We're one week from the exhibition game against Robert Morris, and the burning question for Northwestern basketball is how they will replace Michael Thompson. Juice, as he was affectionately known, was the Wildcats' best player during conference play while John Shurna struggled with various injuries, and since he played basically every relevant minute at the point guard position over the last four seasons, it's difficult to imagine this team without him. But life goes on in college basketball, and if Northwestern is finally going to make the NCAA tournament, someone else must emerge to replace Thompson's production.
Most of the preseason discussion thus far has been about who will start at point guard instead. The three candidates for that job are freshmen Tre Demps and David Sobolewski and junior Alex Marcotullio. Of the freshmen, Demps was the more highly regarded recruit, but he is playing through a shoulder injury and may not be 100%. Marcotullio isn't really a point guard by nature, but he has played the position at times in the past and played very well last season down the stretch. My guess is that Bill Carmody will start one of the freshmen and use Marcotullio in the Jeremy Nash sixth man/energy guy role to replace said freshman point guard.
Regardless of who gets the majority of the minutes at point guard, none of those three guys will be anywhere near as good as Thompson was, even if one of the freshmen has a career identical to Thompson's. A freshman playing at the level Thompson was at towards the end of last season would be an NBA prospect, and Demps and Sobolewski certainly aren't that. I expect Marcotullio to have a good year, but his upside is Michigan's Zack Novak, who is an excellent supporting player but not someone who can be the alpha dog on a good team.
All that said, players at other positions can replace the most important thing Thompson brought to the table: making plays on offense late in the shot clock. Northwestern's Princeton offense doesn't really require a traditional ball-handler; the point guard's job is mostly just to get the ball across half court and get NU into their offense. What they need to replace is Thompson's lights-out three point shooting (he very nearly became the first player in the KenPom database to shoot over 40% from three all four years in college, coming up just short as a senior at 39.3%) and his ability to make things happen on his own late in the shot clock.
The good news is there are several guys who could fill that role. John Shurna has improved every year of his college career, and he should be better at creating his own shot this season in addition to his deadly outside shot. JerShon Cobb is healthy after battling hip injuries all of last season, and like Shurna could have a breakout sophomore year and live up to his four star high school billing. And while I'm not optimistic about this, Drew Crawford has shown occasional flashes of being able to create his own shot, and will hopefully have better shot selection than he did last year. Still, replacing Thompson on offense will be a tall order.
The potential silver lining here comes on the defensive end. While Thompson was outstanding on offense, his defense and rebounding left quite a bit to be desired. Northwestern has struggled on the defensive glass the last few seasons, and the diminutive Thompson certainly didn't help the cause, as he was among the worst rebounders in the Big Ten on a per minute basis all four years at Northwestern; the 'Cats were essentially rebounding four on five. And as a defender, Thompson's lack of size and athleticism worked against him, as he struggled to contain rival Big Ten point guards one on one. His defensive issues were likely why Bill Carmody often tried to hide him at the bottom of the 1-3-1 zone. Assuming Marcotullio gets the majority of the minutes in place of Thompson, Northwestern will certainly improve defensively (rebounding the opponent's missed shots is an important part of defense). Additionally, the 1-3-1 zone won't be nearly as weak inside with the 6'5" Drew Crawford on the bottom. So it's not all bad. Still, a lot of players will need to step up their games if Northwestern is to improve on last season's record.