The photo of Kevin Coble above is the saddest photo I've ever seen.
As I've mentioned a couple of times, I was the basketball writer for the Daily Northwestern last year. One day, after class, I headed up to practice to write a story on Drew Crawford, but Drew was still changing, so I did what I always did: popped a squat on the sidelines and watched the players warm up.
Kevin Coble was always there. Home games, road games, practices. But this day, he decided to hang out directly in between me and the guys taking layup lines, and I couldn't get over how poignant an image it was. Here's a guy on crutches - a guy who clearly couldn't play basketball, a guy who had no reason to be at practice - just watching guys take layups, over and over again, passing errant balls back to players, and watching. (I'm sure he probably was required by coach Carmody to show up, but he could've done what injured walk-on Matt Steger did all season long and halfheartedly pretend to be working on his left.)
So I whipped out my iPhone and took some photos, of him standing there, clearly longing to play, but standing helpless on his crutches.
I fell in love with the photo. I asked the editor of the Daily if we could run it with a Coble feature someday - uh, no, you took that on an iPhone, we have no need for a Coble feature, and we also have actual photographers - but continued to hope someday I'd use the photo.
Today's that day.
When I first heard Kevin Coble was leaving the team next season, I felt a little bit betrayed, because it came so far out of left field. Just two days before I had reassured my dad - who kind of pays attention to NU basketball - that Coble would play, even though he was probably done with his academics. Just the day before I had read this Lindsay Willhite post about how Kevin and Jeff Ryan were on schedule, getting ready, practicing shooting, etc. Everything seemed hunky-dory.
Then yesterday came. Against all reason, Coble was leaving.
I couldn't wrap my head around it. When Kevin Coble finished his junior year, he was an extreme borderline NBA prospect. I figured a good senior year, he'd have a chance of earning a summer league invite and signing a contract with some European team, or in the NBA D-League, maybe eventually earning his way into the bigs with some good way. But all that was predicated on him having a good senior year. I figured for two reasons - his desire to eventually become a pro basketball player, and his seeming devotion to the NU program, having traveled to all those games and attended all those practices, all despite his injury - his presence on the 2010-2011 team would be a no-brainer.
So why was he leaving? I felt betrayed.
After the initial anger, rage, and whatever those other stages of grief are, I've begun to see this in a different, more peaceful way.
Kevin Coble is a smart dude. He knows what's up. He knows all that stuff I said. And he loves Northwestern basketball, and what's more, he loves playing basketball in general - as evidenced by his behavior while injured last year. His desire to skip town next year means there's probably something seriously wrong with his foot. Lisfranc fractures seem rare, violent, and difficult to recover from - here's to Coble eventually recovering from what it is that ails him and maybe getting a gig playing basketball someday.
(That being said, I'm intrigued by what LTP said last night. What I've learned from several years of reading Lake The Posts is that LTP is a) right a disturbing amount of the time and b) really loves highlighting all the great things about Northwestern sports. If he has a hunch that something is weird, that somebody employed by NU is doing something shady, creepy, or slimy - my ears perk up. There might be some investigating to do on this.)
Whatever the situation, best of luck to Kevin Coble. He's been through a lot, and he was a true force on the basketball court the likes of which we don't see frequently in Evanston. He toiled on some crappy teams
So where does this leave Northwestern basketball?
A lot of people are willing to get all doom-and-gloom about the next season. It looked like we'd have a good chance of making our first tournament of all time - some combination of Juice Thompson, Drew Crawford, Jershon Cobb, Coble, John Shurna, and Luka Mirkovic would be the best starting five and sixth man ever in Evanston. We'd take one of the better teams in school history, subtract Jeremy Nash - who, let's be honest, wasn't a world-beater - and add one of the best recruits in school history in Cobb and a guy who led the program in scoring and rebounding as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Last year, we said "next year is now" for our tournament hopes, but that all changed when Coble got injured. Next year shifted to next year: if we didn't make it in 2010-11, we never would. Northwestern basketball teams don't get any better than the one we were going to be able to put on the floor.
But without Coble, I don't think all hope is lost. Sure, about 75 percent of hope is lost. But last year we had a damn good team, and I'd consider Nash for Cobb to be a net gain for our program - assuming Cobb can hit open shots, which Nash never, ever could.
I'll say it now: this team CAN make the NCAA tournament. I'm not sure we will.
We'll need three things:
1. Repeat performances from all the guys who were surprisingly fantastic last year. Shurna, Thompson, and Crawford have to play as well or better this upcoming season as they did last year.
2. A better non-conference schedule. We lost one game in our non-conference schedule. Nobody was impressed, because every team we played sucked. I'll trade two of those non-conference victories against teams we rubbed the floor with for losses to tourney teams, alongside one win against a legit contender on the road. We know next to nothing about next year's schedule - hopefully, Jim Phillips is getting us, you know, teams to play against. No offense to North Florida and North Carolina A&T. Yes, we were briefly ranked, but, first off, we were No. 25, not top ten. Secondly, that ranking came with an expectation Northwestern could and would keep it up. Which leads me to my next point...
3. A full season. When Northwestern needed to play average down the stretch, we completely wilted. Two losses to Penn State? A loss to Iowa? Indiana? The last month of the season was torture.
So, this sucks. Kevin Coble was tremendously talented. I've seen few players as good at scoring awkward points as he was, and he scored those awkward points in droves. And it sucks that we were robbed of a quarter of his career because of a freak practice accident.
But Northwestern can do this. This year is more important than ever - none of us want Northwestern to be the one major conference team never to qualify with 65-68 teams in the tourney. We'd never be able to fix that. Our program would never lose that stink. And it's looking like this is the last year of that format.
Bad things happen sometimes. But let's keep moving forward.