The one, the senior, is the antithesis of the image that rules this Look-At-Me Age. He is self-effacing, reluctant to employ the pronoun I, and so unabashedly egalitarian that some question whether he can be killer enough, selfish enough, to carry a team. "That's been going on for three years," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody will say of his star forward, John Shurna. "I've been begging him to be greedy. 'This is not a democracy. No one thinks you're greedy.' There's other guys I've coached, people are, 'Aw man, that guy won't give it up.' He's not like that and you have to be. He's a real team guy, but I say that's not being a team guy. (Michael) Jordan was a team guy too and he made sure he got 26 shots up every game, or whatever it was. There is an 'I' in this team."
The other, the junior, is an admirable amalgam of athletic ability. He can score inside and out, off the bounce or the pass, rebound and defend the opponent's best player, yet he still struggles some with his consistency and settling for long jump shots. "I just want him to be involved in plays. You know, run around," Carmody will say of his blossoming threat, Drew Crawford. "He's a strong kid, runs and jumps pretty well, good kid. So just don't be floating out there. If you were playing and I were playing, we'd be floating out there in space. It'd be nice. But I want him to just get involved in stuff and then his athleticism'll show up. Just be in on a lot of plays."
The one, Shurna, sits down on a court side table in a near-empty Welsh-Ryan Arena and, inevitably, is asked if he can be a killer. "Coach has brought that up," he says. "I just want to win and I want to help the team win. So maybe that comes out just trying to help the team win. Trying to make plays to win the game, that's what I enjoy."
Let me ask it this way, we now say.
"You want me to say 'Killer,'" Shurna interrupts, and then he laughs.
We don't want him to say anything he doesn't want to say, we assure him. But then we tell him that North Carolina coach Roy Williams once said that Jordan, in the best sense, was the most-selfish player he had ever been around, that he recognized his value to the team and wanted the ball at the end. Can Shurna, we then wonder, be selfish enough?
"Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, I want to win. I want the ball in my hands. I just want to make plays and help the team win. So, yeah. Yes."
"Johnny does have killer in him. It just doesn't look like the killer in another person," Crawford will say minutes later. He has taken Shurna's spot atop that court side table and here he continues, "Kobe (Bryant) will go out and score 40 and will be growling at people. Johnny'll go out and be scoring 40 and having a great time, smiling, running down the court, skipping down the court. So he has the killer in him. It just looks different from other peoples'."
And Crawford himself, is he concentrating more on using his athletic ability rather than settling for jump shots?
"I think sometimes I do do that," he admits. "A lot of times, in our offense, I'm finding myself open for three-point shots, but I'd like to be able to get myself to the basket and get myself going and score around the basket. I'm capable of doing that. I need to do it more."
Is he then ready, for lack of a better analogy, to play Scottie Pippen to Shurna's Jordan?
"This year it's important for me to step up, especially not having Juice (Thompson). Juice was big in that role last year," he says. "So I really have to step up this year and play a bigger role on this team. I'm definitely working on that."
The real season, the Big Ten season, is now upon the 'Cats, who open up conference play Wednesday afternoon at Ohio State. They are 10-2, champions of the Charleston Classic (where they defeated LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall) and poised to make a run for their first NCAA tourney bid behind the estimable duo of Shurna and Crawford. Still, even with those positives tucked away in their resume, they (like all teams) are surrounded by questions as they begin their march toward March.
Ask Shurna the key to his team's success between now and then and he will say, "Consistency. In years past, we felt we could compete with the best teams. But we've had slip ups, we haven't come up with those plays we need at the end and things like that. Early on this year I think we've shown that we could handle adversity. I think that's a good sign for the rest of the year."
"The key for us to be successful this year is coming out with energy every night. That's going to be the main thing," says Crawford. "Every game that we play is a tough one, especially in the Big Ten. So coming out ready to play every game with energy. We're a high-energy team, so that's going to be important for us."
"In past years, depth has hurt us. That's what I think it is," Carmody himself will finally say to the same question. "You got to defend better, you got to do this better, you got to rebound better. No doubt those are ingredients also. But I just think depth is the thing. Last year, I thought we were onto something really nice. Then (sophomore guard) JerShon (Cobb) gets hurt. For the Big Ten season, that (injured) hip was worthless. Johnny had stitches, the concussion, never quite the same. This year I come in, our backcourt wasn't what I expected it to be."
That question of consistent energy, raised by Shurna and Crawford, well, that is an area they themselves can control. ("Being a four-year senior, it's my job to speak up and make sure everything's going well, everyone's bringing energy," says Shurna.) But those issues raised by Carmody are far gnarlier. He will, in hopes of defending better, now use a 1-3-1 zone more often than he has so far this season. He will, in hopes of rebounding better, continue to rotate centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti looking to find the hotter and more-active hand. His offense, bereft of a reliable inside game, will still feature a plethora of three-point shots ("I think the game's going that way," he says), yet there is no blueprint for solving his problem with depth.
Freshman guard Tre Demps is injured and out for the year. Junior guard Alex Marcotullio is just back from a toe injury. (He logged 17 minutes in their last game, a loss at Creighton). Cobb, who had hip surgery in April, rehabbed for over four months, returned, suffered a concussion and is only now working himself back into full shape. ("He's still not quite there, but he's ready to go," Carmody says of him.) That leaves the 'Cat rotation still in flux, which is why they now depend so heavily on John Shurna and Drew Crawford.
Last Thursday at Creighton, even while saddled with foul trouble, Crawford went 13-of-17 overall, 3-of-4 on his threes and ended with 34 points. "Drew's been underrated his whole career as far as basketball goes," Shurna says of him. "He always plays with a little chip on his shoulder. He wants to show people he can play and he's gone out and done that. He's been huge for us this year."
That same night, even while not shooting especially well, Shurna himself put up 18 points while also grabbing a team-high nine rebounds. "I know what he's capable of," Crawford says of him. "He's our leader out there. We really get on his back and when he's on, he's unbelievable, one of the best players in the nation."
"At the end of games, I want the ball in my good guys' hands, Shurna and Crawford," Bill Carmody himself will finally say. "That's what I want the other guys to recognize. Reggie (Hearn, the junior guard) took a baseline jumper off the bounce the other day, missed it, in his good game. And Sobo (freshman point Dave Sobolewski)took a fast shot when we're up one.
"No. I'm saying I want to win with Crawford and Shurna."