact that everyone is a year old and, presumably, a year better – there is a swell of optimism that this season will end with a tourney berth.
That’s the most important milestone. And it’s one that, understandably, is getting talked about.
"I don't think of it as pressure," said NU coach Bill Carmody. “Getting to the NCAA tourney is something we should aspire to, every team should. We do feel like we are going to have one of our better teams, but top to bottom everyone else is going to be better, too."
"It is one of our goals to get there,"said junior Michael Thompson. "We have to pay attention to details."
“But (getting to) the NCAA is not a pipe dream," Kevin Coble. "I knew it wouldn't happen before this season. The key is getting off to a good start.”
"I told Bill (Carmody) that this is his year to get there," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I told him I was putting the pressure on him right here and now."
So yeah – the tourney talk is, and has been, in full throttle.
But there is another historic storyline this season. And it’s this: Coble is about to embark on a season-long ascension up the all-time scorers list at Northwestern.
No. 14, Kevin Coble: 1,203 career points
No. 13, Craig Moore: 1,294
No. 12, Dale Kelley: 1,310
No. 11, Joe Ruklick: 1,315
No. 8, Shon Morris: 1,407
Coble is currently No. 14 on the list with 1,203 points, just 91 points shy of No. 13, former teammate Craig Moore, who had 1,294 points. After that, there’s a logjam. No. 12 is Dale Kelley,* who is just 16 points away at 1,310. Jump ahead to the No. 8 slot: Shon Morris, who had 1,407 points – merely 203 more than Coble has at the moment.
Think of it this way: Coble needs 204 points to pass Morris’ 1,407 and move into the No. 8 all-time slot. Last season, Coble scored his 204th point in game 15, just five contests into the conference schedule.
* Because this was back in the day when freshman played junior varsity, Kelley only had three years to compile his stats. So that Kelley made it to 1,310 in only three years is that much more impressive. Kelley, just 5-foot-11, had the highest single-season per-game average of anyone on the list, notching 24.3 points per game as a senior during the 1969-70 season.
But Kelley isn’t the lone three-year player to pile up the points. No. 11 on the list, Joe Ruklick, who played from 1957 to 1960, had 1,310 career points. The 6-9 forward had the third highest single-season per-game average, scoring 23.0 per outing back in 1959-60. And Jim Burns was the most prolific three-year player. He finished his career with 1,368 points, and was the only player on the all-time scorers list to tally back-to-back 20-point-per-game seasons. He averaged 20.2 in 65-66, and 21.5 in 66-67.
OK, back to Coble. It’s hard to tell exactly what he’ll average this season. As a freshman, Coble was good for 13.4 points per game. He upped that to 15.9 as a sophomore, but he averaged just 15.5 last season. Now, the fact that Coble scored so much as a freshman, and then less as a junior than sophomore, is more of a statement on the team than Coble. It’s not like he’s getting worse; the team is getting better.
Tim Doyle was the only other Cat in double-figures in Coble’s freshman season. In fact, Doyle was the only other guy on the team who scored at least 8.2 points. But then last season, as a junior, Coble’s load was lightened. Moore averaged double figures (14.3), and Michael Thompson was good for 9.9. Throw in John Shurna’s 7.7 per game, and it makes sense that Coble’s averaged dipped ever so slightly from 15.9 to 15.5.
And this makes it tricky to guess what he’ll average this season. Coble is apparently better than he’s ever been – at least according to coach Bill Carmody:
He got stronger. He's good out there and we're going to have a hard time, I'm going to have to put Coach (Mitch) Henderson out there and play him because he can score just about any time he wants and he's making long shots. Those of you who have been around a while know that when he was a freshman and he came here and he wasn't really a three-point shooter. He didn't shoot long shots. He was a scorer, but he's moved it out further and further. Each year he's gotten better and now he shoots two-and-a-half steps past that three-point line pretty consistently. He's getting to the hole, getting to the rim, not getting knocked down as often.
Sounds good. But here’s the thing: the team is better than it’s ever been, too. Shurna is a sophomore who already has a year of starting experience; Thompson is back; freshman Drew Crawford has not-around-these-parts type of athleticism. All told, 10 of the top 11 scorers return from last season’s team. So if Coble was called upon to do a little bit less last season than in 2008,* then this season might be the same story.
* Again, it wasn’t an issue of Coble struggling last season. He simply shot a little bit less last season than he did as a sophomore. In 2007-08, he shot about 12.9 times per game. Last season, it was 12.2. Negligible, maybe, but at least evidence that it’s not a matter of inefficiency.
But while it’s hard to know exactly how much Coble will be shooting and scoring, we can make some broad assumptions. Again, here are his year-by-year point totals.
Thus, in ’09, you have to figure that it’ll be, what, 15.5? Maybe 16? How about this: between 15.0 and 17.0. That seems a safe bet – it accounts for a slight regression if Coble’s workload is lightened, but also accounts for the fact that he’s a returning second-team All-Big Ten performer. So 15 to 17 seems pretty reasonable.
Now, do the math on those numbers – with an eye on that all-time scoring chart. First off, let’s say that Northwestern will play 33 games this season. That’s a conservative guess: It is all 31 regular season games, plus one Big Ten Tourney game and an additional post-season tournament game, presumably (and hopefully) the Big Dance. There will be more games if Northwestern wins a conference tourney game, which isn’t at all out of the questions, and even more games if they go anywhere in the NCAA (or NIT).
If Coble doesn’t get injured (knock, knock) and plays in all of NU’s 33 games, his numbers would look like so:
15 ppg: 495 on season, 1,698 for career
15.5 ppg: 511.5 on season, 1,715 for career
16 ppg: 528 on season, 1,731 for career
17 ppg: 561 on season, 1,764 for career
Now, what does this do for Coble’s all-time ranking? Well, unlike the No. 13 through No. 8 slots, there is a pretty big chasm in the rarified air of the top seven spots. Again, No. 8, Morris, had 1,407. But No. 7, Jitim Young, had 1,521 points – a difference of 114 points. By contrast, the four spots from 14 to 11 have a difference of 112 points (Coble’s 1,203 to Ruklick’s 1,315).
Move a little further up the list. Only 62 points separate No. 3, Stack, and No. 7, Young. So there is another cluster between No. 7 (1,521 points) and No. 3 (1,583 points). But then things get spread out: No. 2, Evan Eschmeyer, finished with 1,805 – one spot but 222 points above Stack – and No. 1, Billy McKinne, has 1,900 career points.
No. 7, Titum Young: 1,521
No. 3, Jim Stack: 1,583
No. 2, Evan Eschmeyer: 1,805
No. 1, Billy McKinnie: 1,900
Thus, if Coble hits anywhere in his (admittedly crude and unscientific) range of 15 to 17 points, he will land comfortably in the No. 3 all-time slot. Even the conservative estimate of 15 points gives him more than 100 more than Stacks’ 1,583. And 17 points per game, which would be a career high, would put him at 1,764 points, which is still about 50 points shy of No. 2 Eschmeyer.*
* There is such a gulf between the current Nos. 2 and 3 that Coble could average anywhere from 11.5 to 21 points per game and still end up as the No. 3 all-time scorer.
It won’t be impossible for Coble to end up somewhere besides No. 3. First off, if the Cats play more than 33 games – which, again, is a distinct possibility – then that changes all this math and obviously makes it easier for Coble to do damage to the record book. Or, Coble could just average a ton of points. If, for instance, Coble averages 21.1 points per game, then he would come in juuuuust over McKinnie’s 1900. (Actually, 21.1 points per game over a 33-game season gives Coble 1,900.5.) And to claim that No. 2 spot, Coble would need to average a not-totally-out-of-the-question 18.2 points.
Honestly, it doesn’t look like Coble will crack the top two. First off, he’d have to average considerably more than he has in the past. And moreover, this Wildcat team likely won’t need Coble to score that much. Not with the talent and experience that this squad possesses. And that, of course, is a good thing.
But what’s certain is that – barring a major injury early in the season – Coble is going to start moving up the all-time scorer list. And quickly. He is just 91 points shy of Moore’s 1,294, and if Coble gets something like 15-16 points per game, he’ll probably eclipse that mark in the sixth or seventh game (if not earlier). And it gets cluttered after that. No. 12 Kelley’s mark of 1,310 would be 16 points away; that's one decent game. And No. 11 Ruklick’s 1,315 could be passed the same night.
If this season goes as planned, Coble is on a seemingly inevitable path to become NU’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer. Basically anything within reason – 15 points to 17 points – will put Coble solidly in third. Heck, even a career-worst – career-worst by far – 12.3 per game would put Coble in third. As would a career-best 20 per game.
Pay attention, or you’ll miss his ascension up the list of Northwestern greats.
To reach Purple Reign, please write to David Vranicar at firstname.lastname@example.org.