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.