But if last year’s steady decline taught Northwestern anything, it’s that the Wildcats have to get more from their complementary players if they’re going to reach .500 in the conference and, ultimately, make their first NCAA tournament.
Their three stars struggled in Friday’s 82-69 loss to No. 11 Purdue, as Thompson led the Wildcats with 18 points, but committed five turnovers against only two assists; Shurna was held to a season-low 11 points and Crawford managed just three points on 1-for-6 shooting. But one positive the Wildcats could return up I-65 with was the play of the “others.”
“Everybody is going to focus on them,” Northwestern freshman guard JerShon Cobb said. “We have to step up like we did tonight.”
Cobb was making his Big Ten debut on Friday, but no one would have guessed it. From the start, Cobb was as calm and confident as anyone on the floor. On Northwestern’s second possession, he drained a short baseline jumper, and it was on from there.
“Once the ball got tipped, it was basketball,” Cobb said. “I’m very comfortable now. I’m very confident. I feel like coach trusts me. It’s just my job to go out there and play.”
With Purdue clamping down on Northwestern’s big three, opportunities were there for Cobb, and he jumped at them. He took a career-high 11 shots, made a career-high five field goals and matched his best day with 12 points. He also added three assists, two rebounds and one steal.
“He’s not afraid,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “He’s going to be okay for us.”
Northwestern center Luka Mirkovic, left, and Purdue guard Kelsey Barlow struggle for a loose ball on Friday.
Although center Luka Mirkovic led the way in a win over Purdue last season, scoring 16 points and 10 rebounds and getting Boilermakers star big man JaJuan Johnson into foul trouble, he is rarely the primary focus for Northwestern’s offense.
But on Friday, Carmody looked to recreate last year’s magic. On the opening play, the Wildcats dumped the ball to Mirkovic, who went to work and scored inside. From there, he added a few more inside baskets, knocked down two 3-pointers and finished with 16 points, matching his career high from last season.
Carmody had hoped for a little more, but Mirkovic was better than his usual 7.1 points per game.
“Tonight [Johnson] was sort of standing like a statue behind him, and Luka was making half of those little bunnies there,” Carmody said. “I thought we had the right idea. I was just pleased to see him knock down a couple shots. He made some shots, and we got some backdoor layups. It’s so important to our offense that he makes some shots.”
Being starters, Cobb and Mirkovic are expected to provide something for Northwestern. The bench is a different story. Carmody will take whatever he can get from his subs, and senior Mike Capocci provide a spark from the bench against Purdue.
With Shurna still not 100 percent from his recent ankle injury, Carmody turned to Capocci more than he has in past big games for Northwestern. Capocci played 10 minutes against Purdue, and he made all 10 valuable, scoring three points, grabbing two rebounds, dishing off two assists, coming up with two steals and blocking a shot.
“I wasn’t doing anything different,” Capocci said. “I was trying to take advantage of the playing opportunities coach has given me. I try to work hard in practice, and when he puts me in the game, I’m going to go as hard as I can. That’s kind of my role.”
Capocci’s performance Friday was what Carmody has been waiting for him to do.
“He should be doing that all the time,” Carmody said. “He should be doing that the last two years. I’m hoping that it’s some kind of breakthrough.”
The same can be hoped for all of Northwestern’s “others.”
Crawford, Shurna and Thompson won’t likely have another game this season where all three struggle. And when the trio does get going again, if Northwestern’s complementary pieces can assist as they did Friday, the Wildcats may be able to make history.