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Historically, there may not be another team quite like Northwestern. Never making it to the NCAA Tournament, and earning their last conference championship (a shared victory with Ohio State, no less) just before Hitler took power in Germany, there seems to be no good reason that Northwestern, who some consider the Harvard of the Midwest, should play among perennial powerhouses like Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana.

This is a school known for its big brains, not big brawn. When today’s Big Ten conference first formed in 1896, Northwestern’s inclusion as a private institution didn’t seem like a big deal: University of Chicago was right there along side them and the Wildcats enjoyed success in basketball against the same teams that they are competing with today. In 1946, however, after WWII ended and the University of Chicago deactivated from the conference, Northwestern stayed on and began what’s now considered to be one of the worst streaks in major conference college basketball.

Their annual trip to the Big Ten Conference Tournament seems to come with seeds like 10, 11, 11, 10, 10, 11, 10 and so on. The last time they made it to the post season, in 1999, the Big Dance seemed like a real possibility after they jumped out to a solid 14–6 record overall, and a 3–1 record in the Big Ten. Then history reared its ugly head again and they dropped eight of their last nine games to barely squeak into the NIT at 15–14, only to lose to fellow Northsiders, Depaul, in the first round.

For a team whose record wins matches the average age of a freshman recruit (18), such is the norm for the Wildcat faithful, or, the few that actually remain. Games at Welsh-Ryan Arena are rarely, in size, more than glorified preseason high-school basketball crowds, with many seats filled by the fans of Big Ten contenders hungry for a blowout on the way to March Madness.

Needless to say, Northwestern suffers a big Big Ten disadvantage.

And part of that is their fault.

Northwestern is primarily an academic institution. Sure, all Big Ten schools are well-reputed Research I institutions, but Northwestern, the only private school in the conference, is a notch above the rest. Regularly graduating students who will go on to study in places like Harvard, Yale, Oxford and La Sarbonne, a few recruits looking for a career in medicine or law might give Northwestern a second glance.

But most 17 year old ballers have only one thing in mind: NBA.

It’s mainly a pipe dream, with about 0.2% of the college field moving onto The Association and maybe 10% looking at pro basketball overseas or in Canada.

Plus, most Big Ten college prospects want to play for winners, or at least teams that have some shot at going to a tournament, let alone the Field of 64. By signing up with Northwestern, players have all but signed on with the conference worst. The bottom feeders. The perennial piss upon.

Enter Wildcats’ forward Kevin Coble in 2006–07. A classic player with both heart and brains, there’s something special about him. A sweet 15-footer and the ability to penetrate the lane complement his penchant for crashing the boards and bombing it out from beyond the arc. He averaged 13.8 ppg and 5.2 rebounds while shooting an impressive 38.8% from three-point range in his freshman season — the first in Northwestern history to do that at such a young age.

An A+ student from Scottsdale, Ariz., Coble’s academics are as important to him as his jump shot, explaining why such a baller would choose to be a Wildcat in Evanston as opposed to one for Lute Olson two hours across the desert in Tucson.

This fall semester, Coble is taking a course learning how to speak Swahili.

But he’s doing it from back home in Arizona.

Superstar-in-waiting Coble hasn’t suited up this year due to a self-imposed leave of absence after learning that his mother had breast cancer. In order to stay eligible, he took courses online from the desert, where he could hold his mother’s hand while she endured chemotherapy.

But he’s training for a comeback to Northwestern. The hope is that he will be on the floor for their Big Ten opener on January 2 versus Penn State at Welsh-Ryan Arena. His family is moving to Evanston and his mother will finish out her treatment in Illinois.

As to the effect that it will have on the team — that remains to be seen. The Wildcats are off to a standard start: 4–4 with heartbreaking losses to DePaul and Brown. Most Wildcat fans recognize that with Coble in the lineup those L’s might’ve been W’s. But no one on the team is looking back, or so it seems. With just one game left against Howard between now and the Penn State showdown, the hope is that the Wildcats can rally enough victories to ramp up for an ’08–’09 that could bump them into the Big Dance for the first time.

Ever.

Let’s see what’s on tap for for December 10–16

Last week’s record: 8–5
Season record: 45–12

MONDAY DECEMBER 10

Ohio State 79
Coppin State 71

WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 12

Michigan 69
Oakland 57

Penn State 73
Princeton 67

Wisconsin 80
Wisconsin – Milwaukee 67

Minnesota 78
South Dakota State 54

FRIDAY DECEMBER 14

Drake 76
Iowa 73

SATURDAY DECEMBER 15

Ohio State 87
Presbyterian 68

Michigan 65
Central Michigan 64

Penn State 71
Denver 65

Purdue 66
Louisville 64

Michigan State 89
IPFW 69

Wisconsin 78
Wisconsin-Green Bay 74

Indiana 87
Western Carolina 70