Thursday, December 31, 2009

NU Should Play Ivan Peljusic More

Ivan Peljusic Celebrates Every Big Play

Obviously some (maybe even NU’s coaches) will disagree with this post, but I think Ivan Peljusic deserves more playing time. I’m not sure he would have been a magic bullet to help the ‘Cats top Illinois, he’s obviously way shorter than Mike Tisdale, but based on the lack of offense of production at the center spot for NU I believe Peljusic should play. Currently, Rowley is generally a non-factor on offense and Mirkovic is inconsistent. Therefore, instead of those guys getting all 40 minutes of center PT, I’d like to see Peljusic get 5-10 minutes as well.

The reason people give to not play Peljusic is he is turnover prone—this is really something of a myth. Peljusic has 53 assists and 41 turnovers in 51 career games. In those 51 games he has played 555 total minutes. 41 TO's is really only about 1 turnover every 13.5 minutes. That's not bad. The problem is Peljusic's playing time has been mostly limited except for a brief stretch as a starter at the end of his redshirt freshman season. Yes, he's had some bad TO games since, but his numbers as a starter (or regular rotation guy) don’t show a turnover prone player. They show a Princeton Offense center who occasionally loses the ball, but overall makes good passes and understands Coach Carmody’s complex system well.

Looking back to some key starts for Peljusic, in a notable game where NU played a more talented team, scored 80+ points, but fell just short (kind of like last night) Peljusic had 4 points, 7 assists, and only 1 turnover in 22 minutes. That was the Wildcats 85-82 loss to #15 Indiana in 2008. It was one of Peljusic’s few starts and he more than held his own against Indiana superstar D.J. White. Later that year, Peljusic had 5 assists and 0 turnovers (though no points, 0-for-4) in a start against Wisconsin big man Brian Butch. Against active Iowa inside guy Cyrus Tate, Peljusic had 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. I could go through more examples, but I think it is clear Peljusic can compete and take care of the ball against tough (and bigger) centers.

Admittedly, Peljusic is not without his weaknesses, but I’m not saying he needs to play 40 minutes. I’m saying he needs to see the court. In the interest of equal time, I’ll say he is not a great three point shooter. He’ll take them, but he has only made 8-of-34 in two and a half years. He is also a poor free throw shooter (40% the last two seasons), but that’s not really any different than Rowley.

The other reason to play Peljusic is Northwestern is currently playing a 7 man rotation. Peljusic can play center or forward and could spell Mirkovic, Rowley, Shurna, or Crawford for brief stretches. That might help in close games like last night.

Finally, I think it is somewhat overrated, but Peljusic does bring energy to the game. He isn’t afraid to try and dunk the ball and he’ll celebrate like crazy when he makes a three or throws a backdoor pass for an easy layup. It’s a little much sometimes, but in home games it does fire up the crowd.

Bottom line, though, with a tough stretch ahead I’d like to see Bill Carmody rotate in Peljusic a bit more because he’s a good player who understands what to in order make the PO work.

Game 13: Michigan State @ Northwestern

I'm posting this preview for the 'Cats home game vs MSU today as I'll be focused on the Outback Bowl on the 1st. However, NU fans should not forget about the women's basketball team's game vs top-10 team Ohio State today.

The Matchup: Michigan State (10-3) @ Northwestern (10-2)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (5:30 PM CT January 2nd, 2010)
Radio: WYLL-AM 1160

Fun Fact: Northwestern beat #7 Michigan State 70-63 in East Lansing last time these teams meet.

About the Game
The Wildcats were on the verge of returning home for this game as triumphant heroes, however, they failed to hold a lead against Illinois and instead return 0-1 in the Big Ten. Odds are the Wildcats will survive if they fall to 0-2, but if NU wants to maintain their national ranking and media focus it will be important to pull of the upset at home in Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Like every Michigan State vs Northwestern game since about 1998, the Spartans feature a team that is more athletic than Northwestern. This NU team, though, might be the closest the Wildcats have come to being able to compete with the Spartans athletically in the last decade. Drew Crawford is already a Big Ten caliber athlete as a freshman and other than center Luka Mirkovic, the older ‘Cat starters offer a range of athletic skill as well. In fact, coming off a better performance in man-to-man than in the 1-3-1 against Illinois, I wouldn’t be that surprised to see the ‘Cats attempt to play some man against the Spartans. However, no fan can forget how well NU played the 1-3-1 against MSU in East Lansing last winter. Of course, I doubt Tom Izzo forgot either. For what it’s worth, Michigan State has had trouble with turnovers. They have 191 turnovers in 13 games this year. That’s nearly 15 a game. The key will be for Northwestern to figure out what type of defense is best to force turnovers from the athletic Spartans because NU will need points off turnovers to counter MSU’s second chance baskets.

Michigan State is probably strongest in the transition game so it will be important for NU not to have turnovers of their own and get back on defense after long rebounds. When the Spartans run traditional offense they aren’t complex, but they’re very good at setting up open shots for Chris Allen (10.6 ppg, 38.3% three), inside looks for Draymond Green (11.0 ppg), or one-on-one matchups for Kalin Lucas (15.7 ppg, 40.5% three) and Raymar Morgan (10.1 ppg).

Michigan State has also traditionally been a team who scores a lot of second chance baskets. After giving up two key second chance baskets to Illinois in overtime I’m sure NU will be aware of keeping Green (8.2 rpg) and athletic forward Delvon Roe (7.4 rpg) off the glass, but it’ll be tough. Michigan State averages about 14 offensive rebounds a game and Coach Izzo’s fine ability to coach aggressive intensity in the reason why.

Kyle Rowley played his best game of the season (career?) against Illinois, but NU still got outmanned inside. His partner Luka Mirkovic struggled mightily. The good news is that MSU doesn’t have a 7-1 guy like Mike Tisdale who will score at will and grab rebounds with total ease. The bad news is they’ll be better athletes who can out jump Mirkovic and Rowley when guys like Korie Lucas and Durrell Summers miss threes. NU needs to produce turnovers to win which is why I think Bill Carmody will play 1-3-1 against the Spartans (at least to start), but I think Tom Izzo will have Michigan State ready for that defense. I mean he is generally accepted as the Big Ten’s top coach for a reason. If NU does cause 20-25 turnovers I think the ‘Cats can (and will) win, but I think a Michigan State team that has probably been prepping for NU for the last week plus (which is why they played so-so vs UT-Arlington) will avoid turnovers and get just enough points inside to beat NU. Michigan State, 77 Northwestern, 68

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Illini Surge in 2nd Half and Overtime to Top ‘Cats 89-83

On the road at Assembly Hall Northwestern played a very solid first half making 11 three pointers and taking a halftime lead of 9 points. However, led by Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis the Illinois Fighting Illini came back to top the ‘Cats with solid play in the second half and the overtime period.

Northwestern did an excellent job in the first half making threes. Jeremy Nash in particular was excellent with 4 first half threes. However, perhaps the ‘Cats ability to make threes in the first half harmed the ‘Cats in the second half. In the second half the ‘Cats made just 3-of-24 threes and seemed to force many of those three point shots. When NU started going inside in the second half John Shurna converted a number of easy baskets, but the Illini had already gotten back in the game by that point. Based in part of those second half baskets, as well as four threes, Shurna was the ‘Cats leading scorer with 27 points. He also added 7 rebounds and four assists.

The ‘Cats leading rebounder was freshman Drew Crawford who had 8 rebounds. Five of those came on the offensive glass including one key rebound put-back dunk which kept NU in the game. Crawford wasn’t great shooting the ball (5-of-13 overall, 2-of-7 three), but his overall performance was solid for a young freshman in his first Big Ten game.

Crawford’s freshman teammate Alex Marcotullio was solid as well with 13 points (4-of-9 threes), however, he struggled somewhat defensively allowing Illinois’s guards to make easy passes to the post.

Overall, the biggest negative for Northwestern was on the defensive end of things. The ‘Cats started well in the man-to-man, but switched to the 1-3-1 and didn’t get the regular production of turnovers generally expected. To be honest, I thought NU was the least aggressive in the 1-3-1 they have been all season. Some of that might have been a result of Illinois being more athletic at the guard spots than NU’s past opponents. However, that’s no excuse. If Northwestern wants to play 1-3-1 they have to produce turnovers. Otherwise teams will take advantage of the fact the zone leaves shooters open or forces mismatches under the basket. Illinois was masterful with this. The Illini comeback was basically tied to NU not switching out of the 1-3-1 when it wasn’t working. Mike Tisdale scored 31 points and much of those came on mismatches or put-backs and Mike Davis scored 20 points and got 17 rebounds. Perhaps the three key plays were the two rebound put-back baskets those two got to start OT and the wide open corner three from Bill Cole late in the 2nd half which in the end forced NU only to be able to tie the game at the end of regulation and not win the game.

News and Notes:
Michael “Juice” Thompson (7 points, 8 assists) left the game late with some type of ankle injury…Northwestern’s women’s basketball team has an equally tough test tomorrow (Thursday) vs #6 Ohio State...The men's hoops game vs #11 Michigan State is a sell-out, but football season ticket holders can still get seats under the basket.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Outback Bowl Preview

I haven’t devoted much time to football discussion since basketball seasons started since this site was started as a basketball blog. However, I want to take some time today and offer my own preview for Northwestern’s matchup with Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

The Wildcats (8-4) take on an Auburn Tigers (7-5) team that offers perhaps NU’s best shot at a bowl win in recent memory. Much has been made of NU’s 60 year bowl win drought, but the ‘Cats have played some very good teams in their bowls since 1995. Auburn isn’t a bad team (no bowl team really is), but they don’t have a Heisman winner or a number 1 draft pick at QB either. The strength of Auburn’s team is a diversified spread offense. The Auburn spread is similar to the early versions of NU’s spread that featured a run first mentality despite being in a passing formation. The tailback Auburn uses is Ben Tate. Tate is a big back at 5-11 218 lbs. who rushed for 1,254 yards and 8 TDs this season. In terms of Big Ten opponents he is most similar to Wisconsin back John Clay. The Wildcats did a good job stopping Clay. The big difference is Auburn’s spread allows for a little more creativity in getting the ball to Tate than Wisconsin’s straight ahead power game.

If Northwestern concentrates on stopping Tate, Auburn will have to go to the air. When NU stopped Clay, Wisconsin had some success passing, but the ‘Cats DBs made just enough stops to pull out the victory. I suspect a similar game against Auburn. QB Chris Todd leads the Tiger passing attack. He has thrown 21 TDs and only 6 INTs this season. Last year he struggled with turnovers. NU’s Sherrick McManis might be the best defensive back in the game, but he’ll need help from Jordan Mabin, Brad Phillips, and a now healthy Brendan Smith in order to contain Todd.

NU’s biggest advantage in the game will be the Wildcat passing game led by QB Mike Kafka against an Auburn secondary which has been less than stellar. Kafka tossed only 12 TDs, but his 65.7% completion percentage shows how accurate he was in running NU’s spread. He should also be close to 100% physically and potentially able to add to his 7 rushing TDs this season. That versatility could make a difference. If Auburn tries to commit to stopping Kafka on the run, it will be even easier for him to hit open receivers. I do think NU will need some running game from the running back position, but with Kafka’s accuracy and healthy legs, I don’t think NU needs a 100-yard rusher to win. They simply need their collection of tailbacks to keep the defense honest with enough solid runs that the Tigers don’t start dropping eight men into coverage every play.

With the offenses both these teams feature I’m expecting a high scoring game. In fact, I think this might be NU’s highest scoring game of the year. I believe Kafka will be finding open receivers all day, but I also think Chris Todd will take of advantage of NU’s efforts to stop Ben Tate and pick on Jordan Mabin and the rest of NU’s non-McManis pass defenders. However, I think NU’s defense will have just enough to stop Auburn when it counts on enough third downs. On the hand, I believe Kafka’s ability to convert third downs to Zeke Markshausen and Drake Dunsmore will keep NU drives alive. In a high scoring affair I think the Wildcats pick up their first bowl victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Northwestern, 38 Auburn, 34

News and Notes: Thanks to a tip from a reader I was alerted to the fact The Sporting News Today's Mike DeCourcy has NU men's hoops ranked 2nd in his Big Ten power rankings. If you're a TSN Today suscriber you can read the article at this link:

Monday, December 28, 2009

Women's Basketball Gets 11th Win of Season

Northwestern's women's basketball team beat Michigan tonight 63-59. The win moved the Wildcats to 11-2 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play. The victory is the Wildcats sixth in a row which is the most since 1995-96. The 'Cat victory was keyed by Amy Jaeschke's 14 points and 10 rebounds and Beth Marshall's 3 three pointers and 12 points. NU's next game is at home on December 31st versus #6 Ohio State. The game won't be easy, but a win could have NU's women's hoopsters joining the men as a ranked team. A win in the Outback Bowl and football could join the ranked team party at NU as well.

Game 12: Northwestern Wildcats @ Illinois

The Matchup: #25(AP Poll) Northwestern (10-1) @ Illinois (8-4)

Location: Assembly Hall (Champaign, Illinois)

TV: Big Ten Network (8:00 PM December 30th)
Radio: WGN 720AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern enters this game as a ranked team (AP #25) for the first time since 1969.

About the Game
For the first time in probably a decade, the #25 Wildcats enter this contest as arguably the stronger team in the state of Illinois. The Illini have been very inconsistent. They have lost to Georgia and Missouri while beating Vanderbilt and Clemson. The Wildcats did lose to Butler, but have beaten Notre Dame, Iowa State, N.C. State, and Stanford since that loss. You also have to be impressed with NU’s resume, but you also have to say Illinois has been a much better team at home this year. They’re 7-0 in Assembly Hall thus far.

Part of the reason for the Illini’s better stats at home is probably the fact that freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are much more comfortable at home. They’re both talented (10.8 and 10.4 ppg), but they did have a lot of trouble facing pressure from Missouri. On the year Paul has 22 assists and 21 turnovers. Richardson is significantly better holding on to the ball with 35 assists and 19 TO’s, but still had trouble with the Tiger pressure. If I were Bill Carmody I would consider starting the game in the aggressive steal seeking 1-3-1 zone. You would run a risk that Richardson (49% from three), Paul (39% from three) and Demetri McCamey (39% from three) could pick the zone apart, but if they’re turning the ball over before they get shots it won’t matter. NU also should a good ability to get out of the 1-3-1 quick against Iowa State’s great shooters.

On the inside the Illini have two very talented players. However, both seem to prefer to play away from the basket. Forward Mike Davis is athletic and can go around defenders when he faces the basket. He can also step out to 15 feet and hit a jump shot. He’s also active on the boards with 9.8 rebounds per game. 7-1 center Mike Tisdale actually has more range than Davis. Although Tisdale hasn’t hit a three yet, he has shown 18 foot range. He also works inside with a nice hook shot that helps him covert 60% of his field goals attempts. Tisdale also averages 2 blocked shots a game, which at 7-1 isn’t a surprise, but it will greatly benefit the ‘Cats if Luka Mirkovic can draw him outside with some made threes.

A number of experts have implied that of NU’s first two Big Ten games the ‘Cats have a better chance at home against Michigan State. I disagree. I think NU has a great chance to pick up their first win at Illinois in a decade if they can produce turnovers and hold Illinois off the glass in order to prevent cheap baskets. The Wildcats will also need a good shooting day from their guards and Mirkovic, but I think they’re due for one after two rough days against Stanford and Central Connecticut. Northwestern, 71 Illinois, 64

Wildcats Ranked

For the first time in 40 years the Northwestern Wildcats are ranked in the AP Poll.
The 'Cats are at #25. Here's a link:

I'll have previews of the #25 'Cats Big Ten opener at Illinois and the football 'Cats matchup in the Outback Bowl up a bit later.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Best Kept Secret in NCAA Basketball

I know there are a lot of players in college basketball. I know that ESPN probably isn’t going to devote a ton of discussion to the Wildcats just because I want them to do so. I even know the Big Ten Network has 10 other teams (plus discussion on expansion) to take up time. However, I think NCAA fans and experts alike are missing the boat on not talking more (or in many cases at all) about Michael “Juice” Thompson. In fact, I think Juice is the best kept secret in NCAA Basketball. I don’t want this whole post to about stats, because honestly some of what Juice does can’t be measured, but I’ve got a few stats below which I think help make my point.

37.3 minutes per game. This is what Juice averages and that number is a tad low based on recent blowout wins over North Carolina A&T, North Florida, and Central Connecticut. In games where NU needed to play 40 minutes to win (N.C. State, Norte Dame, Iowa State, and Stanford) Juice played 39 or 40 minutes. A lot of star players play a lot, but very few play as much as Juice.

16.7 points per game. This number leads the Wildcats. It is an increase of almost seven points from last season. This shows Juice has been willing to take on a much needed scoring role after the graduation of Craig Moore and the loss of Kevin Coble. That’s exactly what a leader should do.

42.5% and 80.4%. Those are Juice’s shooting percentage from three point land and the free throw line. Juice isn’t just sitting behind the arc and firing threes. He’s made 31 three pointers, but has 56 overall field goals. He also has made 41-of-51 free throws. Those aren’t just at the end of the game either. Many have come when Juice attacks the basket and gets fouled. Proving how versatile Juice can be in how he scores.

42 assists and 15 turnovers. Juice takes care of the ball as well as anybody around. He rarely turns the ball over (just barely over 1 a game) and has an amazing understanding of the Princeton Offense which allows him to help position the many young guys he is often on the court with.

Aside from those numbers, as I watch Juice Thompson I can see he is the leader of NU’s team. When the ‘Cats have had moments of struggle Juice always seems to be relaxed and is the guy who keeps his teammates relaxed. His performance against Tennessee State might have been the most important of NU’s season. If Juice hadn’t stepped up and carried NU to victory I suspect NU wouldn’t be anywhere near 10-1.

The bottom line is that Juice Thompson is a multi-talented player who can be both a ball control pass-first point guard and a leading scorer. He can shot, he can defend, and he can lead his team to victory. Those skills put him into a relatively small group of players, many of who are often recognized by the media and fans, however, Juice isn’t. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. Until, Juice remains the NCAA’s best kept secret.

Big Ten and NU Previews From Fellow Bloggers

The Minnesota Blog, "From The Barn" interviewed a number Big Ten bloggers to preview the Big Ten season. My interivew can be seen here:

However, I suggest you visit all the preview links as my fellow Big Ten bloggers provide great info on the teams they follow.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Gift NU's Athletic Department Should Give Basketball Fans...A National Title

Northwestern's Athletic Department Should Give Coach Lonborg's Team and NU's Fans a National Title as a Holiday Gift.

As it has come up again on Wildcat Report, I think this is a good time to remind NU's Athletic Department about the Wildcats winning the 1931 National Title in Men's Hoops. You can revisit my posts on this topic here:

As I noted on those posts, the bluest-bloods in College Basketball (Kansas and North Carolina) hang banners with their Helms Foundation National Titles. Purdue does the same thing. So my suggestion for a gift from NU's Athletic Department to the fans is to hang a banner for the Wildcats 1931 National Title in Welsh-Ryan. Nobody alive has seen NU win a title in men's basketball. Therefore, it would be a special event for all of NU's staff and fans. I know members of NU's athletic department check on this blog and I am asking for all NU fans for them to start whatever process is needed to make this happen today. The petition we started has been signed by 105 people and I suspect many more would get behind this idea if they knew NU's title existed. So NU Athletic Department, let's give the gift of a National Title to all the fans of NU basketball. I can't think of a good reason not to do so.

Also: Fans can give NU's Athletic Department (and really themselves) a gift by making a donation of Outback Bowl tickets. Lake the Posts has a post which give details here:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

10 Things We Know After NU’s First 11 Games

1. Juice Thompson is NU’s best player. He averages 16.7 ppg to lead the team, he has 42 assists and only 15 turnovers, he makes 80.4% of his free throws, and 42.5% of his threes. He is also clearly NU’s leader on the floor. The guy who the ‘Cats can go to when they need a big shot.

2. Alex Marcotullio isn’t just a three point shooter. Marcotullio is second on the team in made threes, but he is also second in steals and his consistently aggressively attacked the glass.

3. John Shurna is a serious offensive threat both inside and out. Shurna’s hasn’t shot that well from three this year (25%), but he still scores 15.9 ppg. That’s because he has become very comfortable attacking the hoop and scoring in the open court.

4. Drew Crawford is a legit scoring threat. At the start of the year Crawford started a tad slow, but since his 35 point output against N.C. A&T he has been in double figures every game. Right now he averages 10.2 ppg and is shooting 53.9% from the field.

5. Luka Mirkovic can hit a three point shot. Right now Mirkovic is only 4-of-10 three pointers, but it is clear from the smooth shot he takes that he can help open up NU’s offense from behind the three point line.

6. Jeremy Nash can hit a three point shot. In the past Nash was just a defensive specialist, but he is making 33% of his threes. That’s not great, but its good enough that teams have to respect him from behind the arc.

7. Kyle Rowley still needs to improve. Rowley is NU’s biggest player, but he still struggles to get rebounds and score. Hopefully he’ll improve in these areas as his size makes him valuable.

8. Davide Curletti is a legitimate option at center. Before he got hurt, Curletti had big moments against Tennessee State and Iowa State. If Rowley can’t perform consistently, I think a healthy Curletti is a good option at center.

9. The Wildcats can win away from home. NU has only played 3 games away from Welsh-Ryan, but they were all against BCS-foes and NU won all three. Two neutral courts and one at N.C. State.

10. Northwestern can make the NCAA Tournament. When Kevin Coble went down many fans thought NU would be lucky to make the CBI, but the ‘Cats are now 10-1 and are getting production from a number of surprising sources in order to make up for the loss of Coble and Jeff Ryan

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

John Shurna Scores 29 Points to get ‘Cats Past Central Connecticut State 74-54

Northwestern wasn’t particularly sharp tonight, but the Wildcats got by the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils by a score of 74-54. Looking at the positives from tonight, John Shurna’s career night stands out above all else. Shurna scored 29 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in 37 minutes of play. He also threw down two dunks and made a couple clutch baskets down the stretch when it looked like the Blue Devils might make the contest close.

Looking closer at Shurna’s night, the best moments of the night were when he buried two threes out of four attempts. Perhaps those baskets are a signal that his shooting slump might be coming to an end. With the Big Ten season right around the corner that would help NU a ton.

Another Wildcat who played a great game tonight was Michael “Juice” Thompson. Thompson clearly will benefit from the Holiday Break he is about to go on, but he played 35 minutes tonight scoring 14 points, dishing out 7 assists, and getting 4 steals. Thompson did make only 2-of-7 threes, but like his fellow guard Alex Marcotullio who missed 4 threes, he doesn’t look bad when he misses. When the ball leaves Juice’s or Alex’s hand it looks like it is going to go in the hoop.

A third Wildcat who stuffed the stat sheet tonight was Drew Crawford. With 15 points this was Crawford’s forth straight game in double figures, but perhaps most impressive were the 4 assists he had which clearly showed he has developed a great understanding of the Princeton Offense. Crawford setup one of John Shurna’s two dunks with a snazzy back door pass.

Looking now at a couple areas Northwestern needs to improve before Big Ten season, first NU needs more post-production from the center position. Luka Mirkovic scored once with his back to the basket and Kyle Rowley hit a hook shot, but overall NU was more perimeter oriented than they should have been against a small CCSU team. NU was also out rebounded by CCSU 35-28. Not that I expect NU to outrebound a ton of Big Ten teams, but they can’t be as poor on the glass as they were tonight.

NU also struggled from three tonight making only 5-of-22. Obviously, it is within NU’s power to make threes. They did set a Big Ten record, but they can’t rush threes or force threes. The threes need to come in the offense. NU really seemed to be forcing threes early in the game, but did get better in the second half. Shurna’s last three came on textbook execution of the Princeton Offense.

NU now takes off until December 30th when they play Illinois. The Illini are off to an up and down start, but NU will need to bring more intensity to that contest than they brought tonight.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Future NU Broadcast Notes

I don’t usually worry much about what channel the Wildcats are on as long as the game can be seen. I did think was cool NU played a couple games on the ESPN family of networks recently, but I recently realized aside from one contest on February 25th against Iowa (ESPN or ESPN2) all of NU’s remaining games are on the Big Ten Network or If the Wildcats continue to win and become even more of a national story, the Big Ten Network will have almost exclusive broadcast rights to that story. A Northwestern team that is competing for an NCAA tournament will draw national interest and nearly every college basketball fan will be trying to see NU play. With only one remaining game on the ESPN family of networks, the only place people will be able to see NU will be on the BTN. Hopefully, many of the NU fans around the country will be able to see the BTN broadcasts, because this will certainly be an exciting season.

Poll Update: Wildcats at #29 in AP Poll

Northwestern is ranked #29 (or 4 spots from being ranked) in this week's AP Poll. In the USA Today Poll NU got 21 votes. Real Time RPI has NU at #51, but has that going up if you look at the season projection that has NU going 25-6 (13-5). Here's the link:

NU probably won't actually finish with that good of a record, but it's cool to look at the projection.

Game 11: Central Connecticut State @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Central Connecticut State (3-5) @ Northwestern (9-1)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: for $2.99(7:00 PM Tuesday December 22nd)
Radio: WIND 560 AM

Fun Fact: With their tallest player standing 6-6 and only playing 14.4 minutes per game the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils are the smallest team NU will face.

About the Game
When taking a first glance at Central Connecticut State’s stats it appears the Blue Devils could potentially a bit more of a challenge to NU than the Wildcats previous non-major opponents. However, the Blue Devils have virtually no size and their schedule has yet to feature a major-conference foe. In the past even those facts might not have stopped CCSU from scaring NU fans, but this year Northwestern has taken care of business against all the teams they should beat. In fact, other than one close call against Tennessee State the ‘Cats have used most of their matchups with non-major conference teams to get some playing time for non starters. I’d expect something similar against CCSU.

The place where I think NU should try to attack the Blue Devils is in the post. As noted above, the tallest player on the CCSU roster is 6-6 freshman forward Joe Efese who plays only 14.4 minutes per game. The tallest player who gets regular playing is 6-5 junior David Simmons. Simmons does average 8.5 rebounds per game, but his 16 rebound performance against Albany probably won’t be repeated against John Shurna and the Wildcat front court. Aside from using Shurna, it would be good for the Wildcats to try and attack the post with Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley. NU won’t be able to rely on three point shooting every night and it would be good to have an option other than Shurna who can score in the post. Certainly Simmons isn’t JaJuan Johnson, but it would be good for Rowley to work on his moves.

6-0 junior guard Shemik Thompson is the leading scorer for the Blue Devils at 14 ppg, but he isn’t much of a three point shooter, making only 27.3% of his threes. He does have 17 steals to lead a team which is very aggressive on defense. The best shooter on Blue Devil roster is Robby Ptacek who scores 12.5 ppg and makes 44.4% of his threes. The other shooter on the Blue Devil roster is 5-10 guard Vince Rosario who through only making 28.6% of his threes has already taken 42 three point shots.

I think NU will use this game to work on getting the ball in the post and to continue to improve the matchup zone. That might slow down the scoring a bit and allow CCSU to get some easier baskets than they should, but NU will in the end record a double digit win. Northwestern, 80 CCSU, 65

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Northwestern Survives Stanford Rally, Poor Shooting From Three and Free to Win 70-62

Today’s contest was Northwestern’s most uneven performance since the narrow escape against Tennessee State, but just like that contest the Wildcats pulled themselves together well enough to post a victory. In the past, Northwestern would have collapsed after Stanford cut a 10 point advantage to a 1 point advantage, but like Alex Marcotullio did in a similar spot against TSU, Michael “Juice” Thompson knocked down a clutch three to prevent the Cardinal from getting a shot at the lead.

The high point for Northwestern had to be John Shurna’s play. While he still hasn’t caught fire from three point range (just 1-of-6) he converted 7-of-8 two point shots and 5-of-5 free throws to score 22 points. When Stanford had major foul trouble inside, I was disappointed NU didn’t try to post up Shurna more because he looked very solid against the Cardinal’s inside defenders. Shurna also grabbed 8 rebounds of which half came on the offensive glass and a few of which Shurna converted right into NU points. Somewhere between now and the Big Ten season John needs to regain his three point stroke, but at least his versatile skills allow him to remain a scoring threat even when threes aren’t falling.

Actually, the only Wildcat who looked to have range from three today (team was 6-of-25) was Juice Thompson who made 3-of-5 on route to 15 points. Thompson also had 4 assists and 2 steals. He also played virtually the entire game resting only for about 7 seconds late in the second half.

NU’s other double figure scorer was Drew Crawford who finished with 12 points. He scored 7 in the first half, but foul trouble forced him to the bench for most of the second half. Still, Crawford managed to add 4 rebounds and 2 blocks to his totals. He also hit two late free throws which sealed the game.

One thing NU did well overall was move the ball to setup good looks and easy drives to the hoop. As a result of that ball movement Stanford was forced to foul or allow NU easy baskets. Unfortunately, Northwestern somewhat struggled in taking advantage of all the Stanford fouls. The Wildcats shot 33 free throws, but made only 22. Luke Mirkovic made only 2-of-5 and Kyle Rowley missed his two attempts, so the center position really struggled at the line. Amazingly, NU actually had a stretch where they scored 11 straight points from the free throw line. If they’d shot better they might have scored 15 or more in a row from the line.

Other than the free throw issues, though, Mirkovic played well. He scored 9 points had 6 rebounds (5 in the 2nd half), and dished out 5 assists. He also hit a three which is big because it shows he might be gaining some consistent range from behind the arc.

Finally, one area where I felt NU unexpectedly struggled was off the bench. NU had only 5 bench points in their 70. Three points from Alex Marcotullio and two from Kyle Rowley. Rowley’s basket came on one of his better plays of the season when he found himself wide open and converted the look. Marcotullio scored on a nice runner going to the hoop and a free throw opportunity where he converted one of two. He surprisingly missed all four of three point shots, but the positive is he didn’t let it bother the rest of his game as he had two assists against no turnovers and three steals.

Northwestern plays Central Connecticut State on Tuesday before starting Big Ten play on December 30th. A win would give this NU team a better start than Coach Ricky Byrdsong’s 93-94 team that started 9-0, but then dropped 9 games so was 9-2 after 11 contests. It will also be another chance for NU to play an aggressive defensive team before taking a couple tough costumers in Illinois and Michigan State at the start of Big Ten play.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Game 10: Stanford @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Stanford (5-4) @ Northwestern (8-1)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (1:00 PM Saturday December 19th)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Stanford holds a 4-1 series advantage over NU.

About the Game
The Wildcats move towards the end of the non-conference season with their last major test before the Big Ten. So far NU has passed virtually every test they’ve faced, but Stanford has beaten NU three straight seasons. Last year the Cardinal defeated NU 65-59 when they held off a late NU rally. If Northwestern is going to break the Stanford winning steak they will have to continue their fantastic offensive play and play solid defense against a Stanford team which features a couple big scorers.

Stanford’s top scorer and rebounder is Landry Fields. The 6-7 Fields is a senior who scores 22.9 ppg and averages 8.8 rebounds per contest. Fields is the a versatile player and it will be interesting to see what defense NU plays. Bill Carmody seemed to be trying to force the ‘Cats to work on man-to-man and the 2-3 matchup against North Carolina A&T and North Florida, but overall NU still looked a lot more comfortable in the 1-3-1. Being able to use all three defenses could help NU against Stanford.

Stanford’s other big offensive threat 6-4 sophomore guard Jeremy Green. Green is a very athletic player who scores 15.7 ppg and grabs 4.1 rpg.

The athletic skill Stanford has makes the Cardinal a tough team to play against on offense. They will play a very aggressive pressure defense. NU will need Michael “Juice” Thompson to play his usual solid game and guys like Jeremy Nash, Drew Crawford, and Alex Marcotullio will also have to be solid with the ball. Hopefully NU will be able to get some easy baskets on backdoors which will setup NU’s shooters for open shots.

In contrast to past seasons one place where NU might be able to out dual Stanford is on the glass. Other than Fields, Stanford doesn’t have a player who averages more than 5.0 rebounds per game. 6-9 forwards Jack Trotter and Andrew Zimmermann are 2nd and 3rd respectively on the Cardinal in hitting the glass at 4.7 and 4.2 rpg. NU will start Luke Mirkovic or Kyle Rowley who are both bigger than either Cardinal forward alongside John Shurna who at 6-8 is almost as big and has shown to be very solid rebounder both offensively and defensively.

It is too bad students are away on break right now as this could have been a contest where NU had a huge home court advantage. As it stands, NU will need good support from what will probably be a large than unusual late non-conference crowd. Between that somewhat home court advantage and NU’s consistent play combined with Stanford’s inconsistency this year, I think NU wins in a game with a similar path to NU’s game against Iowa State or N.C. State. Northwestern, 78 Stanford, 70

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top NU Hoops Games of the 2000s - Part 2

Now it is time for the top 5 Northwestern basketball games of the past decade. I debated number five for a time, but actually numbers one to four were always on my list. They were not, however, always in the order which they appear below. I especially debated the top two, but I’m happy with this list in the end so let’s get to it...

# 5 January 14th 2004 – Northwestern 70 #25 Illinois 60

This game makes the top five for a few reasons. First, it had two unbelievable individual performances from Davor Duvancic and Jitim Young. Davor hit 4 threes, including one that bounced high off the front of the rim then in the hoop, and scored 22 points. Jitim added a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Second, NU was down 9 points and the half yet still won by 10. That’s second half domination. Third, the game was first win over Illinois in 5 seasons for NU and was played in front of a sell-out crowd. When the game was over the Illini fans left depressed and the Wildcat fans rushed the court.

#4 February 10th 2001 – Northwestern 69 #14 Iowa 61

Bill Carmody’s first Big Ten win as NU’s coach ended a 32-game regular season conference losing streak which dated back to the end of the 1999 regular season. The ‘Cats got 20 points from Winston Blake in the victory and began a trend of having success against Iowa in Welsh-Ryan which has continued throughout Carmody’s career.

#3 February 7th 2004 – Northwestern 69 #11 Wisconsin 51

This game wasn’t exactly dramatic, but it is by far NU’s most dominated performance against a high-level opponent in the decade. Northwestern took a team expected to contend for a Big Ten title and totally dismantled them. Vedran Vukusic had 18 points, Jitim Young 17 points, and Davor Duvancic 12 points in the easy NU victory.

#2 January 26th 2005 – Northwestern 75 #23 Iowa 74 (overtime)

Mich-ael…Jen-kins…clap…clap…clap. This game actually was #1 on my initial list which focused more on the excitement of the contest. It got bumped when I factored in importance to the program overall. Nevertheless, this contest remains the best NU athletic contest I attended as a student. With game seemingly over Vedran Vukusic took over to singlehandedly bring NU back to tie the score in the final few minutes. Then in over time when Iowa crusted around Vedran, Time Doyle found Michael Jenkins alone in the corner. As Jenkins shot bounced high off the rim every NU fan thought for sure the comeback had fallen short, but when it bounded again and fell into the net Welsh-Ryan erupted in the most amazing out pouring of spontaneous shared joy I’ve ever seen. Mich-ael…Jen-kins…clap…clap…clap.

#1 January 21st 2009 - Northwestern 70 #7 Michigan State 63

This game has everything a number one game should have. It was exciting (not buzzer beater exciting, but still good), it was very important to NU’s program development, and it featured an individual performance for the ages from junior forward Kevin Coble. Coble put on a dominating display on his way to 31 points making shots that it seemed nobody else, save maybe Michael Jordan, could put through the twine. The game showed Big Ten fans Northwestern might just be a serious threat in conference play. It featured clutch performances down the stretch from Craig Moore drilling a three when it looked like Michigan State was ready to retake the lead and Juice Thompson icing the game from the line. Most importantly, though, if Northwestern takes the step forward we all think they will to start the next decade this game will be looked back as the launching point for birth of a new age of Northwestern basketball. An age where Northwestern can stand up against top teams, where NU’s players can compete with the best of the nation, and where an NCAA Tournament breath is a realistic expectation, not an unachievable winter dream.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wildcats Continue to Show Three Point Range in 84-54 Victory over UNF

Northwestern didn’t match their shooting from Sunday’s game, but the Wildcats still delivered an impressive display of accuracy shooting ball in an 84-54 victory over North Florida.

What was perhaps most impressive in a game which NU expected to win and did so handily was the performance of center Luka Mirkovic. Mirkovic who has shown sporadic three point range at times in his career hit his first three threes of the season tonight. For a guy who hadn’t hit a three all year, and had only tried two, Mirkovic shot the ball with an easy confidence which makes me believe he could be a serious threat from behind the arc this year. For the night, Mirkovic scored a total of 13 points and set up other players with his excellent passing recording 8 assists.

If Mirkovic indeed proves to be a consistent shooter it will be almost impossible for teams to defend NU’s Princeton Offense. Tonight 4 of 5 NU starters hit at least one three. The only player who did not hit a three was John Shurna and although he has struggled recently, I am confident a shooting hot streak from Shurna is just around the corner.

I should also point out that Shurna did score 11 points tonight and did an overall solid job of finishing around the basket. He also grabbed 6 rebounds. I’m actually more concerned with Shurna’s somewhat inconsistent free throw shooting (he was 3-of-5 tonight) than I am about his three point shooting.

Michael “Juice” Thompson, Drew Crawford, Jeremy Nash, and Alex Marcotullio also finished in double figures from Northwestern. Crawford started hot by scoring NU’s first five points of the game and hitting two threes in the first half. He finished the game with 10 points. Thompson hit some big shots early as well and delivered in the first part of the second half as well before leaving for a well deserved rest of nearly 10 minutes. Before taking his break, Thompson scored 14 points and hit four threes. Jeremy Nash had his usual solid game defensively and also finished around the basket very well several times. Nash totaled 11 points. Marcotullio totaled 10 points and made two threes, though, his shot looked a tad off in the second half. Perhaps the best statistic from Marcotullio was that he recorded 5 steals. Although Jeremy Nash might NU’s best option atop the 1-3-1, I really like that Marcotullio can play that spot because it gives NU the chance to put Nash on the wing where he can anticipate passes and get more steals.

Moving down the NU bench a bit, I want to congratulate Reggie Hearn on the first five points of his career. Hearn even got in the NU’s three point act by hitting a long three of his own. Ivan Peljusic also got some extended minutes and had highlights in making a slick behind the back pass to setup a layup and hitting a three. If Davide Curletti’s ankle sprain is serious Peljusic will become a very important player.

The only major disappointments from tonight were NU’s early defense and Kyle Rowley’s continued struggles. NU needs to come out of the locker room with intensity on defense during their future games or contests could get ugly. Rowley needs to be able to finish around the basket when he is open and get off the ground going for layups and rebounds. It’s great he’s a big body, but when he doesn’t jump his height becomes something of a non-factor. It is critically important Rowley improve because NU cannot go with Luka Mirkovic for 40 minutes and Curletti’s status is uncertain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Game 9: North Florida @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: North Florida (1-5) @ Northwestern (7-1)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: ESPNU (8:00 PM Wednesday December 16th)
Radio: WIND 560 AM

Fun Fact: NU won the last meeting between these two teams 40-39 on a Kevin Coble putback of a Craig Moore missed three in 2006.

About the Game
Northwestern enters this game holding down the #31 spot in the AP Poll and sitting at 7-1. North Florida enters 1-5 overall and 0-5 away from UNF Arena. The question here is can Northwestern continue to take care of business and beat weaker teams as they have so far this year? If NU is going to do so they have to stop UNF’s Stan Januska. Januska is a 6-6 guard who transferred to UNF from Morehead State and leads the Ospreys with 11.2 points per game. He is the only Osprey to average double figures. For the season more than half of Januska’s made shots have been threes and he has hit 51.9% of those three point shots.

Other key Osprey players will be two other guards that have shown good range from three. Freshman Jerron Granberry scores 8.8 ppg and has made 47.4% of his threes. Senior Eni Cuka makes 38.9% of his threes off the bench. NU Coach Bill Carmody stressed trying to master the 2-3 matchup zone against North Carolina A&T and with Januska’s shooting ability NU may want to avoid the 1-3-1 against the Ospreys as well.

One positive this year for Northwestern has been how the Wildcats have greatly improved their rebounding and they should have a chance to improve those numbers even more against UNF. 6-7 freshman Andy Diaz leads the Ospreys in rebounding with only 4.5 per game. At 6-7 he is also tied with sophomore Matt Sauey (6.8 ppg and 3.0 rpg) and reserve junior Kyle Groothuis as the tallest UNF players.

The small Osprey team will be a potentially good “get well” game from an NU front court which has struggled. Kyle Rowley picked up 5 fouls in just minutes on Sunday and Luka Mirkovic has been inconsistent on offense all year. As much as I love seeing Michael Thompson, Drew Crawford, Jeremy Nash, and Alex Marcotullio hit threes, if NU wants to compete in the Big Ten they need inside scoring from someone other than 6-8 John Shurna.

Of the players on NU’s healthy roster only Jeremy Nash played the last time these teams meet, but most NU fans will recall sweating out the near disaster as NU just barely came away with a victory. This time I think NU fans will be able to breathe a little easier during the contest. I’m not sure the Wildcats can top Sunday’s scoring performance, but I still think the folks at Welsh-Ryan Arena and watching on ESPNU will be pleased. Northwestern, 85 UNF, 58

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top NU Hoops Games of the 2000s - Part 1

As we come to the end of decade of the 2000s I’ve seen lists for the best movies of the decade, the best TV shows of the decade, the best books of the decade, and many more. What I want to offer starting today, and finishing later in the week, are best NU basketball games of the decade.

This list will be premiered in two parts. Today we’ll start with some honorable mention games (contests not quite in the top 10) and games #10-6. Later in the week I’ll reveal games #5-1. The list was compiled by going through every NU win for the last decade and having an expert panel (okay, just me) review those wins for excitement, player performance, and meaning for the program.

Let’s start with a few games which were just short of making my top ten.

November 28th 2006 – Northwestern 61 Miami 59 (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)

Craig Moore scored 24 points and tied a then school record with 7 three pointers and the Wildcats got their first Big Ten/ACC Challenge win against a team other than Florida State. This probably would have been higher on the list if NU had played better that season.

February 25th 2009 – Northwestern 75 Indiana 53

NU breaks a 35-game losing steak at Indiana behind Craig Moore’s 17 points and Juice Thompson’s 16 points. The win was historic, but misses in part due to how bad Indiana was last season.

March 3rd 2004 – Northwestern 51 Iowa 49

Vedran Vukusic hits a buzzer beater with 0.7 seconds left to lift NU over Iowa. With the win NU sweeps Iowa for the first time since 1959. I went back and forth with this game, but it missed the list as the opponent in game #10 was of high quality.

Now let’s move onto games #10 thru #6. We start early in the decade…

#10 December 27th 2000 – Northwestern 63 #16 USC 61

Ben Johnson (who should never have left NU) hit a baseline jump shot with 1:23 left and two free throws in the final seconds the seal Bill Carmody’s first big win as NU’s head coach. A lot of NU faithful missed this game as they were already in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl, but it was a great contest.

#9 February 5th 2003 – Northwestern 74 Indiana 61

Northwestern dominated the Hoosiers for the first win over the perennial Big Ten power in 15 years. NU was led in the game by freshman Mohamed Hachad who had 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 steals. The game was put out of reach on a three pointer by Winston Blake which also ended up as the basket on which Blake scored his 1,000th career point.

#8 February 9th 2005 – Northwestern 55 Minnesota 53

In the days before the Big Ten Network not all the games NU played were on TV. I remember listening to this one on the radio. The Wildcats came back from down double digits with less than 4 minutes left and won after Vince Scott hit a three to tie the score and T.J. Parker delivered the last of four career buzzer beaters to give NU the win.

#7 March 13 2003 – Northwestern 76 Minnesota 64 (Big Ten Tournament)

This game makes the list because NU hasn’t had a lot of success in the Big Ten Tournament, but in 2003 NU was seeded 10th yet hammered the 7th seeded Golden Gophers. Jitim Young scored 20 points in the game to lead NU to victory.

#6 March 4th 20009 – Northwestern 64 #19 Purdue 61

The most recent game on the list, NU used great defense from a number of reserves and some unlikely baskets by Sterling Williams to push past Purdue in West Lafayette for the team’s 17th win of the season. That tied the school record for regular season victories.

The rest of this list will come out later in the week. Feel free to offer you comments and thoughts on what you agree with, disagree with, and what you think might be #1.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Eight Threes by Drew Crawford Lead NU to Record Setting 90-65 Win

Drew Crawford scored 35 points and made eight three pointers Sunday afternoon in just his eighth college basketball game. Crawford’s 8 threes were joined by 12 more from his teammates for a Northwestern record 20 made three pointers in a single game.

Crawford’s 35 points also allowed NU to distinguish itself as the only Big Ten team to have four different players score 30 or more points in a game over the past two years. Crawford joins Craig Moore, Kevin Coble, and Michael “Juice” Thompson on that list of NU’s players to surpass 30 in a game. When you consider how much NU struggled to score in past seasons, it is amazing to think that NU has had some of the league’s top scorers the past two years.

Juice Thompson was second on NU in scoring this afternoon with 19 points and five made threes. Juice also distinguished himself in the scorebook with 8 assists against only one turnover. Perhaps most importantly, though, Juice also got the most rest he has had all season playing only 34 minutes in the lopsided NU victory. With the Wildcats playing 3 games this week it was nice to see Juice get some well deserved rest. Two other Wildcats in double figures were Alex Marcotullio who scored 11 points and made 3-of-5 three pointers and Jeremy Nash who scored 10 points, made 2-of-5 threes, had 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and finished one of the most impressive alley-op dunks I’ve seen from an NU player on a pass from Juice Thompson.

In the front court, NU got substantial rebounding numbers from both John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic. Shurna had 10 rebounds with 4 coming on the offensive glass and Mirkovic had 8 rebounds. Neither player scored much with Shurna getting 6 points and Mirkovic getting 3, but both guys contributed to the victory. They also combined for 5 assists with 3 from Mirkovic and 2 from Shurna.

As well as Northwestern shot today it is easy to envision the Wildcats having unprecedented success the rest of season, but the truth is this game was far from perfect. Bill Carmody showed clear displeasure with NU’s defense in the first half when the ‘Cats gave up 37 points. NU played much better defense in the second half, but clearly this was far from NU’s best defensive effort. When NU plays in the Big Ten they’ll need more consistency on defense. Also, although he had 10 rebounds John Shurna continues to struggle with his three point shot. Even in his 25 point game against Iowa State, Shurna hit only 3-of-10 threes. Combined with his game at N.C. State and today Shurna has hit just 3-of-19 threes over the past threes games. On the year he’s far below 30% from behind the arc. The good news is Shurna can score in many ways, but I think Big Ten teams will be more prepared for him. Shurna needs to heat up from behind the arc if he wants to be a truly difficult match up from Big Ten teams in the same mode as Purdue’s Robbie Hummel. Perhaps Coach Carmody having some weaknesses to point out is good, because NU can accomplish a lot if they keep winning and not looking past opponents.

Taking a look ahead, Northwestern plays North Florida on Wednesday night and Stanford on Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats will be favored in both games and if they can get past those teams and Central Connecticut State on December 22nd, NU will start Big Ten play with their best record since the 1993-94 team was 9-0 to start the year. With two more wins this week NU also has an outside chance to achieve their first national ranking in almost four decades. Granted UNF and Stanford aren’t powerhouses, but if NU is 9-1 after this week, and the right combination of teams go down, the ‘Cats could be ranked by the Tuesday before Christmas. That would be an incredible present for Wildcat fans.

News and Notes: The crowd of 3926 was pretty good today when you factor in the late Sunday start time and no students on campus...the officials today were Ed Hightower, Dan Chrisman, and Eric Curry all three have worked many big games so it was kind of funny to see them working NU and N.C. A&T...NU’s women’s basketball team also won today. The Wildcats defeated Kansas State 53-50 in Manhattan, Kansas. Those ‘Cats are 7-2 and 1-0 in the Big Ten. They like the men’s squad hope to follow the fine example of Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s football team and qualify this year for the postseason...Future Wildcat JerShon Cobb led his team past future Illinois guard Jereme Richmond when their high schools met at the Best of the Midwest Shootout in Marion, Illinois. Cobb posted 26 points to Richmond's 20 and Cobb's Columbia (GA) High School beat Waukegan in overtime 78-71. The current Wildcats open Big Ten play with the current Fighting Illini on December 30th.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Game 8: North Carolina A&T @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: North Carolina A&T (4-5) @ Northwestern (6-1)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: for $2.99 @ 4:00 PM on December 13th
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Three of North Carolina A&T’s 4 four assistant coaches went to North Carolina A&T. That’s impressive loyalty in hiring.

About the Game
Both these teams enter this contest after a fairly long break. Northwestern last played on December 1st and North Carolina A&T on December 5th. Looking at past schedules, I think the reason NU didn’t play a game after the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is that spot on the schedule was previously occupied by DePaul who decided not play NU this season. The Wildcats will play the Blue Demons next year.

Getting back to N.C. A&T, this is a game NU will obviously be a big favorite in; however, it might be a little tougher than expected. NU’s big advantage will likely come in the front court. N.C. A&T’s two tallest players are both 6-9. I will say, however, they both have some size. Senior James Porter is 240 pounds and junior Thomas Coleman is 235 pounds. One of the two will likely get the assignment of stopping John Shurna. Given that Coleman has started eight games and Porter only one I’d think Coleman will get the call. What is impressive about Coleman is he grabs 8.9 rebounds per game and scores 9.1 points. Basically, he’s just a point and rebound away from averaging a double-double. The other player on N.C. A&T’s roster with very impressive numbers is Dwane Joshua. The 6-2 senior guard leads his team in scoring (16.7 ppg) and hits 40.8% of his threes. Actually N.C. A&T is famous (or becoming famous for taking threes). They currently have 278 three point attempts this year. That’s 48% of the team’s shots. On percentage they aren’t great coming in at 30.9%, but based on sheer volume they can do some damage. This might not be a team Bill Carmody wants to use the 1-3-1 against unless they appear very cold. If N.C. A&T is cold, then the 1-3-1 makes sense as the Aggies clearly aren’t afraid to shoot threes even if they aren’t going in the basket. Guard Tavarus Alston is second on N.C. A&T with 15.1 ppg, but despite taking 53 threes already he has only made 26.4%. Still, he’s clearly not afraid to shoot.

N.C. A&T has four players who average double figures, but the team only averages 74.3 ppg which means those four players along with Coleman’s 9.1 ppg account for most of the team’s scoring. The team also isn’t filled with great rebounders outside of Coleman and Porter who averages over 5 rebounds a game in less than 20 minutes. When you factor in the fact N.C. A&T has 9 freshman or sophomores on the roster it looks like this could be a cake walk for NU. Young players who play NU traditionally don’t excel against the Princeton Offense. However, NU has been traditionally lethargic after exams and I’m worried the 1-3-1 will allow N.C. A&T to make more open shots than expected. I think this game will relatively close for a time. Northwestern, 68 N.C. A&T, 55

News and Notes: A reader let me in on an interesting note on a name from NU's past. Former Wildcat guard Rex Walters (who left NU for Kansas because it was closer to his home in California) will be back in the Chicago area this weekend coaching the University of San Francisco against Loyola. When you look at some of the players who transferred out of NU under Foster, Byrdsong, and O'Neill you could probably form an all-star team. The fact NU has had stability in terms of players sticking with the program is another positive sign of NU’s momentum forward in recent years.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Details on Football Season Ticket Holder Event Before Sunday’s Game

A lot of people don't seem to know about NU’s football season ticket holder event on Sunday so just going to post the e-mail sent to season ticket holders and do my part. Also, I want say something positive as I think the event is a good idea to lure football fans to Welsh-Ryan. Still, it seems like it should have been better promoted beyond just e-mails. I do like how Coach Fitz adds his name to the invite.

The Text of the e-mail reads:

Dean Wildcat Fans,

Thank you for your incredible support as a 2009 Wildcat Football Season Ticket Holder. We hope you can join us for the Fan Appreciation Party before the Wildcat Men's Basketball game on Sunday, December 13 from 2:30 pm - 4 pm in the N Club on the second floor of Welsh-Ryan Arena. Please let Tracie Hitz know if you plan to attend by sending an e-mail to by Friday, December 11.

If you would like to stay for the Men's Basketball game that day at 4 p.m., you can either redeem in advance the complimentary basketball ticket coupon you received as part of the full football season ticket package, or you can purchase tickets for only $20 on the day of the game. Plus, it's Kids Come Free Day, so one paid ticket gets two kids in the 8th grade and under in FREE. There is no charge to attend the Fan Appreciation Party.

Go 'Cats!

Tracie Hitz and Coach Fitz

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NU Hosting Football Season Ticket Holder Event Before N.C. A&T Game

Northwestern is hosting an event for football season ticket holders before the game Sunday against North Carolina A&T. I think this is a great idea and I’m hopefully it will generate some return customers from football fans who don’t traditionally show up for basketball games. I know people aren’t impressed with NU’s 22,000 fans for football, but when you consider that getting 4,000 people to a non-conference basketball game is a victory, 22,000 looks pretty good. While I realize there are reasons some football season ticket holders don’t come to basketball (i.e. a 2 hour drive is easier to make on a Saturday or Friday night than a random Tuesday) the fact is I’d be confident in betting there are at least 2,000 NU football season ticket holders in Chicago who aren’t basketball season ticket holders. This is a group NU needs to target. If you add those 2,000 fans to the 3,500-4,000 that show up regularly at Welsh-Ryan it would mean that NU could have close ¾ of the Welsh-Ryan full every game. That would be an impressive total for Northwestern. Therefore, I encourage anyone who reads this to encourage any football season ticket holders they know who aren’t regulars at Welsh-Ryan to attend the event Sunday and stick around for the game. Hopefully, they’ll find reason to return.

Also, remember the game on December 16th versus North Florida will be on ESPNU. Without the students Welsh-Ryan make look pretty dead on national TV (and it’s a lot more national now with ESPNU’s increased distribution) therefore let’s try to get as many as possible out to that contest as well.If NU is smart they'll fill the seats behind the baskets with people who they move for the lower level or make the night a group night and have the groups sit in the student section.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Good Work by Jim Phillips

I can’t honestly say I’ve loved every move Jim Phillips has made since being named Northwestern’s athletic director. However, I think today is a good day to give him credit for the overall excellent job he has done thus far. Obviously, his efforts to get Northwestern into the Outback Bowl were huge. I think NU deserved the bid, but as last year proved deserving a bowl bid and receiving the bid are two different things. It is especially significant as the Outback Bowl didn’t just fail to invite NU last year, but also failed to invite a Big Ten Champion NU team in 2000. For whatever reason it seemed the Outback Bowl felt NU wasn’t a good choice for a bowl invite and Phillips changed their mind. I suspect this was a tireless process and I am very thankful Phillips succeeded at his task. Getting the chance to play on New Year’s Day against a traditional SEC power is a great showcase for NU’s football program.

With the women’s basketball team currently 6-2 and 1-0 in the Big Ten, Phillips also has to get credit for his hire of Joe McKeown. By all accounts McKeown was an expensive hire, but he seems to worth the price. A women’s basketball program which had floundered near the bottom of the Big Ten for more than a decade now looks poised for a postseason run. With the increasing national exposure of women’s basketball across the country (i.e. select women’s games on ESPN) this is a sport NU should do everything possible to compete in at a high level. Phillips hiring McKeown seems to have been a major step in that direction.

Phillips also deserves credit for some creative marketing work. For example, NU’s weekly show on WGN radio. It seems NU doesn’t have the financial wherewithal or desire to have a televised coaches program, but the opportunity to promote our athletic programs to the Chicago area on WGN is a good start. Phillips and his staff also tried new things to make football tailgating more fun outside of the just the East and West lots with large screen TVs in the lot at SPAC. I assume that was something of a significant-effort venture and Phillips deserves credit for taking a unique step. Of course, any discuss of Phillips’s efforts has to include the propose Wrigley Field football game. To be honest, I’m not crazy about playing it against Illinois as I think it’ll turn into a neutral site game to a much stronger degree than if at Ryan Field. However, the proposed idea of NU playing football at Wrigley for a game is something I see as a potentially positive media experience. NU’s baseball team actually got some media attention when they played Notre Dame and U.S. Cellar Field and college baseball is a pretty under the radar sport as far as the Chicago media is concerned.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Women's Basketball On Top of Big Ten

Obviously, this isn’t the biggest NU sports story of the day, but NU’s women’s basketball team is currently leading that Big Ten thanks to a 60-58 win over Purdue. For whatever reason, the schedule makers had the Wildcats and Boilermakers play a league game in December and thanks to some great defense and a big comeback the Wildcats pulled out the win. I'm not sure NU will hold this Big Ten lead that long, but this is a much better women's basketball team than NU has had in the last decade. Joe McKeown seems to have been a very strong hire for Jim Phillips.

Bowl Rumors

Update: This rumor is true. NU will play Auburn on New Year's Day in Tampa. This means by the way that NU finished the decade of the 2000s with a winning record based on the victory over Wisconsin. Let's get the 2010s off to a great start vs the Tigers.

It’s not official yet, but is seems like a slew of reliable rumors (which is probably an oxymoron) have NU in the Outback Bowl versus Auburn. If this is true I’m very happy to see NU in the bowl I believe they truly earned and deserved.

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Hawaii Warriors

Looking at football for a moment, with Wisconsin looking much better than Hawaii it seems like the Outback Bowl will have to pick from a 9-3 Wisconsin team and an 8-4 NU team. Personally, I think NU's win vs Wisconsin and the fact the teams have the same record in the Big Ten should be enough for the Outback Bowl to take NU, but we'll see.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Final Comment on the ESPN Magazine Fiasco

I want to offer a final comment on the ESPN the Magazine “Cheering for a Losing Team” article, unless I do hear from Jeff Zucker from ESPN the Magazine and then we can revisit this issue. The final comment is that I think people overacted on this and I think I know why. NU fans are sick of NU’s false losing rep causing slights like NU getting dissed by Bowl Committees, announcers talking more about big sandwiches than our players great plays, and Mike Kafka not even being a finalist for the Silver Football (if Kafka isn't even a finalist the award ought to be disbanded). None of those things are fair and NU fans overacted because they thought a representative of NU was treating their team the same way outsiders often do. The truth is, though, that wasn’t the case. Somebody who devotes large sections of their day to cheering and preparing to cheer for Northwestern probably wouldn't intentionally disrespect the team. Simple logical proves that and people should consider that fact.

In the Category of So Bad It's Not Even Funny...(Well, Maybe Kind of Funny from a Certain Point of View)

Update: Still haven't heard from the writer of the article, but I've got reason to suspect the questions were geared towards a team losing in a game, not a team losing every week.

Spread Far the Fame and the Rivals message board have posted on an article in ESPN the Magazine. The title of the article is “Cheering for a Losing Team” and features a cheerleader from Northwestern as the interview subject. I don’t know if interviews with cheerleaders have to cleared with NU’s athletic department like interviews with athletes, but if they do, then whoever allowed this interview to occur should get more blame than the person who gave it. For the record I'm not saying fire the person in ADs office or kick the cheerleader off the team (that'd be a bit much for a mistake). People should be allowed to make mistakes. I'm sure no one would agree to this interview if they had the chance to do it over. The issue hear is that changing how people see NU sports seems to be an undertaking about as diffcult as the moon landing and silly things like this or the band going to Wheel of Fortune instead of the basketball team's senior day don't help. ESPN the Magazine is somewhat a gulity party in this as well. You'd think somebody on their staff would have gone to NU and know the truth.

Update: I wrote the author of the article asking if he would comment on how the story came about. I think it is somewhat unfair to judge this situation until we know the full story. I'll let you know if I get a response.

Also, I feel terrible for my favorite non-Northwestern college basketball player, Ohio State’s Evan Turner. Turner should have been Big Ten MVP last season, but for reasons which were beyond my understanding lost out to MSU's Kalin Lucas. He was well on his way to getting that title this year, but today suffered a serious back injury which will keep him out a reported 8 weeks.

Changing Expectations For Northwestern

Before this season Northwestern featured the greatest expectations ever for the their basketball program. The Wildcats were expected by virtually every prognosticator and fan to make the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Those expectations changed on November 11th when it was announced star forward Kevin Coble had suffered a lisfrac fracture and was likely out for the season. When Coble was confirmed as being out for the season most people wrote the Wildcats off as a potential NCAA team.

Expectations changed again on Tuesday night when the Wildcats traveled to N.C. State and beat the Wolfpack solidly in a 65-53 win to move their record to 6-1 with three wins over BCS foes. At that point many people put the Wildcats back into the NCAA tournament discussion.

I think it is amazing how quickly the expectations from the Wildcats have changed during the last three weeks. Personally, at the start of the year I saw the Wildcats as a team that could win 20 games and would likely make the NCAA tournament. After the loss of Kevin Coble, I didn’t think NU would drop into oblivion, but I have to admit my expectation was more of 16 wins and a bid to either the NIT or the CBI.

Now, I think the question is how to expectations change with the 6-1 record? What does 6-1 mean? Should NU fans temper their expectations? Should they start booking flights to NCAA Tournament spots? These are tough questions because they involve trying to evaluate not only what Northwestern has done, but the actual talent level of the teams they have played to this point.

Looking first at the Wildcats themselves, you have to be impressed with the way Northwestern has played. The Wildcats have gotten spectacular hero performances from a number of different players in their six wins. This proven NU is a very versatile team which features scoring options from multiple positions. Michael “Juice” Thompson seems to have settled into his role as a team leader and go to clutch player. Alex Marcotullio provides some of the fire and three point range fans feared NU might have lost with the graduation of Craig Moore. Jeremy Nash has shown he can start and score and rebound at a starters level. John Shurna has shown he is a high-level athlete that can get to the hoop and finish with authority. All of these players have stepped up at times and looked like players who can take NU to never before seen success.

On the other hand, NU hasn’t been exactly prefect this season. They still lack a solid producer at the center position. On given days Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic, and Davide Curletti have looked fantastic and awful. Though he isn’t a true center, I still think Curletti might be the most consistent of the three as he makes less mistakes. However, Rowley and Mirkovic probably have stronger upsides so I understand why Coach Carmody uses them more often. Another player who has moments, but who NU needs to step up a bit more is Drew Crawford. The freshman guard had 22 points against Liberty, but hasn’t shown much consistency with his outside shot. Given his clear ability to drive, I think showing more consistent three point range is a key to Crawford’s future success.

Looking at the teams NU has beat shows some positive and negative signs as well. Northern Illinois looks like a team which will compete for honors in the MAC. While the MAC isn’t exactly the Big Ten the fact NU hammered the Huskies speaks well of NU.

Iowa State looked great to me at times (better than Notre Dame), but according to the experts doesn’t exactly look like a team which is going to challenge Texas or Kansas for the Big 12 title. After the loss to NU, they then lost to Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa should probably win the Missouri Valley. Still, if Iowa State is good enough to be even a middle-tier Big 12 team, that means they’re probably better than at least 3 or 4 Big Ten teams.

N.C. State is probably a weaker team than ISU. Tracy Smith inside is a stud and Scott Wood is supposed to be a shooter, but overall N.C. State struggled with ball control and shooting. Still, N.C. State is an ACC team that NU beat on the road and I was impressed with the Wolfpack crowd. Therefore, even if N.C. State wasn’t a super team, NU at least showed the ability to win in a hostile environment.

The real benchmark to answer how could is NU at this point might be Notre Dame. Notre Dame entered the NU game ranked #23. Then again, the Fighting Irish didn’t distinguish themselves to me in that contest. I really thought Iowa State was the better of the two teams NU faced at the UIC Pavilion. However, Notre Dame did have a great player in Luke Harangody that NU handled fantastically in the post. Defensively, Luka Mirkovic played his best game at NU. Notre Dame did miss a number of open shots, but perhaps that was because of how NU frustrated the Irish with some fantastic defense.

The truth is while NU hasn’t beaten a great team yet, they’ve beaten some good teams. Even more importantly, the Wildcats have excelled defensively. They held two of the three BCS teams they beat to less than 60 points. NU has also shown significantly improved strength in rebounding this year. Even guards Jeremy Nash and Alex Marcotullio have hit the glass with authority. Considering that defense and rebounding should show up every game I think NU should be able to compete with everybody they play. Does that mean they’re a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament? Okay, probably not. But those who wrote the ‘Cats chanes of making the Big Dance off after the loss of Coble clearly made a mistake.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three Points December 2nd

1. I want to link to website known as Stadium Journey which recently visited Welsh-Ryan Arena. You read and comment on their assessment of NU’s home venue here:

2. NU’s women’s basketball team has matched the men’s team’s 6-1 record so far this year. The means that the NU basketball programs are a combined 12-2. The next game for the women’s team is December 3rd when they host Clemson in the women’s version of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

3. I urge fans to temper their expectations as the Big Ten is seriously tough this year, but here are some accomplishments from last night which NU players, coaches, and fans have to be proud of. Some of these are long time (or first time) feats and some are just good signals.

- Won a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game on the road for the first time

- Won 2 years in a row in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for the first time

- Beat a non-conference BCS team on the road for the first time since Dec. 2005

- Blocked 9 shots in the game

- Won in spite of 17 turnovers

- Grabbed 10 offensive rebounds

- Beat 3 straight non-conference BCS schools (I feel like this could be a first)

- Won 5 straight games for first time since 2006

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Northwestern Survives N.C. State’s Challenge

Kevin Coble might be out, but John Shurna once again helped fill the void

For a game which Northwestern won by a seemingly comfortable margin of 65-53, and which NU lead by as many as 14, this was a major dog fight. Much to the credit of Sidney Lowe’s team, N.C. State never gave up the battle even when NU looked to have control of the contest. I think this actually turned out to be a great thing for Northwestern. The Wildcats learned a lot of positive things about themselves in the process of their successful effort to keep the Wolfpack comeback at bay. Other NU teams would have collapsed when the game went from 14 to 4, but this squad kept silencing the Wolfpack crowd.

The ESPNU broadcast team named Michael “Juice” Thompson the MVP of the contest and while I loved what Juice did tonight, I think I’d have picked Jeremy Nash. It seemed the Wolfpack run started when Nash got his fourth foul and had to go to the bench. I was also impressed, as I have been all year, with Nash’s all around game. Tonight he scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. This will only improve on his season averages which were about 8 points and 7 rebounds respectively. Nash’s ability to score just enough and hit the glass has been a huge help in making up the lost production of Kevin Coble. I should also credit Nash for his four assists and total confidence from the free throw line tonight. His production from a guy who was almost a non-factor on offense to someone who is a legitimate threat to score has been remarkable.

Of course, I also have to give a big thumbs up to Juice Thompson. He led NU’s offense with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Many of those baskets came on great drives to the hoop in which he used his superior quickness to get easy buckets. If that becomes a regular part of Thompson’s arsenal that will make his ability to make passes to the corner for open shots easier. Thompson actually only had two assists tonight, but one of those two set up perhaps the biggest shot of the game. With N.C. State charging back into the contest and NU only up four, Thompson set up Alex Marcotullio for an open three which Marcotullio canned to put the ‘Cats back up seven. That was particularly big as it showed Marcotullio wasn’t fazed by his involvement in a controversial technical call just moments earlier. To be honest, I think of Alex Marcotullio we can say, “Nothing fazes him.” He is the type of competitor which makes a team a winning team and he’s doing that here at Northwestern.

One NU player who played great early in the game was John Shurna. He scored 10 of his 11 points in the first half. Those points even included another nice dunk. In the second half N.C. State clearly remembered Shurna was the Big Ten Player of the Week and started guarding him, but he once again got NU off to a great start. He also had 8 rebounds. One thing which will make opposing teams just put up their hands in frustration against Shurna will be if he starts making threes. He’s only 3-of-12 in his last two games, but I still think he’s due for an incredible hot streak from behind the arc.

I also want to add a comment on NU’s center position. This position remains an enigma to me. Tonight both Mirkovic and Rowley had nice moments. Rowley scored in the post early and blocked two shots. Luka hit two nice turnaround jumpers, two blocks, and grabbed 5 rebounds. However, both centers turned the ball over three times. That means NU had six of their 17 turnovers from one spot on the floor. Rowley is scary whenever he has the ball away from the hoop and Mirkovic seems to travel whenever he tries to score in the post. Again, I’m a strong believe these guys need PT to improve, but I’d really like to see them cut down on the turnovers before Big Ten season starts.

The bottom line, though, is this was a great win. NU is 6-1 and has four winnable nonconference games left before the Big Ten season starts. NU also has two very winnable non-conference games during Big Ten play which means NU will be favored to post 12 wins outside of the Big Ten. That’s big step towards the postseason.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Game 7: Northwestern Wildcats @ North Carolina State

The Matchup: Northwestern (5-1) @ North Carolina State (5-0)

Location: RBC Center (Raleigh, NC)

TV: ESPNU (6:00 PM CT Tuesday December 1st)
Radio: WIND 560 AM

Fun Fact: This is the second ACC/Big Ten Challenge meeting between N.C. State and Northwestern. N.C. won in Raleigh in 2002-03.

About the Game
This ACC/Big Ten Challenge game features two teams that were crowed tournament champions last week. Northwestern won the 4th Annual Chicago Invitational Challenge and N.C. State won the Glenn Wilkes Classic.

N.C. State used good defense to win that tournament as they held their opponents to 53.8 ppg. The Wolfpack didn’t exactly explode on offensive as they scored 65.2 ppg, but that total puts them and Northwestern very much in the same neighborhood. Basically, both teams want to slow the game enough that the winning margin is somewhere in the 60s or low 70s at the highest.

In terms of generating points, N.C. State looks to a pair of forwards to lead the offense. Senior Dennis Horner stands 6-9 and weighs 226 pounds. He averages 15.5 ppg (stat as of 11/28) and has made 7-of-12 three pointers this season. He is also a 90% free throw shooter so it is clear he is an excellent shooter. N.C. State’s other scoring forward is junior Tracy Smith. Smith is 21-of-47 this year, but has not tried a three pointer. He does, however, lead the team in free throw attempts and both offensive and defensive rebounds. It will be important NU keep him off the glass to prevent easy baskets.

Another interesting matchup for Northwestern will be 6-7 freshman guard Scott Wood. Wood is suppose to be a three point shooter, but so far this year he has struggled. He is shooting only about 30% from three. In the past, many struggling shooters have broken out against Northwestern and the 1-3-1 zone. Coach Carmody did an excellent job against Iowa State of not staying in the 1-3-1 when the Cyclones started to hit easy threes. Although it might be tempting to stick in the 1-3-1 against N.C. State because the Wolfpack have basically a 1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, if Wood and Horner start hitting threes Carmody needs to be willing to go back to the matchup zone.

The tough part of the matchup will be that other than point guard Javier Gonzalez every Wolfpack starter is 6-6 or taller. Northwestern commonly plays three guys who are 6-4 or shorter. This means that NU will really need to crash the glass and will need to try and force some turnovers to compensate for Wolfpack offensive rebounds.

A lot of pressure will be on NU’s three-headed monster at center. All three NU centers have had strong moments this season, but they need to be more consistent. Though N.C. State is big overall, unless they play 7-1 238-pound freshman Jordan Vandenberg, the tallest player on the court will be the NU center. That means Rowley, Mirkovic, and Curletti should all be aggressively attacking the glass.

These teams seem very even as both have similar records and both play similar styles of basketball. Northwestern has an advantage it seems in that they take care of the ball better, but N.C. State seems statistically better at converting second chance points off of offensive rebounds. N.C. State also has an edge in that they are playing at home, but Northwestern has faced much stronger competition so far this season and although they have to travel, they do get an extra day off. Traditionally, teams struggle when facing the Princeton Offense with only one day of prep. Northwestern, 65 N.C. State, 63

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Northwestern Should Offer a Fifth Year to Jeff Ryan

Jeff Ryan should get the chance to tour Welsh-Ryan after helping NU to many wins next season.

Recently the question was posed whether or not Jeff Ryan could return for a fifth year of eligibility. Ryan is eligible to return as he hasn’t taken a redshirt year yet. As that is they case, NU wouldn’t even have to apply for a medical hardship in order to bring him back. However, Northwestern already has 12 of the 13 NCAA-allowed scholarship spots filled for next season if you include Kevin Coble’s fifth year and JerShon Cobb coming in as a freshman. If NU adds a recruit in the spring signing period the ‘Cats will have filled all 13 spots for next year. That would be mean no spot would be available for Jeff Ryan to return. When you consider reports that NU is still recruiting guards in the class of 2010 it sounds like NU’s coaching staff is leaning towards Ryan not returning. Personally, I think this would be a mistake. Yes, NU might miss out a potentially strong player in the 2010 class, but NU has interest from a number of talented players in the 2011 and Northwestern needs to be as experienced as possible next season.

If you look at realistic expectations for Northwestern for the rest of this year and next year, one has to conclude that next season should be a huge year for NU. Yes, Northwestern might be the NCAA Tournament this year, but next year NU could realistically be a top-25 team in the preseason with top-5 Big Ten aspirations. Next year, though, will also offer up a non-conference schedule which will feature several road tests, unlike this season where NU only plays one non-conference road game. NU will have to go to Northern Illinois, DePaul, and Texas Pan-America for sure next season. While none of those three schools are power houses, sometimes teams panic on the road. Having two fifth-year seniors on the floor would certainly help stabilize NU if the team gets into trouble. The experience would be even more valuable if NU renews it’s series with Stanford and travels back to California or takes on an out of state in-season tournament trip which matches the team’s high expectations. A team with Coble, Thompson, and Ryan would be one of the most experienced teams NU ever put on the floor. Also, when you consider that Shurna will be a junior who will have started for 2 years the team would probably be as experienced as any team in the nation. Now, I’m not saying Ryan would start along with those guys, but he could rotate into any spot on the floor expect center. Also, if Coach Carmody wanted, Ryan could even step back into the starting lineup and play the top of 1-3-1 as NU will graduate defensive stopped Jeremy Nash.

Jeff Ryan being a very versatile player is my next point in favor of offering the Glenview, Illinois native a fifth year. If NU adds a point guard recruit, which seems the target, NU would no doubt have valuable asset in a true backup for Juice Thompson who Juice could mentor for a year. NU would not, however, have a player who could back up Thompson, Shurna, Coble, and whoever starts at shooting guard. Jeff Ryan could do so. I think it’s also important to note that NU and other schools have successfully played freshman guards in the past. Therefore, it is not essentially NU add a player to be a backup for a season next year.

Admittedly whoever NU recruited would probably be a better scorer than Ryan, but when you look at NU’s 2010-11 roster the ‘Cats don’t really need another scorer. They’ll have Thompson, Shurna, Coble, Marcotullio, Cobb, Crawford, and probably a center with an improved offensive game in order to put up points. With that group what NU will need is a reliable guy who can offer stability off the bench and play defense and rebound. Ryan can do both those things very well.

The bottom line is while the Chicago Invitational Challenge has me expecting success from NU the rest of this season; I expect a next year to be even better. However, I also expect next year to be even more challenging and believe Jeff Ryan’s experience as a fifth year senior would help NU meet that challenge.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

67-65 Victory Over Iowa State Gives Northwestern Chicago Invitational Challenge Title

John Shurna scored 23 points in a follow up effort to yesterday’s 25 to lead Northwestern to a 67-65 victory over Iowa State and the Chicago Invitational Challenge Championship. The win gave the Wildcats their first in-season tournament title since December 30, 1993. Shurna’s 48 points in two days gave him the tournament’s MVP award. Along with Shurna’s MVP honors, Jeremy Nash and Michael “Juice” Thompson represented NU on the All-Tournament Team for the CIC.

In tonight’s game Shurna scored 17 points in the first half. When NU got off to a very slow start, it was 9 early points by Shurna which kept NU in the game. Although Iowa State adjusted to keep Shurna somewhat quiet after his early outburst of points, the Wildcat sophomore still kept himself involved in the NU offensive by dishing out key assists to Luka Mirkovic, Jeremy Nash, and Drew Crawford. Shurna also once again hit the boards hard and helped NU almost match Iowa State rebound for rebound despite the fact ISU had a much larger lineup. Shurna finished the day with 7 rebounds. He totaled 15 for the two days.

Juice Thompson added 16 points against Iowa State on 6-of-9 shooting. He once again looked comfortable both shooting the three and driving towards the basket to shoot his soft floater. If Thompson continues to show such versatility he will be very tough to defend. Credit also has to go to Thompson for his ironman performances this season. He is averaging nearly 40 minutes a game and he doesn’t seem tired at all.

The Wildcats other all-tournament selection was Jeremy Nash. Nash had 10 points tonight including two huge threes which helped NU get back into the game in the second half when Iowa State took a 9-point lead. He also made two clutch free throws which proved to be the game’s winning margin.

A number of other Wildcats played well, but I’ll give special recognition to Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti. Marcotullio once again made a couple big threes and showed he wasn’t afraid to keep shooting after a miss. Davide Curletti came off the bench and played excellent defense on Iowa State star (and future NBA draft pick) Craig Brackins. I truly believe that despite being the smallest of NU’s three centers, Curletti is the best post defender on the NU roster. He is also athletic enough that he can get rebounds against bigger guys. I’m not saying he should play 40 minutes, but he should get action in every contest. NU needs to play all three centers for them to learn, but right now I think Curletti should be getting minutes similar to Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley should be the one playing more of a supporting role. One skill which could help Curletti get more minutes is showing the ability to knock down the three. Curletti is a good shooter, but he hadn’t really shown that skill until knocking down a huge three pointer to give NU a 6 point lead in tonight’s game at 61-55. If Curletti or Luka Mirkovic can knock down threes it will make the Princeton Offense nearly impossible to stop.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Shurna's 25 Points Push 'Cats Past Fighting Irish

Northwestern’s decentralized hero system continued Friday night as sophomore John Shurna had his best game of the season and his career with 25 points and 8 rebounds against the 23rd ranked Fighting Irish. Shurna made 9-of-18 shots, but what was impressive was aside from hitting some key threes, including a huge momentum swinger at the end of the 1st half, Shurna also displayed a solid ability to score inside. Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough was matched up on Shurna for much of the game and NU successfully used Shurna’s height advantage to get inside looks. They weren’t always easy looks, and Shurna didn’t convert all of them, but he made enough clutch shots to help NU hold the lead in the second half.

Aside from Shurna, NU also got fantastic production from Michael “Juice” Thompson and Alex Marcotullio. Thompson scored 20 points and made 4 free key free throws to seal the game in the final 48 seconds. Marcotullio totaled 13 points and made 3 big three pointers. His final three pushed a 58-56 NU lead to 61-56 and was essentially the shot which won the game for Northwestern. What I like about Marcotullio is that he already has shown a fearless quality similar to former Wildcat shooting guard Craig Moore. Marcotullio had a series of misses, including one which hit the side of the backboard, but he didn’t stop shooting. When he releases the ball he shows great confidence and I have no doubt he believes he can hit any shot he takes. Head Coach Bill Carmody even indicated that the play which resulted in Marcotullio’s final shot was supposed to go to Juice Thompson, but Marcotullio pulled the trigger when he saw the open space. That’s the type of gutsy play Marcotullio brings to NU. He also plays excellent defense and showed no fear attacking inside. He grabbed four rebounds and made a great pass to Luka Mirkovic for an easy two. Any team that thinks of Marcotullio as only a one-dimensional shooter is selling the Wildcat guard very short.

Luke Mirkovic is something of an unsung hero in tonight’s Wildcat win as well. Mirkovic scored enough points to make a dent in the scorebook, but where he really excelled was playing defense and keeping ND’s Luke Harangody off the glass. NU ran their 1-3-1 much of the game and it wasn’t always Mirkovic’s job to box out Harangody, but when it was Mirkovic won that battle more often than not. Jeremy Nash also deserves credit for his play in the 1-3-1. Thanks to Marcotullio’s ability to play the top of that defense, Nash was able to play on the wing and make himself available for more rebounds. Northwestern’s defense deserves great credit as they held a team who averaged more than 80 points a game to just 58 points.

Looking Ahead to Iowa State…With NU playing Iowa State tomorrow at 7:00 PM CT, I’m not going to write a full preview of that contest, but here’s a preview in short: The Cyclones are 6-0 and beat St. Louis University 65-54 on Friday. In comparing them to a Big Ten team they are most similar to Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Golden Gophers in that they play a very aggressive defensive style and try to win by forcing 20+ turnovers a game from opponents. They also have a star big man in center Craig Brackins. With the way NU played Harangody ‘Cat fans should be confident in facing Brackins. On the other hand, with NU’s 1-5 record against Tubby Smith’s similar system, maybe NU fans shouldn’t be as confident. Despite that lack of success, I think NU’s experience with Minnesota will work in the Wildcats favor while Iowa State hasn’t seen a team similar to Northwestern. Northwestern, 61 Iowa State, 60