Cracking the Top 25 in late December certainly isn’t any guarantee that Northwestern will be participating in its first NCAA tournament, but it’s an awfully significant - and rare - head start.
Ranked for the first time in 41 years, the No. 25 Wildcats look to record their first 10-game winning streak in nearly eight decades Wednesday night as they open their Big Ten slate with a visit to perennial nemesis Illinois.
Northwestern (10-1) is the only BCS conference team without an appearance in the NCAA tournament, and its hopes of ending that drought looked dire when it lost two key seniors, Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan, to season-ending injuries.
Instead, nine straight wins since a 67-54 loss to Butler on Nov. 18 have earned the Wildcats their first spot in the AP poll since January 1969.
“It’s nice recognition for what the guys have done so far,” coach Bill Carmody said. “I hadn’t even thought about it, to tell you the truth. I think it’s good for the guys. You’re going along all this time and it’s someone saying, ‘you guys have done pretty well so far.’”
Northwestern has won with defense (58.9 points per game allowed, second in the conference) and by taking care of the basketball (11.5 turnovers per game, among the nation’s top 25), but it’s also shown it can score even without Coble, who averaged a team-high 15.5 points in 2008-09.
Junior point guard Michael Thompson (16.7 ppg) leads the way, but sophomore forward John Shurna (15.9) has been the team’s most pleasant surprise. Shurna scored 22 in a 70-62 win over Stanford on Dec. 19, then had a career-high 29 - shooting 12 of 16 - in a 74-54 victory over Central Connecticut State on Dec. 22.
The Wildcats went 5 of 22 from 3-point range but connected on 22 of 29 shots from inside the arc. Their two-point field-goal percentage (55.6) is among the nation’s top 20.
That’s all led to a start that’s Northwestern’s best since the 1982-83 team opened 11-1. It hasn’t won 10 in a row since the 1930-31 team started with 14 straight wins.
“It just shows that our team is very mature. Everyone stepped up, we came together,” Thompson said. “We’re just working hard and having fun doing it.”
Staying in the Top 25 could be a major challenge for the Wildcats. They’ve lost 10 straight to Illinois (8-4) and have dropped their last seven in Champaign by an average of 22.8 points.
These teams played a tight contest in their lone meeting last season, but that loss in Evanston ranked among Northwestern’s toughest to swallow in years. The Wildcats led 57-43 late in the second half before Illinois rallied to win 60-59 behind 21 points from Demetri McCamey.
“I’ve been in it 30 years now, and (that’s) one I’ll definitely remember for a long time,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.
Weber will want to forget the Illini’s last two contests. Following a four-game winning streak, Illinois fell 70-67 to struggling Georgia on Dec. 19 and 81-68 to Missouri on Dec. 23.
McCamey leads the Illini in scoring (14.1), assists (5.4) and steals (1.7), but they’ve been successful when freshman guard D.J. Richardson has played well. They’re 1-4 when Richardson scores 11 or fewer, and he’s shot 28.2 percent in those games.
Northwestern, which hosts No. 11 Michigan State on Saturday, has lost three straight conference openers. Illinois has dropped two of three.