Saturday, February 28, 2009

Moore's Senior Day at NU


Here are some pictures from Craig Moore's final regular season home game at Welsh-Ryan...











Craig Moore finishes strong, Wildcats top Hawkeyes 55-49

Senior day for Wildcat star Craig Moore was filled with emotions. From the moment he walked on to the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena the last time with tears in his eyes it was clear Moore felt the weight of his four year investment in the Wildcat program and wanted to end his career on a positive note. Though Moore struggled initially on senior day, in the end he provided the Wildcats with a key five points when he hit a clutch three and drilled two free throws to clinch the win for the Wildcats. Moore’s fiery spirit has always been part of his success and it was great to see that in the end his emotions didn’t get the best of them on a day where he wasn’t at his best. In the past, a slow start would have doomed Moore and the Wildcats. Today that was not the case. It has been fantastic to see the progress Moore had made both physically and mentally during his career.

Other than Moore’s 11 points the Wildcats were led by Kevin Coble with 16 points and 9 rebounds and Michael “Juice” Thompson who scored 14. Thompson his three straight three in the second half after Iowa took a seven point lead. After Thompson’s last three, the Wildcats went from down seven to up one. As great as Juice’s shooting was, I think the special mention has to go to Coble’s rebounding and defense. At times I’ve been on Kevin Coble for his lack of defense, but today he got three blocks and made it very tough for Cyrus Tate to operate down low. Also, the nine rebounds were a season-high and for a time he looked like the only Wildcat who was in position for rebounds. In comparison, the Wildcat center position got a total of 1 rebound for Kyle Rowley.

Some credit does have to go Rowley who again looked quick with his moves and scored 4 points on 2-of-3 shooting in 13 minutes. Luka Mirkovic scored 3 points from the center position with 2 assists. Thought those numbers are somewhat underwhelming, they did take care of the ball and occupy space.

Other statistical highlights for NU were 4 assists from Thompson and 3 from Coble. John Shurna scored 7 points and made a great move towards the hoop taking an Iowa player off the dribble. If Shurna adds such moves to his arsenal he will become a very dangerous player. The best moment of the day, though, was Craig Moore overcoming 2-of-11 shooting to push the Wildcats to victory. At the end of the game when Moore kissed the Wildcat at center court it was one of the more emotional moments I have seen for Northwestern basketball. Hopefully, NU will post enough wins between now and Sunday March, 15 to make the NCAA tournament, but if not, I will be proud to welcome Moore and his classmates back to Welsh-Ryan for an NIT game.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Game 27: Iowa @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Iowa (14-14) @ Northwestern (15-11)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

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

Fun Fact: Bill Carmody is 5-2 at home against Iowa as Northwestern’s head coach. The two losses were by 5 points each and decided in the final minute.

About the Game
Postseason play is on the line when the Iowa Hawkeyes visit Welsh-Ryan on Saturday. With a win Northwestern will clinch an above. 500 record and likely assure themselves of a bid to some postseason tournament. With their 14-14 record Iowa probably needs 2 or 3 more wins to assure themselves a postseason bid, but after their 56-51 win in Iowa City the Hawks should feel confident against Northwestern.

In the game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa essentially beat Northwestern because they took great advantage of the two things they do extremely well—make three pointers and make free throws. Iowa also got a great lift from their inside players Jarryd Cole and Cyrus Tate who despite scoring only 4 points they helped lead the Hawkeyes to thirteen offensive rebounds which helped the Hawkeye shooters get a ton of extra shots. When you have guys like Matt Gatens, Jake Kelly, and Devan Bawinkle on the court it is a bad idea to give them three-shot possessions. Statistically Iowa is not a great rebounding team, averaging only 28.8 rebounds per game. In order to avoid the season sweep, Northwestern must hold them near that number.

Another key for Northwestern is to limit the total number of three pointers made by Iowa. This might be a game NU wants to skip the 1-3-1 like they did against Illinois. Using the 2-3 or switching man-to-man will allow NU to put more pressure on individual Hawkeyes and keep Devan Bawinkle from building his usual fort in the corner to wait for wide open threes. NU might also get some rebounding help if they play the 2-3. Luka Mirkovic commented he felt it was easier to find a guy to block out in the Illinois game when NU played the 2-3. Of course, the 1-3-1 did produce 17 Iowa turnovers in Iowa City. If NU had taken more advantage of those turnovers allowing so many Iowa treys wouldn’t have been a problem. Another key might be if Iowa guard Jeff Peterson returns from injury. Peterson made several big shots against NU in Iowa City. However, Peterson and his replacement Jake Kelly have had turnover problems at times this year. If Iowa only has one ball handler, like they will if Peterson can’t play, perhaps NU should play whatever defense will be best to apply pressure on the Hawkeye point guard. That might even be a full court press of some variety.

Prediction:
The Wildcats had the lead late against Iowa in Iowa City, but Devan Bawinkle hit a clutch three from his home in the corner to give the Hawks the lead and the win. If Northwestern reduces the number of threes they allow, commits less fouls, and keeps the rebounding battle close to even, they should win. That might seem like a tough task, but the last two times Northwestern has been near full strength (Ohio State and Indiana) they have done exactly those things. In addition, the emotion of senior day and the fact this is Northwestern’s most winnable game left should have NU ready to play. However, this game will be close as both teams play low possession games which make it difficult for a team to extend a lead. Northwestern, 61 Iowa, 56

Friday Flashback: Class of 2009

Craig Moore has hit big shots for Northwestern since his freshman year (AP Photo).

When a senior class prepares to play its final games you always start to wonder what people will remember as their legacy. As Craig Moore, Sterling Williams, Marlon Day, and Pat Houlihan wrap up their careers at Northwestern it seems their legacy will be the collection of long term losing streaks they busted apart this season. Their win over Michigan State was the first in East Lansing since 1984 and the first ever at the Breslin Center. The win over Ohio State was the first anywhere since 1998. The win over Indiana was the first in Bloomington since 1968 and the first ever at Assembly Hall. A postseason appearance, which can essentially be clinched with a win over Iowa Saturday, will be the first since 1999. In addition, if Northwestern can beat Ohio State next week it will be their first win in Columbus since 1977 and their first in Value City Arena ever.

Looking back at this class over the last four years, obviously Craig Moore is the guy who has played the biggest role on the court, but the contributions of his classmates can’t be discounted either. Great respect has to go to Pat Houlihan who as a four year walkon has no doubt worked hard in practice everyday and contributed to the success of Northwestern’s program behind the scenes. The same can be said of Marlon Day who joined the Wildcats last season after transferring to Northwestern from Purdue. Thanks to his football background Day no doubt brought a much needed physical to NU’s practices. Guys like Houlihan and Day often fly under the radar for must fans and observers because they rarely ever appear on the floor. Nevertheless, they are key factors in the success of a team because they make their teammates better every day.

This season Sterling Williams’s contributions have been more similar to Houlihan and Day’s than what he did his first three seasons. After starting 64 games and playing on average 21.3 minutes per game in his first three years, Sterling Williams has not started a single contest this season and has player sparingly. In the win over Indiana, Williams played only the final minute of the contest. Despite this reduction in his role, Williams always seems to be a leader on the sidelines and is ready whenever Head Coach Bill Carmody calls on him. We also cannot forget Sterling has had some very solid games in his years at NU. What was probably Sterling’s best game occurred during his redshirt freshman season. When Northwestern went into Williams Arena and upset Minnesota Williams led the ‘Cats with 15 points and 6 assists. A year later, he came off the bench in a game against top ranked Ohio State and hit a career high 3 three pointers during a contest in which an undermanned NU squad battled the Buckeyes into the game’s final minutes. Perhaps even more important than Sterling’s contributions on the court are his contributions off. He had a 4.0 GPA at Northwestern and graduated last spring with a degree in Political Science. With that 4.0 GPA, Sterling has been Academic All-Big Ten for three straight years. I have no doubt Sterling’s graduate school performance will allow him to add a fourth straight year of Academic All-Big Ten honors at the end of this season. Another key point about Sterling’s career at Northwestern is the fact he was the first Chicago Public League recruit to enter NU in almost two decades. Getting Williams in an NU uniform seemed to reconnect the Wildcats with one of the best high school hoops leagues in the nation. He paved the way for Michael Thompson and I suspect we will see several more CPL guys at NU in the near future.

Finally, we come to Craig Moore. Moore will leave Northwestern with a number of records (three pointers made and attempted), but I suspect he will be most proud of what his team has accomplished this year. If Northwestern can get into the postseason and make a run, it will be a tribute to the effort and tenacity with which Moore plays. When he plays well, Northwestern plays well. Although I have great hopes for NU’s future guards Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio, it will be tough to replace Moore. In games against Indiana and Wisconsin, Moore hit huge free throws down the stretch. In the streak busting wins at MSU and Indiana, Moore hit huge shots. In the win over Ohio State, Moore had one of the best shooting games of the season. He also scored 31 points at Brown this season which ties him with teammate Kevin Coble for the most by a Wildcat this season. Looking back at Moore’s career, he was the only Wildcat to start every Big Ten game during his freshman season. During that year, Moore made the Big Ten All-Freshmen team and posted a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. He also hit one of his career’s most clutch shots when he knocked down a three with 0.9 seconds left to send NU to overtime at Purdue. Moore’s sophomore year was rough, but he did help NU get a win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge when he knocked down 7 threes against Miami. Moore bettered that school record mark of 7 threes with 8 as a junior when NU upset Michigan in Ann Arbor. He set the record again this year with 9 in that Brown game. This season I believe Moore’s best moment was a key three in the win at Michigan State. Although he’d struggled in the game, Moore didn’t hesitate to take a deep three when Michigan State momentarily gained the lead in the second half. That three put NU back on top and seemed to show Michigan State this NU wasn’t like any other they’d faced. Moore also is the front runner in my mind for shot of the year thanks to his circus layup against Ohio State which had Thad Matta turning redder than his team’s uniforms. Although Saturday is the last scheduled game for Craig Moore at Welsh-Ryan Arena, his classmates and he might be back at Welsh-Ryan in the postseason. This group certainly deserves the honor of such an opportunity.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Contemplating Postseason Possibilities

Indiana can tug on John Shurna's jersey all they want, but it looks as if even that won't hold the Wildcats back from a postseason bid.


With their 15th win of the season last night Northwestern has assured themselves of at least a .500 record. With a win in any of their remaining games the Wildcats will assure themselves of their second above .500 season under Head Coach Bill Carmody. Taking these facts into account, Northwestern is poised to make their first postseason appearance since 1999. There are four postseason tournaments which Northwestern could make this season, below is a breakdown of those possibilities.

NCAA Tournament: It is a long shot for Northwestern to make their first ever NCAA tournament trip, but it is still possible. Obviously the best way for Northwestern to make the Big Dance is to win the Big Ten Tournament. This is possible considering Northwestern has played all 10 conference opponents well at least once. The only negative is that if the Big Ten Tournament started today NU would play Michigan, the only team to win two against the Wildcats this year. Of course, both games were close and it is hard to beat a team three times. Also, it might be a bit early to start assume Big Ten Tournament matchups at this point. NU can make the NCAAs without winning the Big Ten Tournament. However, they have to win at least two of their remaining regular season games and get to the Big Ten Tournament final. That would give NU 20 total wins and I think based on the number of quality wins NU would have at that point it would put them squarely on the bubble. The best way for NU to break the non-NCAA streak, though, remains winning the Big Ten Tournament.

NIT: The NIT is Northwestern’s most likely destination at this point. Projections from the bracket project and NIT-ology have the Wildcats in the NIT as a 6 seed. However, the bracket project notes that NU’s NIT bid could be endangered because of the requirement the NIT take all conference winners who do not make the NCAA tournament. How can Coach Carmody avoid his second NIT snub, get to 18 wins. An 18-win season for NU, which will include several good wins, should get NU solidly into the NIT somewhere around a 5 or 6 seed. Unfortunately, unless NU goes on a major run, it looks as if NU will not be hosting a first round home game. However, since the NIT now seeds, it is possible the Wildcats could get a home game if some first round upsets occur. If NU gets to 19 of 20 wins, they should move into the top half of the NIT bracket, but if NU has 20 wins, I’m going to be hoping for something more than a 1 or 2 seed in the NIT.

CBI: The CBI is in its second year of existence. It features a three game series for its final which makes it unique among college postseason events. The interesting thing about the CBI is that teams who host home games most guarantee the tournament a $50,000 payout. Given Northwestern’s attendance issues, the Wildcats probably would not get a home game in this event even if they were invited. One positive, though, is if you keep winning the CBI does allow a team to make more money as the higher seed always plays at home. As a result, last year’s CBI champ, Tulsa, actually made more money for their program than the NIT champ, Ohio State. Of course, Ohio State got play games on ESPN and in Madison Square Garden. As far as recruiting, which is the life-blood of college sports, that makes a big difference. This year the CBI will be on HDNet, but that isn’t ESPN. If Northwestern wins only two more games and finishes with 17 wins, they will be solidly on the NIT bubble and might drop to the CBI.

CIT: A lot of people have made fun of the CIT, but it seems to me the people who are running this tournament are really trying to do things right. I hope over the next few years this tournament starts to grow. Right now, the CIT committee has to wait until both the CBI and NIT pick teams which will likely mean their contestants will be made up of small schools with good records and big schools who are a game or two above .500. Why do I like the CIT? First, the selection committee is made up of coaches. This should eliminate some of the money-first selection ideals which it seems might come from the CBI and used to come from the NIT. Also, the higher seeds get home games the whole way. This is something the CBI started last year and CIT is doing this season. It makes sense. It rewards teams for success and allows the great atmosphere of college basketball to come into play. I like this a lot better than playing in NBA arenas which almost eliminate the noise factor advantage which you get in college arena when the student section has worked themselves into a frenzy. All that said, Northwestern doesn’t want to go to the CIT. Although I think it has potential to be a great event, and personally I’ll enjoy a post season appearance wherever it is, the CIT is at this point the low tournament on the totem poll. Unless NU only gets one more win and finishes 16-14, they should be able to make the NIT as at least a 7-seed. A positive for Northwestern if they do end up in the CIT is that the CIT is the tournament in which the Wildcats are most likely to play a home game.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

History Making Win: Wildcats top Hoosiers 75-53 for first win in Bloomington since 1968

Craig Moore led NU with 17 points in tonight's win at Indiana.

Northwestern got their 15th win of season tonight at Indiana making history in two ways. First, Northwestern won at Assembly Hall for the first time ever. Second, with their 15th win this means Northwestern will at least finish .500. The .500 record means NU has a great chance to make a postseason tournament of some variety for the first ten in 10 years as long as they post at least one more win. Tomorrow Welsh-Ryan Ramblings will assess NU’s postseason chances in detail.

As far as tonight’s game, the Wildcats placed four players in double figures and used a strong second half performances from the star trio of Craig Moore, Kevin Coble and Michael “Juice” Thompson to turn a five point half time lead into a 22-point victory. Although Indiana isn’t a strong team, NU’s ability to turn a big lead into a bigger lead is a huge step forward for a team who has struggled to hold leads. The fact it happened on the road makes it even more important. The game seemed to turn when IU cut the NU lead to 2 points, but Tom Crean then decided to play zone after his team was beat backdoor by Kevin Coble (10 points overall, 8 second half) twice. When that happened, NU found the gaps in the zone and Craig Moore (17 points, 5-of-7 threes) started drilling threes. NU’s ability to hit threes against the zone has helped the ‘Cats in their last two wins. It also gives NU hope to beat Ohio State on the road, unless Thad Matta does what he did against Penn State and surprises the world by coming out in a man-to-man defense.

As noted above Kevin Coble scored 8 points in the second half. Coble’s eight points in the second half seemed to complement John Shurna who scored 11 points, but got the majority of his points in the first half. Speaking of Coble, what he did even better than score in the second half was pass When surrounded by two and three guys in the post, Coble needs to pass out to the open shooters. At times he struggles with this because he is a score first type of player. However, his ability to find Juice Thompson on the perimeter for open shots helped NU end multiple Hoosier runs. Thanks to Coble’s great passing Thompson hit 2-of-3 treys and scored a total of 16 points, including 6-for-6 from the free throw line down the stretch. He also had 5 assists.

Another NU player who deserves note is Luka Mirkovic. Luka seemed fully recovered from his illness tonight. He made 4-of-7 shots scoring 8 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, and dishing out 2 assists. He displayed a nice touch on several jump shots and made a nice up and under move on which he showed great feet. Kyle Rowley was the bright spot in NU’s loss at Minnesota, but Mirkovic is by far the best option for NU at center right now. Rowley is fantastic when he doesn’t think, but tonight he reverted to the form where he has to over think his moves and reacts a step slow. Luka was the opposite. He almost seemed to be a step ahead of people at times tonight. His pass on an over the top backdoor to Coble was as good as any pass by a guard. It seems Northwestern hasn’t had Rowley and Mirkovic play well at the same time this year. Hopefully, they will surprise and play well at the same time down the stretch. NU will face solid inside talent against Purdue and Ohio State and Iowa dominated NU on the boards in Iowa City despite their relative lack of size.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Game 26: Indiana @ Northwestern

This is Welsh-Ryan Rambling's preview for Wednesday's Northwestern at Indiana game. Following the game, Welsh-Ryan Rambling's will have its usual postgame wrap up, however, be sure to check back on Thursday for an analysis of NU's postseason chances. As the game at IU is critcal in forecasting NU postseason chances, I did not want to discuss those possibilities too soon.

The Matchup: Northwestern (14-11) @ Indiana (6-20)

Location: Assembly Hall (Bloomington, IN)

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

Fun Fact: 5 of Indiana’s 6 wins this season have come at home.

About the Game
The first time Indiana and Northwestern matched up this season a battle of outside shooting finished with Craig Moore sinking two free throws and Kevin Coble stealing IU’s last gasp pass to give NU the win. The game was a great example of the effort put forth each night by Head Coach Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Despite their poor record, the Hoosiers play as hard, or harder, than any team in the conference. That effort has to be respected and both Crean and his players deserve praise. Another group that deserves praise is the IU fans who have packed Assembly Hall regularly despite seeing some, at times, downright terrible basketball from their home team. Although they have only a 1-13 record in the Big Ten, Indiana is clearly getting better. It has been clear recently that Indiana will come out very aggressive against any opponent. As a result, IU has hung tough against even the Big Ten’s top squads for at least a half. Generally, their undoing is turnovers. TOs were also the difference the first time they played Northwestern. In a 77-75 loss, IU shot 50% from the field, but turned the ball over 22 times. A key to pulling a home upset over NU will be reducing that turnover total. Playing at home might help, but it is no guarantee. Coach Crean’s squad is very young and does make mistakes. Although Northwestern has moved away from exclusively using the 1-3-1, Bill Carmody should remember how Devan Dumes and his teammates got off to a hot start in Evanston against the 2-3 zone. Dumes will be a key player to watch in this matchup. He leads IU in scoring with 13.4 points per game, but since returning from a suspension his shot has been off.

Another item which could decide the game is NU’s health. NU’s recent struggles with the flu have kept starters on the bench or made them ineffective. It was a shame the flu hit when it did, because at Minnesota was a winnable game looking strictly at the matchup on paper. However, the fact is the flu isn’t an excuse. Besides, except for one obvious expectation, NU has played like they were sick every time they’ve gone on the road this year. If Northwestern wants to make an impact in any postseason tournament they need to show the ability to win on the road. Getting a win at Indiana would go a long way to proving this. However, if NU’s top players are still ill it will be tough. It is especially important Luka Mirkovic and Kevin Coble improve their health. NU needs to pull Indiana center Tom Pritchard out of the lane. Also, if Tom Crean wants to play man-to-man his team will have trouble with a healthy Coble. His taller players (Pritchard and Taber) aren’t as quick as NU’s star and his quicker players (Dumes and Verdall Jones III) are several inches shorter. If IU plays zone, NU needs Craig Moore and Coble both to play like they did vs OSU.


Prediction:
This game is tough to predict based on NU’s health. I don’t want to use illness as an excuse, nevertheless we have to acknowledge that it is hard to play basketball if you have an upper respiratory infection. Breathing is important to running around the court. If will be especially important if Kevin Coble is the game’s key player as I expect him to be. NU needs Coble to deploy his full arsenal of shots (especially 3s), however, to do that Coble needs his legs. If this illness lingers with Coble like it did with Luka Mirkovic NU’s star might not have those needed legs. For IU, Devan Dumes needs to get back on track. I don’t think there is really anything wrong with Dumes, but perhaps he has been putting extra pressure on himself since coming back for his suspension. I’m predicting a narrow NU win, but with the number of variables in play Wednesday night I acknowledge this game could really go either way. Northwestern, 68 Indiana, 67

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wildcats Drop 72-45 Illness Inducing Performance to Gophers

Northwestern might have a few players with the flu, but unless the entire team and the coaching staff have some sort of illness, this game has to go down as the most disappointing loss of the year. Northwestern just played a head-scratching game both on the court and on the sidelines. Kevin Coble was sick so it is understandable perhaps why he never got going, but Craig Moore couldn’t get going either and then he disappeared to the bench for the second half. With Moore and Coble on the bench the Wildcats were forced to turn to a lineup which featured Jeff Ryan, Sterling Williams, and Jeremy Nash at the same time. Obviously, that isn’t going to be a strong offensive lineup, but what was very frustrating from Northwestern’s perspective was this lineup didn’t play great defense or rebound either. Jeff Ryan let Minnesota’s guards get around him multiple times which lead to easy layups. Williams and Nash each committed two turnovers and despite their athletic skill only pulled down a total of three rebounds. With those three guys in the game, the advantage NU should have is athleticism, but that advantage was not apparent on Sunday night.

Obviously, the strangest fact of the above situation was Craig Moore disappearing to the bench early in the second half. He went to the bench right after NU botched up an inbounds play, but thanks to Tim McCormack chatting about his Oscar picks we couldn’t tell what exactly happened. Whatever it was, it seemed the impetus for Moore’s permanent trip to the pine.

Northwestern’s center position also probably deserves mention when recapping this game. Kyle Rowley played the best of NU’s quadrangle of big men. He scored 7 points and got 3 rebounds. In the second half Rowley made some nice quick moves, however, in the first half when the game was still somewhat close, Rowley reverted to the form where it takes a sun dial to time his moves. When he makes moves quick, like in the second half of the OSU game, Rowley looks like a serious Big Ten big man. At other times, though, Rowley looks like he is over thinking everything. Still, he was by far NU’s best center today. Luka Mirkovic went to the bench early with fouls and may have still been overcoming his recent illness. Davide Curletti still looks a little lost, in one sequence he entered the game and failed to move his feet at all on defense which promptly allowed Colton Iverson to drive right around him for an easy basket, then on the other end of the court Jeremy Nash drove the lane and threw a nice pass to Curletti, except Curletti was shocked by the ball’s appearance and he couldn’t handle the pass. Bottom line, it looks like Curletti still isn’t ready for Big Ten play. Ivan Peljusic got what is becoming rare action in this game and didn’t play well either. He missed two free throws and overall also looked a little off. Still, I think he looked better than Curletti. However, I have to assume his practice performance doesn’t matchup. Otherwise, I assume he’d get the 5-10 minutes a game Curletti seems to now be getting.

Finally, it is now critical NU win at Indiana on Wednesday if they want to make sure they get in the NIT. Road games at Ohio State and Purdue will be much tougher to win than the one at Indiana. With a 14-11 record, NU probably needs at least 17 overall wins to assure an NIT bid. They probably need 16 overall wins to assure a postseason bid. They have a great chance to win at home against Iowa and the Big Ten Tournament opener is always a toss up, but at Indiana is the only road game remaining that they should win.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Game 25: Northwestern @ Minnesota

Craig Moore, Sterling Williams and their classmates have seen more road wins at Minnesota than any other Big Ten road venue.


The Matchup: Northwestern (14-10) @ Minnesota (19-7)

Location: Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)

TV: Big Ten Network (6:00 PM CT Sunday)
Radio: WIND 560 AM

Fun Fact: Including his redshirt freshmen season, Sterling Williams is 3-1 at Williams Arena as a Wildcat.

About the Game
Minnesota comes into this game with a 19-7 overall record, but a 14-2 mark at home. Returning home is probably big for the Gophers after a disastrous game against Michigan on Thursday night. On the heels of that defeat, Minnesota needs a win against the Wildcats to keep their NCAA tournament bubble from bursting.

On the side of things, Northwestern might be out of the NCAA tournament picture, but they are still fighting for postseason position. After NU’s win on Wednesday night over Ohio State, the bracket project moved NU’s projection to a 5-seed in the NIT. Given NU’s struggles on the road (with one notable exception) it is very important to the Wildcats postseason success that they either get to play home games or show they are more than one-hit wonders away from Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Looking back at the first meeting between Northwestern and Minnesota, the Wildcats won 74-65 on the strength of 22 points from Craig Moore and 19 forced turnovers. In this rematch, Tubby Smith will likely focus the Gophers attention on keeping close track of Moore and cutting down on the turnovers. It could lead to an interesting chess match between the coaches if Smith changes his offense to counter the 1-3-1 and Bill Carmody chooses to play more of the 2-3 zone/switching man-to-man he has used in recent games. One determining factor in the outcome of the game and what defense Northwestern plays will be if the ‘Cats can cause enough turnovers to counter Minnesota’s ability to make threes. In the first contest, Minnesota made 10 threes. Gophers leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook made 3-of-8 and scored 18 points, while his teammate Damian Johnson made 2-of-3 and shot 6-of-9 overall. What had to disappoint Smith, though, was how despite the Gophers size, they only outrebounded the Wildcats by two rebounds. This will be another key factor to keep an eye on as NU’s tries for the season sweep. The ‘Cats might be at a disadvantage this time, however, because Luka Mirkovic who played the majority of NU’s minutes at center in the contest in Evanston has been out sick for a week and has lost 20 pounds. Even if Mirkovic comes back, NU will need Kyle Rowley to continue to play as well as he did in the second half against Ohio State if they want to matchup with the Gophers big men.

Prediction:
Overall, Northwestern has struggled on the road this season. While the win over Michigan State is a major highlight of the season so far, the Wildcat losses to Michigan and Iowa away from Welsh-Ryan Arena are low points. Minnesota, on the other hand, his struggled mightily away from Williams Arena, but have only lost two games at home. One factor that might play into Northwestern’s favor is the fact the Wildcats are on an emotional high after the win over Ohio State and Minnesota has to be at least a little down after their disappointing loss to Michigan. However, Tubby Smith isn’t the type of coach to let his team stay down. I expect this will be a close game, but I think Minnesota’s home court advantage combined NU’s road struggles gives them the edge. I fear NU will have to wait until Wednesday at Indiana to record Big Ten road win number two. Minnesota, 65 Northwestern, 60

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Flashback: Mr. Buzzer-Beater

T.J. Parker hit four game winners in three years at Northwestern (photo: Daily Northwestern)

On the heels of John Shurna’s clutch three point basket to beat Ohio State, this edition of Friday Flashback will focus on NU player who hit more buzzer beaters than anyone—T.J. Parker. Though Parker’s exit from Evanston a year early to go pro (in France) didn’t thrill many NU fans, he did mange to bring NU fans across the country to their feet regularly by hitting four game winners in just three years.

Parker’s first game winner occurred against Bowling Green during his freshman season. Over Parker’s freshman and sophomore seasons the Wildcats played Bowling Green in a home and home series and won both times. The game at Welsh-Ryan was first and it was tied 60-60 with fifteen seconds left when Bowling Green’s Ron Lewis was called for a walk. With the score tied, I personally was advocating for the ‘Cats to work the clock down near zero before attempting a shot in order to at least preserve the tie. I think most of the people in the surprisingly full Welsh-Ryan Arena (4,719 for Bowling Green is a big crowd at NU) agreed with me. However, Parker took another approach. The Wildcats inbounded the ball right to Parker who shot up the court with his blazing speed and made an easy layup with seven second left. Moments later, Lewis missed an attempt to tie for the Falcons, and Welsh-Ryan erupted in cheers. I distinctly remember being very impressed with how much it seemed freshman Parker wanted the ball with the game on line.

Just over a year later, Parker got another chance to show his stuff in the clutch. This time, though, I wasn’t in Evanston to see it. When Northwestern hosted Arizona State on December 17, 2003, I was in Las Vegas. Thankfully, due to Mirage Hotel and Casino’s sports book I was able to see the Wildcats and Sun Devils do battle via a Fox Sports West broadcast. Watching the broadcast on a small TV in the back of the sports book with a friend of mine, I was initially pretty excited. The Wildcats stormed to a 34-27 halftime lead and extended that advantage to 13 early in the second half. It was one of those games for Vedran Vukusic where the Croatian native looked like he couldn’t miss. In the end, he connected on 5 three pointers and scored 26 total points, but it was Parker who made the big shot with the game on the line. With score tied 61-61 Arizona State had the ball. At that point, I had more or less conceded the Wildcats weren’t going to win; the best they could hope for was overtime. As the Sun Devils came out of their huddle, I pulled the little 10 inch TV closer to me, as if it would somehow make a difference in the outcome. When ASU inbounded the ball, Jitim Young made one of his typical hustle plays creating a tie-up and forcing a jump ball which went to Northwestern. At that point, both teams traded timeouts in battle of strategy which seemed similar to a game of chess grandmasters. Once the second timeout ended, NU ran what seemed a deceptively simple play. With ASU focused on Vedran, NU got the ball to Parker and again let him use his fantastic speed. With just over 4 seconds left, Parker couldn’t get the ball all the way to the hoop, but he got closer enough. Just inside the free throw line, Parker rose up and took a jumper which swished into the net for a 63-61 Wildcat win. My friend and I celebrated like we’d just see the NCAA championship and won thousands of dollars. In fact, he’d made just a $15 bet on NU, but it wasn’t the money that matted. It was Northwestern moving to 5-3 by beating a highly regarded team thanks to another set of T.J. Parker heroics.

Parker’s third game winner occurred in the first game of his junior (but final) season at Northwestern. In Alaska at the Top of the World Classic, Northwestern was in the midst of an uninspired game against Portland State. I was listening to the broadcast from my apartment in Evanston while prepping for my role in the WNUR broadcast of the Northwestern vs Illinois football game in the next day. As I listened to the game, I found myself rather unimpressed with the announcers hired by the Top of the World classic. It seemed though they hadn’t done any study of Northwestern at all. As it turned out, since NU didn’t send a broadcast team, Portland State’s broadcast team was supposed to do the game, but they had travel problems. Instead, the announcers from one of the other teams in the tournament were put on the broadcast, which probably explains why they seemed certain Davor Duvancic was NU’s top player. Despite their uncertainty, though, they knew who Parker was thanks to his brother Tony, for all three years he was at NU, announcers loved to point out how T.J. Parker’s brother played in the NBA. As it turned out, with the scored tied 53-53 Parker made the Top of the World Classic broadcast team look good. With 3.6 seconds left, Parker got his hands on the ball and as was the custom when NU needed a clutch shot, he didn’t give it up. Despite being thirty feet from the hoop, Parker swished the ball through the net for a Wildcat victory.

A couple months later, Northwestern found themselves in a similar situation away from home and with the game on the line. Again they turned to Parker. In Minneapolis, Minnesota on the road against a Minnesota Golden Gophers team who still had a shot at the NCAA tournament, T.J. Parker made his final game winner for NU. Much to my disappointment, the game wasn’t on TV at all. With the game not on TV, I didn’t really think twice about heading out to a meeting of one of the various groups as I was part of on campus. While at the meeting, a few folks followed the game on their cell phones, but with Minnesota steadily building a lead, I wasn’t very optimistic about NU’s chances. By the time I got back to my apartment, Minnesota lead NU 50-40 with about 4:00 minutes. I stopped in to say hello to one of my roommates and heard over his radio that Minnesota had been whistled for a technical foul. After the technical, Minnesota starting turning the ball over and I figured I better stick around and listen to the finish. At first, it seemed that while Minnesota’s tech had let NU back and the game, there still wasn’t a lot of hope for an NU comeback. As soon as NU cut the lead to four, Minnesota’s Dan Coleman drew a foul. Thankfully, he only made one free throw keeping NU within five. After his miss, Vedran Vukusic hit a three to bring NU within two. Then, Northwestern committed another foul. At that point I was about ready to throw the radio out the window, but the fact it wasn’t mine and the fact Minnesota again only made 1 of 2 shots keep the radio safe. With 44 seconds left, NU got the ball and went to Vince Scott at the top of the key for what Dave Eanet called a “cold-blooded three” it was by far the biggest shot Scott hit in his career at NU. So, once down 10, NU was now tied, but Minnesota had the ball. Similar to my actions a year before when NU played ASU, I leaned in closer to the radio as if I thought it would help. Maybe it did. Minnesota missed a shot and Northwestern got the ball back. Clearly knowing his junior guard’s flair for the dramatic, Bill Carmody drew up a play for T.J. Parker. Again, Parker came through in the clutch. With just under a second left, he fired a jumper which hit the bottom of the net. For a moment, though, neither my roommate, nor I was certain the shot went in. Excited at the prospect of NU pulling the upset, Dave Eanet’s color man Bob Hildebrand let out a shout of excitement which overwhelmed Eanet’s call. Given the sound of Hildebrand’s excitement, though, I was pretty sure Parker’s shot went in. A moment later, Eanet confirmed the made shot, and when Minnesota did nothing with the last 0.9 seconds of the game, T.J. Parker was Northwestern’s buzzer-beating hero for the final time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Shurna Beats Flu, Buckeyes: Three Pointer Gives 'Cats 72-69 Win

John Shurna provided the winner for the Wildcats on Wednesday night.

Before John Shurna shook off the flu to hit the game winner for Northwestern with 3.3 seconds left, the game between the Buckeyes and the Wildcats was a tale of two halves. In the first half, as feared by many Northwestern fans, Ohio State’s John Diebler seemed to hit every shot he took, actually 5-of-6, in order to out pace what was a seemingly hot shooting Wildcat team. It should also be noted, Northwestern had more turnover problems in the first half than they have in past games. Davide Curletti continued NU’s young centers’ problems with traveling and the other Wildcats struggled as well. It was clear, Northwestern’s center position matching up against OSU’s front line was seriously undermanned with Luka Mirkovic out sick. BJ Mullens and Dallas Lauderdale totally out manned the NU’s Kyle Rowley and Curletti. The other issue early on for the Wildcats was the foul trouble which took Michael Thompson to the bench. Thompson’s recent foul problems are a concern. Bill Carmody needs to find a way to get Thompson in a position on defense where he doesn’t have foul issues, as he is critical to NU’s success. This became clear in the second half.

In the second half, the game totally turned around. After Ohio State jumped ahead by 12, lighting seemed to strike for the Wildcats. Craig Moore and Kevin Coble, who both had struggled recently, caught fire. Moore hit seven threes for the game (four in the second half) and scored 23 points. His only points which were not of the three point variety came on a circus layup in the first half which might be the shot of the year. Coble scored a total of 26 points connecting on 4-of-6 three pointers. Unlike the past two games, whenever he was open he seemed to shoot with the confidence knowledge his shot was going down. He also brought out the array of circus shots he used against Michigan State and again seemed nearly unstoppable. Perhaps announcers Tom Hamilton and Steve Smith are Coble’s good luck charms. Personally, I’m thinking of asking the Big Ten Network put them on every Wildcat broadcast from here on out. Coble also impressed with his passing. He dished out 3 assists against 0 turnovers and the play on which he found Jeremy Nash for a layup was one of the sweetest looks from a Wildcat all season. Coble also got 3 steals today. It is amazing how Coble’s offensive and defensive performance seem connected. When on his game, Coble is a nearly unstoppable scorer and a master at jumping the passing lanes. When he is off, he looks like a guy who forces shots and can’t get where he needs to go on defense. Hopefully, Coble will bring his “A” game the rest of the season, as although the Wildcats might not be fighting for an NCAA tournament berth, they are still battling for a postseason bid and perhaps a home tournament game in the NIT, CBI, or CIT.

Another player who burst on to the scene in the second half for Northwestern was Kyle Rowley. Rowley scored all seven of his points in the second half and really seemed to ignite Northwestern’s run into the lead with a three point play. He still grabbed only three rebounds, but his presence seemed to help Northwestern out rebound the Buckeyes 15-9 in the second half. If Rowley can use this as jumping off point for success, it will help Northwestern against Minnesota and Indiana who also have talented young big men.

Another highlight for Northwestern was Michael “Juice” Thompson scoring only 3 points, but dishing out 7 assists and getting 3 steals. Thompson also shook off a big turnover which allowed OSU to tie the game to find John Shurna for the winning bucket. Shurna, who needed an IV before the game thanks to the flu, actually scored 9 points total, including a great three point play on the break, but his biggest play was the game’s final shot. It is a shot which sets up a huge game with postseason implications between the Wildcats and Minnesota on Sunday night.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Game 24: Ohio State @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Ohio State (17-6) @ Northwestern (13-10)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (8:00 PM CT Wednesday)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern last defeated Ohio State in the 1997-98 season. In that contest, Napoleon Harris scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Wildcats.

About the Game
Ohio State comes into this contest on the heels of a 55-50 loss to Wisconsin which ended the Buckeyes four game winning streak. Despite that loss, Ohio State is a team that is probably at this point in the NCAA tournament. Now, they need to start winning again to improve their seed. The Wildcats have lost three in a row since beating Wisconsin. They likely need three wins in their last six games to ensure an NIT bid. To get to that total, this win is essential.

Ohio State has two big advantages in this game. The first is Evan Turner. After Northwestern couldn’t stop Michigan’s Manny Harris, it is hard to believe they can stop Turner who in my opinion is a better version of Harris. Turner stands 6-7 and averages 17.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 3.3 apg. He will be a very difficult matchup for any defense the Wildcats choose to play. If they play 1-3-1, Turner will try to penetrate the zone. In a 2-3, if will be critical NU gets a player who can matchup with Turner on the court. Who is that player, probably Jeff Ryan, who played the best defense of anyone against Harris in his brief appearance on the court Sunday afternoon.

Ohio State’s other big advantage is in the front court where athletic 6-8 forward Dallas Lauderdale and 7-0 center B.J. Mullens offer a tough challenge for whoever the Wildcats play at center. Mullens leads the Big Ten with a shooting percentage of 63.6%, of course, most his shots are dunks. As a team the Buckeyes shoot 36.3% from three and 48.1% overall. That overall percentage is the highest in the league. In terms of shooting threes, John Diebler and William Buford have the ability to knock down the three and NU must get out on them.

Prediction:
Northwestern’s hopes in this game rest primarily on the fact Ohio State will play a zone defense which gives Craig Moore shots. Given Moore’s recent struggles to get open, if he gets clear looks I expect him to take advantage. However, the Wildcats will need to play way above expectations on defense and on the glass to pull off the upset. Before this three game home stand started, I thought this was NU’s toughest matchup. Now, it is their last chance at a victory. Sadly, I don’t expect them to pull it off. Ohio State, 70 Northwestern, 55

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Polls are Closed

The poll on NU’s postseason destination has closed and I am pleased to see that despite recent struggles 49% of voters still believe NU will make the NIT. In fact, overall 74% still believe NU will make the postseason. I personally think NU needs to win three of their remaining six games to guarantee an NIT spot. I believe winning two of the final six, which I see as more likely, will get NU into the CBI or CIT. However, NU might not receive a home game in the postseason if they cannot finish at least three games above .500 overall. Knowing NU’s road struggles, a home game would probably help. That said, the Big Ten tournament still offers NU a chance to make the Big Dance. Other than Ohio State, who NU hasn’t played yet, the Wildcats have played every Big Ten team well, even if they haven’t won. The only bad loss was on the road at Wisconsin, which I think is certainly forgivable. So, in the end I’m hoping those four people who voted NU’s destination as the NCAA tournament will be the one’s who voted correctly in the poll.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Michigan Outlasts Northwestern for Overtime Victory 70-67

For Northwestern’s postseason hopes, if Thursday was the killer, this was the funeral. Thanks to Manny Harris on offense and Stu Douglas on defense, Michigan squeaked out a narrow victory Sunday afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Great praise has to go to Douglas for his defense on Northwestern’s Craig Moore. For 36 minutes, Douglas chased Moore through screen after screen and never allowed NU’s shooting guard to get a good look. I think it has become pretty clear that no matter how well Kevin Coble plays, or no matter who else scores, Craig Moore needs to something for Northwestern to win. On Sunday, he scored only 6 points and shot 2-of-10 overall and 1-of-6 from behind the three point line. On the other side of the court, Northwestern had no answer for Michigan’s Manny Harris. Harris took over the game at the start of the second half and in overtime and ended up posting 26 points and grabbing 3 key steals. Northwestern might have increased their athletic ability as a team, but even NU’s best defenders couldn’t seem to stop Harris without committing a foul.

Though Moore was ineffective, Northwestern did get great play from a freshman big man for the second straight game as John Shurna followed Luka Mirkovic’s lead and scored 17 points while grabbing 8 rebounds. Unfortunately, Mirkovic was out sick and couldn’t help produced points in the middle. This was a problem as NU’s center rotation of Kyle Rowley, Davide Curletti, and Ivan Peljusic scored just 6 points and pulled down 6 rebounds. Also, both Peljusic and Rowley had major blunders which potentially cost NU critical points. Rowley had multiple travels and threw a terrible pass which took NU out of possessions. Peljusic missed 4 free throws and a layup on what might have been the best play Bill Carmody ever drew up. Maybe Peljusic was rusty, he certainly could have played better, but Rowley I don’t know. He seems a second slow on everything he does which leads to walks and late/bad passes. Perhaps it is freshman indecision, but he, and all his teammates, need to get over this.

Speaking of indecision, NU could have won if John Shurna would have just thrown the ball down the court after the NU steal at the end of regulation. Kevin Coble was open for a layup. I knew that was going to hurt.

Coble scored 23 points for NU, his most since the Indiana game. He also should get credit for playing all 45 minutes of the overtime contest. However, his three point shot continues not to fall (1-of-6) and overall Coble hasn’t really been able to get going in some time. He seems to be forcing the ball more of late which results (5-of-17 today) in some very ugly misses.

Michael Thompson’s early foul trouble also hurt NU today. When Thompson scores Northwestern wins, but thanks to his foul problems today he spent much of the first half on the bench and NU only got 27 points. It was enough for the lead, but Michigan provided the ‘Cats with chances to score much more.

So, where does NU go from here? Well, to borrow from the football team who was honored at halftime, they need to try and go 1-0 vs Ohio State on Wednesday. This game wasn’t nearly as bad as the Illinois or Purdue game, but it is hard not to think NU should have won all three. They could be 6-1 at home in the Big Ten easily. But they aren’t and there isn’t a thing anybody can do about it, so it’s time to try and move forward. Ohio State’s choice to play zone the entire game could allow Moore his first open looks in awhile, but NU will have to contend with a couple very large and athletic Buckeye big men inside.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Game 23: Michigan @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Michigan (15-10) @ Northwestern (13-9)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (2:00 PM CT Sunday)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Last year Northwestern and Michigan split their season series with the road team winning each contest.

About the Game
Based on numbers alone this game looks pretty even. However, numbers probably are the least important factor in figuring how this game will go. This game has perhaps the most fascinating physiological component I have ever seen in an athletic contest. Michigan needs to win this game in order to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. Northwestern must recover from one of the most debilitating losses in the program’s history in order to win and keep hope alive for any postseason appearance. The first time these two teams met Michigan won 68-59 in Ann Arbor thanks to a great start and some poor shooting on the part of NU’s top guns. At that point, it seemed fair to assume a Northwestern win in the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena. However, thanks to the last two games I can’t say that assumption is still valid. Now, it seems the game will turn on which team can perform best under the pressure of a “must win” scenario.

The Wildcats posted perhaps their most impressive home win of the year in a similar scenario against Minnesota. Michigan has twice managed to stop extended losing streaks in the Big Ten season by beating Northwestern and Penn State after those squads knocked off Michigan State. However, those wins for Michigan were at home. Playing on the road has been totally different for the Wolverines who have only one Big Ten road win which was an overtime victory at last place Indiana in which they had to come back from 20 points down in the second half.

In order to avoid continued road struggles, Michigan will attempt to repeat their success against Northwestern from earlier this year. I suspect they will try to again get the ball inside to DeShawn Sims who scored the first 10 points of the game last time these two meet. Northwestern will counter this by playing Luka Mirkovic instead of Kyle Rowley. In addition, Michigan will attempt to use their knowledge of the 1-3-1 to get open shots and offensive rebounds. To counter this, NU might stick with the 2-3 zone or switching man-to-man which they used effectively against Illinois and late in their home game vs Wisconsin.

Prediction:
I find this the toughest game to predict all year. Based on the fact the two teams have similar numbers (UM 67.2 ppg NU 65.0 UM 32.2 rpg NU 28.5 rpg UM 15.3 apg NU 15.8 apg) and NU is the home team I would normally pick Northwestern without a second thought. However, I can’t get over the end of the Illinois game. I know the Wildcats have rebounded from tough games a couple times this year, but I’m not sure how many times a team can do that. I am also very worried about the potential physiological impact the crowd will have on the team. I fear the student sections, which I believe play a major role in firing up the team and creating a great atmosphere in Welsh-Ryan, might only half full after over-flowing vs Illinois. I hope I’m wrong. I know there are some great student fans who read this blog and do an unbelievably outstanding job getting their classmates to come to games. I wish NU had more students like them. Anyhow, this is going to be a tough game for Northwestern. I think a lot of factors are working against them, however, Michigan doesn’t exactly have everything going there way either. Hopefully, NU will have enough fan support to put them over the top. They absolutely need this game. Northwestern, 58 Michigan, 55.

Friday, February 13, 2009

You'd think one of these days we'd catch a break...

Michael Thompsom drives to the hoop with 14.7 seconds left (photo: espn.com)

I hate blaming the refs for a loss, but this picture sure makes it look like Michael Thompson got fouled with 14.7 seconds left. Look at the pain in his eyes. How is that not a foul? Between this and the foul at the end of the Purdue game, I am now certain Welsh-Ryan Arena is the only place in the Big Ten where the home team doesn't get "home team" calls, maybe thanks to our lack of fan support we don't deserve them, but why do the refs have to punish our kids and coaches for our fair weather fans. Yes, NU blew big leads both last night and against Purdue. However, I would love to hear from the Big Ten Office on the calls at the end of both games. After they take a look at this picture, the Big Ten office can feel free to contact me any time and explain. Though, they should probably contact Bill Carmody because it's his team getting jobbed at home. After all, it seems in both cases the officials made poor calls which in the end might cost NU the postseason.

Friday Flashback: Worst Loss Ever?

Was yesterday’s loss to Illinois the worst loss ever suffered by Northwestern? A debate has begun on the Wildcatreport.com message boards. The issue seems to be whether last night’s debacle was worse than NU’s loss to DePaul in the 1983 NIT. Now, given that I was two weeks old when that 1983 NIT occurred I might not be the best person to make this comparison. I would love to hear from folks who watched both games and can make a clearer comparison. That said, I will do my best based on my research about 1983 and my sad observation from last night.

I’ve heard last night described as near carbon copy of the 1983 NIT game by some who were in attendance at both, but it seems to me there are a few notable differences about NU’s loss to the Blue Demons. First, the game was in the postseason. I think this is significant, especially since the NCAA tournament field was smaller in the early 1980s. To me, this means an NIT appearance was far more significant then than it is now. Also, some have said NU had a good chance to make it to the NIT finals if they got past DePaul. Losing such an opportunity has to be considered a huge blow to the program. In addition, on site reports from the Rosemont Horizon say that although like last night NU couldn’t get the ball across half court against DePaul, that was in large part because the officials let DePaul get away with hacking NU’s ball handlers. Finally, the last second shot to win for the Demons was a 35-foot miracle heave at the hoop. That’s a real tough way to lose.

Now, let’s look at last night’s horror show of a game. The significance of last night’s game was an NCAA tournament bid was potentially on the line. For a team that has never made the NCAAs, losing such a game is a big fraking loss. If the ‘Cats don’t pull out at least three more wins before the end of the regular season, this will be the game pointed to as a season changer. The game which cost NU the postseason. It might even be the game which eventually costs the coach his job. NU’s inability to get the ball past half court last night came as a result of poor play by veteran players. It seemed Craig Moore was replaced with the past version of himself who went into a shell when things went terrible his sophomore year. That last shot last night was pretty easy, even easier was the layup Kevin Coble allowed to bring Illinois within 1 point at 59-58. I know Coble had four fouls, but to be honest, there are a lot of times he looks like he couldn’t guard his lunch in a kindergarten classroom.

So, which loss was worse? Well, it might be a self-defense mechanism, because I don’t want to have seen the worst loss ever, but I’m going to say the 1983 NIT loss was worse. I think any loss which ends a team’s season is bad, and to end your season by blowing a big lead is even worse. Also, I think the fact Patterson launched up a 35-foot miracle shot makes it worse. How many people hit 35-footers at the buzzer? Not that many. I’m sure when that was the best shot DePaul could get at the buzzer most folks figured NU had survived. Not so.

This is of course just my point of view. I’d love to hear other thoughts. Do you think last night was worse? Was there another loss which was worse than both these? Leave a comment and let us know.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Evanston, We Have a Problem: Illini win State Title by 1 point

You know the scene in Apollo 13 when the oxygen tank ruptures and Jim Lovell says, “We just lost the moon” to his crew? Well, tonight Northwestern’s O2 tank ruptured and they just lost the NCAA Tournament. Now, they need to work a near miracle and recover like Lovell, Swigert, and Haise, in order to at least survive long enough to circle around the moon and make it back to Earth, in other words, make the NIT. If NU can’t find a way to repair their busted-up ship, they will float endlessly off into eternity, in other words, stay home in March. Can it be done? Sure, but it will take a monumental effort to recover from this disaster and right the ship. But, as was the case for flight director Gene Kranz, for coach Bill Carmody, “Failure is not an option.” Otherwise, I have to admit, his future at Northwestern will be very much in doubt.

So how did the Wildcats blow this game? Well, they were completely abysmal at handling Illinois’s trap in the last four minutes. In those four minutes, the Wildcats were leaderless. Craig Moore who has led NU the whole year made perhaps the worst play of the night when he got trapped in the corner and threw a pass to the center of the court I wouldn’t want to see a junior high player throw to start the Illinois run. This was way worse than the loss to Purdue. Every basketball player from small fry to the NBA knows that you can’t stop in the corner against a team that is trapping because they will use the sideline as a third defender. Every basketball player except those who play at Northwestern that is. The Wildcats repeatedly just stopped and let Illinois trap them and force turnovers. The worst part, players like Moore who should know better were just as responsible for these woeful decisions as freshmen like Luka Mirkovic. If the Wildcats could have broken the press NU would have had easy layups thanks to how aggressive the Illini were. Now, every team is going to try and trap Northwestern and based on what was seen tonight, they’ll probably be very successful. The Wildcats need to work on handling traps, right now! I might seem harsh, but blowing a double-digit lead with less than four minutes left is the basketball equivalent of blowing a 38-3 lead in football. This loss is totally unacceptable, it would be unacceptable for a junior high team. As I said, “Evanston we have a problem.” And if this problem isn’t corrected, well, let’s hope we don’t crash and burn.

Now, to end on a positive, the student sections tonight were awesome. Unfortunately, if history repeats itself a great many of those students won’t come back Sunday. Of course, based on the last four minutes, I don’t really blame them. Those of us who choose to watch this team year in and year out might be certifiable. I tell myself it’ll mean more to us when the ‘Cats finally make the NCAA tournament, before tonight I thought I saw that day on the horizon. Now, I just don’t know. I just don't know.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Game 22: Illinois @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Illinois (19-5) @ Northwestern (13-8)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: ESPN2 (8:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Every Northwestern team to play in the post season has defeated Illinois.

About the Game
Aside from Illinois holding a #22 national ranking and six more wins, these two teams are pretty even numbers wise. They excel in similar areas and have similar problems. Both teams pass with precision and are willing to work to find a good shot while striving to play shutdown defense. The major difference defensively is Illinois will play man-to-man while the Wildcats will play the zone. The results, however, have been near identical. NU averages 65.3 ppg on offense and allows 59.8. Illinois scores 67.0 ppg and allows 56.5. Another area where the two teams are similar is in rebounding. Despite featuring the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, Mike Davis (7.8 rpg), Illinois is actually only +0.3 for the year in rebounding margin. Of course, that is still way better than NU’s -5.5. Based on Northwestern’s game at Iowa, it seems reasonable to conclude that how well the Wildcats keep Davis and his front court teammate 7-1 Mike Tisdale (11.0 ppg 3.8 rpg) off the glass, especially the offensive glass, might be the difference in the game. Northwestern’s starting center, Kyle Rowley, matches the large Tisdale for size, but there is some question of who on NU’s roster can match the athletic Davis. Fan favorite Ivan Peljusic might the closest player NU has to an athletic equal of Davis. However, Peljusic has seen limited action of late.

Another area where fans should look for the game to be decided is three point shooting. Illinois plays excellent defense on the perimeter as they hold their opponents to just 28.2% three point shooting. As was the case at Iowa and Michigan, Northwestern fans know the Wildcats can’t win if their three point shots are not falling. Also of importance, is how well Illinois shoots the three, because Northwestern will play a 1-3-1 zone for a portion of the game. Illinois currently shots 35% from three, but their ability to throw pin-point passes (#1 in the nation in % of field goals assisted on) is what should worry Northwestern. Unlike other teams who can’t find an open man and panic when trapped, the Illini excel at making an extra pass. This means Illinois may be better equipped than most NU opponents to find an open shooter in the corner against the 1-3-1.

Prediction:
Northwestern’s above .500 record will probably serve to even out a crowd which in years past has been strikingly pro-Illini. Hopefully, with the student sections rocking, Illinois will actually feel as if they are on the road. This feeling is critical because the Illini are 1-4 on the road in the Big Ten and have not shot well. It is also worth noting that three Illinois starters have never been to Welsh-Ryan Arena which does present a very different shooting background than most Big Ten arenas. Finally, Northwestern should be more motivated for this game. After the loss to Iowa, the NCAA tournament is on the line for Northwestern against Illinois. Given that fact, the 'Cats should be up for this game. Northwestern, 66 Illinois, 61.

Also: Check out this link for Chicago College Basketball's take on the NU center position: http://www.ootp-baseball.com/chicagobasketball/?p=451

NU Needs Fan Support to Drown Out Illini Nation

A full student section can again help NU win at home. (Photo: nusports.com)

The poor NU crowd situation at Welsh-Ryan is getting some press from the Chicago Tribune here. Bruce Weber does have praise for how tough NU’s students make playing in Evanston, but we can’t discount the negative news that Illinois fans will fill half the arena. Not that the news is unexpected, but it still stinks. With that news, though, the most important people in the arena—other than the players—again become the NU students. Just like against Wisconsin, NU will need great student support to neutralize the cheers from the visitors in the rafters. Any students who are reading this please show up. And please, when Illini Nation starts in with “Ill…ini…Ill…ini” get a chant of “Where’s the Chief?” going in response. The Illinois fans are still a little sensitive about their missing chief. Also, students drag everyone you know to this game. Even if they couldn’t tell you the difference between Craig Moore and Craig Morgan, even if they think don’t know about the great Rowley-Mirkovic debate, even if they’re the people who say incredulously, “We have a basketball game tonight?” It doesn’t matter. Get them into Welsh-Ryan. Also, while you’re working so hard to help NU win, see if you can get the folks in the purple seats to stand up when the fight song plays. Anything is possible for this team, but they can’t do it alone. They need the support of all us who call ourselves Northwestern fans. Heck, even you folks watching around the nation and around the world on ESPN2, make sure you cheer loud in your living rooms. Every bit of support helps. This is our chance, let's not waste it.

Also: Vote in our first poll to tell us where you expect to see NU after the Big Ten Tournament.

Monday, February 9, 2009

On the 1-3-1 Defense...

I’ve heard a lot of people pointing to the fact Northwestern never switched from the 1-3-1 zone as a reason for the loss to Iowa on Saturday evening. Now, I’m a big proponent of switching defenses, however, I believe a close analysis shows that the 1-3-1 zone was in fact not responsible for the loss to Iowa. In fact, I believe 1-3-1 performed rather well all things considered. First off, we need to consider what occurs when playing a 1-3-1. The two major positives the 1-3-1 offers are it creates a bunch of turnovers and makes it difficult for a team to get the ball inside. The negatives are if the ball gets inside the other team’s center can regularly score with ease against a small guard and the corners are left open for easy three point shots. Against Iowa, Northwestern’s 1-3-1 produced 17 turnovers from the Hawkeyes and Iowa only made 2 inside shots, totaling four points from the center position. From this perspective it seems the 1-3-1 did its job more than adequately. Now, some will point to fact Iowa hit 12-of-30 threes which works out to 40%, but that’s only 36 points, not too bad when you aren’t allowing many two point field goals either. One of the major problems was the fact the Wildcats committed 21 fouls which allowed Iowa to make 16 free throws. Now, some could say the 1-3-1 was responsible for these fouls, but the fact is Northwestern hasn’t had major foul problems all year when playing the 1-3-1. Perhaps the refs called this game particularly close, especially on the perimeter, or perhaps NU’s players were a step slow thanks to midterms. At a school like Northwestern, you can’t discount what midterms can take out of student athletes. During football season the Wildcats worst loss was against Michigan State which also was near midterm season. Whatever the reason, the fouls did factor into Iowa’s victory. More than anything, though, I think the loss to Iowa was due to offense not defense. If you allow only 56 points, whatever methods those are scored by, you should win. Unfortunately, the Wildcats only scored 51 points. When you think about it, if Craig Moore had hit 8-of-18 shots instead of 6-of-18 or Michael Thompson and Kevin Coble had hit one three pointer each, which has been pretty common this year, NU would have won. A series of missed layups by Kyle Rowley and Jeremy Nash also hurt NU. Jeff Ryan also missed his only shot attempt which was a point black put back chance after a great offensive rebound. If those five layups had been made it also would have greatly increased NU’s chance of victory. Bottom line, any defense which allows only 56 points and 35% shooting can’t be that bad. In fact, it ought to produce a win. For Northwestern, though, it didn’t happen on Saturday. However, if the 1-3-1 can consistently produce turnover and opponent shooting percentage totals similar to what it did in Iowa City the odds are it will lead NU to many wins down the stretch of this season.

Another Reason to Payback Illinois on Thursday...

Similar to the 1998-99 game, the Wildcats had a record of 16-9 when they hosted the #16 Fighting Illini on February 23, 2002. With that 16-9 record and the chance to get a win over a top 20 team, the whispers of NCAA tournament had started being heard throughout campus on that Saturday morning. I knew a number of folks who hadn’t attended a game all season who made the trek to Welsh-Ryan that day in hopes of watching NU post a program defining win. A ton of Illinois fans were in attendance, but it looked as if NU would counter Illini Nation by two full student sections. The students were particularly revved up as it was senior day in Evanston and to honor Wildcat seniors Tavaras Hardy and Collier Drayton the entire Wildcat roster mirrored the senior’s style by wearing headbands. Some of the Wildcats looked really odd with the headgear, but it was a great example of team camaraderie and one had to hope that combined with great fan support it would buoy the Wildcats to an upset win. It didn’t happen. Actually, NU’s fans barely got to cheer at all.

From start to finish, the Wildcats were totally dominated by Illinois. Although Illinois star Frank Williams shot poorly and only totaled 7 points—the entire NU roster shot worse. Northwestern didn’t hit a three pointer (0-for-17) and was only 13-of-30 from the free throw line. That’s right. 13-of-30 from the line. Whatever complaints one might have about this season’s free throw shooting, it hasn’t been anywhere near that atrocious. Illinois led 35-13 at halftime, and about the only positive I recall from the entire game was Tavaras Hardy getting a putback of a missed Winston Blake three for the first basket of the second half. For an instant I thought that might start an NU run. The crowd went crazy for an instant, but Sean Harrington quickly answered Hardy’s putback with a three for the Illini. Northwestern actually did win the second half, but their awful shooting and woeful first half defense never got them back in the game. Illinois won 56-41.

Given the excitement entering that game, I think it might have been the most deflating loss I’ve felt as an NU fan. The Wildcats were 5-2 at home in the Big Ten entering that game and had actually managed to handily defeat a number of other conference teams. Illinois, while talented, didn’t seem to be much better than Michigan State or Iowa. For whatever reason, though, NU just didn’t have it. They played fine defense, but the guys who hit shots all year didn’t hit that day. They actually didn’t hit much the rest of the year. The once 16-9 ‘Cats finished 16-13 and stayed home for the NIT. The first Big Ten team in 125 tries to have a winning record and not make the NIT. And how did the downward spiral start? With the Illini. It’s time on Thursday to pay them back. This is the biggest game in Welsh-Ryan since 2002. Let’s counter all the Illinois fans who will show with loud NU fans all over the lower sections of Welsh-Ryan.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Let's hope Thursday isn't a repeat of history...

When a team hasn’t had a lot of success, they naturally accumulate a lot of disappointing losses. For Northwestern, some of the most disappointing are against intrastate rival Illinois. Perhaps the most depressing of these losses occurred during the 1998-99 season. As we prepare for this week’s game against Illinois, I’d like to take the time to review some past Illinois games and discuss why the NU basketball program desperately needs a clutch win against Illinois. These recaps should make it clear why an NU upset of Illinois Thursday would not only be big for this year, but also historically. Whenever NU seems to have any hope of the NCAA tournament, it always seems Illinois gets in the way. That was the case in 1999 and 2002. Hopefully, these recaps will get the newer NU fans pumped to show up at Welsh-Ryan on Thursday and root NU to a huge win over the Illini.

The contest between Northwestern and Illinois on February 17, 1999 is strikingly similar in circumstance to the game which will occur Thursday. Northwestern entered the game in 1999 with a record of 14-8 and an outside chance to make it to the NCAA tournament. Before the game, many experts said the game with the Illini was a must win if NU wanted to play in the Big Dance. Before the game, NU coach Kevin O’Neil tried to deflect the pressure of the must win label. He pointed out to several media outlets that it wasn’t as if a loss would equal death, however, even the glib O’Neil had to know a loss would equal death to NU’s NCAA aspirations.

The good news for Northwestern was that Illinois entered the game only 10-15. With a young squad, the Illini had struggled much of the year. It seemed NU’s tournament hopes would at least last another day. When Northwestern jumped out to a 37-29 halftime lead it looked as if NU was in position to put away the young Illini. Though I was pretty young at the time, I do clearly remember thinking that NU seemed to be doing a great job of handling the pressure of the “must win” scenario. With Evan Eschmeyer scoring nearly at will inside, things looked good for NU’s postseason hopes.

Unfortunately, in the second half NU’s ability to get the ball to Eschmeyer was neutralized by a well-played Illinois zone defense. Coach Lon Kruger lived up to his reputation as an excellent defensive X’s and O’s coach and stopped Eschmeyer from getting the ball. With Eschmeyer surrounded by two and three Illini at a time, the Wildcats ability to hold the lead fell to NU’s young guards Steve Lepore and David Newman. They struggled. NU shot only 29% from behind the arch in the second half and what was once an eight point halftime lead narrowed. It was evident the “must win” pressure was settling on NU while the last place Illini felt no such worries. When NU’s narrow 57-55 lead disappeared thanks to a Corey Bradford three pointer, the life seemed to drain from the NU fans in Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Illinois fans, and of course there were plenty of them, had the opposite reaction. They went crazy and propelled their team to victory. Thanks to a collection of missed shots and fouls, the final margin of victory was 69-63 for Illinois. Let’s hope Thursday is a little different.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Iowa's Three Point Shooting Enough to Beat NU: Hawkeyes hit 12 threes in 56-51 win

In a game that featured a combined 28 turnovers and 36% shooting, the Iowa Hawkeyes prevailed primarily due to their ability to connect from the free throw line and grab offensive rebounds. Iowa shot 16-of-18 from the free throw line and grabbed thirteen offensive boards. They also connected on 12-of-30 threes, which was good enough for 40% and helped make up for 17 turnovers. Clutch threes by Jeff Peterson and Devan Bawinkle when NU took the lead or tied the game were the biggest of those of 12, but they all proved a key factor in beating Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone.

For Northwestern, Craig Moore scored 20 points, but the fact he shot 6-of-18 (all threes) almost makes his 20 points unimpressive. With Kevin Coble playing only 26 minutes, likely due to his poor rebounding efforts, Moore was at times NU’s only real threat on the court. That said, he did force some shots, though, one has to question whether Coach Carmody would have wanted Moore giving up the ball to Jeff Ryan or Davide Curletti to shoot. Ryan did have 4 assists and 4 points, but he only attempted 1 shot from the field. If Moore is left on the court with an ineffective Juice Thompson and a group of non-shooters, it is very tough for him to get a shot. At times, Iowa basically sent two defenders at him whenever he touched the ball. If such situations occur in the future, guys like Ryan need to look to shoot at least slightly more.

A good portion of the blame for this loss has to go to the underperformance of Kevin Coble and Thompson. Since his fantastic game at Michigan State, Coble’s three point shot has been off (or he hasn't looked for it). He has still be able to create his own shot, but when his three isn’t falling the defense can play off him and take away some of his ability to drive. This happened tonight. Iowa forced Coble to shoot the three and he missed all three attempts. Could NU have gotten Coble more looks off backdoors? Maybe, but since Iowa was sagging off Coble and whoever was at center, much of the time the lane was clogged.

Thompson, who I still think is this team’s key, scored 0 points tonight and turned the ball over 4 times while only dishing out three assists. He also only attempted three shots in 34 minutes. With Moore struggling and Coble on the bench, Thompson needed to be more aggressive. He also, obviously, needs to take better care of the ball in the clutch.

One bright spot for Northwestern was the play of freshman center Luka Mirkovic. When Kyle Rowley got off to a slow start, two point blank misses, Mirkovic came in and provided a life. He scored 9 points, twice with nice drives, and grabbed a team-high six rebounds. At times, the Belgrade native seemed the only Wildcat trying to grab a board. With two very athletic front courts in Illinois and Michigan coming to Welsh-Ryan next week, I expect Mirkovic to continue to get more minutes than his classmate Rowley. I would also not be surprised to see Ivan Peljusic return to the rotation.

With this loss NU is now 13-8. Some people said NU’s game with Illinois would be huge if NU won today. I actually think it is bigger now that NU lost. Thanks to today’s loss, if NU can’t beat the Illini they will have no chance of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. I hate to term any game which isn’t an elimination game a “must win” because the season will continue regardless of the result. However, given that the Illinois game is essentially an elimination game for the NCAAs-at least for NU-I think Thursday might be a “must win”.

Game 21: Northwestern @ Iowa

The Matchup: Northwestern (13-7) @ Iowa (12-11)

Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Iowa City, IA)

TV: Big Ten Network (5:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern plays at Iowa then hosts Illinois. In 2004, the Wildcat schedule featured the same stretch of games. NU won 77-68 in Iowa City then knocked off ranked Illinois 70-60 at Welsh-Ryan.

About the Game
Though it might seem to regular readers like this these previews are getting repetitive, this is a big game for Northwestern’s postseason hopes. Right now, the major knock on NU’s potential postseason resume is a 2-5 record on the road. Yes, one of those two wins is at Michigan State, but that won’t be enough to impress selection committees on its own. The Wildcats need to show consistency away from the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena and this game presents an opportunity to do so.

Iowa enters the game with a 2-8 record in the Big Ten. They are in tenth place, one spot above Indiana, who they lost to Wednesday night. The Hawkeyes best player is guard Matt Gatens who scored 22 points against the Hoosiers and averages 11.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. He is a dead-eye three point gunner who could give NU’s 1-3-1 zone serious fits. Actually, as a team Iowa is shooting an impressive 38.1% from three. This is scary for an NU squad that has struggled defending the three at times this year. Iowa’s big weakness is they do not take care of the ball well. They have a -1.1 assist to turnover ratio. If Northwestern chooses to play the 1-3-1, it will be critical they cause enough turnovers to negate Iowa’s three point shooting.

A key question for the Hawkeyes is up front. This is critical because as any Big Ten fan knows, NU is a team which can be victimized on the boards. Cyrus Tate has been out for the Hawks for sometime now, but his return was rumored before the Indiana. There is a chance he will come back against the Wildcats. If he does not, the Hawkeyes will rely on David Palmer, who has shown the ability to get hot, and Jarryd Cole. Neither player is as large as Wildcat center Kyle Rowley, but they are athletic. Still, if Rowley can use his bulk to get them into foul trouble like he did Wisconsin’s Marcus Landry, NU could find themselves able to dominate inside.

Prediction:
The key to this game is going to be the ability of Nortwestern to contain Iowa’s three-point shooting. Last season, Northwestern had a great chance to win at Iowa until the Hawkeyes shooters got hot and started picking apart the NU zone. This year, it seems NU Head Coach Bill Carmody has more faith in his team’s ability to change defenses. Can Jeremey Nash get steals from the top of the 1-3-1 and chase around Matt Gatens and Jake Kelley in a 2-3 or switching man-to-man? I think he can. Does NU know the importance of this game? I’d like to think so. Northwestern, 65 Iowa, 57

Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday Flashback: The Michael Jenkins Shot

Michael Jenkins and the student section celebrate his big shot. (Photo: nusports.com)

With Northwestern due to play Iowa tomorrow, there is really only one possible topic for today’s edition of Friday Flashback. On January 26, 2005, Northwestern and Iowa met for what is my favorite ever game as a Northwestern fan. Though I hold great hope that this year’s team will provide me tournament action which will usurp Michael Jenkins’s clutch three as my favorite NU basketball fan moment, the heroics of Jenkins and Vedran Vukusic will always be my favorite NU student fan moment.

As I think back on the game, I remember my friends and I arriving in the student section slightly late, about the under 16:00 timeout, thanks to having just played an intramural game. I also remember being extremely ticked about losing our game and getting ever angrier as I entered the arena and saw the ‘Cats down early. Thanks to our late arrival, we ended up in the corner of the student section closet to the Iowa bench. Through I generally preferred a more central location, this turned out to be a great seat. As the first half of the game progressed, the game got closer and the student section started taunting Iowa grade Pierre Pierce. Usually, it seems the taunts from the NU student section roll right off the back of the Big Ten’s stars, but Pierce seemed rattled. Late in the first half he started committing turnovers. Seeing the success of our efforts, we continued taunt Pierce the rest of the game, and he continued to turn the ball over. He ended up 10 TO’s total. Combined with his 15 points, I suppose he could say he got a double-double, but it probably wasn’t the type he envisioned.

Despite our efforts, however, as the game went into the second half, it seemed Pierce and the Hawkeyes would get out of Welsh-Ryan with a victory. With only 3:27 seconds left, Iowa held a 12 point lead. At that point, Coach Carmody had the Wildcats start fouling the Hawkeyes. Coaches always have players start fouling late, but it rarely works. This time it did. Pierce and his backcourt teammate Jeff Horner proceeded to clunk free throw after free throw, and Vedran Vukusic started to take over for the Wildcats. Vedran scored 13 points to in the final two minute of regulation to tie the score. Most notably, with a sore shoulder which almost kept him out of the game, he drilled three straight free throws to send the game to overtime. Since we were close to the Iowa bench, we could see Iowa coach Steve Alford talking to his players during timeouts. At one point, a student behind me started shouting, “I read his lips, he said Vedran, he said Vedran.” Indeed, Alford tried to get his players to stop Vukusic, but they couldn’t.

In overtime, the Hawkeyes still couldn’t stop Vukusic. He brought the Wildcats to within a point at 73-72 when he made a basket and got fouled with just under twenty seconds left. NU then fouled Iowa, after the Hawks made a single free throw, the score was 74-72. Then, disaster seemed to strike for NU. The ‘Cats attempt to tie the game, a backdoor pass from T.J. Parker to Vedran, went out of bounds. Thankfully, Parker made up for his poor pass when he stole the ball from Pierce on the inbounds. It was Pierce’s final turnover, number ten, and the crowd let him have it as he walked towards the Iowa bench.

As the Hawkeyes gathered around their bench, it was again clear to the lip reader behind me that coach Alford wanted his players to keep close watch on Vukusic. It made sense. NU would want the player with 32 points to get his hands on the ball in an effort to tie or win the game. Thinking along the lines of Alford, I watched Vedran closely as the two teams came back on the court. As Tim Doyle stood with the ball under the basket, Vedran and Davor Duvancic ran a classic X-cross under the hoop. Iowa stuck with both tall Wildcats. Thankfully, Iowa was as focused on Vedran as I was and didn’t see little Michael Jenkins standing all alone in the corner. Doyle did, though. He threw a typically sharp pass to Jenkins. Once he had the ball, Jenkins let fly a three pointer. I remember as the ball went up and bounced high of the rim having time to think, “Damn, that was a great comeback, too bad we lost.” Thankfully, the ball didn’t hear my thoughts. It bounced high off the rim a second time and fell through the net. Final score: Northwestern, 75 Iowa, 74.

In a split second after the ball fell through the basket, I was on the court. It was the most amazing spontaneous outpouring of joy and excitement I have ever been a part of. I can’t say I really remember running to mid court, but I remember once I got there jumping up and down, high fiving everybody, and watching a group of my fellow students lift Michael Jenkins into the air in attempt to carry him off the court. It was an amazing shared experience. It’s the reason college basketball is so much fun, and the reason that as a student you should never miss a game. I know my roommates who didn’t see Michael Jenkins’s shot in person celebrated in our living room almost as much as those of us at the game, I saw the evidence when I got back Still, I don’t think they experienced that same shared experience of excitement as those of us at the game (Plus, they can't play "Where's Waldo" and find themselves in the photo at the top of the page). Anyone who was in the student section that night knows what I’m talking about. It’s hard to describe, but all I can say is I’ve been to a lot of sporting events and I’ve felt anything quite like it before or since. I’ve talked to family members who were NU students during the 1994 upset of Michigan and they describe that game in a similar way. I guess part of it is the magic of sharing a victory with your classmates. So, I say to all current students, make sure you show up the rest of the year, because you never know when that Welsh-Ryan Arena magic is going to strike.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Three Point Shooting Leads Wildcats Past Chicago State 75-63

Mike Capocci and Jeremy Nash are NU's most athletic players

Three point shooting proved the difference in Northwestern’s 75-63 victory over Chicago State Wednesday night. Chicago State’s David Holston, the nation’s third leading scorer, recorded 22 points, but shot only 2-of-10 from three point range. His team shot only 2-of-15 overall. Northwestern shot 12-of-27 from three, led by Craig Moore (5-of-11) and John Shurna (4-of-6). Shurna’s effort was particularly impressive as his four threes in a row during the first part of the second half essentially clinched the contest for the Wildcats. Aside from Moore and Shurna, Kevin Coble was his usual steady self as he scored fifteen points on 7-of-12 shooting to go along with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Northwestern won the rebounding battle 32 to 28, not great when you look at NU’s size advantage, but impressive when you consider Chicago State’s impressive athleticism.

Two other Wildcats who deserve special mention for their contribution to NU’s 13th win are Jeremy Nash and Mike Capocci. Nash, who has excelled defensively all year, came up just two steals shy of setting a school record as he recorded 7 steals. Those 7 steals combined with 3 offensive rebounds and 2 assists to give Nash another solid all around performance. At this point, Nash must be considered amongst the front runners for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Mike Capocci played 6 minutes, scoring 3 points, garbing 3 rebounds, and getting a steal. This might not seem like an impressive line, but Capocci is starting to show signs of being an athletic difference maker in the mold of Nash. Both excelled in high school because of their athletic skill. It took Nash until towards the end of his sophomore year to really look comfortable on the court. Now, he is one of the Big Ten’s most feared defenders. Now that Capocci is a sophomore, I am hoping his career is on a similar arc. Over the last two games, he has moved in front of Jeff Ryan and Ivan Peljusic in terms of minutes played and performed well. Given his athletic skill, Capocci could become a fantastic rebounder and defender like Nash, as well as a guy who go back door and slam the ball home in the mold of several of the Chicago State players who visited Welsh-Ryan tonight.

Finally, let me give a compliment to John Cantrell and David Holston from Chicago State. These two were among the best athletes I have seen in Welsh-Ryan Arena this year, Big Ten teams included. I wish them and their teammates success the rest of the year and hope they and the Wildcats both bring postseason basketball to Chicago.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Game 20: Chicago State @ Northwestern

The Matchup: Chicago State (12-11) @ Northwestern (12-7)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

On-line video: www.bigtenetwork.com (7:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM and WNUR 89.3FM

Fun Fact: Northwestern leads the all-time series against Chicago State 7-0

About the Game
Though people probably aren’t beating down the doors of the Welsh-Ryan Arena ticket office in an effort to purchase seats for this contest, the fact is this should be an entertaining game. Chicago State averages 82.9 points per game, led by David Holston’s 26.3 ppg, third most in the country. The Cougar offense also features guard John Cantrell who averages 18.7 ppg and 5.1 rebounds per game. The leading rebounder on the Cougar squad is Carl Montgomery who averages 7.6 rebounds per game to go along with 10.8 points per game. These numbers are very impressive, but the Cougar defense leaves a lot to be desired. On average, they allow 80.8 points per game. Obviously, this is somewhat skewed by the frantic pace at which they play, not to mention their four overtime contest against Utah Valley State, but they still allow a lot points. Also, the fact they allow opponents to shoot 37.8% from three point range contributes to the number of points their opponents score. The good news is they shoot 34.4% which isn’t bad. However, given Northwestern’s 39.6% three point shooting, NU should be able to gain in advantage in this area.

One area where NU might not have as much of an advantage is rebounding. Although Chicago State’s tallest starter is 6-7, they average 38.5 rebounds per game, compared to Northwestern’s 28.4. These seemingly divergent numbers could be a result of competition, but I don’t think Chicago State’s athletic skill should be discounted. Northwestern’s young big men need to come ready to play against Chicago State. If they do, I expect Kyle Rowley and Luka Mirkovic to be able to take advantage of their increasing array of post moves in order to score inside. Look for those running hook shots both seem to be getting more comfortable with. Also, check out Kyle Rowley from the free throw line. I expect he will improve greatly from his performance against Wisconsin.

Prediction:
Northwestern should win this game fairly easily. If they do lose, it will be the first really bad loss NU has this year. I don’t expect that to happen. However, I do expect David Holston and his teammates to make the game somewhat closer than many folks expect. I strongly encourage all the NU fans, especially the students, who came out for the Wisconsin game to return. If Welsh-Ryan is nearly empty, it will be discouraging to the players and the game might be much closer than needed. Remember, the Wildcats are YOUR team, just because it’s not a name opponent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show up. Northwestern, 78 Chicago State, 68