Saturday, January 31, 2009

Craig Moore Ices Win for 'Cats 66-63

John Shurna got NU started with 2 early threes

Led by Craig Moore’s 26 points, and especially his six straight free throws in the last sixteen seconds, Northwestern edged Wisconsin 66-63 Saturday night in Evanston. Moore’s six free throws were huge because it was missed free throws which kept Wisconsin in the game early. A lot of those missed free throws fell on Kyle Rowley. However, Rowley did mange to get Badgers star Marcus Landry into foul trouble. That helped the Wildcats immensely. If Rowley makes his foul shots, which he has the ability to do, I still believe he can dominate some of the smaller centers in the Big Ten.

Another Wildcat freshman who stepped up was John Shurna. His ability knock down two early threes set an early tone of competiveness for NU. If Shurna regains his shooting stroke, he will provide NU another serious offensive threat. Speaking of offensive threats, Jeremy Nash played another solid all around game and ended up NU’s second leading scorer with 9 points. He hit 1-of-2 threes and made an unbelievable circus layup late in the game to help sustain the Wildcat lead. Nash’s play was critical as Wisconsin played lockdown defense on Kevin Coble holding him to only 7 points on 3-of-9 shooting. Luka Mirkovic also added seven and a late hook shot which, like Nash’s layup, was critical to holding the lead. Mirkovic also grabbed three rebounds which, for better or worse, made him NU’s leader.

Overall, Wisconsin had a 27-16 rebound edge, but Northwestern won the turnover battle by forcing 13 compared to only 8 forced by Wisconsin. 13 TO’s aren’t a ton, but NU’s defense was solid. The Wildcats employed not only their 1-3-1, but also a matchup zone and a fantastic switching man-to-man. It was evident these switching defenses caused Wisconsin trouble in the second half.

Another area which I firmly believed caused Wisconsin trouble was the boisterous Northwestern student section. They played a strong role in helping out shout the invaders from the north and making Welsh-Ryan more of a home court for NU. Now, we need to convince the students to show up every game—this team needs them. Wednesday against Chicago State is a great example. Just because it’s not a well known team, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about how YOUR team plays.

Let me conclude, by saying the true unsung hero tonight for NU was point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson. In 39 minutes, Thompson finished with 7 points, 7 assists, and only 1 turnover. He also played excellent defense when he was on the bottom of the 1-3-1, and fought like crazy when he was forced to defend players more than a foot taller.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Game 19: Wisconsin @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Wisconsin (12-8) @ Northwestern (11-7)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: This will be the second sellout of Welsh-Ryan Arena this year. Two of the last three have featured Wisconsin as the opponent.

About the Game

Both teams enter this Saturday night contest with 3-5 conference records, however, their method of archiving those records have been dramatically different. Northwestern has won three of four, including wins over two ranked teams. Wisconsin has dropped five straight games since defeating Northwestern 74-45 on January 7th. Despite the lopsided score of that contest, a much closer game is expected this time around. Wisconsin’s five straight losses have been close, only one by more than 10 points and two in overtime, but the fact is they have lost. Northwestern barely edged last place Indiana, but the fact is they won.

Much like when NU played at Wisconsin, they will need to stop the Badgers front court players. NU’s young front court struggled mightily against Jon Leuer in that contest. Although he doesn’t start, Leuer still averages 9.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Another Wisconsin big man who has stepped up recently is Keaton Nankivil. Nankivil, who averages 5.2 points per game, hit four threes in the Badgers 64-63 loss to Purdue. It is the ability of the Badgers to step out and hit threes which might cause NU problems. The ability of Michigan to find open shots against the 1-3-1 allowed the Wolverines to beat the ‘Cats and Indiana hit 12 threes in their narrow loss to NU Wednesday. As a team Wisconsin hits 36.5% of their threes. Jason Bohannon is regarded as the Badgers top shooter, but his fellow guard Travon Hughes actually leads the team with a 43.5% shooting percentage from behind the arc. Also of note is the Badgers top scorer Marcus Landry, who generally scores more inside, actually shoots 38.8% from three. The Wildcats collection of young centers will need to be on their game to stop this versatile big man and his front court teammates. Kyle Rowley will have a distinct size advantage, but Wisconsin is more athletic. If Luka Mirkovic can come back from his sprained ankle it would help give the Wildcats added options.

Players and coaches from both teams remarked how intense the game between Indiana and Northwestern was. This game between Northwestern and Wisconsin will be even more intense. Both teams need a win if they want to have any chance to making the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the invasion of the red clad fans from north of the boarder could make Welsh-Ryan a hostile place for Northwestern to play. How the Wildcats respond could make the difference. It seems in recent years the number of visiting fans has increased inside Welsh-Ryan Arena. When only 6,000 fans showed up in 2006, Northwestern won. Last year when Welsh-Ryan was sold out with 75% Badger fans, Wisconsin won. Sadly, I expect at least 65% Badger fans this year, so my initial reaction is to pick a Badger win. However, a good showing by Northwestern’s student section could counter the Badger fans as NU’s students are much closer to the floor and can make an ever bigger difference on the outcome. As a result, I have two predictions.

If NU’s student sections (note both sections) are full: Northwestern, 67 Wisconsin, 60

If NU’s student sections are relatively empty: Wisconsin, 66 Northwestern, 61

Bottom line, either way, I think we're in for a hell of a game.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Coble Steals Pass, Wildcat Win 77-75

The Wildcats are now 11-7 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten

With 5.2 seconds on the clock Wednesday night every Northwestern fan feared the Wildcats would fail to hold another double digit lead, but Kevin Coble swooped into the passing lane and denied Indiana a final shot. Coble scored 19 points and during the game’s final four minutes put together a highlight film of shots which rivaled his game at Michigan State. I find it hard to believe there is a more natural scorer than Coble anywhere in the Big Ten. The only criticism which can be levied at Coble is he shot only 5-of-8 from the free throw line. Coble wasn’t the only Wildcat who struggled from the charity strip. As a team Northwestern shot 13-of-20 from the line. This is an area to target for improvement if the Wildcats want to battle for a postseason birth in any of the myriad of tournaments which are suddenly appearing.

Perhaps the key factor in tonight’s game was Jeremy Nash, Nash has been a key factor on defense this season, but tonight he excelled on offense. Nash converted both his three point attempts and totaled 10 points, including a nice one handed slam. He also had three steals as did Moore and Coble.

Northwestern was again outrebounded, this time 30-19, but forcing 22 turnovers and converting 12-of-23 threes was enough to counter the Hoosier dominance on the boards. Craig Moore was the ‘Cats leading three point shooter (5-of-9), but he got great support from Juice Thompson (3-of-5), Coble (2-of-5), and Nash (2-of-2). I’ve heard rumors that Nash is one the team’s best shooters in practice, today that seemed to transfer into the game. If Jeremy shoots somewhere in the neighborhood of 35% from three, he might become one of the Big Ten’s best players.

Aside from the already mentioned issues at the free throw line, the Wildcats also need to reduce turnovers against Wisconsin. The 19 turnovers forced by the Hoosiers will be far too many to beat the Badgers. The man who handles the ball the most, Juice Thompson, will be one of the keys, he had 7 TO’s tonight. Coble’s 4 and Ivan Peljusic’s 3 were also far too many.

Northwestern’s next game is Saturday against Wisconsin. The Badgers come having lost five straight and will be hungry for a win. The Wildcats will look to once again hold their home court, and jump the Badgers in the standings. It will be a seriously intense game. Hopefully, Luka Mirkovic, who missed tonight’s game with a sprained ankle, will be back.

Game 18: Indiana @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Indiana (5-13) @ Northwestern (10-7)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:30 PM CT)
Radio: and WNUR 89.3FM

Fun Fact: Indiana has done 5-on-7 in practice this wee to simulate Northwestern’s pressure zone.

About the Game

Northwestern starts a stretch which features six of their next seven games at home tonight. After a split in the state of Michigan, Northwestern has to see this stretch as their chance to make a move towards the postseason. Tonight’s opponent, Indiana, has struggled mightily this year record wise, but has shown steady improvement. First year Head Coach Tom Crean (195-109 overall) is a proven winner who Hoosier fans assume will get Big Red back on track very soon. It seems Crean believes the key to tonight’s game will be handling the Northwestern pressure as he stated he has not had the Hoosiers practice 5-on-5 all week. They have either seen 6 or 7 defenders whenever they practiced offense. This is an impressive complement from Crean to Northwestern and in particular Jeremey Nash who leads Northwestern’s pressure attack. Nash sometimes does seem like multiple people on the court, so it will be interesting to see how the Hoosiers handle him.
The Hoosiers have done a good job taking care of the ball this year (+3.2 TO margin), but they start two freshmen and three first year players in their backcourt. Although Crean’s practice strategy makes good sense, Northwestern traditionally can exploit teams who have not played against Bill Carmody’s unique offense and defense before.

Personnel wise, the Hoosiers leading scorer is junior college transfer Devan Dumes Dumes averages 12.9 ppg and has the ability to knock down the outside shot. If Indiana tries to follow the same game plan as Michigan in order to beat the ‘Cats, they will try to penetrate the zone with guards Verdell Jones III and Nick Williams then kick to shooters on the outside such as Dumes and Washington, IL native Matt Roth. Inside, the Hoosiers best players is freshman Tom Pritchard. After NU’s poor performance against DeShawn Sims, some are very nervous about Pritchard who scores 12.3 points per game and grabs 7.2 rebounds per contest. The key will be getting a body on him at all times. He is less athletic than Sims, so perhaps Kyle Rowley can use his superior size to NU’s advantage.

Prediction: I’m not a big believer in must win games other than postseason games where a loss ends your season. However, I will say this is a significant game for Northwestern. A loss to Indiana and much of the good will generated from the Michigan State upset will disappear. I believe after the loss to Michigan, Northwestern now has a better idea of how teams will attack the 1-3-1 and should be prepared to counter that. I also believe, for the first time in a long while (ever?), Northwestern is more talented than Indiana. I think those two factors will be enough for a Wildcat victory. Northwestern, 75 Indiana, 68

Monday, January 26, 2009

Seeing Red (or Green, Black, Gold, Orange, or Blue) at Welsh-Ryan Arena

The Badgers and their fans will be back this week

This post will focus on attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena. This is a subject that gets discussed a lot, but it is a topic which has to be on the mind of every Northwestern Athletic Department staffer and fan. Every time I walk into Welsh-Ryan and see something which resembles the picture above I find myself a little disheartened. Welsh-Ryan could be a great home venue, but instead it becomes nearly a neutral site, or depending on the opponent, nearly an opposing team home game. Earlier this year before the Wildcats took care of their team on the court, the Minnesota students in attendance chanted “Gopher home game” as the teams warmed up.

How bad is it?

Clearly the attendance situation at Welsh-Ryan is bad, but I think before possible solutions are discussed we need to figure out how bad. Obviously the visual evidence (as above) shows the crowd disadvantage the Wildcats often face, but I think more specifics can help. Personally this year, I have had what seemed like the entire Purdue student body come down and sit around me. This is despite the fact I am seated in the lower half on the bleacher side of the arena, in what is supposed to be a season-ticket section. The seats next to me, which I would call prime seats, are often occupied by fans from the visiting team. Since many other seats around me are unoccupied as well, these people often have their friends come sit with them as was the case against Purdue. It is a sad statement about the number of season tickets Northwestern sells that these lower levels seats need to be sold to visitors. It is also a sad statement that visiting fans, who aren’t ticketed in the lower section, can come down and sit in them. Perhaps Northwestern’s ushers need to be more on top of fan movement during the game. I notice the ushers always check tickets when people go into the game, but it seems they aren’t making sure people don’t move during the game—at least on the bleacher side. I would also suggest that as happens to premium seat fans at baseball games, that before the game starts, the ushers confirm the fans in the first five or six rows belong there.

Purple Seats

The folks in the purple seats often take heat on their fan performance. It has been pointed out many times the folks in these seats don’t seem to stand up during the fight song and don’t cheer when the team goes on runs. This is sort of true. I look across and see some people in the purple section cheering, but not all. However, I don’t think this is the biggest problem with the purple seats. The biggest problem is the number of seats which are empty or filled by people wearing the opposing team’s color. From the experience of friends, I know it is basically impossible, even for longtime season ticket holders, to get good seats in the lower purple section because allegedly the section is fully sold. However, every game it seems nearly half of these seats are empty or filled with the wrong color shirts. This needs to be correct much more than a few fans who aren’t vivacious enough in their cheering for some. We need to get those seats filled with people wearing purple. How can this happen? Perhaps we should take a lesson from other schools who try and keep track of who fills their season ticket seats. At some schools, the ushers are required to ask where someone got their tickets if that someone isn’t a season ticket holder and is using season tickets. At other schools, video cameras are used to film the seats to keep track of how often seats are used. If a season ticket holder doesn’t use their seat enough, they are at risk of losing them. Perhaps Northwestern should take this approach. I know several season ticket holders in the upper level of the purple seats who have been coming to games for years and every year try to upgrade but can’t. It would be great if they could sit in the lower section of the purple seats as they would actually show up, and, yes, cheer.


The second group of fans who commonly take heat for showing up in small numbers are the students. It is true the student section this year seems smaller than in the past. However, I do think the students who are in attendance this year have been very spirited. Perhaps that is because only the diehards are showing up. Naturally, the first thought from some folks when they see a half empty student section is to ask why aren’t the students who are in attendance brining more friends. Well, as a relatively recent graduate, I’d like to address this a little bit. First off, everybody I knew at Northwestern who regularly attended basketball games tried their best to bring friends to games. Sometimes, it worked and the person became a fan, but more often than not these friends simply lined up about a hundred excuses. At this point it becomes pointless to try and persuade them to do something they don’t want to do. I knew people who were actually big sports fans who never wanted to go to basketball games. Part of the reason was they didn’t want to take the time (little as it is), but also because of certain logistical challenges that if you aren’t invested you don’t want to deal with. For example, when it is zero its hard to convince people to stand outside Kellogg and wait for a shuttle that isn’t exactly known for following a regular schedule. Also, Northwestern’s athletic department could do a far better job than they do marketing the fact a game is going to be played. A lot of students don’t regularly check for the schedule. They are somewhat fair weather fans, but that’s fine as long at they show up a fair amount. When a sign is put outside Norris or an e-mail is sent the day of the game, it is often too late. Students already have plans. I would suggest sending every new student one of those magnetic football and basketball schedules at the start of the year. I would also give schedules away at dinning halls and at Norris as soon as the schedule is set. Maybe in conjunction with e-mails and signs this would create more awareness. I do think the fact many of the in-game promotions are targeted towards students is a good thing, as are the Chipotle coupon giveaways. College students love the chance to get and win free stuff. I would suggest more of that. Perhaps involving more local Evanston restaurants. I can understand why Chipotle doesn’t want to give away as many free burritos as they used to, but perhaps they and other popular restaurants could offer half price or 1/3 off coupons to students at games. I would also encourage a return of ‘Cat Chats and Coach Carmody’s visits to frat house and various residence halls. Getting students to feel like they are really part of the team helps. I loved hearing this football season that Joel Belding sent an e-mail to students asking them to show up at football games. Maybe Sterling Williams can do the same for basketball?

The bottom line is Northwestern needs fan support this coming week because the red masses from Indiana and Wisconsin will invade Welsh-Ryan in their usual giant numbers. If NU is to have any home court advantage it has to start with the students, but the rest of us must do our part as well. Let’s make noise and make Welsh-Ryan as uncomfortable as we can. Hopefully the day will soon come when we will be joined by many more ‘Cat fans.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Michigan Ends NU Winning Streak with 68-59 Triumph

At the start of the game Michigan center DeShawn Sims totally dominated with five straight scores. It looked early on like Kyle Rowley was totally lost against the much more athletic Sims. This was an example of how sometimes a more athletic player can take advantage of a bigger defender. Northwestern has several guys who could do the same, but do not do so enough.

The Wildcats also allowed way to much dribble penetration from Michigan in the first half. Sadly, it was Jeff Ryan, one of NU’s better defensive players, who totally bought several Michigan ball fakes and allowed players to go right around him.

Overall, Michigan’s ability to ball fake, pass, and penetrate the zone was masterful. They clearly knew how to handle the 1-3-1 zone. Northwestern will need to have some other defenses prepped as other teams adjust as well.

Kyle Rowley has moments, but he is still very soft and slow. He often seems to be in position for rebounds, but doesn’t come up with them. Whether he is simply not yet adjusted to Big Ten speed, or needs to get in better shape, is unclear. Bottom line, he’s not quite there yet, but shows sings he will be someday.

Northwestern did have chances to get back in the game in the second half, especially from about the 9:00-4:00 minute mark of the second half, but Thompson and Coble took ill advised shots and Moore missed a wide open look. Given Moore’s poor play the last two games (4-of-13 today), the odds favor him shooting well at home against Indiana on Wednesday.

Bottom line, Northwestern still has a good chance to make the postseason. However, odds are this is not going to be the breakthrough NCAA year. Given that, I believe the likely future leading scorer John Shurna needs to get more playing time. Given what I saw from Jeff Ryan tonight, I’d say Shurna should get some of his minutes. Ryan is overall a good defensive player, but he offers zero on the offensive end. Shurna at least offers some threat on offense. Yes, he still needs to learn to play defense, but given his size and athletic skill that’s something he ought to learn with ease. Also, considering NU once again got manhandled in the rebound category, getting Shurna, who is one of the team’s better rebounders, on the court more could help.

Game 17: Northwestern @ Michigan

The Matchup: Northwestern (10-6) @ Michigan (13-6)

Location: Crisler Arena (Ann Arbor, MI)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: The last time Northwestern won back to back road games in the Big Ten was January of 1999.

About the Game

Michigan comes into this contest on a three game losing steak. Their loss on Tuesday at Penn Sate by the score of 73-58 was certainly the low point of the Wolverines season thus far. Northwestern comes into the game on a two game winning steak with the Wildcats win over Michigan State on Wednesday being the team’s highest point of the season thus far. Will the two teams’ divergent streaks have an impact on the game? The answer is almost certainly yes, but the real question is in what way will the teams’ seemingly divergent fortunes impact the game. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has stated he plans to remind his Wildcats what they did to Minnesota after the Gophers big upset over Wisconsin in order keep the Wildcats focused. This is probably a good idea.

Michigan coach John Beilein has a different challenge from Carmody. He needs to get his team back to playing the way they did when they defeated UCLA and Duke. The last five games Michigan has settled on a starting five of Kelvin Grady, Laval Lucas-Perry, Manny Harris, Zack Novak and DeShawn Sims. While establishing a consistent lineup is a good thing, Michigan’s recent struggles might result in more change. Two players that won’t leave the lineup are Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Harris is possibly the league’s best player. He is second in scoring (18.1 ppg) and third in rebounding (7.4 rpg). Sims leads the Big Ten in rebounding with 8.1 rpg and also scores 15.8 ppg. Other than Sims and Harris, Michigan will rely on the three point shooting of Zack Novack and Laval Lucas-Perry. In the post, the Wolverines will bring 6-10 Zack Gibson off the bench. Gibson started 6 games this year, but is now used as a backup to Sims and Novack, who despite being 6-5, starts at forward.

When breaking down numbers and strategy a lot of similarities are evident between Michigan and Northwestern. Both teams will play a lot of 1-3-1 zone and rely on the three point shot. Northwestern’s advantage is they shoot higher percentage from three (38.1 to 32.8) and get more steals (7.5 to 6.3). Michigan gets the advantage in rebounding (32.7 to 30.1) and free throw shooting (77% to 67%). The approach each team takes on defense will be interesting to watch. Both may use the 1-3-1 as a base, but as the 1-3-1 often allows open three point shots, and both teams have good shooters, each squad may use more man-to-man. Michigan especially might be advised to use man-to-man in order to get a single defender (probably Harris) on Kevin Coble. For Northwestern, stopping Harris and Sims will be the key. In order to so, I expect them to use the 1-3-1, but also some 2-3 matchup in order to prevent Michigan from getting the ball inside.

Prediction: Without a doubt this is a big game for both teams. Michigan has the advantage in playing at home, but based on the numbers that advantage isn’t huge. Even with two of the Big Ten’s top rebounders Michigan actually only gets about two more rebounds per game than Northwestern. In the starting lineup, Northwestern will actually be bigger than Michigan. Michigan’s advantage is in their athletes. Can Northwestern make up for this advantage with their array of zones and ability to make more threes? I think so, but it will be close. Northwestern, 61 Michigan, 59

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday Flashback: Comparing the Big Wins

Was beating MSU the basketball equivalent of beating Notre Dame? (AP Photo)

Dave Eanet called Northwestern’s win over Michigan State the basketball equivalent of the September 2, 1995 football upset over Notre Dame. For today’s edition of Friday Flashback I want to compare the two.

September 2, 1995

Opponent: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Opponent Rank: #9

Vegas Line: Irish by 28

NU Star: Darnell Autry 35 carried 160 yards

NU Supporting Star: Steve Schnur 166 yards 2 TDs

Play of the Game: Schnur to D’Wayne Bates 26-yard TD

Why it Matters:
The win started NU’s remarkable run to the Rose Bowl.

January 21, 2009

Opponent: Michigan State Spartans

Opponent Rank: #7

Vegas Line: Spartans by 13

NU Star: Kevin Coble 31 points

NU Supporting Star: Michael "Juice" Thompson 20 points

Play of the Game: Kevin Coble banks a fade away shot high of the glass to give NU a 62-55 lead

Why it Matters: First win in East Lansing in 25 years. First win on the road vs a top ten team since 1953.

So which win is bigger? At this point I don’t think any question exists that beating Notre Dame to start NU’s Rose Bowl season is the bigger win. At least so far. However, if this year’s hoops squad makes a run to the NCAA tournament the win over Michigan State could turn into the bigger win. I honestly believe when Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament for the first time it will be as big or even a bigger story than the Rose Bowl. After all, the NCAA tournament is almost a national holiday for the United States. Seemingly everybody tunes in to the games and participates in office pools. While bowl games are big, they don’t garner the same attention as the NCAA tournament. Perhaps that’s because so many bowls don’t seem to have as much significance as every NCAA game. If Northwestern were to make the NCAA Tournament and advance, Bill Carmody and his players could become national darlings in the mold of Stephen Curry and Bryce Drew. Will it happen? A lot of work remains to be done, but it is possible. Northwestern is ranked in the high 30s in the RPI and will probably end up with a top ten strength of schedule. When you combine these two factors, it gives Northwestern a good chance to make the tournament as a 7-10 seed if they can win around 19 or 20 games and advance at least a couple rounds in the Big Ten tournament. Saturday’s game against Michigan is a key game as is next Saturday’s at home against Wisconsin.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

NU Hoops on PTI

Today on Pardon the Interruption Wilbon and Kornheiser debated Northwestern’s chances of making the NCAA tournament during their odds-makers segment. Kornheiser gave the ‘Cats a 54% chance of making it to the Big Dance while NU alum Wilbon had the ‘Cats with a 60% chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Personally, I'm not sure I'm as optimistic. I’d go with a little lower number, like 33%.

Highlights and a Look Ahead

First off, here are the highlights from last night as posted on Youtube by every NU fan's favorite Youtube poster NUBears.

After watching those highlights we have to turn our attention to the Wildcats next game which is at Michigan on Saturday. This is the first time since probably the famous Michael Jenkins buzzer beater that I go into a game worried about an NU let down. After the Jenkins upset the Wildcats blew a double figure lead and lost to Ohio State. Repeating such a performance would be a serious step backwards for NU after the last two wins. Now, that is not to say this a must win for NU. It’s not. Northwestern can lose to Michigan and still finish above .500 overall and compete for the post-season. However, NU cannot show up and take Michigan lightly just because the Wolverines have lost three in a row while NU has won two. Handling this situation will present a challenge to Coach Carmody as it is very possible NU might be overconfident. After all, aside from the two straight upset wins, Michigan at Michigan was the only Big Ten win Northwestern got during last year’s disastrous 1-17 Big Ten season. I don’t think it would be unreasonable if just a tinge of overconfidence entered the NU players’ minds as they travel to Ann Arbor. However, this cannot happen. Coach Carmody needs to ensure NU plays with the same high level of intensity seen in the last three games. In order to make this happen, Carmody should point back to last season at Michigan. He should point to the fact that game against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor was the ‘Cats only Big Ten win. A reminder of their struggles last season should be enough to make the ‘Cats realize there is not a team in the Big Ten they can simply show up and expect to beat. I think such a reminder will be enough to fire up the Wildcats and void the letdown against Michigan. Most of the NU roster has suffered enough too losses that they do not want to see such long strigns of losses repeated. They want to be the team that changes the perspective of NU hoops. The win against Michigan State was a good start, but to truly change how the nation sees NU basketball, an extended winning streak is needed. If NU can win at Michigan on Saturday as many as 6 straight wins are possible.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stunner!!!!!! ‘Cats upset #7 Spartans 70-63 in East Lansing

A program changing win. That’s what Bill Carmody has been searching for since coming to Evanston in 2001. Today was that win. The Wildcat coaches planned and the players executed a nearly flawless game plan this evening in East Lansing. The man of the hour will of course be Kevin Coble who scored 31 points and made a collection of circus shots which will be featured on highlight films far and wide. As great as Coble was, though, I want to highlight Michael “Juice” Thompson’s play. Juice (20 pts) came through tonight in the clutch multiple times. He hit 4-of-8 threes and many of them were late in the shot clock. Even more important, he connected on 4-of-5 free throws down the stretch. For a guy who has struggled from the line this season, that was as mentally tough a performance as I have seen. It seemed like Juice actually wanted to get fouled and go the line. That’s the kind of leadership you need from your point guard. The other Wildcat in double figures tonight was Craig Moore who battled through an unbelievably rough first half (0-of-7) to end up with 11 points. Moore’s three to put the ‘Cats back on top after Michigan State took a 49-48 lead should be the play of the game. It showed that tonight NU would not go away.

Perhaps the stat which was most important tonight was that NU forced 18 turnovers while only committing 7. The Spartan guards seriously struggled with NU’s 1-3-1. Kalin Lucas turned the ball over a remarkable 6 times for the Spartans. Chris Allen had 7 TO’s. As noted before the game, this ability to force turnovers negated Michigan State’s substantial rebounding edge. Tonight, MSU outrebounded the ‘Cats 39-23, but it should be noted the Spartans only had a 12-7 edge on the offensive glass. This is a huge step forward for NU. Another huge step was the play of Luka Mirkovic who grabbed four rebounds, hit a big shot (missed one too, but still) and grabbed a late key rebound and had the presence of mind to call timeout. NU’s other centers also had good moments. Kyle Rowley made a nice shot early in the game and provided an early presence. Davide Curletti got off the bench early to play 7 minutes and recorded an assist and a steal. Finally, Ivan Peljusic got four points and continued his habit of scoring his points in bunches when at the end of the half he scored on a put back and then made a jumped as time expired.

Jeremy Nash played well again at the top of the 1-3-1 and did a remarkable job of avoiding his fifth foul for nearly ten minutes. I wish Jeremy were a better shooter, I really don’t understand why he isn’t, but he had one of the best games I’ve ever seen for a guy who scored zero. Aside from three rebounds, all of which seemed big, Nash added a team-high 3 assists against 0 turnovers. Nash also had 1 steal, but the number of bad passes he forced was probably in the double digit range. Kevin Coble proved to be the recipient of many of those bad passes and he ended up with 4 steals. Overall NU had 9 steals meaning NU steals accounted for half of MSU’s turnovers.

Finally, where Northwestern goes from here will dictate how big this win really is, but this win is significant for Coach Carmody and the ‘Cats. It shows wherever they go, they can compete. This attitude should help as many tough road tests remain on the schedule. It should also help at home where many more fans will likely show, especially if NU sweeps the state of Michigan by beating the very talented Wolverines on Saturday night.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Game 16: Northwestern @ Michigan State

The Matchup: Northwestern (9-6) @ #7 Michigan State (15-2)

Location: Breslin Center (East Lansing, MI)

TV: Big Ten Network (5:30 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Craig Moore has scored 75 points in his career against Michigan State, an average of 15 per game.

About the Game

The first matchup this year between these two teams was decided by a 12-0 Michigan State run at the start of the second half. That run erased a 33-32 Wildcat halftime lead and provided the winning margin in a 77-66 Spartan victory. Overall, that game was similar to many I’ve seen from Michigan State this year. It seems the Spartans will often let a team hang around for a half or for 30 minutes, but will then turn up the dial and run past their opponent. Run is really the operative word as Wildcat fans who saw the Spartans at Welsh-Ryan have to acknowledge the Spartans showed tremendous team speed. Despite the fact NU tried to slow the game down, Michigan State still got down the court with speed and scored 77 points. A key to a Wildcat upset has to be controlling the pace of the game better. Of course, Michigan State will get some breakaways, but the Wildcats cannot let the game turn into a Raymar Morgan dunk show. Morgan is still the Spartans leading scorer with 14.8 ppg. He also averages 7.0 rpg. Although he showed some high-flying skills against NU at Welsh-Ryan, he also showed a nice jump shot as well. Morgan had the flu for Saturday's game and missed a workout Monday with the virus. No word on what that means for Wednesday.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Michigan State to me is the fact they don’t seem to miss open shots. As a group, they shoot 46.8% overall and 38.3% from three. Kalin Lucas is the Spartans other top scorer at 13.7 ppg. It is Lucas’s great speed that often triggers the impressive Spartan break. Off the bench, NU will have to contend with shooter Chris Allen who scored double figures at NU. As much as Morgan, Suton, or Lucas, it was Chris Allen’s dead-eye shooting which overpowered NU at Welsh-Ryan.

The other major area where NU is at a disadvantage in taking on the Spartans is, of course, on the glass. The Spartans outrebound their opponents by 10.2 per game. NU averages about four less than the teams they play. Goran Suton leads the Spartans with 7.4 ppg, but don’t forget guys like Marquise Grey and Delvon Roe who also can crash the glass and get easy twos after a teammate’s miss. Perhaps the strategy to counter this for Northwestern will be to force turnovers. In the last two games Northwestern has forced more than 30 turnovers. Perhaps Michigan State’s only unimpressive stat is they have more turnovers than assists. I expect Jeremy Nash to get a lot of time based on his play the last two games, however, I believe it would be a mistake for Coach Carmody to simply stick him at the top of the 1-3-1 and let things be. If Northwestern tries to play the 1-3-1 all day, Michigan State will shoot them right out of the gym. How well Coach Carmody varies his defensive looks might be a key to the game for NU.

Prediction: Michigan State has several advantages in this game. First, MSU is playing at home, second NU has a terrible rebounding margin, and third MSU’s total talent is far superior. Based on these stats you might expect a blow out, but I think Craig Moore’s love for playing in and against the state of Michigan will give NU a boost. As a result, I expect a close game. Michigan State, 69 Northwestern, 65

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Links

First, Lake the Posts posted an article on Welsh-Ryan attendance. I'm working on a similar commentary, but for now I suggest you read this. I don't agree with everything said, but some good thoughts are in the article.

Second, take a look at yesterday's highlights from NUBears on youtube.

Finally, here is an article on NU recruit Drew Crawford.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wildcats upset #18 Gophers 74-65

The Wildcats were ready for Minnesota on Sunday

After a tough loss on Thursday night, the Wildcats put together an impressive mental and physical effort to top Minnesota 74-65 at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday afternoon. Much of the credit has to go to Craig Moore who aside from 22 points (6-of-9 3PT) also showed great leadership throughout the game. At one point Moore even got in his teammates faces after they mishandled Minnesota’s 1-2-2 trap. Moore finally seemed to be the guy I was looking for who said, “enough is enough” and made the mental decision to play with a mental and physical toughness many Wildcats have lacked during the past few seasons. His teammate Jeremy Nash also brought an impressive level of intensity playing great defense for the second straight game. Nash is a game changer with his ability to get steals (3 today) and just simply disrupt the other team’s offense rhythm. I was also pleased to see him take a breakaway and JAM the ball. I hope some of his teammates take a lesson from him.

Overall, Northwestern shot 47.8% for the game and 59.1% in the second half. Much of the reason for this high percentage with the Wildcats ability to get layups off their offense and, for the first time in this year’s Big Ten season, consistently finish them. While therewere a few misses (Michael Thompson) and some scary makes (Ivan Peljusic) the ‘Cats finished more plays than they had in a long while. This ability to finish or get fouled made the difference. Unlike the Purdue game where missed layup and free throws allowed the Boilermaker comeback, today NU kept Minnesota at arms length with consistent play near the hoop and 78% free throw shooting. Extra credit at the line has to go to Kevin Coble who was 9-of-9 that was big as Coble struggled from the field (5-of-13 overall, 1-of-5 3PT). One slight issue is Michael Thompson who made only 1-of-4 free throws. The point guard needs to do better, especially since NU doesn’t really have a clear backup for Thompson who can handle pressure as well.

Another area of note was the play of NU’s front line against the large Minnesota post players. NU’s combo of Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic, and Ivan Peljusic played very well. Mirkovic was especially solid grabbing 5 rebounds and playing tough defense inside. Minnesota only out-rebounded NU by two. Credit for that goes to all of NU’s front court players and Jeremy Nash who led NU with 6 rebounds. Another player of note for NU was Ivan Peljusic who also played well on defense and although he didn’t get big rebound numbers, he did occupy space. Rowley only played ten minutes, and although he did some good things, some weaknesses also were exposed. He needs to go up strong. Early on he was rejected when he tried a one hand finger- roll layup. He needs to use his size to his advantage both on offense and defense. At times Rowley is a small 7-0 feet because he doesn’t jump quick and tries to play more of a finesse game. I think Rowley can improve on this with a little more aggressive approach and probably getting into slightly better shape.

Finally, let me I was very impressed with NU’s defensive game plan. NU played some brief man-to-man, used the 2-3, and finally settled in with the 1-3-1 once it looked as if Nash was on the court to stay. This is the type of game plan NU needs. The ability to change defenses and give teams another look really makes it much tougher for teams to prepare for NU. Against Michigan State, I hope to see a similar variety of defenses.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Game 15: Minnesota @ Northwestern

The Matchup: #18 Minnesota (16-1) @ Northwestern (8-6)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (1:00PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Tubby Smith has a 423-160 record as a head coach. He is 1-0 inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.

About the Game

The psychological aspects of this game are almost more interesting than the physical aspects. Minnesota is coming off the program’s biggest win in years, whereas Northwestern is coming off its worst loss in recent memory. Also of note, Northwestern began its habitual lead blowing against Minnesota last year in the Big Ten Tournament when the Wildcats ran out to a 16-point advantage before collapsing in on themselves and handing the Gophers a 55-52 win. If Northwestern is to turn things around it somehow seems appropriate that they do so against the Gophers.

Overall talent wise, Minnesota has a significant advantage in athleticism. In fact, this might be the worst matchup for NU this side of the Michigan State Spartans. Not only does Minnesota have two athletic guards in leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook (13.8 ppg) and point guard Al Nolen (7.9 ppg and 5.5apg), but the Gophers also feature talented athletes Paul Carter (5.3 ppg) and Devron Bostick (48% 3PT) off the bench. Minnesota’s three point shooting, 37.3% as a team, could be a problem for Northwestern. Aside from Bostick, Westbrook as well as reserves Blake Hoffarber and Jamal Abu-Shamala have the ability to knock down the three.

The Gophers also feature a good deal of young size much like the Wildcats. If Coach Bill Carmody doesn’t change his staring lineup dramatically, both teams will start freshmen at the power forward and center positions. Minnesota’s power forward is 6-11 Ralph Sampson III. Sampson averages 6.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg and shoots 51.1% in just over 18 minutes a game. The Gopher center is 6-10 Colton Iverson who averages 6.2 ppg 3.9 rpg and shoots 59.4%. The Gophers will try to stick the ball inside to these two guys so the defensive play of Kyle Rowley, John Shurna, Luka Mirkovic, and the rest of the Wildcat front line will be absolutely critical. NU played the 1-3-1 successfully against Purdue until the last 5 minutes of the game when Purdue passed the ball quicker and found the holes in the 1-3-1 for three straight threes. The 1-3-1 if played well can prevent the ball from getting inside, so its likely NU will use it against Minnesota. Therefore, how well Minnesota rotates the ball against that defense may be the difference in the game.

As said above, this game might be won or lost in the players three pounds of brain tissue, not their 190 lbs. of body. Whatever makes the difference, whether mental preparation or physical tools, I’m not sure Northwestern matches up well. Minnesota should have more momentum and they definitely have better talent. Minnesota, 77 Northwestern, 58.

How to Fix Northwestern Basketball

Northwestern's basketball team has some serious problems. They are 0-4 in the Big Ten and are gaining a reputation, at least for those who pay attention, as habitual lead blowers. So the question is how can this team get fixed or are they doomed to repeat last year’s disastrous 1-17 Big Ten season. Some have called for Bill Carmody to be fired immediately, but as others have pointed out there isn’t a lot of benefit to firing the coach in the middle of the season. What we have to do instead is search for solutions that this group of players and coaches can implement, because they are the only ones we have.

Solution 1: Stay Aggressive with the Lead

When NU has the lead they tend to run down the shot clock. This in principle is fine as running down the shot clock is part of NU’s system. However, the way they go about this is different once they have the lead. They go into what I like to call “Turtle Basketball” which means they stand around and make slow passes for 30 seconds, and then somebody tries to drive or throw up a shot with 5 seconds on the shot clock. This is totally different from the fast paced running of the PO with sharp passing which NU uses to get good shots and big leads. When you run the PO right, you might not get a shot until 5 on the shot clock, but you will eventually get a good shot. That’s what NU needs to get with the lead.

Solution 2: Don’t play a lineup which features multiple guys who can’t score

I like Jeremy Nash, Jeff Ryan, and Sterling Williams, I really do. However, they can’t play at the same time. That’s insane. In fact, two of them probably shouldn’t play at the same time. During the Purdue game all three were on the court at the same time and on one possession they each passed up an open shot. Then, NU settled for a bail out shot by Kevin Coble. It might be fine if Ryan passes up a shot and then the ball goes to Coble, but you can’t expect to win if Ryan passes up an open shot, then Nash does, then Williams does. Athletic players are nice, but the game is basketball. The object of the sport is to put the ball in the basket. When they start playing runandjumpball then a lineup with these three guys will be useful.

Solution 3: Switch the starting lineup based on who you play

Bill Carmody did start different players in the second half of the Purdue game so maybe he is thinking about this. Anyhow, some people on message boards and sitting behind me want to see less of Kyle Rowley. Against certain teams I agree. However, there are teams in the Big Ten which Rowley needs to play against. Wisconsin wasn’t one of them. Neither was Purdue. However, against Michigan State he is decent matchup because Izzo’s guys are just big and not super athletic like JaJuan Johnson. Minnesota should also be a favorable matchup for Rowley, but I fear Carmody might not play.

Solution 4: Keep Using John Shurna

John Shurna might lead college basketball in getting his shot blocked. However, he isn’t scared. Northwestern’s roster features too many guys who get intimidated by their opponents. Shurna doesn’t. If he struggles, well, he is a freshman. Sometimes he’ll do stupid stuff. However, you win with guys who aren’t intimidated and John Shurna is one of the only players who NU has that looks like he has no fear.

Solution 5: Look inside and decide you have something to prove

Right now the Wildcats have something to prove. Not to me, not to you, not to the media, or the rest of the Big Ten, but to themselves. They need to prove what kind of team they are. Are they the team who can’t hold a lead and sits at 0-4 in the Big Ten or are they the team that beat up Florida State and DePaul? It’s time for them to decide.

Solution 6: Stop missing layups and free throws.

If you play major college basketball you should be able to make a layup. Free throws, well, they are called "free" throws. At one point in the history of basketball that name had meaning. Now, not so much.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Flashback: December 21, 2006: An In Person Account

Welsh-Ryan Ramblings is proud to present this report from reader PRbeachCats who was in attendance as the Wildcats beat Utah on December 21, 2006.

The Best Day for the PO
By: PRbeachCats

As a ’00 alum and attorney practicing law in Puerto Rico, I had the pleasure of being in the stands for the Cats’ demolition of Utah on December 21, 2006. Three things really stand out about that game. First, the Cats made the Utes look really bad. Normally, when a team is on fire offensively it seems like the scorers cannot miss despite the best efforts or strategy employed by the defense, making even the most ridiculous of shots. However, with the PO, when it is run to perfection, it actually makes the defense look inept, unable to stop a man cutting to the hoop or a simple layup. That is the thing with the PO; when run right it makes your opponent look fundamentally inept and helpless on defense. The second thing that stood out about the game was that my dad actually agreed to come along and watch the game with me. My dad has never been much of a sports fan and does not understand the merits of rooting for the underdog when they lose more often than not. Ever the pragmatic person, he would rather root for the Yankees, Patriots, Tiger, Federer, USC or whoever has the advantage to win. This has made it a daunting task for me to convince him to be a Cats fan. However, on that day he was actually very impressed with the brand of basketball played by the Cats. I think that day was the turning point on his path to becoming a Cats fan. The third thing that stands out is that the parents of Mr. and Mrs. Coble and Vince Scott’s mom were in attendance and cheering every minute. I chatted them up for a little bit and was very impressed with their dedication to the program (traveling all the way to PR to watch their sons play). They seemed like great people and cheered for all the players, not just their own. The Cats team seemed like a great family and one that I was proud to cheer for.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Last Foul...

I just rewatched the last few minutes on TiVo. NU lost the game due to missed free throws and layups. They have to blame themselves for that, however, the last foul call by offical Curtis Shaw was total garbage. Neither Moore, nor Ryan did anything worth calling.

Missed Free Throws Doom 'Cats, Purdue wins 63-61

A lot of reasons can be highlighted for Northwestern's 63-61 loss to Purdue Thursday night. What I want to do is take this opportunity to breakdown the reasons for this devastating loss. I think the biggest reason was missed free throws in second half. Michael Thompson, Jeff Ryan, Jeremy Nash, Kevin Coble, and Craig Moore all only made one of two free throws. Overall, Northwestern made only 11-of-18 free throws in the second half. That compares poorly to Purdue’s 14-of-16. It is nearly impossible to come back on a team that makes free throws, but Northwestern is not that team and missed free throws continue to doom this squad. Missed layup are also a problem, but I have noticed as I watch college basketball closely that Northwestern is hardly the only team to miss layups. The problem is that NU gets so many fewer shots each miss hurts twice as much as misses from other teams do.

Those missed free throws are a symptom of another huge problem for Northwestern—lack of a killer instinct. Northwestern is 8-6 overall this season and in three of those losses Northwestern has blown a double-digit lead. Northwestern is a team that doesn’t know how to win. When you have a team on the ropes you need to finish them off. Northwestern has shown a total inability to do this against good opponents. One commentator said Purdue simply wanted the game more than NU. I heard the same about Butler and Penn State, but I don’t really buy it. How can NU not want to win as much as the other team? That makes no sense. Who the hell shows up to play sports and doesn’t want to win? If you don’t want to win it’s time to turn in the uniform. The problem is NU simply doesn’t know how to finish. People wondered about NU’s toughness after the loss to Wisconsin, honestly I think Northwestern’s players are as tough as they can be physically. Unfortunately, other team’s players are physically so much stronger and more athletic they make NU’s smaller guys look weak. One area where I think NU could match up in toughness, but doesn’t, is mental toughness. NU seems to fold in on themselves whenever they get a big lead. It’s as if you can see them say, “Oh crap, we’re going to win.” Some say this is on Coach Carmody, but from my experience mental toughness is a do it yourself job. A coach can help, but he can’t pour mental toughness into somebody’s head.

Maybe part of the problem relates to the crowd in Welsh-Ryan Arena. It has to beat you down a little mentally when you play a home game and 50% or more of the crowd is pulling for the other side. I feel beat down and I’m just a fan. I have several friends from Purdue and usually get along with their fans, but today I was surrounded by the most obnoxious Purdue fans I’ve ever meet. Of course, that’s a major digression as this isn’t about me. The point is that coming into your gym and seeing ton of fans wearing the opposing team’s color has to get you down a bit. It especially hurts, I believe, on days like today when the student attendance isn’t great.

I guess the last reason for the loss is the fact Purdue’s defense in the second half was much more intense than NU’s. Maybe this relates to the “they wanted it more” idea, but I’m not sure I buy that. I wonder instead if it relates to a conditioning issue. It seemed like Ryan, Williams, and Nash were all over for the game’s first 30 minutes but didn’t make as many tips and deflections late. Is it possible they were exhausted? Maybe. Although, I do have to give Purdue credit for passing the ball better in the second half. It’s hard to rotate when a team makes crisp passes and Purdue did so.

Tomorrow: Friday Flashback brings us an in person account from NU’s December 21, 2006 win over Utah. This should hopefully make us all feel better as we remember the good times.

Game 14: Purdue @ Northwestern

The Matchup: #19 Purdue (12-4) @ Northwestern (8-5)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: ESPN2 (6:00 CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern heavily recruited Purdue star Robbie Hummel and his high school teammate Scott Martin (now at Notre Dame).

About the Purdue Game
Finally it’s time for the Wildcats to get back on the court against somebody other than themselves. This a great thing for the Wildcats as they can put the loss to Wisconsin behind them, and its great for the fans as we’ll finally have something else to talk about. That’s the good news. The bad news is Purdue is hardly a team Northwestern can expect show up and get well against. In fact, if NU doesn’t improve, a Boiler blowout is possible.

The Boilermakers average 72.6 points per game, but even more impressive is their defense. The Boilermakers allow 57.4 points per games along with 7.8 steals and 4.9 blocks. One item which does work in the Wildcats favor is Purdue stands at -1.1 in rebound margin, though, they actually average 6 rebounds more per game than Northwestern. The inside matchup will be interesting to watch as NU desperately needs to improve their play in the paint both on offense and defense. On paper, it looks like NU could matchup favorably with Purdue down low as the Boilers aren’t a huge team, but neither was Wisconsin. After the disaster at Wisconsin, NU coach Bill Carmody mentioned the possibility he might make some changes. Though Carmody didn’t say what he meant by this, I suspect the center and forward positions might factor into whatever changes he makes. Freshman forward Davide Curletti played for the first time in a while at Wisconsin and showed some nice skill and looked far more aggressive than Rowley and Mirkovic. Also, in addition to his more aggressive play, Curletti’s ability to play either the four or five position could make him a key factor against Purdue’s Johnson and Hummel.

When looking at the Boilermakers individual stats, Robbie Hummel immediately jumps out with his 14.0 ppg 7.9 rpg and 2.3 apg. However, he is hardly Purdue’s only threat. Center JaJuan Johnson is having a breakout year with 12.7 ppg and 5.6 rpg. Johnson showed some flashes of skill last year, but this year he is making a huge impact in nearly every game. At the guard position, defensive specialist Chris Kramer has returned to the Boiler lineup after injury. While he was hurt, guard Lewis Jackson made a major impact with his ability to penetrate the lane to score or pass. Finally, NU needs to improve its three point shooting defense on E’Twaun Moore who torched the Wildcats from three last year. Over the last three games NU’s three point defense, which was a strength early in the year, has struggled mightily. Improving in this area is just as important as improving rebounding.

This game is tough to predict. Northwestern needs a win and desperation counts for a lot in sports. However, Purdue which sits at 1-2 in conference is almost equally desperate as a 1-3 team isn’t going to come back to win the league. The two keys will be three point shooting and rebounding, and right now it looks like Purdue is stronger in these areas. Purdue, 71 Northwestern, 66

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Big Game in Evanston on Thursday

Thursday the Wildcats play Purdue at home and I see this as perhaps the season’s defining game. Starting 0-3 in conference is bad, but starting 0-4 including two home losses is even worse. Now, I’m not saying the Wildcats will repeat least year’s 1-17 debacle if they lose Thursday, but I do think a loss makes finishing above .500 overall very tough.

If you look at the rest of the schedule, the only sure win NU has is against Chicago State on February 4th, though, at home against Indiana on January 28th is looking more and more like a sure thing as well. Other than those two games, I’m not sure NU will be favored in any other contests. The best chance NU has to win on the road is at Indiana on February 25th. They might be favored in that game or against Iowa either time, but it depends on how those teams play over the next few weeks. I'm not as down on Iowa as some. I think the Hawkeyes have really good talent, they just don't seem to have put things together yet. In fact, they somewhat remind me of NU.

The positive here is that although NU might not be the favorite in many more contests this season, I do think NU has the potential to matchup well against a number of Big Ten teams. Although we haven’t seen it thus far during the Big Ten season, this NU team matches up better against the larger Big Ten teams than any of NU’s recent teams. The freshmen big men NU has like Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic, and Davide Curletti have great potential. As the year goes on I expect these guys will get better each game. They might struggle at first against some of the Big Ten’s larger teams (MSU and Wisconsin showed this), but hopefully as the year gets better they’ll get more comfortable against Big Ten competition.

Also, if Craig Moore, Kevin Coble, and John Shurna return to the shooting form they showed earlier this season NU will be able to stay in most games. This area does concern me because I worry NU’s recent struggles in shooting are the result not of a slump, but of the fact that it is much harder for NU’s so-so athletes to get off shoots against Big Ten competition. My hope, though, is that some of strategies employed in wins over Florida State and DePaul (i.e. getting Juice and Coble to the hoop) can create more open shots on the outside.

Realistically I think I see NU with 14 wins this year. They can beat Chicago State and I don’t think 5 Big Ten wins is out of the question. However, improved shooting and better play on the inside, especially rebounding, could boost that total. The only two games I feel NU has almost no chance in are at Michigan State and at Minnesota, and NU has played Minnesota well in recent years.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some Quick Thoughts on the Big Ten

After watching games over the last two days I offer a few very quick thoughts...

Losing to Michigan State by 11 isn’t impressive, but it’s not unimpressive either. The Spartans are the best team in the Big Ten and I see them edging out Wisconsin for the Big Ten title.

Speaking of Wisconsin, they are also a very good team, but they shouldn’t be good enough to beat anybody by 29 points. They are just aren’t that dominate of a team. I expect them to win a lot of games in a manner similar to how they best Penn State.

Penn State got lucky when they played Purdue without Robbie Hummel and Chris Kramer. While the Lions are much better, I think it’s a shame NU doesn’t have them in Evanston.

Illinois is way better than I expected. They play as a team more than last year and seem to shoot the ball much better from the free throw line and three.

Indiana and Iowa aren’t good, but they’ve got some decent players. I wouldn’t chalk these teams up as four wins for NU. Getting two wins should probably be the expectation. Getting three would be fantastic.

Michigan might have the most raw talent in the league. I am really impressed with Harris and Sims, but they have a collection of solid players around them as well.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friday Flashback: The Best Day for NU's Princeton Offense

A lot of questions have been raised about the Princeton Offense at Northwestern of late. As much as I believe in the system, I have to say that some of these questions are legitimate. Right now, NU seems lost on offense. This is not, however, the fault of the offensive system. All basketball fans have to admit that when run right, the Princeton Offense is a thing of beauty. Currently, the ‘Cats aren’t running the PO anywhere near perfect, but on December 21, 2006, Northwestern ran the Princeton Offense so close to perfection that I have no doubt former Princeton mentor Pete Carril and Georgetown coach John Thompson III would have been jealous of the Wildcat's flawless execution had they seen the game. I suspect many would have been impressed with Northwestern’s play had they seen the game. Unfortunately, Northwestern’s 77-44 triumph over Utah occurred in San Juan, Puerto Rico in front of a crowd so small the box score didn’t even report the attendance. I really wish I could have seen the show the ‘Cats put on. They shot 69% for the game overall and 73% from three point range. Kevin Coble and Vince Scott combined to go 8-for-8 from three which opened up the inside for 18 points by Tim Doyle. The Princeton Offense likely has never been run better at NU. If anyone out there was one of the few hundred people who witnessed the game please feel free to send an e-mail to if you would like to share what I imagine are far more detailed recollections than I have. Personally, I doubt the box score or recap does the day justice. They can, however, bring back pleasant memories of a great day for NU hoops and provide hope for the future.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Badgers Hammer 'Cats 74-45

An ugly first half put NU in a hole early. An ugly second half finished them off. I thought the first half was probably NU’s worst first half of the year as they only scored 21 points and shot just 26%. However, I now think the second half was even worse. One positive was a couple nice baskets from Davide Curletti, however, he also missed an easy shot going at the hoop and turned the ball over a few times. Perhaps, the key lesson from this entire contest is NU’s freshmen need some work—this not however a shock. Freshmen often need work and playing on the road is really tough. NU fans will see good games from their young freshmen, but it will take a little while in Big Ten play. At this point I am glad to see little positives like Curletti and Rowley making an occasional strong move.

What disturbed me most in this contest were NU’s continued shooting problems. If NU doesn’t shoot well they aren’t going to win a lot of games. Now, Wisconsin is known for their defense and the Kohl Center is a tough place to play, but shooting is becoming a problem for NU. The last time NU shot really well was against DePaul. The last four games have been very bad from behind the arc. The Big Ten Network did mention Craig Moore has made at least one three in 25 straight games, but he needs to get back to making close to 50% not making 1-of-7.

This was also NU’s worst game defensively. The 1-3-1 allowed too many open shots, NU didn’t rotate fast enough and Wisconsin penetrated the 2-3. NU didn’t play much man-to-man either which surprised me. They played some against MSU and weren’t terrible. I thought when facing a less athletic team like Wisconsin man defense could be a good weapon.

Finally, let me say Northwestern isn’t as bad as this loss shows them to be. As you can note from my pre-game predication, I didn’t expect NU to win this game, but I didn’t expect them to look like the Freshmen B squad taking on the Varsity either. The message that the type of play seen today is not acceptable needs to be conveyed to the Wildcat players. I’m sure Coach Carmody will do so, but it would be better if this message came from a player. Sometimes as a coach you can repeat this type of message ad nauseam and you might as well talk to a wall. A similar situation existed when Jitim Young was a senior and it was Young who fired up his teammates and coaches and pushed NU to its best Big Ten record in years. Does NU have a leader like Young on this year’s team? I don’t know. I hope somebody in purple has it within himself to reach down inside and convey the needed message to his teammates, because that message needs to be heard. It is time for the ‘Cats to toughen up.

Game 13: Northwestern @ Wisconsin

The Matchup: Northwestern (8-4) @ Wisconsin (11-3)

Location: Kohl Center (Madison, Wis.)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:30 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern’s Women’s basketball squad got their first conference win against Wisconsin on Sunday 49-46. Can the men follow suit?

About the Wisconsin Game

Wisconsin currently sits atop the Big Ten. Is any anybody surprised? I doubt it. The Badgers might not have been the most heralded team coming into this year, but Coach Bo Ryan always has his team competing for the league title. Right now, the Badgers 2-0 conference record stands as the result of wins over #23 Michigan (73-61) and Penn State (65-61). Both are solid teams and it says a lot positive things for the Badgers that they pulled off those victories.

The Badgers are led by 6-7 230 lbs. forward Marcus Landry who scores 13.1 ppg and is coming off a career-high 23 against Penn State. Landry has the ability to step out hit a three, but he can also score down low. He is a tough match up for Northwestern’s zone defense. If NU chooses to go man-to-man, as they did for a portion of the MSU game, I’d like to see Jeff Ryan guard Landry. Ryan has the widest variety of defensive skills of any Wildcat and I think he would give Landry trouble.

Another Badger who might give NU’s zone major problems is guard Jason Bohannon. Bohannon is a dead-eye three point shooter who scores 11.0 ppg. He has record double figures nine times this year. NU must closeout on him better than they did against MSU’s Chris Allen or he will light up the ‘Cats in a similar manner.

Bohannon is joined in the Badger backcourt by Trevon Hughes, an excellent point guard, Hughes has 27 assists and only 7 turnovers in his team’s last nine games. He also scores 12.6 ppg. Finally, forward Joe Krabbenhoft plays defense and rebounds (6.4 ppg) for the Badgers. Statistically he’s a so-so scorer (8.0 ppg), but if NU doesn’t improve its rebounding, I expect Krabbenhoft to get a lot of second chance points.

Prediction: NU matches up much better with Wisconsin this year than in many years past. Amazingly, even in some of those years when NU seemed seriously mismatched with the Badgers, the Wildcats pulled off victories. However, all those wins were in Evanston. Nobody, save two of the best Illinois teams ever and last year’s Purdue squad, have beaten Bo Ryan’s Badgers in Kohl Center during the Big Ten season. I think NU has a chance to beat Wisconsin this year, but that chance will have to come January 31st in Evanston—not tonight. Wisconsin, 55 Northwestern, 50

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Coble Hurt?

Reports have Kevin Coble as a game time decision tomorrow after getting his "bell rung" in practice during a rebounding drill. On the positive side, NU is working on rebounding.

Wisconsin: A Model for NU?

As I look forward to Northwestern at Wisconsin I've begun to wonder if Wisconsin basketball might serve as a possible model for success Northwestern basketball could follow. Though some may have forgotten, Wisconsin wasn’t always a basketball powerhouse. However, thanks to the work of Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan, the Badgers now regularly compete for the Big Ten Championship and the Final Four. Amazingly, though, Wisconsin seems to compete for these titles each year without the loads of top 100 recruits a team like Michigan State gets. As far as I can tell, Wisconsin’s success stems from three areas. First, Coach Bo Ryan generally seems to have one or two very good players he can count on for big numbers night in and night out. Second, those players are supported by a bunch of steady role players who can fit perfectly into the team’s system. These are guys who are great defenders, great rebounders, or great shooters, but are not skilled in all three areas. Finally, Wisconsin under Ryan seems to play with a winning attitude and intensity every night.

So, could Wisconsin be a model for Northwestern? Let’s look at how NU fits each of the three keys I’ve cited for Badger success. First, Northwestern does have some very good players. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore are generally reliable enough to score double digits each night. However, one or the other often seems to disappear at times during games. This is perhaps because defenses are so focused on these two players they can take one or the other out of the game. Wisconsin it seems doesn’t have this problem. Perhaps, that is because Wisconsin’s one or two top players have at times been NBAers, such as Devin Harris, that’s probably why they can complete for the Final Four. At this point, though, I don’t think NU should worry about competing for the Final Four. Besides, Wisconsin has won the Big Ten without super NBA talent. Also, to be realistic, at this point Final Fours and Big Ten Titles aren’t what NU needs to focus on. They ought to focus on finishing above .500 and making a tournament. I believe Coble and Moore have the talent to led NU to such a finish. However, if defenses are going to concentrate on them, they need to get some additional support.

Wisconsin’s ability to bring in key role players that provide support and take pressure off their stars has been extremely impressive. This year’s team has a great rebounder and defender in Joe Krabbenhoft and a great shooter in Jason Bohannon. Neither of these guys in an NBA player, but they play great supporting roles for star Marcus Landry. Past Badger teams have seen guys like Mike Kelley, Michael Flowers, and Greg Stiemsma who excelled in their roles of defense, scoring, or rebounding to support the team’s star. This might be the area where Northwestern needs the most improvement. I keep thinking Northwestern has these role players that will step up and support the team’s stars, but they are very inconsistent. Jeff Ryan, for example, could be a defensive specialist or top off the bench rebounder, but sometimes he lacks the necessary toughness. Luka Mirkovic was supposed to be a shooter, but right now he seems reluctant to take a three. He does look better around the hoop, though. Bottom line, NU needs its solid role players to consistently excel in their area of expertise.

Finally, Wisconsin is a team that absolutely brings attitude and intensity to the game every night. Think about how much Marcus Landry ticks off opposing fans. That’s not by accident. It’s because he’s an intense, physical player, who comes to the gym each night with an attitude that he’s going to do whatever it takes to beat his opponent. This guy is the best player on his team and takes this “do whatever it takes” attitude. When that happens, the other guys can’t help but take the same approach. Sadly, Northwestern doesn’t seem to have players like this. The closest might be Ivan Peljusic, but he doesn’t play enough to truly judge. Occasionally, you see this winning intensity for other Wildcats like Craig Moore and Michael Thompson, but it doesn’t show up every night. It existed against Michigan State, but wasn’t around at Penn State. That’s a shame, because if NU had brought a bit more intensity to State College I think they would have won.

The good news is if we want to use Wisconsin’s success as a model for NU it seems to me that NU has most of the physical pieces in place. However, the mental ones need some work. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore have the talent to lead NU an above .500 record and the post season, but they need help. NU’s role players have to show up every night and give their all to fill whatever role their coach asks of them. It might not be glorious, just be five minutes of great defense or intense rebounding, but those five minutes might be the key to victory. Also, all the players on NU’s roster from Moore and Coble to Marlon Day need to show up with a competitive intensity every night. Brining this intensity might not ensure wins, but it will ensure no bad losses which is an essential key to impressing selection committees and making the postseason.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Spartans Run Past 'Cats 77-66

Northwestern actually played pretty well against Michigan State except for a 5 minute stretch at the start of the second half in which Northwestern only got one shot in 6 possessions. That allowed MSU go on a 12-0 spurt which ended NU's chance to win a game the 'Cats led 33-32 at half. The positive thing is that except for those five minutes, NU probably played better against MSU than they did against Penn State. Unfortunately, Michigan State is an excellent team and you have no chance to beat them unless you play at a high level the entire game. In fact, in the Big Ten, NU will need to play forty minutes to beat anybody, with the possible exception of Indiana.

One major positive from last night was the play of Luka Mirkovic. He scored nine points and had three assists with no turnovers. Kyle Rowley actually started the game with some good baskets for NU, but he looked tired and missed two easy layups late in the first half. Rowley also looked majorly indecisive early in the second when he got the ball in the post and traveled. I will also say the Mike Capocci had some nice minutes and it will be interesting to see if he gets more playing time. This could help, because last Jeff Ryan really struggled, returning to his frightened self instead of the aggressive player he had become earlier in the year.

On the negative side, NU still struggled rebounding, though, the effort was better than against Penn State (NU got 10 offensive boards vs MSU). Michigan State is also the most athletic team NU will face this year. NU should matchup better against the other top Big Ten teams because Wisconsin and Purdue do not have the athletic monsters of Raymar Morgan, Kalin Lucas, Goran Suton, Delvon Roe, etc. Unfortunately, NU once again shot poorly from three point range going 9-of-29, 31%. This is a serious problem. Some people wanted to call NU’s shooting against PSU an aberration, however, I worry that it is the better Big Ten opponents who are forcing NU into shooting struggles. If NU really is a good shooting team, they are due for a hot shooting night soon (please at Wisconsin) as they’ve struggled in their last three contests (SMU, PSU, MSU). Hopefully we’ll see that against Wisconsin. If not, it will be a long season as Northwestern must hit threes to win. Hopefully, at lest Craig Moore (4-of-11) Kevin Coble (2-of-7) will shoot better as the season continues. They have a track record which proves they can. Northwestern desperately needs Kevin Coble to have a game where he gets sizzling hot if they want to pull some big upsets.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Game 12: Michigan State @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Michigan State (10-2, 1-0) @ Northwestern (8-3, 0-1)

Location: Welsh Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (6:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Michigan State is 6-0 this season when Goran Suton plays.

About the MSU Game

Northwestern and Michigan State enter this game seemingly going in different directions. MSU beat previously undefeated Minnesota in their Big Ten opener, while the Wildcats lost to Penn State. The initial reaction upon seeing this is the Wildcats are in trouble. However, Minnesota probably isn’t as good people thought and Penn State probably isn’t as bad. Despite that, though, this remains a tall task for Northwestern. Michigan State is one of, if not the most, physically talented team Northwestern will play this season. The Spartans are unbelievably quick with the ball, led by point guard Kalin Lucas, and have a whole host of future NBAers on the roster. Position for position Northwestern will struggle to matchup.

Besides their speed, the Spartans have size. 6-10 Goran Suton is back at full speed after early injuries and he leads MSU with 6.7 rpg, he also scores 10.3 ppg. Alongside Suton in the front court are 6-8 forwards Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe. Morgan is regarded by some as the best all around player in the Big Ten. He currently averages 14.8 ppg and 6.3 rpg in addition to shooting 62.3%. Roe was the highest rated recruit to enter the Big Ten this season and although slowed by injuries early, he still averages 5.3 ppg and 5.1 rebounds.

Off the bench, MSU can bring in two sharp shooters who have decent size as well. 6-3 reserve guard Chris Allen averages 10.2 ppg, despite not being a starter, on the strength of his 23-of-61 three point shooting. Fellow reserve Durrell Summers, despite receving the wrath of Coach Tom Izzo early on, now shoots 50% from three and is a key member of the Spartan rotation.

How can NU stop this team? The first thing they must do is play much better defense on the perimeter than they did in the second half against PSU. Open shots cannot be allowed. A hand needs to get in every shooter’s face. This is potentially scary as every Spartan shooter, save Lucas, towers over Michael Thompson. It will be interesting to see if Sterling Williams gets any time as a defensive sub. Another thing the Wildcats must do is control the pace of the game. Michigan State wants to play very fast. NU wants to play very slow. NU cannot rush shots as they did at times against PSU. Certain Wildcats must learn that just because you are open doesn’t mean you have to shoot. Finally, NU must place bodies on MSU’s rebounders. One of the killers against PSU was the fact NU got creamed on the boards. Part of the problem was Kyle Rowley only playing 12 minutes. Although he doesn’t pull down a lot of rebounds personally, the fact he can occupy space and bang with another team’s center allows for Kevin Coble, John Shurna, and Jeff Ryan to get rebounds. This needs to happen against MSU. It would also help the Wildcats if Davide Curletti could get over his nagging injuries and get some court time. He would give the Wildcats another bigger body to fight with Suton and company.

Prediction: I think this game will be much closer than many think. I expect Northwestern to stay in the game for about 30 minutes, however, the lack of a home student crowd might be an intangible which works against the Wildcats. I suspect that it will be about 30 minutes into the game when MSU’s talent starts to win out. I believe this will be the first time, and the only time for a while, an opponent breaks the 70 point barrier against NU. Michigan State, 78 Northwestern, 65

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Friday Flashback: The Worst Week for NU Fans?

As it relates to a hot topic in Wildcat fan circles, I present this week's Friday Flashback a few hours early...

After suffering through the loss at the Alamo Bowl on Monday night, many NU fans tuned into ESPN2 on Wednesday hoping to ease the pain with a long sought after basketball win over Penn State. For the first 35 minutes of that contest it looked like Coach Bill Carmody’s Wildcats would come through and ease Wildcat Nation’s pain. Unfortunately, Talor Battle intervened and NU fandom suffered another devastating loss. I saw one post on which mentioned that some of the frustration over the basketball loss might be residual anger over watching the end of the Alamo Bowl. Although I think people try to separate the two teams, I believe there might be some truth to this theory. At the very least, I believe the basketball loss was amplified because like the Alamo Bowl game, Northwestern’s team had the chance to win, but failed to accomplish the feat. I certainly felt a similar sense of disappointment after both losses. Feeling this disappointment led me to wonder whether this was the worst week in NU fan history. Now, NU fans have suffered a lot of losses over the years, but when both football and basketball were sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten fans were, sadly, somewhat desensitized to losses. I believe what makes this week so painful is the magnitude of the losses, however, I have two other candidates for worse weeks.

Candidate 1: January 1, 1996 – January 6, 1996

I don’t need to remind a lot of Wildcat fans about the significance of January 1, 1996, but in case you’re a newcomer to Wildcat Nation that happens to be the date of Northwestern’s last Rose Bowl appearance. In that game the Wildcats took a 32-31 lead in the 4th quarter, however, a blown coverage on Keyshawn Johnson put the USC Trojans ahead to stay. The Trojans ended up winning 41-32 ending NU’s dream season on a sour note. Much like this year, following that loss many Wildcat fans trekked back to Evanston to watch basketball and ease some pain. The Wildcats faced Ivy League opponent Brown on January 2, 1996 and after suffering through the devastation of the Rose Bowl hustling back to Welsh-Ryan from the airport to see the ‘Cats destroy a lesser opponent seemed like a great cure for Wildcat Nation. Unfortunately, Brown beat the ‘Cats 60-56 at Welsh-Ryan Arena. On the heal of the Rose Bowl loss, you can imagine how bad NU fans felt about losing to Brown. Then, to make matters worse, the ‘Cat hoopsters got destroyed by Michigan 83-51 in their Big Ten opener a few days later. The only saving grave of this awful week is thanks to NCAA violations, Michigan had to forfeit their win. Still, losing the Rose Bowl then getting beat by Brown makes for a rough stretch of Wildcat fandom.

Candidate 2: November 17, 2007

This date from just last year might qualify as the single worst day of Wildcat fandom if not the worst week. In the period of less than an hour, Northwestern’s football team got blown off the field by Illinois, thus eliminating any serious bowl talk, and the basketball team lost by one to DePaul. I remember well the excitement before the day started—the hope of a Bowl and a great hoops season. I also remember the total devastation when it was over—no bowl and a loss to an intracity rival. As my family and I drove back from the awful 48-28 loss to Illinois, I called a friend asked him to place his phone up against his computer speaker so I could hear the internet-only broadcast of the basketball game and report the result to everyone else. Reporting the final missed shot by Sterling Williams was one of the more depressing things I’ve done. It brought out a host of negative reactions from my family, but at least we kept the car on the road. However, I do think the waiter at the restaurant we stopped at on the road was very confused as to why these three people seemed so angry.

Is either of these two weeks worse than this week? Honestly, I don’t know. I think the single day blow of last season was pretty bad, but losing the hope we held this year for a great bowl win and a fine start to the Big Ten hoops season certainly didn’t make for a happy start to the year for NU fans. I’ll leave it to you all to decide for yourselves. Also, feel free to share your opinions and other memories.