NU eager for first step toward ultimate goal

EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern junior John Shurna already was amped for the start of the college basketball season before the week began.

But when Shurna started seeing college games on television on Monday, Northwestern’s season-opener at Northern Illinois on Friday couldn’t arrive soon enough.

To add to all the anticipation, Northwestern is embarking on what could be an historic season in Evanston. The Wildcats never have reached the NCAA tournament, and they’re looking to finally change that this year. The difficulty in that is they have an entire season to play before that can happen.

“I mean the selection show isn’t until March,” said Shurna, who averaged a team-leading 18.2 points last season. “It’s the only start of November. I think we have to just take it one game at a time. Last year, we put ourselves in a good situation and dropped a couple games toward the end. I think that shows how important each game is and how it’s going to be huge for us to play night in and night out.”

But it’s not like the Wildcats can completely erase any thoughts of the NCAA tournament.

“It’s always in the back of our head,” Northwestern sophomore guard Drew Crawford said. “That’s always our ultimate goal. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

Northern Illinois is in the first step. The Huskies had a rocky 2009-10 season as they experienced both a six-game winning streak and a 10-game skid within weeks of each other.

Northern Illinois’ offseason was even more tumultuous. The Huskies had four players who had combined for 76 starts last year decide to transfer after the season.

Fortunately for Huskies coach Ricardo Patton, his key piece to the puzzle did remain. Six-foot-five shooting guard Xavier Silas tested the NBA waters, but decided to return for his senior season. Silas averaged 19.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 blocks and 0.8 steals last year. With Silas having to possibly carry more of the load this season, it isn’t far-fetched for him to push for the national scoring title.

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is aware of that, too.

“They have a great player,” said Carmody, who took his team to DeKalb a day early. “They got a pro in Silas. It’s going to be a tough one. He does everything well. He’s aggressive. He can score. He can defend. He gets his hands on a lot of passes. He gets a lot of easy hoops. He can get to the rim. He’s just very persistent. He’s a guy who likes to score.”

Starting on the road against an in-state team isn’t the ideal way for the Wildcats to begin their campaign, but they aren’t looking at it as a possible trap.

“There’s no apprehension,” Crawford said. ”I just think right now it’s excitement. We got to be excited. We got to be ready. We got to be on our toes for a battle. It’s going to be a tough. We just want to go in and bring the energy we need to win.”