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Can John Shurna be Kevin Coble?

Better question: Is he already?

For the most part, Northwestern fans have been busy lamenting and whining about how screwed we are and how nothing ever goes right for us over the past few days. It's understandable. People have emotions and stuff. And it's led to some really thought provoking posts: we've seen multiple people lamenting by listing the litany (ALLITERATION, PUNKS) of terrible things that have happened to NU basketball. We've seen multiple people say Coble leaving is indicative of a greater tradition of indifference, and that NU is a program with a losing attitude problems that extend off the court that will prevent us from ever winning anything.

I'd like to focus on basketball. 

College basketball people who know what they're talking about seem to think Northwestern - despite the crippling loss of Kevin Coble - still looks like a pretty damn good team. Click those links. All three. 

What The Only Colors focused on was the similarity between Kevin Coble and John Shurna. They're alarming. So let's look into them.

First, let me say one thing: I'm obviously not saying that because the two are such similar players, it's better for Northwestern that the two won't be on the same team. This is silly. As the cloning thread at my other favorite website, Posting and Toasting, tried to point out through science fiction, the effects of having two identical players could be very beneficial. The fact that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are both very athletic scorers who have spent their entire careers dominating the ball does not bode poorly for the Miami Heat. (They're very different players, but, you get the point.)

Let's hit the jump:

(all stats from ESPN and kenpom - go check them out yourself)

The first - and most obvious - comparison is physical. Both guys are listed at 6'8 and 210 pounds, both are wiry and weak compared to other Big Ten centers, and a lot of Big Ten power forwards. Shurna's definitely faster and has better jumping ability than Coble, but the difference is negligible against Big Ten competition. They both could play the 3/4: Coble played the 4 for almost the entirety of his career - I get the sense Shurna will as well from here on out, although he did play small forward when Bill Carmody started him and Coble simultaneously as freshmen.

And their playing styles are similar: both guys are gifted shooters. They both score very well in awkward situations - Coble lived and died on the off-balance jumper and the way-too-far three, Shurna has that hideous jumper of his that he likes to take with no space after a few hard dribbles, and they both love the "oh crap I'm off-balance and about to travel maybe I should throw up a floater" shot that they hit about 94 percent of the time. They're both slow and neither is much good at creating space off the dribble, or playing defense, for that matter. They both get a lot of points off of textbook PO backdoor cuts. And neither has a drive-and-kick mentality: when they make the decision to hit the lane, there's no turning back, and very rarely is there a pass to a cutter as they slowly, but steadily, barrel their way through the lane.

Those similarities don't end with things you can pick up easily, they continue on to the world of advanced statistics. It's eery to look at the stats the two guys register and not see immediate comparisons - in fact, Shurna seems to be the better player by the majority of metrics, except in a few categories.

It's unfair to look at career stats, because Shurna played a limited role as a freshman while Coble has been NU's leading scorer and rebounder all three years. But I think it's very reasonable to compare the 2008-09 team Coble starred on to the 2009-10 team Shurna starred on. Shurna takes Coble's role, Alex Marcotullio takes Craig Moore's role, Jeremy Nash and MIchael Thompson stay the same, Kyle Rowley and Luka Mirkovic still don't really help that much, and Shurna's gig as the athletic freshman cracking the starting lineup is taken by Drew Crawford - although Crawford is certainly miles more athletic than Shurna. Very similar teams.

And the roles Shurna and Coble had were nearly identical: in Coble's season, he took 28.4 percent of the team's shots, and 24.5 percent of the team's possessions ended with him shooting, turning the ball over, or shooting free throws. Those numbers for Shurna were 28.8 percent and 25.4 percent. Miiiiiighty similar.

So let's take a look at the conventional stats each player recorded in those years:



As you see, Shurna averages more points and more rebounds than the guy who led NU in scoring and rebounding for three consecutive seasons. If any of you stat buffs out there want to point out that Shurna's team played faster, you're right - the 2010 Wildcats used 64.1 possessions per game, only 60.9 in 2009. But even with stats adjusted for pace, we can see Shurna is the better player. Let's break it down:


Both players are obviously gifted scorers and great shooters. When it comes to shooting, Coble arguably has the better stroke: as you can see plainly above, there's a 4 percent difference between Coble's three-point shooting and Shurna's three-point shooting. There's no denying that Coble's a better shooter from downtown.

But Shurna still manages to be a slightly more efficient offensive player: while Coble scored 1.27 points per shot he took, Shurna scored 1.31. (For those of you wondering, points per shot is my favorite statistic, as it takes into account far more than points-per-game or shooting percentages. Pomeroy uses ORtg and eFG%, both of which are stats that account for scoring efficiency - both also give Shurna a very meager edge.)

If both players are great shooters, but Coble is better, why is Shurna the better scorer?

Free throws: Shurna is significantly better at getting to the line than Coble. In Coble's three years as NU's leading scorer, he shot 188 free throws - about 2.3 a game. Shurna took 138 last year alone - 4.05 a game. Watching highlights, you'll see that while Shurna loves to draw fouls in transition and can bang around the basket, Coble relies on shying away from contact to get better looks - his trademark fadeaway banker that he worked so effectively against Michigan State is a huge example of that. Shurna is also a better shooter from the line, as he converted at a 77 percent rate, slightly better than Coble's 76 percent, but, that's obviously not that big a deal. 

Inside the arc scoring: Shurna's also better from two-point range: he shot .549 from two, while Coble shot .508. Again, look at the highlights: while Coble resorts to his trick shot collection down low against big men, Shurna has a variety of well-developed post moves that rely on the speed advantage he has on opposition down low - that up-and-under is killer - and end up with him right at the basket.


Coble gets a lot of publicity for being NU's leading rebounder three years running. It's pretty damn ballyhooed. But it's not as impressive as it sounds: Coble never averaged more than 5.4 rebounds per game, and the best rebounder-per-game besides Coble in his three seasons was - I'll give you a moment to brace yourselves, and guess - Northwestern legend Tim Doyle, who averaged 3.3 board per game in 2006-07. (Hooooooooooly crap that's awful.) 

Shurna isn't just a better rebounder, he's a much better rebounder. Of course, he has a significant advantage in per-game stats, bringing down a team-high 6.4 per-game last season. Pomeroy looks at rebound ratings - the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while they're on the court - and Shurna takes a clear advantage. Their defensive rebound ratings are almost identical: Coble had a 15.5, Shurna had a 15.8 - but the difference on the offensive glass is enormous. Shurna had more offensive rebounds than Coble in 2008-09, when Shurna played about half the minutes Coble did, bringing down 7.6 percent of all missed shots while he was on offense, while Coble only recovered 2.7 percent. Shurna kept it up last year with a 5.7 rating. 

And all this comes with a much better rebounding team: last year, Luka Mirkovic (5.7) Drew Crawford (4.3) and Jeremy Nash (3.8) each had more rebounds-per-game than any non-Coble player during Coble's career at NU. Coble didn't have to fight anybody for boards - Shurna had three suitable rebounders besides him.


Not much of a difference in individual defensive stats - Shurna's better at blocking shots, Coble recorded more steals - it kind of evens out. But NU's defensive schemes aren't really predicated on individual virtuosity, either.

However, the team experiences a marked uptick in defensive efficiency: the 2008-09 team allowed an unseemly 101 points per 100 possessions, the 2009-2010 team allowed a slightly more seemly 97 points per 100 possessions. Some of this can be credited to other players, but it's definitely a good sign for life post-Coble. (NU's offensive efficiency also increased from 110.6 to 112.5, but I already made my case with the individual stats that Shurna can be considered Coble's equal.)

Shurna's deficiencies:

Passing: Statistically, Kevin Coble delivered more assists and conceded less turnovers than Shurna, averaging 1.77 assists-per-turnover as a junior, while Shurna's sophomore year saw him with a 1.31 number. I think this is due to a growing familiarity with the Princeton Offense Shurna is experiencing. It's worth noting that both players became better in this category as their careers progressed: Shurna had a genuinely bad .83 rating as a freshman, while Coble's jumped from 1.16 to 1.77 between his sophomore and junior years. I wouldn't be surprised if that's a team-wide trend. 

Prolific scoring in losses: I feel like this is the biggest question mark in John Shurna's statistical profile: It was easy to note over the course of the season that John Shurna's best games - offensively - came in defeats. This isn't true for Coble: he had a distinctive knack for taking over games, and looking back at his game log, a lot of NU's losses came in games where he had a particularly bad day. 

I don't think this is something to worry about. John Shurna is not Zach Randolph, and I watched Stephon Marbury for two years. His 31 points in losses to Michigan State and Indiana and his 29 in another loss to Michigan State are not to blame for those L's. Shurna hasn't mastered the ability to win games singlehandedly yet - although he went over 25 points six times last year, that only led to wins against Iowa and Central Connecticut State - he's a great scorer. He was keeping NU in a lot of those games where he scored in droves when no other offense would show up. 


So, to recap:

Things John Shurna is identical or better to Kevin Coble at: scoring per game, scoring efficiency, drawing fouls, foul shooting, two-point field goal percentage, defensive rebounding, offensive rebounding, blocking shots

Things Kevin Coble was better at: three-point shooting, assists, turnovers, steals, meaningful scoring.

Even if you think John Shurna isn't at Kevin Coble's level yet - and I hope I've made a pretty freakin convincing argument, people - it would be nearly impossible to say that Shurna has the potential to be as good, if not better, at the helm of a team gunning for an NCAA tournament spot.

Again, am I saying Northwestern is better off with Coble injured? OF COURSE NOT. That's stupid. A team with Shurna and Coble, each playing off each other? Obviously, both guys are gifted at creating their own ugly-looking scoring opportunities, but I can't imagine that's a tandem that wouldn't give opposing coaches fits figuring out what defensive alignment to run, each guy hitting the post whenever teams matched them up with a smaller guy. Depth and talented players are always good. Coble leaving sucks, and we're all mad at whoever is responsible, whether it be Bill Carmody, Coble himself, or some malevolent higher power that hates Northwestern athletics. (I see you, Loki, shapeshifting Norse evil trickster god. Cut it out. Dickwad.)

What I'm simply saying is that we're not boned as royally and completely as we initially imagined. 

This team has a shot. I have dreamed and will continue to dream of Northwestern making the NCAA tournament this year. We can cut ourselves and listen to Fall Out Boy and go home and wonder why the pretty girls like all the other guys in our middle school and soak in the angst of wondering why this always happens to us, or we could not. Me, I'm looking forward to November. See you there.

Now! It's football posting time for the next two or three weeks. I love basketball more than anything, but it's July, so unless Ivan Peljusic cracks Mike Capocci over the head with a chair in the next few weeks, earning him a spot in the Carmody doghouse and probably giving Capocci some sort of brutal head injury, I don't expect to write about it again.