If Northwestern is going to make a run at its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, the Wildcats will have to survive their most daunting stretch of the season with their best player at less than full strength.
The left ankle injury that prevented forward John Shurna from playing last Thursday against Mount St. Mary's is severe enough that he is still unable to practice with the Wildcats. Shurna could only participate in shooting drills during practice Tuesday and remains questionable for Northwestern's Big Ten opener on Friday at Purdue.
"He's not jumping now," Wildcats coach Bill Carmody told the Chicago Tribune. "He's a pretty tough kid, and hopefully he'll able to do more (Wednesday). By Thursday, we should know. But I don't want to guess. I just leave it up to the trainers."
The timing of Shurna's ankle injury could not be worse both because he was playing at an all-conference level and because the Wildcats will need him at his best to avoid starting 0-3 in Big Ten play. Up next after Friday's game at Purdue is a home game against Michigan State and a road test at Illinois, easily the most difficult three-game stretch Northwestern faces this season.
The Wildcats enter Friday's game against Purdue with a gaudy 9-1 record, but that mark is deceiving because of the lack of marquee opponents on their non-league schedule. Only two of the 10 teams they played hailed from a major conference, and Northwestern lost one of those games by 16 points at St. John's.
The most encouraging aspect of the first 10 games for the Wildcats was their offense, which has been spearheaded by the trio of Shurna, sophomore wing Drew Crawford and point guard Michael Thompson. Those three alone average nearly 54 points per game headlined by Shurna's 23.3 points on 61.1 percent shooting and 62.3 percent from three-point range.
Where Northwestern has faltered occasionally is defensively. St. John's shot 80 percent from the floor in the second half against the Wildcats, shredding their defense for open look after open look.
Northwestern will have plenty of opportunities for marquee wins in the Big Ten, but the conference's unexpectedly underwhelming non-league showing may hurt the Wildcats more than any other team.
The Big Ten was expected to be so formidable before the season that a .500 finish in league might have been enough to sneak the Wildcats into the new 68-team NCAA tournament field. Now it seems more likely that Northwestern will have to finish above .500 in conference play and edge out one of the top six teams in the standings in order to make its long-anticipated March Madness debut.