Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Wildcat Roster Part 1: Drew Crawford

Here is some info on NU recruit Drew Crawford, I will have a similar write-up on Alex Marcotullo in the next week. At some point during the offseason, I will talk about all players on NU's roster both new and returning.

The sure signal that Northwestern’s recruiting efforts are improving is not the ranking of NU's recent recruits, though they are better, it is the schools the Wildcats are topping for their most recent additions. Last year, the Wildcats out recruited Louisville and DePaul for Luka Mirkovic and beat out Georgetown, Indiana, and Wisconsin for Kyle Rowley. This year the trend of NU beating out historic powers has continued with the signing of Drew Crawford. Crawford a 6-5 wing player from Naperville Central chose NU over Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Loyola, and DePaul. Two of those teams were in the NCAA Tournament this year, and Wake Forest was ranked #1 early in 2009. In the past, NU wouldn’t have a pray of recruiting a kid who also received an offer from a team who held a #1 ranking during the season of that prospect’s senior year. A great deal of credit for Crawford’s recruitment goes to Tavaras Hardy, but we can’t ignore the fact Crawford told Illinois Prep Bulls Eye he felt most comfortable with Bill Carmody when comparing potential college head coaches. Clearly, Bill Carmody’s dry wit and intellectual basketball approach meshes well with the type of kids who want to attend Northwestern. Hopefully Crawford’s comfort with Hardy and Carmody will keep the young man relaxed as he enters NU with higher expectations than any NU recruit in recent memory.

Thankfully, aside from comfort with his new coaches, Crawford’s on and off the court performance indicate he will be ready to take on the challenge of leading NU into the NCAA Tournament. Crawford was named Illinois Player of the Year by the City/Suburban Hoops Report and writer Joe Henricksen makes sure to note how he impressed he was with Crawford’s maturity during their conversations. Henricksen also notes Crawford’s impressive numbers on the court as a reason to believe he will help NU instantly. As a senior at Naperville Central Crawford scored 24 ppg, pulled down 8.5 rebounds, and dished out 3 assists. It should also be noted, that according to all reports, Crawford is a very good passer who could have recorded higher assist numbers were it not critical to Central’s success that he score. Therefore, he should be able to play guard in the Princeton Offense. Aside from his ability to put points up, Crawford will help NU defensively. With his length, Drew might give NU the option of playing man-to-man defense depending on who else joins him on the floor. Also, he has the athletic ability to play either the top of the bottom of the 1-3-1 zone. Considering that Crawford will likely step in from Craig Moore, one might assume he will start games at the top of the zone, personally, though, I would love to see him play the bottom. Sometimes Michael Thompson is in position to contest three point shots, but simply gets shot over. At 6-5, and with great leaping ability, there aren’t that many guards who will be able to shoot over Crawford.

With the athletic ability discussed above, which allows him to get to the hoop on offense, and a pretty good outside shot, Crawford probably could start from day one. Whether he will or not probably depends on the vision Coach Carmody has for next year’s team. Does he want to start Jeremy Nash to try and establish defense early, or will Crawford’s multiple offensive skills move him ahead of the NU’s only senior guard. Personally, I like Nash’s role as it is, but if he improves enough offensively that teams have to guard him on the perimeter I can deal with him starting. Besides, if he does start, Crawford will provide an offensive spark off the bench which has been rare at Northwestern. Whatever his role, I expect Drew Crawford will be an instant contributor and fan favorite at Welsh-Ryan Arena come November of 2009.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Position Group Evaluation Part 4: Coaching Staff

Position Group: Coaching Staff
Personnel Evaluated: Bill Carmody, Mitch Henderson, Tavaras Hardy, and Ivan Vujic
Grade: B+

Whenever one tries to evaluate a coaching staff they take on something of a challenge. As a fan or member of the media you are really only exposed to the work of a coaching staff during games. However, the majority of the work done by a coaching staff is actually done in practice and on the recruiting trail. Unfortunately, without having seen practices or sat in one recruiting visits evaluating those aspects are something of a projection. You look at game performance, apparent preparation from opponents, and player improvement to evaluate practice habits and you look at the players who are signed as recruits in order to evaluate recruiting. As far as recruiting goes, I am very pleased with the results of the work done by Bill Carmody and his staff, lead by Tavaras Hardy, this past year. NU’s two recruits for next season, Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio, seem to fit NU’s needs and seem to continue the recent trend of bringing in players who have been offered by other high level schools. They may not be top-100 recruits, but the fact Crawford was offered by Wake Forest and Marcotullio received interest from a number of schools even after an early commit to NU makes me fell good about the future. My major criticism in recruiting is the lack of recruiting news for the class of 2010. Last year at this time we already knew about Marcotullio’s commitment. Hopefully, Coach Hardy is out working hard and we will be getting news about a couple feature Wildcats soon. The class of 2010 is a very important one for NU’s future.

As far as on the court performance, including practice habits, many have said this was Bill Carmody’s best job at Northwestern. I certainly think he did a nice job this year, I find myself uncertain if I want to call this his best year. Certainly the record this year was better, but Carmody had a lot more to work with in achieving the record. The 2003-04 team which recovered from a rough non-conference season to go 8-8 in the Big Ten was a squad who won as many Big Ten games as year’s group with very limited means. Most notably, that team basically played six players. Carmody tried to by some time via starting Ivan Tolic until he knees locked up, but basically the Wildcat lineup featured five starters and Evan Seacat. Yes the 5-6 non-conference record that year was a disappointment, but part of the sign of good coaching is you can pull your team together and recover from adversity. Carmody did that impressively with limited means in 03-04 and again this year. The only time I thought NU didn’t recover well this season was when they lost to Michigan after the Illinois debacle. I am still at a loss to explain that loss and the other big blown leads. Those games were so well-planned and played for so long, yet they went south so quickly. NU did do a better job holding the lead at the end of the Iowa and Purdue games near the year’s conclusion, but staying aggressive with big leads will be an area of improvement to focus on next year.

I must say, I was very impressed with how they came back from those two losses with the victory over Ohio State. Considering the number of tough losses NU came back from this season, I can conclude the ‘Cats coaches got a lot of good work done in practice. NU’s game plan for the big wins against Michigan State and Purdue also speak well to the practice habits of the players and coaches. NU came out with a plan that seemed fully confuse the Spartans and Boilermakers on those days. Carmody should also get high marks for several other solid game plans. I was also very impressed with the adjustments made for the second game against Wisconsin.

One area where I was less impressed was how NU ended the season. While I understand the coaching staff probably deservers some blame for loss of the big leads in the Illinois and Purdue game, I think it was pretty clear that those losses were more a result of players folding under pressure. After all, NU had clearly showed before the Purdue game that they could make free throws, and they clearly showed before the Illinois game they could handle the press. Therefore, I have to assume they had been coached to do those things. However, under the pressure of those games, for reasons I will never understand, veteran players buckled and folded. I am not certain what the coaching staff could have done. They used timeouts like crazy in the Illinois game, but the team didn’t settled down. On the other hand, I think the coaching staff could have done more at the end of the season. It wasn’t just the fact NU lost the season’s 3 most important games, it was the seemingly lack of urgency from the players. How NU could come out so flat in those games is beyond me. Without having been in NU’s locker room I can’t say why the ‘Cats seemed so uninspired at the start of the year’s largest games. I just know that despite being close at the end, those games were lost early. Whether it was poor planning or nervous players, the problem should have been corrected. It will be critical next year that NU’s coaches get their guys up ready to play and confident in themselves every time. The Big Ten will be much improved and their might not be as much chance for NU to fall down by double-digits and comeback to win games. Overall, though, this was a great step forward for NU’s program the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. If they can continue to bring in solid players, I think it is realistic to say NU could have four straight postseason appearances on the record when this year’s freshmen class graduates.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Position Group Evaluation Part 3: Centers

Position Group: Centers
Players Included: Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic, Davide Curletti and Ivan Peljusic
Grade: C

Some might say I’m being a little tough on NU’s centers, but the fact is they were the position group which struggled the most this past season. Thankfully, they are NU’s youngest position group and seem to have the skills to improve next year. Kyle Rowley got the majority of the starts for the ‘Cats in 08-09, but it was the play of Luka Mirkovic which kept me from giving the centers a C- or D+. Mirkovic didn’t set the world on fire statistically, he averaged 3.9ppg and 3.2rpg, but he provided some skills at the center position which NU hasn’t seen in a long while. Most impressive to me was the fact Luka is an excellent passer from the high post. He recorded 40 assists against only 26 turnovers. Also, he pulled down 30 offensive rebounds which was second on the team. Luka seems to have a nose for the ball on missed shots. With a year of experience, I expect he will be an even better offensive rebounder next year. One area where I do have to offer some criticism on Mirkovic is shooting. At times he looked like he had a nice jump shot (4-for-10 from 3PT) and he even hit a three in the NIT game at Tulsa. However, overall Luka seemed reluctant to shoot. There were even times when he did shoot where you could tell he thought twice before doing so and as a result missed badly. NU needs a center to hit jump shots for the Princeton Offense to work and based on the players they have, it seems critical Luka become that guy before next November.

Kyle Rowley was NU’s main starter at center mostly due to his 7-0 280 pound size. Sadly, he didn’t often play like he was that big. My largest criticism was his 46-for-99 shooting. Almost all those shots were right around the rim, yet Rowley couldn’t finish half of them. A player with Rowley’s size should easily shoot 50% because they never shoot anything other than layups and they are bigger or at least as big as everybody they shoot against. Before next season starts, Rowley needs to work on finishing in the post. The keys I believe are from him to get quicker with his moves and lose some weight so he can get off the ground. There is no reason Rowley couldn’t play at 250 or 260. In fact, he’d probably be a better player if he did drop some weight as guys couldn’t jump in from behind and swat the ball away. Related to Rowley’s slow moves, I think he suffered from a lot of indecision. He recorded 38 turnovers and it seemed like 2/3rds of them were on travels. If he is to be a Big Ten starter, Rowley cannot commit unforced turnovers because he is thinking too much. After practicing all year, he has to know what to do with the ball. If he is that unsure, he ought to sit and watch players who do know what they are supposed to do with the ball.

NU’s other backup centers were Davide Curletti and Ivan Peljusic. Curletti started one game against Ohio State, but overall only played in 17 of NU’s 31 games. Peljusic played in 24 games with no starts. I think both these players have potential and honestly I would have liked to see more of them and less of Rowley once it became clear how overmatched Rowley seemed in the Big Ten. Curletti showed a good physical presence when he matched up against Ohio State in Evanston and looks potentially to have an outside jump shot. Peljusic is a player who brings an energy and enthusiasm to the court which NU sometimes lacks. His weakness is free throw shooting and turnovers, though, he did have more assists than turnovers for the year. If I had to guess at Bill Carmody’s reasoning for sticking with Rowley instead of Curletti and Peljusic, I’d say it probably had to do with Rowley’s legit seven foot size. Curletti is 6-9 and Peljusic 6-8, meaning both are a little undersized for Big Ten centers. Personally I think both make up for their lack of size with athletic skill, but if Carmody continues to go with Rowley, I hope Peljusic and Curletti get a look at the power forward position (I also hope Rowley starts finishing shots and not turning the ball over). NU could use additional backups for John Shurna and Kevin Coble, especially if Jeremy Nash ends up starting at shooting guard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Position Group Evaluation Part 2: Forwards

Position Group: Forwards
Players Included: Kevin Coble, John Shurna, Jeff Ryan, Mike Capocci
Grade: B

Northwestern’s forward crew featured the Wildcats best overall player in Kevin Coble, however, other than Coble (who would get an A or A-) I don’t think I would give any other individual forward a grade higher than B-. Coble and John Shurna both started all 31 games for Northwestern. They finished first and third on the team in rebounding and first and fourth in scoring. Coble, of course, was the ‘Cats leading scorer with 15.5 ppg. In doing so, he had some spectacular games like the one at MSU or the home game against Ohio State. Also, at the end of the year Coble’s three point shooting picked up enough for him to finish at 39.5% from behind the arc, that was third on the team among Wildcat starters. If Coble improves to the low-mid 40s next year in thee point shooting, I think he could lead the Big Ten in scoring. Coble finished this year with 4.8 rpg, which as noted above, led the Wildcats. This is a feat which Coble will hopefully not repeat next year. Either Shurna or one of NU’s large centers needs to step up on the rebounding front and provide assistance to Kevin in this area. Another area where NU’s two lead forwards excelled was in blocks. Coble blocked 19 shots and Shurna 18. These were the highs for NU. Hopefully, both will block even more next year as the Wildcats certainly can use help in terms of post defense. Coble also gets high marks for tying for the team lead in steals with 41 and dishing out 76 assists against only 43 turnovers.

As a freshman Shurna gets high marks for leading the team in offensive rebounds, but he needs to become more aggressive when hitting the defensive boards. With his size and athletic skills, he is the type of player who should be able to pull down at least 5 rpg. Unfortunately, Shurna committed 38 turnovers and gave out only 32 assists. Also, the young freshman did not record many steals (14). However, my concern with NU’s front court defense was not the number of steals Shurna got, it was the number of times more athletic forwards were able to drive right by him and Coble and get to the hoop. Improving the defensive play of these two players will be a key for next season. Another key area for improvement will be Shurna’s three point shooting. Perhaps because of his odd release, Shurna is a very streaky shooter. He seems to either hit 4-of-6 or 1-of-6 in every game. With Craig Moore departed, Shurna needs to bring his percentage from beyond the arc up from 34.7% to around 40% if the Wildcats want to be as effective on offense next year as they were this year.

NU’s primary backups at the forward position were Jeff Ryan and Mike Capocci. However, since NU used a lot of three guard lineups with Jeremy Nash replacing either Shurna or Coble, Capocci didn’t really see much time. If I were to give Capocci an individual grade for the season I would probably mark him incomplete. He had a couple nice moments in games during the year, but more than anything I hope he emerges next year into a Jeremy Nash type role. As far as Jeff Ryan, I give him great credit for his defense in the upset win at Purdue. If he hadn’t contained Robbie Hummel, NU wouldn’t have won. That said, I was disappointed in Ryan’s offense. Before the Big Ten season started, I wrote Ryan’s play would be critical as he is one of NU’s best athletes. However, he never seemed to use his athletic skill on the offensive end. I hope Ryan becomes more aggressive on the offense in his senior year as I still believe he has all the skills to be a great offensive player, he just hasn’t been able to fully realize them yet. Perhaps he will do so next year and become a key cog in NU’s success.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Position Group Evaluation Part 1: Guards

This post starts an offseason feature in which Welsh-Ryan Ramblings will provide an evaluation of the performance of each position group’s performance during the 2008-2009 season.

Position Group: Guards
Players Included: Craig Moore, Michael Thompson, Jeremy Nash, Sterling Williams
Grade: A-

I believe NU’s guards were the best position group on the Wildcat roster this season. That probably had something to with the fact the group included two of the team’s top three scorers and the team’s top defender. Obviously, Craig Moore was the heart and soul of the Wildcats this season. When he hit big shots the Wildcats won, when he didn’t they lost. Moore hit 110 threes this season shooting 40.6% from behind the arc. He scored 14.3 ppg and was second on the team with 84 assists against only 56 turnovers. Moore was also second on the team in rebounds with an average of 3.2 rpg and 99 total. Furthermore, Moore tied for the team lead in steals. Basically, Moore defined the term “stat sheet stuffer” and replacing him will be very tough.

Next to Moore in the back court, Michael Thompson also contributed mightily to the ‘Cats success. Thompson finished just short of averaging double digits in points with 9.9 ppg. He led NU in three point percentage at 41.7% and in assists with 114 against only 52 turnovers. Thompson also added 40 steals this season. Aside from the numbers, it was very clear that when Thompson went to the bench with foul trouble that Northwestern was in trouble. Without Thompson to administer the game and provide a solid third scoring option after Moore and Coble, the NU offense started to grind to a halt. I hope Thompson is a little more aggressive on offense next year, but a little smarter on defense as NU still seems to lack a solid backup for Juice.

The primarily backups at the guards slots for Northwestern were Sterling Williams and Jeremy Nash. Jeff Ryan also saw some time at guard, but he played more forward. I also decided not to evaluate the players at the end of the bench who saw only limited time. Once he entered the NU rotation, Jeremy Nash made a major splash. When Nash entered the game, the Wildcats went to a three guard offense and more often than not started using a 1-3-1 defense. At the top of that 1-3-1 defense, Jeremy caused a ton of havoc for the Wildcats opposition. Not only did he get 35 steals, but he tipped a ton more passes which allowed other Wildcats to get steals. Nash’s improvement in three point shooting also deserves mention and helps increase my grade for NU’s guard core. Nash shot 14-of-41 from three which is 34.1%. If Nash can increase that percentage and the number of threes he makes next year, he could become a key starter at the shooting guard position. The role Sterling Williams played as a backup point guard went relatively unnoticed this season. Williams moved from his role during the first part of his career as a regular starter to backup this season thanks to the addition of NU’s strong freshmen class. Perhaps the best note on Sterling this season was that in 191 minutes he had only 2 turnovers. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who spent a lot of the time he was in the game handling the ball. I also suspect Sterling will always be remembered for the two big shots he made during NU’s key run in the victory at Purdue.

The only major weakness for NU’s guard group was their inability to defend their most athletic opponents. If an improved Jeremy Nash or freshman Drew Crawford can play such defense next season it will improve NU’s ability to beat teams like Ohio State and Michigan. Aside from better defense, the other key to NU’s guards having continued success will be to replace Moore’s scoring. I believe doing so will be a team effort, however, I really do believe a more aggressive Michael Thompson will go a long way towards getting this task accomplished. Thompson has the skills to score 12-15 ppg, he simply needs to play with a mindset which allows him to use them.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Flashforward: Hopes for 2009-2010

I'll start looking back at 2008-2009 next week, but first I want to share my hopes for next season. Below in no real order is a list of items I want to see next season...

- Kyle Rowley to use his size to his advantage. It seemed too often this year despite being 7-0, Rowley played like he was 5-11.

- Jeremy Nash to hit at least 2 threes a game. If Nash can hit threes he can then drive to the hoop and give NU another threat on offense.

- Drew Crawford to provide NU with a player who cannot only score off the dribble, but who can guard other players who can score off the dribble.

- Alex Marcotullio to have Craig Moore like range.

- Luka Mirkovic to consistently hit 15-18 foot shots.

- Kevin Coble to be first team All-Big Ten.

- The Wildcats to win at least 7 Big Ten home games.

- The fans to fill Welsh-Ryan Arena for a non-conference game which NU wins.

- The Wildcats to win on the road against an ACC team.

- John Shurna to average at least 10 ppg and 5 rpg.

- Northwestern finish games in which they have let leads.

- Kevin Coble shoot 42% or better from three.

- Ivan Peljusic to find a role where he can bring his excitment to the floor for at least 5-8 minutes a game.

- Juice Thompson to hit 45% of his threes and be the best point guard in the Big Ten.

- Northwestern to once again will all non-conference home games.

- Northwestern to win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament.

- Northwestern to play in the NCAA Tournament.

- Northwestern to win a game in the NCAA Tournament,

- Bill Carmody to win National Coach of the Year. The first coach who takes NU to the NCAA Tournament has got to win this award.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Northwestern's Season Ends at Tulsa in 68-59 NIT Opener Loss

A season which statistically was the second best in Northwestern history ended this evening when the Wildcats fell to Tulsa in the first round of the NIT. It was Northwestern’s forth postseason appearance and the second in which they lost the first game on the road. Playing on the road no doubt hurt Northwestern as Tulsa overcame a slow start and ended up scoring 40 second half points on route to victory. Tulsa guard Ben Uzoh scored 13 points and hit three big second half threes, but the real key to victory was Tulsa taking 29 free throws and making 25. Northwestern was 6-of-9 from the line. Some of the credit for Tulsa’s great free throw numbers has to go to big man Jerome Jordan who hit 8-of-11, but really the entire Tulsa team was involved from the charity strip. Northwestern probably should have been aggressive to the hoop, but Jordan’s presence keep the Wildcats further from the hoop. There were probably some calls which didn’t go Northwestern’s way, but I still would have liked NU to force the issue a little more inside as it seemed like the officials wanted to blow their whistles. Maybe they wouldn’t have made the calls since NU was the visitor (they did let Tulsa get away with bumping cutters all day), but I wonder if NU would gotten a few more calls had they taken the ball inside a bit more.

Aside from the free throw line what really changed the game was the start of the second half. Ben Uzoh and his teammates came out of the locker room hot and got NU down 10 points in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Eventually Tulsa gained an 11 point lead. As was the recurring theme in later part of the season, NU made a nice attempt at a comeback to try and cut the lead. The Wildcats eventually did cut the lead to three points thanks to some excellent defense and a few threes, but Craig Moore’s last shot didn’t fall. Sadly, he was open, but he rushed a bit and the shot bounced off the rim. It was a disappointing way for NU’s all time best three point shooter to end his career. Personally, I just wish NU would consistently play defense the way they did when making their attempt at a comeback. It is amazing to me how the Wildcats defensive effort sometimes lags and how their opponents instantly take advantage of those lapses.

Northwestern’s best performance came from Kevin Coble who scored 17 points to go along with 5 rebounds and 6 assists. I really feel as though Coble finished this year strong, unfortunately not many of his teammates matched his effort in the Wildcats last few games. Still, Coble’s play at the end of 2008-09 gives hope for him as the leader of the 2009-10 Wildcat team. NU’s leader for 2008-09, Craig Moore also scored 17 points, but the Wildcat’s third leading scorer Michael Thompson scored just 4 points and spent most of the game on the bench due to foul trouble. With Moore gone next season, Thompson must reduce his propensity to foul. He will be the Wildcats top three point shooter and the key guy when NU needs a clutch shot next year.

Speaking of next year, right now it seems like October is years away, but the fact is the Wildcats will be starting practice for the 2009-2010 season very soon. In between now and then it will be critical John Shurna, Kyle Rowley, Davide Curletti, and Luka Mirkovic to improve. Shurna needs to become more consistent from the three point line and the three centers need to improve their ability to take care of the ball, play post defense, and score inside. All these weaknesses were exposed tonight as Shurna struggled from three and NU’s young centers struggled against Jordan, but maybe someday it will be another young team who struggles against NU’s centers.

Finally, I want to thank all those who took the time to read my game recaps and other posts during this season. During the offseason, I’ll continue to post, though, probably not daily. The first set of posts, which should appear in the next few days, will feature a postseason breakdown of each position group. I will start the first day with the guards, move next to forwards, then centers, and finally conclude with the breakdown of the performance of NU’s coaching staff. Welsh-Ryan Ramblings’ postseason programming will also include a discussion of NU’s two recruits for next year, Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio. Let’s hope they are the missing pieces which will take the Wildcats to their first ever NCAA Tournament.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NIT Round 1: Northwestern @ Tulsa

The Matchup: #5 Northwestern (17-13) @ #4 Tulsa (24-10)

Location: Reynolds Center (Tulsa, OK)

Radio: WGN 720 AM and WNUR 89.3 FM

Fun Fact: Tulsa has three postseason titles in school history. They won the NIT in 1981 and 2001. They also posted a championship in last year’s inaugural CBI.

About the Game
Northwestern is in the postseason for the first time since 1999. However, the Wildcats dream of hosting a postseason game for the first time since 1994 remains unrealized for the moment (as a #5 seed NU could host if they and the other lower seeds pull upsets). In comparison to Northwestern, Tulsa is a tough tournament tested team. They won the CBI last season and center Jerome Jordan was the tournament MVP.

When looking at Tulsa, Jordan is clearly the player to keep an eye on. If you’re Northwestern, you might want to keep four eyes (aka a double team) on him. Jordan is a junior from Kingston, Jamaica who is 7-0 and 240 lbs. He scores 14.0 pgg and pulls down 8.6 rebounds. He is not, however, a great passer as he averages only 1 assist per game. Therefore, pressuring him with a double team might lead to turnovers. Also, although Jordan is a good shot blocker, he is also known to be prone to foul trouble. That brings up the question of how Northwestern can get Jordan into foul trouble. Kyle Rowley did do an excellent job getting Wisconsin’s Marcus Landry into foul trouble this season. However, Rowley has a 5-inch height advantage over Landry. Jordan is the same size as Rowley and, given his block totals, probably a better leaper. Therefore, NU most likely won’t be able to rely on Rowley to foul out Jordan. Instead, NU’s best dribble penetrators, Kevin Coble and Michael Thompson, must take the ball inside. They might get some shots blocked, but if they can draw enough fouls to put Jordan on the bench it will be worth the effort.

Two other key Tulsa players are shooters Ray Reese (6-5 forward) and Justin Hurtt (6-3 guard). Both these players approach 40% from three point range. If Northwestern plays their 1-3-1 defense, it will be up to Reese and Hurtt to force the Wildcats to alter their defensive plans. Despite Reese and Hurtt’s ability to hit shots, this matchup might favor the 1-3-1. First, as a team Tulsa only shoots 34.3% from three. Second, the 1-3-1 tries to accomplish two tasks: 1) deny the ball to the big man inside and 2) force turnovers. With Jordan’s ability to score inside and the fact Tulsa has a -2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio the situation seems to cry out for NU to play 1-3-1.

For Northwestern to win forcing turnovers is a major key. NU will be on the road in a hostile environment. In order to win NU must follow a game plan similar to how they beat Michigan State in East Lansing. If NU can force Tulsa point guard Ben Uzoh into turnovers in a manner similar to what they did when playing Michigan State guards Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen, NU will have a shot. Of course, NU must also get offensive product. It might be a long shot to believe Kevin Coble can do what he did against the Spartans, but if Coble can get solid scoring help from Craig Moore, Michael Thompson or both NU has a good chance to advance.

This matchup favors Tulsa in a lot of ways. First off, Tulsa will be at home in front of their fans. It is possible the crowd might be small thanks to Spring Break, but Tulsa is making good seats available to their local fans. Also, Tulsa’s strengths in the rebounding game could make the game tough for the Wildcats. When NU gets heavily outrebounded they cannot win (even against weak teams and Tulsa isn’t weak) and the matchup with Jordan might be tough for NU’s young centers. Finally, Tulsa plays a very tough perimeter defense which limits opponents to 28% shooting from behind the arc. Northwestern can win this game, but they will need to shoot the ball significantly better than Tulsa’s past opponents to limit the number of offensive rebounds pulled down by Jordan. Playing the on the road it will be tough, though not impossible, for NU to accomplish those tasks. Tulsa, 71 Northwestern, 60

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wildcats Need Quick Start, Should Start Luka

Regardless of whether you are in agreement with Northwestern’s NIT seed or not the fact is that part of the postseason process is now over. The Wildcats must now focus on getting ready to play their first postseason game since the 1998-99 season. I believe a key to winning this game will be to get off to a quick start. This is something the Wildcats have struggled with recently, but something they must due in order to win on Wednesday night. In order for Coach Carmody and the ‘Cats to accomplish this goal I would recommend a change similar to what was done for the Illinois game. For 36 minutes against Illinois the Wildcats played their best basketball of the year. I believe this was due to the fact they got off to such a great start. Part of the reason for this start was Luka Mirkovic starting at center and hitting two early threes. Against Tulsa I would again start Mirkovic. Some might question the move as Tulsa center Jerome Jordan is 7-0 240 lbs. and it might seem Kyle Rowley would be a better matchup. However, I believe it makes more sense to start the player who would make Tulsa most uncomfortable and therefore would make it more likely Northwestern could get off to a good start.

If Mirkovic can hit some shots and pull Jordan away from the basket, the Wildcats could attack Tulsa like they did Illinois and find themselves with a ton of open lanes to the hoop in the first part of the game. In a postseason game with the season on the line, it is always a good thing to get an early lead as it puts the pressure on the other team. If they want to win at Tulsa the Wildcats cannot start the game Wednesday night like they have their last two contests. Also, considering Tulsa is team known for playing great defense, if Northwestern can get some easy backdoor baskets it might very well discourage the Golden Hurricanes. Mirkoivic is also a better option to facilitate this as aside from his greater shooting skills, he is an excellent passer. Rowley has struggled mightily with turnovers this year and NU cannot afford to start the game with multiple possessions where they do not even get a shot off. I am afraid if Rowley starts against Tulsa’s pressure we will see similar problems with travels and poor passes as we did against Minnesota. If NU gets shots and they miss due to either poor shooting or good defense that’s just part of basketball, but in a postseason game you cannot make the game easy for the other team by turning the ball over. Sure, a lot of the responsibility for taking care of the ball will rest with NU’s guards, but in the Princeton Offense the center does have the responsibility to pass for many backdoor cuts. Right now, Luka Mirkovic is the guy for NU who can best throw those passes and get the Wildcats off to a fast start.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Northwestern Disrespected by NIT Committee

During this up and down Northwestern basketball season I have tried my best to keep an even keel with what I wrote on this blog. This post will not retain that even keel. Let’s begin…

Tonight the NIT Selection Committee showed they have little understanding of basketball by seeding Northwestern 5th in their region and sending them to Tulsa to play the Golden Hurricanes. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, a team with a worse RPI than NU and only 18 total wins, one over a non-division 1 team (therefore 17 just like NU), got a two seed. In addition, Illinois State who had a better RPI and more wins than either Northwestern or Notre Dame also got a #5-seed and will travel to Manhattan, Kansas to play Kansas State. ISU’s RPI is # 48, Kansas State’s #82. These seeding are harder to understand than the vocabulary in a David Foster Wallace novel.

It seems the NIT Selection Committee didn’t even bother to look at items like RPI or top-50 wins (Notre Dame had TWO) or anything other than reputation and total wins. For example, Illinois State beat Creighton by 18 points (Hey, NIT committee that’s almost 20), however, Creighton is a number 1-seed, ISU is a 5-seed. Does this make sense? How about Niagara as a #3-seed? Sure, they have 26 wins, but I would be very happy to go to Niagara and play them. Their best win is over Siena (their ONLY (read:1) top 50 win), an NCAA #9-seed. Northwestern’s best win is over Michigan State, an NCAA #2-seed. Obviously, the NIT Selection Committee must have missed this fact when they discussing how to seed the field. Virginia Tech also happens to have received a #2-seed. How many top-50 wins do you think they have? NIT Committee? Coach Keady? C.M. Newton (the M must stand for misinformed) Virginia Tech has 2. Same as Notre Dame. Apparently, the key to being a two seed in the NIT is to only beat TWO top-50 teams. Northwestern has SIX in case you need to know. I'm not a math major, but six is four more than two. I know that. I could write more, but I’m angry and I think I’ve made my points. Oh, also our game is on ESPNU, so good luck seeing it if you’ve got Comcast. Thanks NIT Committee, thanks a lot.

If you want to write the NIT Selection Committee to inform them of their clear failure to fairly seed the teams they can be reached at:
60 East 42nd Street, Suite 660
New York, New York 10165-0015

Northwestern @ Tulsa in NIT round 1

Northwestern will be at Tulsa in round 1 of the NIT. I think NU pretty much got jobbed by the NIT committee and I’ll have details on that in a little while.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Northwestern, Notre Dame, and the NIT

Over the past couple days I heard a lot of talk about how Northwestern might play at Notre Dame in the NIT. The Chicago Sun-Times mentioned the possibility and it has been discussed on the Wildcatreport.com message boards several times. I have to say that I believe the NIT committee would look very foolish if they sent the Wildcats to South Bend. I’m not saying Northwestern won’t go on the road in the NIT, (though I still think they deserve to be seeded in the top half of the NIT) but Northwestern’s numbers in all the key categories tournament committees look at are either better or essentially the same as Notre Dame’s. As a result, if Northwestern doesn’t play Evanston, I believe they certainly shouldn’t play in South Bend. Let’s take a look at the numbers…

Let’s first look at RPI, according to baselinestats.com Northwestern’s RPI is #69 and Notre Dame’s is #71. According to RealTimeRPi.com Northwestern has an RPI of #72 and Notre Dame has an RPI of #75.

Along with RPI, tournament committee’s are supposed to look at wins against Top 50 competition. Notre Dame has 2 wins against Top 50 teams. Overall, they are 2-12 against these teams, 1-9 against teams 1-25 and 1-3 against teams 26-50. On the other hand, Northwestern is 6-10 against Top 50 competition. The Wildcats are 2-3 vs RPI 1-25 and 4-7 vs RPI 26-50.

Notre Dame does have an edge in strength of schedule, but that edge is rather small. Notre Dame has an SOS of #39. Northwestern’s SOS is #41. Given the fact NU handled the tough teams on their schedule better (6 top 50 wins) I believe NU still has a case for being seeded higher than the Irish.

One other area where Notre Dame is better than Northwestern is the record in the last ten games. Notre Dame is 5-5 and Northwestern is 4-6. Come to think of it, that’s not such a great advantage either.

Finally, Northwestern has a record of 17-13 and Notre Dame is 18-14. However, one of Notre Dame’s wins was over non-Division 1 opponent South Dakota so that win technically doesn’t count in tournament consideration. Therefore, the teams have basically the same record.

Looking at these numbers I don’t see how anyone can in all fairness say in a truly seeded tournament that Northwestern should be rated below Notre Dame. However, many NIT projections (which I will note should be taken with a major grain of salt) have ND seeded higher. The only reason for this has got to be reputation. I hope when the NIT selection committee meets they take this information into account and don’t fall victim to reputation like many fans and prognosticators apparently have done. Maybe someone at the Big Ten Network can read this blog and pass it to network analyst and NIT selection committee member Gene Keady. Come on coach, you know Notre Dame doesn’t deserve a better seed than the Wildcats. We’re counting on you to make sure C.M. Newton and the rest of the guys understand that as well.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday Flashback: 2008-2009 Season Awards

Craig Moore is the Welsh-Ryan Ramblings pick for Northwestern's 2008-2009 MVP.

Here are Welsh-Ryan Ramblings awards for this season. The awards fit into two categories. The first is individual awards. It is in this category where awards such as MVP will be passed out. The second category is event awards. This category will feature awards such as play of the year.

Let’s start with the individual awards…

Most Valuable Player: Craig Moore
I thought long and hard about giving this award to Kevin Coble, but I take Most Valuable Player to actually mean Most Valuable Player. I know some people believe this award is really Most Outstanding Player, but if that is the award you want to give then I suggest you name it that (I'm looking at you Big Ten media members who didn't vote for Evan Turner for Big Ten MVP). The fact is that Craig Moore was the most valuable player for Northwestern this season. Moore had some bad games for sure, but those bad games show just how valuable he was to his team. When he overcame his struggles and hit a big shot or two NU won. When he couldn’t overcome those struggles, NU lost. The best examples of this came in East Lansing and yesterday against Minnesota. At Michigan State, despite the fact he hadn’t made a shot all day, Moore drilled a three to put NU back in the lead after Michigan State had gained a 1 point advantage. It was the shot which pushed the ‘Cats to victory. Yesterday, Moore had a shot which would have given NU a 5-point lead and all the momentum, but he couldn’t overcome his struggles and he missed. NU lost. Without a doubt, Craig Moore’s play was the most valuable to NU’s success (or lack thereof) in 2008-2009. Numbers wise he also deserves this award. Moore scored 14.2 points per game, set a school record with 105 three pointes, lead the team in free throw shooting, and finished second on the team in rebounding.

Newcomer of the Year: John Shurna
This was another award which I considered going a different direction on thanks to how much merely having the size of Kyle Rowley and Luka Mirkovic improved Northwestern. However, the fact is Rowley and Mirkovic have a ways to go before they really ready to receive awards. John Shurna is much closer. Shurna started every game this season, a tough task for a freshman, and despite disappearing at times still made an impressive statistical impact. He averaged 7.3 ppg (4th on team) and pulled down 33 offensive rebounds (1st on the team). He also shot 35.7% from three and 74.5% from the free throw line. All these statistical areas are spots where last year’s Northwestern team was lacking. If Shurna and his classmates improve in these areas over the next few years I have no doubt they can help take NU to the NCAA Tournament.

Defensive Player of the Year: Jeremy Nash
Kevin Coble led Northwestern in blocks and steals, but I seriously doubt anybody would debate the fact Jeremy Nash was NU’s best defensive player. Nash recorded 34 steals this year, but what was even more impressive were all the times he tipped balls at the top of the 1-3-1 and allowed his teammates to get steals. Those steals often resulted in points and Northwestern has to get points of turnovers to be successful. The next step in Nash’s improvement will be consistently getting to the point where he lockdown an opponent’s top scorer and keep them out the lane. If he can do so, it will give Northwestern more options on defensive.

Game of the Year (Individual): Kevin Coble at Michigan State
Kevin Coble’s overall performance this year was very impressive, but his play at Michigan State was history making. Coble scored 31 points that night on an array of remarkable shots. His shot where he banked a turnaround high of the class will make every Big Ten highlight reel for this season. If Coble turns in a few similar performances next year, he might become a contender for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Now we move to the event awards…

Game of the Year (Team): vs DePaul
Okay, DePaul was terrible this season, but still how often does Northwestern dominated a BCS-conference foe in such a manner. The Wildcats topped the Blue Demons 63-36 and I’m not sure it was really that close. Kevin Coble led the ‘Cats with 25 points and they also got 14 from Craig Moore. NU’s defense was very impressive that day as they held their intracity rival to only 24.1% shooting.

Play of the Year: John Shurna three pointer to beat Ohio State in Evanston
After losing two disheartening games to Illinois and Michigan, it looked like the season had taken a disastrous turn for the Wildcats. Thankfully, John Shurna overcame a serious flu bug to hit the game winner with 3.3 seconds left and keep the Wildcats in contention for a postseason bid. If Northwestern had failed to beat the Buckeyes that night, they very likely wouldn’t be making plans for additional games.

Dunk of the Year: Ivan Peljusic vs Florida State
Northwestern doesn’t have a lot dunks this season, but they had more than in past years. Besides, I wanted to compliment Ivan Peljusic for slamming home the ball a few times this season. His dunk against Florida State came in stretch where he scored 8 points in the game’s most critical minute. Peljusic got a little playing time yesterday against Minnesota and if Northwestern advances into the postseason I think we’ll see a little more of him. If we do, I hope he can once again ignite the Wildcats.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Poor Start, Bad Finish, Cost Wildcats in 66-53 loss to Gophers

In a game which was shockingly similar to the loss to end the regular season at Ohio State, the Wildcats fell way behind, got the lead back, but then couldn’t hold it in the end. Again, the Wildcats were primarily defeated in the clutch by one athletic player—in this case Lawrence Westbrook. Northwestern’s total inability to stop the Westbrook, Turner, Harris type of player is scary when looking at some of the athletic mid-major players the Wildcats might play in whatever postseason tournament they get into. Think about playing Davidson and Stephen Curry in the NIT.

Northwestern also suffered this defeat thanks to once again starting slowly. They let the Gophers build a 14-point lead early and struggled mightily at taking care of the ball. The worst offenders in that case were Kyle Rowley and Jeff Ryan. Ryan’s inability to take care of the ball after coming in off the bench was particularly disappointing. After sitting on the bench and seeing Minnesota’s defensive intensity, Ryan should have known lazy passes wouldn’t work. Rowley simply has to get tougher. At times he seems to forget he is facing Big Ten competition and starts to think his size is enough to score. It is not. He must add aggressiveness as well. Of course, Ryan and Rowley weren’t the only Wildcats to turn the ball over in the first half. Really, the whole Wildcat team made the ball look like it had been dipped in grease during the first half.

Northwestern did stage a great come back in the second half. They took care of the ball better and got some point production from Jeremy Nash and Michael Thompson who didn’t score in the first half. Unfortunately, Kevin Coble, who kept the ‘Cats in the game with 19 first half points, scored only 2 points in the second half. With the Gophers locking down Coble it made sense for the Wildcats to try to go their second leading scorer, Craig Moore. Sadly, Moore played his worst game of the season. He shot 3-of-16 overall and 2-of-14 from there point range. Looking back, I have to say that since the victory over Indiana Moore hasn’t really played well. He had a good second half against Ohio State, but it has been a long time since one of Moore’s can’t miss games. In whatever postseason tournament Northwestern plays, Moore will have to have to produce points if the Wildcats want to win.

The Wildcats slow start probably deserves some separate analysis. This has been a problem at times during the year for Northwestern and it isn’t good, especially in big games. Getting down early in a big game lets the other team get comfortable and not feel pressure. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but it must be addressed. I would hate for Northwestern to play in the postseason and look as ill prepared as they did today.

So, what will happen to Northwestern in the postseason? Odds are they will play in the NIT. Where will they be seeded in the NIT? That’s tough to say. NIT seeding is a very fluid situation because all conference champs who don’t make the NCAA Tournament must make the NIT. As a result, those teams start to fill in the bracket and take spots away from borderline NIT teams. I doubt NU will get bumped, but those teams might alter NU’s seed. It is not clear, however, in what way the seed will change. If champs from a ton of small conferences start to fill the NIT bracket, Northwestern’s 6 wins over top-50 RPI teams might move the ‘Cats up a couple seed lines. If the NIT selection is more straight forward thanks to a lack of conference tournament upsets, Northwestern will probably be seeded in the middle of the NIT. Does that equal a home game? Well, right now I’d probably give NU a #4 seed and at least one home game. The most realistic opponents, assuming the NIT stays true to their plan to try to reduce travel costs, are probably the Illinois State Redbirds or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Either of those teams would be a tough matchup, but would certainly produce a great deal of local excitement.

The Rest of the Week at Welsh-Ryan Ramblings:
With the Wildcats now out of the Big Ten Tournament Welsh-Ryan Ramblings will have the following content this weekend...

Friday: Welsh-Ryan Ramblings Awards for 2008-09
Saturday: NU postseason outlook update. Information on the NIT, CBI, and CIT.
Sunday: The 'Cats find out where they are going. A first look at the matchup.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big Ten Tournament Round 1: #8 Minnesota vs #9 Northwestern

The Matchup: #8 Minnesota (21-9) vs #9 Northwestern (17-12)

Location: Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, Indiana)

TV: Big Ten Network (11:00 AM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern and Minnesota met in the first ever Big Ten Tournament game following the conclusion of the 1997-98 regular season.

About the Game
The NCAA Tournament is on the line in this first round Big Ten Tournament contest. Minnesota can likely clinch an NCAA breath with a win, while a loss will likely send the Gophers to the NIT. Northwestern probably needs at least two wins in the Big Ten Tournament to once again make the NCAA bubble, but a win over the Gophers probably assures the ‘Cats at least a top half NIT seed. A loss and the Wildcats might find themselves on the road in the NIT or in the CBI or CIT.

These two teams split their regular season meetings. Northwestern posted a 74-65 win in Evanston and Minnesota won in a blowout 72-45 at Williams Arena. It should probably be noted that Northwestern might have be plagued by the flu in that loss. As a result, Kevin Coble and Craig Moore played their lowest number of combined minutes all season in that contest.

Looking at the differences in the two games, other than the flu, Minnesota generated many more Wildcat turnovers in the second contest. This helped the Gophers get a great deal of fast break points. This is critical as Minnesota tends to struggle with turnovers at times in their half court offense. If fact, Northwestern forced the Gophers into almost 20 turnovers in the Evanston contest because they stopped the Gophers from fast breaking. This also significantly reduced the number of free throws Minnesota took. The Gophers took 27 free throws in their victory. Gopher guard Lawrence Westbrook is the type of player who excels at getting to the line and making free throws. He is an excellent penetrator and despite his limited size, he can finish at the hoop. Northwestern needs to do a better job on Westbrook than they did on Evan Turner in their last game. What might help the ‘Cats is that Jeremy Nash and Jeff Ryan are both bigger than Westbrook. In addition to getting Westbrook into the lane, Minnesota will try to take advantage of their superior size inside to outrebound NU and score easy at the basket. If Minnesota watched how B.J. Mullens embarrassed NU, they might try the same plan with their own big freshman Colton Iverson.

For Northwestern the key will be getting off to a good start. NU seemed overcome by the magnitude of the Ohio State game and they quickly found themselves down 15 points. Traditionally, the first game in the Big Ten Tournament is a low scoring affair thanks to the early start. If the Wildcats can come out of the locker room and shoot a high percentage in the first half they might be able to coast to victory.

When Northwestern and Minnesota played the second time I expected Minnesota to win, but I expected the game to be close. I think despite Minnesota’s size, Northwestern can play with the Gophers. The reason is Minnesota has nearly as many turnovers as assists. In addition, Minnesota is only a 33.6% three point shooting team. This means Northwestern might be able to use the 1-3-1 zone which has caused Minnesota trouble in the past without having to worry about the Gophers shooting the Wildcats out of the gym. Also, despite both teams losing their last game before the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern finished the year stronger. Fans should further note that though neither team was great on the road this season, Northwestern played slightly better away from home. Of course, Minnesota is the one team of the two to play on a neutral court. The odds are this game will be as neutral a setting as possible. Neither Minnesota nor Northwestern tend to bring a ton of fans to the Big Ten Tournament. Also, since the game is the first of the day, many fans will not show up until halftime. That means when the game starts the crowd will probably be about 5,000 people in 18,345 seat arena. As a result, the teams will need to bring their own intensity. I hope Northwestern learned how from the Ohio State game. I expect they did, but I don’t think it’ll be so much they put the Gophers away. This will be a very close game, but I do think the ‘Cats will live up to my preseason expectation and break their Big Ten Tournament losing streak. Northwestern, 68 Minnesota, 66

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday Linkfest

Here are some links for great reading as we get ready for the Big Ten Tournament.

First, here's the nusports.com release on the All-Big Ten teams. Coble made 2nd-team for both coaches and media and Moore made 3rd-team. I think if NU would have posted just a few more wins they both might have made 2nd-team.

Next, here is an article from USA Today. A nice read that really supports the ‘Cats.

Finally, here the postseason awards from Chicago College Basketball.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Last Shot, Wildcats Fall Short: Buckeyes win 52-47

In maybe the most important game for the Northwestern Wildcats they fell short thanks to a lackluster start and the play of Ohio State star Evan Turner. Turner made shot after shot down stretch and blocked the Wildcats last shot by Luka Mirkovic to preserve the win. Despite the loss, Northwestern has to feel good about their effort to come back from a terrible fist half and actually take a 45-43 lead late in the game. However, the Wildcats showed one of their serious weaknesses which is containing a player with great ability to penetrate their zone. The same weakness cost the Wildcats dearly in a home loss to Michigan and their star Manny Harris. If Northwestern really wants to make it to the next level they must develop the ability to stop such players.

On the positive side, Craig Moore overcame a slow start and ended up with 18 points and 4 rebounds. Kevin Coble also scored in double figures for NU with 13 points, but committed far too many turnovers to really be considered effective. Coble had 4 turnovers and no assists. To be fair, though, the entire Wildcat roster had trouble holding on to the ball. When the coaching staff looks back at this game the 16 turnovers, many unforced, will be a major reason for the loss. Craig Moore’s 1 assists and 3 turnovers weren’t much better than Coble’s numbers. The Wildcats did out rebound Ohio State 26-25 and credit must go to the entire team as the ‘Cats made a total team effort on the boards. For the record, Kyle Rowley actually tied Craig Moore for the team-high with 4 rebounds.

In the end, Northwestern has to look at their inability to stop Evan Turner and their slow start as the reasons for their loss. Some might blame the slow start on the Wildcats missing their shootaround due to their bus driver forgetting about daylight saving time, but I think that’s a pretty poor excuse. NU just seemed a little overcome by the magnitude of the game early. Hopefully, despite the loss, the fact NU recovered and battled in a big game will help the ‘Cats in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota.

Finally, although I think missing the shootaround isn’t a great excuse, I will say I think Kevin Coble was fouled on his shot with less than 20 seconds left which would have tied the game. Even the Ohio State player who landed on him, Jon Diebler, seemed to expect the foul as he got the classic, “aw crap!” look on his face until he realized nothing was called. Of course, the fact is officials (especially veteran officials like Tim Higgins, Eric Curry, and Ted Hillary) rarely call those sorts of fouls in the last 20 seconds and maybe Coble should have known that. I don’t know? Maybe even if Coble had hit all three free throws Evan Turner still would have won the game at the buzzer. He looked unstoppable. I don’t know. All I know is that the Wildcats played a good 20 minutes today. If they had played a good 40, I think they would be in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they are in a “must-win” scenario against Minnesota, and they if they are fortunate enough to win, against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Those are two tough games. NU must show up for 40 minutes if they want to beat Minnesota on Thursday.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Game 29: Northwestern @ Ohio State

The Matchup: Northwestern (17-11) @ Ohio State (19-9)

Location: Value City Arena (Columbus, OH)

TV: Big Ten Network (4:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern hasn’t beaten Ohio State in Columbus since 1977.

About the Game
When the season started not many people expected Northwestern and Ohio State to meet with this much on the line on the season’s final day. As the two teams enter this game, both Northwestern and Ohio State are fighting for a bid in the NCAA Tournament. Right now the Buckeyes are in better shape with 2 more wins overall and a better Big Ten record. However, the Wildcats beat the Buckeyes in Evanston on the strength of John Shurna’s clutch three pointer. If the Wildcats beat the Buckeyes twice it will put them above Ohio State in the Big Ten standings and possibly in the selection committee’s mind.

The key to Northwestern’s victory in the first game between these two teams was outstanding shooting by Craig Moore and Kevin Coble. Coble scored 26 points and Moore 23 points. Both took major advantage of the Buckeye zone by finding wide open shots. If NU’s top guns can find similar openings NU has a good chance. However, Ohio State’s effort in their zone was somewhat passive in Evanston. In other games, the Buckeyes play a much more aggressive brand of zone defense. I suspect Thad Matta will stress the importance of staying aggressive in the zone on Sunday. It certainly helped them squeak out the victory over Iowa.

Another key to the game will be the battle in the post. When Northwestern pulled off their comeback from a 12-point deficit in the second half they got great play from Kyle Rowley down low. Rowley was as quick and aggressive on that night as he has been all year. With size and athletic skill of Buckeye centers B.J. Mullens and Dallas Lauderdale similar play from Rowley and a healthy Luka Mirkovic will be critical. If Northwestern can get some inside points and stay close in rebounding they have a chance for the monumental win.

Finally, in the first defense the Wildcats played great defense against Buckeye star Evan Turner. NU used the 1-3-1, which hasn’t worked as well since, and forced the Buckeye star into a ton of turnovers. The odds are Turner will be looking to rebound in big way and make up for his poor game in Evanston. How will NU stop Turner? Coach Carmody might need to go back to the 1-3-1, but I would also not be surprised to see Jeff Ryan, who played great defense on Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, get some time on the court to try to contain Turner.

This is a tough game to predict. Right now I think Northwestern can beat anybody, but Ohio State is a team with a lot on the line in this game as well. As a result, the intangibles of this matchup don’t really favor either squad. Before NU played Purdue I really thought if the Wildcats were to win either of their last two games it would be this contest. I like the matchup of the NU shooters against the Ohio State zone and despite their size, Ohio State actually has a negative rebound margin this year. Coming into this game Northwestern seems to have momentum and Ohio State has struggled recently. However, the Buckeyes have the home court advantage and this game has a lot riding on it for them as well. The truth is I’m having a lot of trouble making an objective prediction for this game. Part of me just wants to pick the NU, but the other part knows there is a reason Ohio State is the favorite in this contest for a reason. The early line from Las Vegas has Ohio State as 7 point favorites, I definitely think that’s too large a spread. If Ohio State wins I think it’ll be something like 66-61. If Northwestern wins I think it’ll be something 61-59. Objectively, I have to say the game will probably be more like the first of those two scores, but this seems like the year for NU to buck the odds and make the score more like the latter.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday Flashback: Big Game Time

Sunday's game with Ohio State is setting up as the biggest game this season (maybe ever) for NU basketball. Of course, we wouldn't be looking at the Ohio State game as such an important contest if it weren't for Wednesday's win over Purdue or the wins over Michigan State and Florida State earlier in the year. The poll conducted this last week had the Michigan State game as NU's biggest win of the season with a total of 61 of 64 votes. That's 95%. Now, though, I wonder if the same poll was run today would the Purdue game have won? If NU beats Ohio State on Sunday is that the team's biggest win? These are the type of questions which I enjoy taking the time to ponder. In all my years watching Northwestern basketball I find it hard to think of another season which featured more than one or two big wins. This year there seem to be an endless supply and I suspect more big wins might be on the horizon. Also, this year has featured some wins over teams Northwestern traditionally has not played well against. The victory over Ohio State at home was a great example of this. If Northwestern can win at Ohio State on Sunday and record a sweep of the Buckeyes, that victory will erase yet another long losing streak.

As I think back over my Northwestern fan experience, I have trouble recalling any string of victories which would match a win Sunday followed by a Big Ten Tournament round 1 win. Combined with the victory at Purdue, such a streak would give Northwestern 19 wins and place them, I believe, in serious bubble contention. If NU could somehow get 20 wins, I believe, the Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern has posted some nice strings of wins in the past. The 2003-2004 team had a very nice run of three straight victories over #11 Wisconsin, at Purdue, and on ESPN2 vs Penn State. In the Penn State game the Wildcats went on a 30-2 run. Sadly, 2003-2004 was also the last time Northwestern really dominated Penn State. The ‘Cats also posted a Big Tournament record in steals against the Lions that year.

Getting back to NU winning streaks, the 2001-2002 team would have posted an impressive four game winning steak with wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State included. However, a loss on the road got in the way. Where on the road? You guessed it, Columbus, Ohio. That loss was a disappointing one for NU. It might have factored heavily into NU not making the NIT that year. NU was down one point late when Vedran Vukusic tried to take the ball to the hoop and got called for a charge. He probably should have passed to a red-hot Winston Blake who had posted a career high in points, but even with the foul on Vedran NU still got a chance to win. After Ohio State made only one of two free throws the score was 58-57. After passing the ball around the perimeter, the Wildcats got two shots. Unfortunately, Tavaras Hardy and Jitim Young both missed. Sadly, that has been the type of game which has plagued Northwestern at Ohio State for 32 years. Hopefully, Sunday will be different. If it is, it might very well displace the wins at Michigan State and Purdue as the biggest of the year for the ‘Cats—at least until the first game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Northwestern and the NCAA Bubble

It is probably too early to start making a case that Northwestern should be in the NCAA Tournament, but after last night’s win a discussion of just where on the NCAA bubble Northwestern sits is worth some analysis. According to baselinestats.com Northwestern’s RPI is now #69. That’s probably too high to make the NCAAs, but other bubble teams are right around the Wildcats. Penn State is #66 Providence is #68 and Notre Dame is #72. Of those teams, I think Penn State is almost assuredly in the Big Dance and Providence, much like NU, has a case for inclusion based on some very strong wins. With those facts in mind, let us look at the Wildcats NCAA resume in relation to both Penn State and Providence. I think many outside of Wildcat Nation would be surprised at the result.

What most obviously works against Northwestern is the head-to-head loss to Penn State. Unfortunately, despite a myriad of possible first round matchups in the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern isn’t likely to get a second chance at Talor Battle and company. Also working against NU is that both Penn State and Providence have better overall records. PSU has 20 wins and Providence has 18. Northwestern only has 17 wins right now. While there isn’t a magic number of wins to make the Big Dance, if you don’t have at least 19 wins you can probably skip watching the CBS Selection Show and turn on ESPNU and wait for the NIT bracket.

Another item which works against NU is that Providence has a stronger strength of schedule 49 to 54. However, NU’s strength of schedule will improve this weekend after the Ohio State game. Also, Penn State’s strength of schedule isn’t even in the neighborhood of the Wildcats and Friars as it comes in at 93. Even more impressive for NU is that when looking at non-conference strength of schedule Northwestern is the best of these three teams. The Wildcats are at 66 in non-conference SOS compared to Providence at 97 and Penn State at a near the bottom of the Division 1 310. This is a key point. Like I said above, I think Penn State’s record probably gets them into the Dance if it starts today, but they got that record by feasting on a ton of early cupcakes. NU might not have faced the basketball equivalent of the ’27 Yankees, but at least the Wildcats took on challenges like Butler, Stanford, and a talented UC-Riverside squad. Northwestern also played a tougher ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, but I’ll give PSU a pass on that as the league office and ESPN decide that matchup.

Finally, we come to NU’s strongest case against their bubble brethren. Yes, the Wildcats gave away some games, but they also have more wins than Penn State or Providence against top 50 RPI teams. The Wildcats have 6 top 50 wins. Penn State has 5 and Providence 3. If Northwestern had just one more win against the top 50 (e.g. Butler, Illinois, Purdue) I think it would be very tough for the selection committee to keep them out. As it stands now, the Wildcats probably need at least two more good wins to make the NCAA tournament. That would give them at least 19 wins and an increase in RPI and SOS. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that even as things sit right now Northwestern stacks up well against potential bubble competition.

Also, though the ‘Cats have bigger dreams, it is important to remember this bubble competition is also the competition for top seeds in the NIT. Given this data, I would say if NU doesn’t make the Dance, they should now expect to be an upper division NIT seed. After last year’s struggles, NU must remember that any postseason appearance will be a great stepping stone for the ‘Cats. Of course, after last night I don’t think anybody would blame those of us in Wildcat Nation for getting a little greedy and pushing for the ‘Cats inclusion in the Big Dance whenever possible.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

NCAA Hopes Stay Alive: Wildcats top Boilermakers 64-61

With an impressive total team effort Northwestern came from 10 points down in the second half to knock off #18 Purdue and reinsert themselves into the NCAA tournament bubble picture. Northwestern played 10 players in tonight’s contest. Nine of them scored points and nine of them seriously contributed to the win. In order to make sure everybody’s contribution is mentioned I will talk about each player individually.

Kevin Coble: Coble led the Wildcats with 16 points and 8 rebounds. He also recorded a key block and made perhaps the play of the game when he broke the press with a long pass to Luka Mirkovic for an easy layup. Also, along with Michael “Juice” Thompson, Coble was one of two Wildcats to hit key free throws down the stretch. Overall, Coble was 7-of-10 from the field and while his teammates set him up for a few easy baskets, he also hit a couple of his patented fade aways.

Juice Thompson: When Juice left the floor the Wildcats started to fall behind. When he returned to the floor the Wildcats started to climb into the lead. Thompson finished the game with 12 points and worked around potential foul trouble during the second half. Also, when Bill Carmody went to his defensive lineup Thompson was the Wildcats main scoring option and hit a clutch three with the shot clock running down.

Craig Moore: After s slow start Craig Moore his some big shots in the first part of the second half to start the Wildcat comeback. He finished with 12 points and dished out an impressive 6 assists against only 2 turnovers.

Kyle Rowley: Rowley scored early with a good quick move and later in the game grabbed a great offensive rebound off a Thompson miss to help the Wildcats keep the lead. He also played great defensive in his 11 minutes and made one of the best passes of the year when from under the basket he found Jeff Ryan cutting to the hoop.

Luka Mirkovic: Northwestern grabbed 11 offensive rebounds. Luka got five. He kept plays alive and the Wildcats took advantage. He also dished out 5 assists, in the first half it was his passing which helped keep the Wildcats in the game. He also scored six points including the key two off the Coble press breaking pass.

Jeremy Nash: Nash didn’t do much in the box score, but his defensive contributions on Purdue’s shooters allowed the Wildcats to extend their second half lead. Also, he pulled down one of NU’s offensive rebounds.

Jeff Ryan: Jeff Ryan played some of the best defense of the season on Purdue’s Robbie Hummel. If he plays defense like that all the time he will earn more playing time. Ryan made it extremely tough for the Boilermaker star to get off good shots in the second half buying pressuring him and forcing him into poor shots. He also kept the ball alive with two offensive rebounds. Also, Ryan’s ability to cut hard against the intense Boilermaker defense led to 6 points for the Wildcat junior.

Sterling Williams: The Wildcat senior stepped up with his biggest game of the season. He scored only four points, but his points were the points which took a 2 point lead and helped extend it out to a multiple possession game. He blew by a Purdue defender on one play and hit a clutch jumper on another off a pass from Juice Thompson.

John Shurna: Shurna scored two points, grabbed two rebounds, and dished off an assist. He also played very strong defense in the second half when he found himself guarding some big Boilermakers.

Ivan Peljusic: Peljusic saw his first action in more than a week playing a minute in tonight’s game.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Game 28: Northwestern @ Purdue

The Matchup: Northwestern (16-11) @ Purdue (22-7)

Location: Mackey Arena (West Lafayette, Indiana)

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

Fun Fact: Purdue has beaten Northwestern 5 straight times, before that Northwestern won five straight over the Boilermakers from 2003-2006.

About the Game
This game is all about positioning in the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue will be in the top three, but where in the top three is up in the air (Update: It'll be 2 or 3. Michigan State won the Big Ten with their victory over Indiana). Northwestern is sitting in the number nine position right now, but would love to pull an upset or two during the season’s final week and move into the seven position. If the Wildcats do pull into the seven spot, it might mean a rematch between these two teams in round two.

Looking back at the first meeting between these two squads probably produces different responses from each team. Purdue’s comeback win kept them in the running for a Big Ten Title. Northwestern’s blown lead might be one of the reasons they end up playing in the NIT, CBI, or CIT instead of the NCAA tournament. What factor will these feelings have in this contest? Probably none, but Northwestern could gain an advantage if Purdue is overconfident and the Wildcats come out with something to prove. A similar situation produced the Wildcats biggest win of the year at Michigan State. (Note: Though I am not surprised the MSU game is leading the poll for the Wildcats biggest win thus far, I am surprised at the size of the lead).

To pull of the victory, Northwestern needs to force turnovers. Forcing TO’s kept the Wildcats in the game in Evanston. Fans should also note Purdue’s Robbie Hummel seems to be recovered from his early season injuries. He scored 17 points last time out against Ohio State. What defense Northwestern uses to try to contain Hummel will be a key to the game. The 1-3-1 produced a ton of turnovers in Evanston, but a healthy Hummel gives Purdue another three point shooter which can tear that zone up. If Northwestern plays the 2-3 or switching man-to-man, Kevin Coble will need to carry over his defensive effort from Saturday as he will be under the basketball trying to stop Hummel. The other Purdue guy under the basket is JaJuan Johnson. Johnson has an outside shot at Big Ten Player of the Year and made NU’s effort to get cuts at the hoop very tough in Evanston with 7 blocks. To counter this, Northwestern’s center position needs to pull Johnson away from the hoop. In order for this to occur, Luka Mirkovic will need to take some of the jump shots he passed up against Iowa. It is also possible NU might use Ivan Peljusic in this game. Although he hasn’t played since near the end of the Minnesota game, Peljusic’s athletic skill might matchup better with Johnson’s quickness than Kyle Rowley’s bulk.

Over the past few years Purdue has dominated teams at home. Of course, the same can be said about Michigan State. That said, Purdue has recently dominated a talented Ohio State team and looks to be hitting on all cylinders with the return to health of many of their top players. If Northwestern is to upset Purdue they will need above average performances from Kevin Coble and Craig Moore. Certainly Coble and Moore have such performances in them, we’ve seen them before, but the odds still favor a Purdue win. Purdue, 73 Northwestern 64

If want more tournament projections and RPI information be sure to visit http://www.baselinestats.com/ you know the site has good info as its run by an NU grad.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Home Dominance Key to Wildcat Success

Northwestern’s home success this year is a major reason why they should make the postseson.

Northwestern’s 13-4 record at home this year is the best ever at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It is the second best home record ever for a Northwestern team. The 1982-83 Wildcats posted a 14-2 record at home, but played their home games at DePaul’s Alumni Hall and the Rosemont Horizon. If Northwestern hopes to continue the success they have had this season next year, and potentially in a postseason tournament this season, winning at home will be critical. Dropping early season home games has kept Northwestern out of the postseason in the past. If Northwestern makes the postseason this year, the reason for their appearance may very well be traced back to the 7-0 record they posted at home in the non-conference season. Perhaps the most impressive win was beating BCS conference opponent Florida State. In the past, the Wildcats have struggled at home against BCS conference opponents in the non-conference season. Losses like a 67-56 home loss to Colorado in the 2003-04 season where NU finished a game under .500 and a 48-44 loss to Virginia the next year when NU again finished a game under .500 makes clear how critical each game is. NU lost road non-conference games in those years as well, but if those home results would have turned around NU would have made the NIT in those two seasons. If that happened, who knows how much farther along NU’s program could have come.

Similarly, winning Big Ten games at home could be the difference in NU at some point moving into the first division of the Big Ten standings. Obviously the home losses to Purdue and Illinois from this season stand out. If NU had pulled off those two wins they could have a shot at the #5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. A similar disappointment occurred during Bill Carmody’s Coach of the Year season in 2003-2004. Northwestern lost 63-56 at home to Michigan on the final day of the season. If NU could have won that game they would have posted a modern day school record 9 Big Ten wins, perhaps held the #5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and made the postseason at the year’s conclusion. Though we will look back at the losses to Illinois and Purdue as disappointments this year, we may also look back and see NU’s win Saturday over Iowa in a similar situation to the 2004 game vs Michigan as what clinched the postseason for NU. That victory is a major step forward for NU.

As we look to the future, Northwestern might play a postseason home game this year. The Wildcats are 2-3 all time in the postseason. Not surprisingly, two wins occurred in home games. The one true home postseason win, 93-94 against DePaul, is regarded by most NU fans as the best home atmosphere ever at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Given this year’s difference in road and home record, it seems reasonable to believe a home game for NU in the NIT, CBI, or CIT would significantly improve their chances of advancing deep into the postseason.

Realistically, unless they pull several upsets, Northwestern’s odds making the NCAA Tournament this season are not great. However, if they make any sort of postseason push at all, they will have to be considered a serious contender for the Big Dance next year. To do so, though, they will need to mirror their success this season and win the tough home games they will have against Butler and Stanford.