Monday, December 22, 2008

Questions about NU's Rotation

The reaction to Northwestern's loss to Stanford has varied in NU fan circles. Some folks aren’t too bothered by the loss and others are once again jumping on the “same old problems” bandwagon and are ready to declare this season just another in a long line of disappointments. Personally, I don’t think a road loss to an unbeaten team is that bad, but I will admit some issues which appeared during the loss do have me concerned. One issue some are upset about which doesn’t bother me is the fact Stanford is predicted to finish 9th in the Pac-10. Well, Northwestern is predicted to finish 9th in the Big Ten, but I’d like to think we’re past predictions at this point. Both teams will finish better than expected. They each have solid talent and have held down the home court. NU is 6-0 at home and Stanford is 5-0. If this game had been played in Evanston I think the result would have shifted 180 degrees.

That said, though, some issues related to Northwestern’s play this year, especially at Stanford, do have me worried. The biggest issue I see is the lack of a consistent rotation. I understand with the number of young players Northwestern has that Coach Carmody might still be somewhat feeling out his squad, but they’ve now played nine games. Also, we can’t forget they practice every day. We as fans only see the games, but Carmody and his staff get to look at these players constantly. Obviously players can get better or worse throughout the year and certain matchups favor certain lineups, but right now I’d guess a number of players on the Wildcats are curious as to their role on the team. For example, Luka Mirkovic didn’t play at all vs UMKC, but got 20 minutes vs Stanford. Was he really overmatched by the guys on the ‘Roos? Also, Mike Capocci was the first guy off the bench vs Florida State, but played limited minutes vs DePaul and UMKC and not all vs Stanford. Similar oddities in minutes involve Ivan Peljusic, Jeremy Nash, and Sterling Williams. Peljusic for example turned the tide vs FSU, but went to the pine after just 4 minutes vs Stanford.

Now, I know this post sounds a little bit like the annoying parent who walks up to the coach after a game and says, “My son/daughter doesn’t understand his/her role on the team?” which is simply code for “Why don’t you play my kid more?” and I don’t want to sound like that at all. I know that the head coach has the right to handle his personnel however he wants. All want to do is say is that as a fan I find these inconsistencies strange and believe other fans do as well. In addition, I know for some players (not all) that inconsistent playing time leads to greater pressure when they do play. When they get on the court they feel like they have to be perfect or they’ll end up back on the pine for an extended period. That’s not a good thing. In fact, that pressure to be perfect leads to more failure. I worry about this for example when Peljusic or Capocci gets pulled after a first half turnover and never returns to the floor the rest of the day. How do they handle that mentally? You have to have some mental fortitude to, as Coach Fitz would say, “flush it” and move on.

Of course, this issue can be dealt with by a coach who relates well to his players and I think Bill Carmody does. I suspect he’s spoken with Capocci, Nash, etc. and discussed how important it is they stay focused and ready at all times. The bottom line, I guess, is that as a fan I wish the rotation seemed a little more balanced. My reasoning is that in the past the Wildcats have lost games due to fatigue. I think this year’s group has the talent to avoid that problem. I think Nash, Williams, Peljusic, Mirkovic, and Capocci can play in small spurts during December and January to give Thompson, Coble, and Moore breaks which will help our best players will their endurance in February and March.

Criticism on the rotation aside, overall I think Coach Carmody has done a good job with his team this season. I’m not sure if this has completely silenced his critics, but barring a disaster during the Big Ten season I don’t think we should hear people calling for his head anymore. So far, Carmody has put them in a position to win every game. Not that many coaches can say that. Now, the next step is getting the young players to consistently take advantage of being in such positions, but sometimes there isn’t a lot a coach can do on that front. For example, John Shurna has struggled on the road in NU’s two losses. He’s got the talent and I know Carmody has told him this. Shurna simply needs to get comfortable in hostile settings. Another good example is Luka Mirkovic. Based on his physical tools Mirkovic should be the best player NU has at center, but he hasn’t totally figured things out yet at the college level. It seems at times he reacts in slow motion. Likely this is because he thinks too much when he’s on the court. Unfortunately, there is not a lot a coach can’t fix that problem. You can’t crawl in side somebody’s head and change the way they think. The player simply needs to learn to trust his skills. When Mirkovic gets this, the Big Ten better watch out, because this kid can play.

Around the Web…

Chicago College Basketball has a statistical breakdown of Juice Thompson’s importance. NU fans should definitely give it a read.

SMU coach Matt Doherty has his own blog. He doesn’t have anything on NU yet, but I guess he will at some point.


Greg said...

We have used the same starting 5 in all 9 games this season. And the 3 veteran starters always play a ton of minutes. Dissecting how many minutes each of the next 5-6 guys has played from game to game and against different matchups is kinda splitting hairs. It's certainly not anything to be up in arms about. None of the bench guys have established themselves as a consistent top performers yet. The guys that play the best--game to game, practice to practice--will be the ones that get the minutes....but Carmody's clearly still searching for his top performers off the bench. Personally, I'm just excited that we have a solid starting 5--not to mention a few guys on the bench who can contribute a little bit. Nevertheless, a few of those bench guys have to step it up and make it a no-brainer of a decision for Carmody who needs to be on the court. The PT is there for the taking.

Lunker 35 said...

Greg I totally disagree with you. There has been total inconsistancy with the use of our bench. There are some games where we don't see guys and others where they get 20 minutes a game. I think it would be more beneficial if everyone understood their role

Greg said...

Disagree all you want, but the fact of the matter is that NU's starting 5 (who have started every game this season) average more than 136 of 200 available minutes per game. So, do you want to make a big deal out of how those final 63.6 minutes are distributed night-in and night-out among 5+ guys off the bench who are more or less indistinguishable by their performances on the court???

Carmody continues to fidget with playing time in that small slice of available playing time that is indeed up for grabs BECAUSE nobody has consistently seized the opportunity. Who wants it? If guys off the bench were playing better, they would cut into the the 69% of available playing time owned by the starters.

The way things are going, I expect to see Shurna and Rowley on the court even more, leaving fewer available minutes for the 5+ bench guys.

At this point, who cares if Williams plays a few more minutes or Capocci gets on the court at all? What's the difference?

macarthur31 said...

After much reflection, I've whittled this year into three big things:

1. Can our three tall frosh (Rowley, Shurna and Mirkovic) consistently contribute on both ends of the floor? This assumes a Rowley/Mirkovic as thunder and lightning; Shurna can stay out of foul trouble and give us points slashing to the basket and hitting an occasional trey, while grabbing 3-4 O-boards a game.

2. Can Coble, Moore and Thompson stay healthy all year? They may individually have their ups and downs, but these guys are the glue. A season-ender to one of these guys, and we are in big big trouble. You lose Thompson, and you lose your playmaker. You lose Moore, you lose leadership and their best long distance threat. You lose Coble, you lose your best all-around player.

3. Nash, Peljusic and Ryan gel to form a solid "B" team. These guys have enough energy to be the "shock troops" for the defense. There's potentially enough offense there (Ryan slashing to the hoop, Peljusic doing blue-collar work underneath and his nifty passing, Nash with his newfound trey and knack for an O-board). While I wouldn't recommend having them all in at the same time, each can provide that spark in their respective position (Nash at Guard, Ryan at Wing, Peljusic at Post) to be effective 10-15 minutes a game.

If we can do all three of those things, then I could see us nabbing 18-20 wins. If we do two out of those three, then 15-17. If we only do one, then it's 12-14.

Ryan said...

macarthur31, good thoughts. I think you've broken down the key factors for NU’s successes really well. My biggest worry is on your first point. I'm fear our freshmen will find themselves facing much stiffer tests in the Big Ten than they have in the non-conference season. Actually, how Rowley and Mirkovic handle SMU’s 7-1 center might provide a good clue as to what the Big Ten will bring.

macarthur31 said...

Agreed, Ry.

That's why I'm of the opinion that we're looking at 15-17 wins this year. Rowley/Shurna/Mirkovic is just too hard to call right now, and if we use "conventional wisdom" as a point of reference that's going to be the undoing of the 'Cats.

I'm actually much more confident of point 3 -- I'm convinced that Ryan, Nash and Peljusic are a solid bench and can do their roles for at least 12 minutes a game, and at 20 minutes on the other end.

Point 2 -- I don't know. Injuries are just random and weird. I might guess that if Carmody sticks to having the "Big Three" play at least 36 minutes a night at the start of conference play that they'll probably start breaking down come conference game 13-14.