Shurna's emergence has allowed Wildcats to flourish despite losing Coble
EVANSTON, Ill. -- As soon as Ohio State junior Evan Turner began to dominate college basketball, Illinois Wolves club coach Mike Mullins knew it was just a matter of time before Northwestern sophomore John Shurna would do the same.
Mullins coached both players in high school and has noticed an eerie similarity between the two. Both are quiet and polite. Both are nearly the same height (Turner 6-foot-7, Shurna 6-8). Both can shoot, dribble and drive. Both gradually improved in high school and blew up as seniors. Both ended up in the Big Ten. Both showed glimpses of their abilities as freshmen and stepped up as sophomores when a star teammate was injured (David Lighty for Turner, Kevin Coble for Shurna). Now with Shurna's emergence this season, both have become premier college players.
"Both of them are extremely nice-looking kids and well-mannered, but they have an assassin's heart when it comes to the game," Mullins said. "They're very versatile and multiskilled. They can beat you in all the different areas of the court offensively and defensively. You look at them as sophomores, and people are surprised when you challenge them, and they bite back real hard."
And with Turner now out after fracturing his back earlier this month -- in a game that Mullins attended, after which he accompanied Turner to the hospital for six hours -- Shurna may just be the conference's most valuable player.
Northwestern point guard Michael Thompson has done his share for the Wildcats this season. But they wouldn't be 10-1, ranked nationally (No. 25 in The Associated Press poll) for the first time since 1969 or entering the Big Ten schedule with a realistic shot at the school's first NCAA tournament berth if Shurna hadn't transformed himself from a contributor into a star in Coble's absence.
"I don't know if there was more pressure," said Shurna of Coble's and sixth man Jeff Ryan's season-ending injuries. "As a team, we felt we had to fill those roles because those are obviously two great players for us. We felt we could still complete our goals, and we could compete with anyone. [My season has] been fine. As long as we keep winning, I don't care."
Shurna may be modest about his success, but Northwestern coach Bill Carmody realizes the extent of Shurna's impact on the team's season.
"You can see it this year," Carmody said. "He's not a complementary guy with a few nice blips; that's all it was last year. This year he seems much older. He feels responsible for us winning and losing. He's one of the guys. He's not on the outskirts with Kevin there, [graduated guard] Craig Moore and Mike. He's one of the main guys."
Last season, Shurna showed his potential. He put up 20 points and eight rebounds against Missouri-Kansas City. He scored 18 points against Chicago State. But mostly, his big games were against lesser opponents.
This season, he's performed well against everyone and especially those opponents who could bolster an NCAA tournament résumé. He scored 14 points with 9 rebounds in a loss to Butler. In a win over Notre Dame, he scored what was then a career-high 25 points and added 8 rebounds and 4 assists. He had 23 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in the Wildcats' two-point win over Iowa State. He had 11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists and 2 blocks in their win over North Carolina State. He finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds in the Stanford victory.
From a year ago, his scoring average is up 8.6 points, his rebounds per game by 4.2, his assists by 1.5 and his minutes by 15. He's averaging 15.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks in 33.5 minutes this season.
During the summer, Thompson had a feeling Shurna would have this type of season. When Shurna returned from playing in New Zealand with the U.S. under-19 national team, Thompson noticed a difference in his game.
"I think the best thing for him was playing on that USA team," Thompson said. "It just gave him a lot of experience and confidence in his game. This year he came back and felt no one could keep up with him. He's crashing offensive rebounds very good. He's scoring the ball inside and outside. His defense has gotten a lot better. I think overall he's gotten better in every area."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber, Northwestern's next opponent, was on the committee that selected Shurna to be a part of the under-19 team.
"I think some people were wondering why he was out at the trials," Weber said. "The first couple days he proved he was good enough to be there. He put in a good deal of determination. He kept plugging away and battling."
Shurna wasn't one of the stars on the national team, but he never looked as if he didn't belong against the world's best young players, and he did his part in helping the U.S. win its first FIBA U19 World Championship in 18 years. He averaged 6.0 points and 3.9 rebounds in the nine games of the tournament. In the quarterfinals against Canada, he had 10 points and four blocks.
"Any time you get an opportunity to play against the best competition in the USA and the world, it's going to elevate your game by learning from the guys I was playing with and going against," said Shurna, who graduated from Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill. "I don't know if there's anything really specific, just competing against the best and finding different ways to score."
Shurna's game has evolved, and Mullins expects that development to continue like Turner's.
"John is capable of carrying a team on his back," Mullins said. "He did it in high school. He did with us. He's capable of putting up double-doubles every night, big scoring games, big rebounding games.
"I think John has a chance to play professionally for a long time."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.