Northwestern and The Ewing Theory

Publisher
Posted Dec 2, 2009


Back in 2001, ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons officially formulated “The Ewing Theory.” Inspired by Patrick Ewing, Simmons hypothesized that – instead of floundering – teams that lose their star player often – for whatever reason – rally and play even better. Purple Reign looks at The Ewing Theory and wonders if the Wildcats are the most recent example.

As you probably know, Bill Simmons is a writer for ESPN.com. Indeed, he is ESPN.com’s eminent writer.

He has his own page within ESPN.com (The Sports Guy’s World). He recently published a book (The Book of Basketball) that, after reaching No. 1, currently sits at No. 12 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. His podcasts (The B.S. Report) are – according to him – listened to 200,000 times a day.

As the main writer for the nation’s main sports outlet, and with a book sitting on the NYT bestseller list, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that Simmons is the biggest sports writer in the nation.

So his theories aren’t to be scoffed at. Sure, his incessant “Survivor” and “Real World” references can wear thin. And his novellas about drunken excursions to Vegas aren’t always gripping. But still, Simmons is a sports writing giant. His columns are engaging and often hilarious, and his theories – of which there are many – demand a gander.

Which brings us to Northwestern’s 65-53 win Tuesday night at North Carolina State, a win that inspired Purple Reign to look a little closer at Simmons’ "Ewing Theory," and to analyze it with purple-tinted lenses. We are now seven games into what some thought was a lost season after Kevin Coble went down. But with the Wildcats sitting at 6-1 and No. 2 in the Big Ten, The Ewing Theory seems to be unfolding before our eyes.

The NC State game was encouraging on many fronts. Three different players scored in double figures, led by Michael Thompson’s 22 points – his third 20 point game this season. John Shurna added 11 and Jeremy Nash dropped 12 points to go along with a game-high eight rebounds and team-high four assists. The Cats shot an outstanding 42.9 percent from downtown – six-of-14 – and outrebounded the Wolfpack 33 to 26.

Off the bench, Luka Mirkovic hit two-of-three shots, collected four rebounds and blocked four shots. And marksman Alex Marcotullio – whose hot hand has been documented here and here – continued his stellar* three-point shooting, canning two-of-five treys and finishing with eight points (and one technical foul).

* Apologies for writing so much about Alex Marcotullio, but he continues to do things that warrant attention. That second link there discusses Marcotullio’s propensity to hit timely, run-stopping threes; he did it again against the Wolfpack. Northwestern took a 47-35 lead with 11:14 to play in the game. But then, after some ice-cold offense – and that Marcotullio technical – State chipped away, and a huge Tracy Smith steal-and-dunk made it 47-43. Gulp.

Then, on the next possession, Marcotullio ended the 8-0 run by canning a three from the corner. NU hadn’t scored in nearly three minutes, and Marcotullio had just gotten a technical, and the crowd was going nuts. But there he was, stymieing yet another opponent’s run. That’s it about Marcotullio. For now.

OK, so the NC State game was good. Pretty balanced scoring. Mirkovic played some serious D. Shurna filled it up with six boards, three dimes, three steals and two blocks. Nash was nearly perfect in the first half, Thompson was clutch throughout the second half. Success. Six and one.

Which makes this Ewing Theory comparison even more palpable.

As Simmons tells it, there are three basic tenets of The Ewing Theory. He wrote,

1. A star athlete receives an inordinate* amount of media attention and fan interest...

2. That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) – and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.

The third part, of course, is that said team doesn’t falter, but instead thrives. Simmons references the 1999 New York Knicks, who lost Patrick Ewing early in the Eastern Conference Finals only to win the series and reach the finals after being given up for dead. Simmons also looked at the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers, who, one year after Peyton Manning’s graduation, won the national title. And there were the 2000 Seattle Mariners, who made the playoffs after losing Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson. Part III is just as important as Parts I and II.

* "Inordinate" has a bit of a negative connotation; the words “beyond reason” show up in the definition. But this isn’t a dis on Coble. Indeed, he deserves the attention he gets. He led the team in scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons and would have almost certainly done the same this year. So please don’t misinterpret this 2010 Wildcats/Ewing Theory treatise as an indictment on Coble. Instead, it’s a way of applauding the rest of the team. No one in their right mind would choose to not have Coble, and Purple Reign, for one, was stoked to see Coble continue his assault on the NU record books.

So, on to Part I: Was Coble receiving a lot of media attention?

Sure. He was a consensus second-team All-Big Ten player last season, and even more was expected this year. Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star was one of the pundits to dub Coble a first-team All-Big Ten selection before Coble’s injury. Explaining his selection of Coble, he wrote:

I just think he's got a strong game and needs to be on the [All-Big Ten first] team. I think if you ask most Big Ten coaches who one of the most difficult players in the conference would be to defend, I think many of them would tell you that Coble was among the top five.

The Sporting News also tabbed Coble a first-team all-conference player heading into the season, and everybody thought he would at least be a second-teamer again. At least. Therefore, Part I of The Ewing Theory is in tact. Coble received a great deal of media attention.

Now, Part II: Did fans and media write off the team when the injury happened?

Well, some media sure seemed to. The Daily Herald wrote:

Considering all of the effort Coble put into preparing for his final season, it's a karmic kick in the purple shorts for him as well as the Wildcats….

Now those acrobatic shots and the increased strength are shelved for the time being - and it's an inconvenient time for Northwestern's NCAA hopes.

Early games with Butler, Notre Dame and North Carolina State looked like opportunities to build a strong RPI.

(That last part is the most instructive: the early-season games “looked like opportunities”. But after Coble’s injury, apparently those opportunities were lost.)

The Tribune wrote:

Kevin Coble has two options for healing his injured left foot, and neither one bodes well for this Northwestern team.

GopherHole.com, a Minnesota Gophers blog, asserted:

Might Kevin Coble's injury be the best thing for Northwestern? Obviously not for this year – if not for Iowa, it seems likely Northwestern would finish in the BT cellar.

And finally, from ESPN.com:

If Northwestern is going to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since it started playing the sport 104 years ago, decades before the tournament ever began, then the Wildcats will have to accomplish it without their leading returning scorer and two of the four seniors on the roster….

Northwestern remains the only team from a power six conference that has never been to the NCAA tournament. When ESPN.com visited the Wildcats in October the staff and players were confident that this would be the season they break the streak.

It seems the perception among some media members was that the season was a pre-wash, done before it even began.

So the rhetoric was either doom-and-gloom or totally focused on next season. To some, it seemed as though the 2009-10 season was being foregone, skipped, and the focus was already about breaking down the Tourney wall in 2011.

It’s a little tougher to gauge the fans’ attitude. But some surely thought that the NCAA hopes would have to wait a year. Again, it's harder to quantify fans’ emotion because they’re not always putting them into readily-accessible Internet articles. But you know some people were giving up.

Parts I and II of The Ewing Theory, therefore, seem to fit. Coble got a lot of hype (deservedly so), and people seemed to have written off this season. Let’s wait until next season, when Coble comes back. Then we’ll be good.

Well, the team – this team – didn’t get the wait-‘til-next-year memo. Because, evidenced by the 6-1 start, they can live without Coble. Part III – the "team thrives" part – is thus far playing out to a T.

Along with beating then-unbeaten Notre Dame, as well as then-unbeaten Iowa State, as well as then-unbeaten NC State, Northwestern is ranked No. 31 in at least one RPI ranking at the time of publication. That, by the way, is ahead of heavyweights like Kansas, Florida and North Carolina. Of course the season is young. But not so young that teams haven't been able to distinguish themselves. And NU has done just that.

Remember those three RPI-building games that “looked like” opportunities to build a Tournament résumé? Well, NU won two of them – neither at home, and both by double figures.

Turns out Nash can handle being a starter. Turns out Thompson can fill it up if he has to. Turns out Shurna’s offense has continued to evolve. Turns out this season is just getting started.

Turns out, also, that Simmons may have another example to bolster The Ewing Theory.

To reach Purple Reign, write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

Addendum: Unbeknown to Purple Reign, an article about Northwestern and The Ewing Theory was written by John Templeton here. The article was written on Nov. 18, when NU was 1-0.



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