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March 2, 2011

Juice: 100% pure

On Nov. 15, 2007, Michael Thompson made his first start for Northwestern at Stanford, in his very first game as a Wildcat. Tonight, the player they call Juice will extend his school record with his 124th straight start in his final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Thompson is listed at 5-foot-10 in Northwestern's media guide, a height that is at once too big and too small. It's too big because Thompson is only 5-10 when he's wearing rollerblades. It's too small because it doesn't begin to measure the heart of a man who plays under the basket in the Cats' 1-3-1 zone against players who are often a foot taller than he is.

In a way, though, his role patrolling the baseline against the Redwoods in the paint is fitting, because Thompson has had to fight tall odds his entire career.

Thompson, who goes into tonight's contest against Minnesota (7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) as Northwestern's all-time leader in starts, games, minutes and assists, arrived at Northwestern as an anomaly -- a Chicago Public League kid who made his way to cushy Evanston. He was rated a three-star recruit by Rivals, but his only offers were from mid-majors until NU came along. His height, or lack of it, had scared the other suitors away.

It didn't take long for Thompson to learn the nuances of the complex Princeton offense and take command of the Wildcats. The fact that Bill Carmody handed Thompson the keys in his very first game is a testament to how quickly No. 22 earned the coach's trust.

Thompson started his career as a pass-first lightning bug, a player that defenders played off of and dared to shoot. He transformed himself over the last three years to a floor general with a knack for threading backdoor passes through the lane and one of the most dangerous 3-pointers in the conference. He will finish his career as the only player in NU history with more than 1,500 points and 500 assists.

Under Thompson's steady hand, the Wildcats were known as a patient offensive team, one that distributed and took care of the ball. Northwestern regularly topped the Big Ten in assists and assists-to-turnover ratio, taking its cue from the little big man at the point.

Thompson will go down as the winningest starter in NU history, with 61 wins and counting, but his career will end unfulfilled. Unless the Wildcats go on a miracle tear in next week's Big Ten Tournament, Thompson will not get a chance to lead the purple-and-white into the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. It was a goal he brought with him to Evanston in 2007, and it's perhaps the only one that he didn't achieve in his storied career.

This writer will take away two enduring images of Juice. One is as a defender, driving his forearm and shoulder into the backside of a man who outweighs him by nearly 100 pounds, trying to push him off the low block. The other is walking the ball up the court with that high dribble of his, shouting out instructions and holding his fingers in the air to call the play. And if his defender didn't come out to challenge him, letting fly with one of his high-arching 3-pointers from the top of the key.

Thompson, as we all know by now, gave himself the nickname Juice as a youth, because he thought that his jump shot was "100-percent pure." He was certainly that and more for Northwestern's fans for the last four seasons.

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