Friday, December 31, 2010

Purdue’s Hot Shooting and Defense Too Much for Wildcats

This game seemed very similar to NU’s game at St. John’s earlier this month. NU scored what I would generally consider enough points to win, but didn’t play great defense or get enough production from their main offensive weapons. I will say on the positive side that Luka Mirkovic rebounded from a poor first half to score 16 points and make his first to threes of the season. However, his one (1!) rebound wasn’t really all that helpful when his counterpart JaJuan Johnson of Purdue had nine. Another positive for NU was the play of JerShon Cobb who continues to show he isn’t overcome with fear of playing in the big time as he scored 12 points and had 3 assists. I would have liked to see Cobb make a couple threes because I know he can and that will help NU long term. Speaking of threes, for the day NU hit 9 threes, though, one was a useless garbage time bucket by Juice Thompson (18 points, but five costly turnovers against just two assists). Nine threes is generally good, but Coach Carmody has said NU needs at least 10 a game to compete in the Big Ten and the Wildcats obviously didn’t hit that mark today. I’d honestly say that NU probably needs more like 12 a game if they don’t start to play better defense.

Defense and rebounding are weak points that if they aren’t improved make me worry that NU won’t be any better than a 7-11 Big Ten as they were last season. Today the ‘Cats gave up 42 points in the first half and 40 in the second half. To compete they need to reduce those numbers by 10 each. They also need to find a defense that works, they couldn’t stick with Purdue in any defense today whether 1-3-1 zone or matchup Purdue found seams. It’s also, to me at least, ridiculous that E’Twaun Moore, Purdue’s only consistent shooter, found himself open for some many uncontested jump shots. Also, Purdue out NUed NU today with great passing against the zone and has assists on 18 of their 25 field goals. In addition, the ‘Cats were outrebounded 41 to 27 and 14 to 9 in offensive boards. While you have to give credit to Drew Crawford for getting 10 rebounds, the center position got just Luka’s one.

While I had to praise Crawford’s rebounding, I’d say his offensive lack of production played a role in NU’s loss. He mustered just three points on 1-of-6 shooting and 1-of-2 free throws. He needs to produce for NU to win and now hasn’t had a good game from behind the arc since his big game vs St. Francis. The positive in the up and down rhythm of Drew Crawford that probably means a big game is coming vs Sparty Monday night. John Shurna didn’t do much either on offense or defense, but I honestly think he was still pretty hurt and I almost wonder why he even played. He especially looked bad a couple times chasing the play when everyone else got back on defense after a missed shot and he seemed to be 10 feet behind the other nine players on the court. Still, I think NU could have won this game and in terms of looking at production from NU’s big three that ‘Cats were more hurt by Juice Thompson’s five turnovers than Crawford’s no-show or Shurna’s ankle based woes. In NU’s two losses this year Thompson has struggled to take care of the ball and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Today, Thompson committed a couple turnovers when NU was making a run in the second half and Purdue cashed in for threes which pretty much ended the game. Juice is NU’s most valuable player and as much as I like John Shurna and Drew Crawford, NU is going to win or lose games based on how Thompson plays. If he can rebound for NU’s next two contests I wouldn’t count an upset as out of the question vs Michigan State or Illinois.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wildcats Prepare to Battle Injuries, Boilermakers in Big Ten Opener

A much anticipated Big Ten season opens for Northwestern on Friday with muted enthusiasm. The Wildcats (9-1) are preparing for a powerful Purdue (12-1) squad uncertain about the status of backup forward Ivan Peljusic, starting guard JerShon Cobb, and starting forward/leading scorer John Shurna. All three have suffered injuries in the last two weeks and all three (but especially Shurna) are critical to NU’s potential Big Ten success. I said early this week that one of the key’s to NU making its first NCAA Tournament was a healthy roster. The latest reports on Shurna were positive, but even if he plays he might not be at full strength. Positive reports have also come out about JerShon Cobb who suffered a hip injury coming into the year and then got slammed to the ground with great force by a St. John’s player which no doubt made the young freshman extremely sore. Teams can (and do) rally when missing starters, but to beat a very talented Purdue team down two starters would be asking an awful lot of a Northwestern team that while possessing some depth, isn’t deep offensively.

Perhaps NU’s best hopes for an upset rest on the fact that Purdue isn’t that deep on offense either. The Boilermakers are a very hard-nosed aggressive defensive team that will overplay and try to create points off turnovers. On offense, though, the Boilers are primarily a two man team. Center JaJuan John scores 20ppg and guard E’Twaun Moore gets 19.5ppg. If you are primarily a two person offense those are two good guys to have as your two, but if someone NU can take one of them out of the flow the Boilers next best scorer NU will see is D.J. Byrd. Byrd only scores 5.7ppg, but did have a big game in Purdue’s win over Michigan which started the Boilers Big Ten season on December 28th. Purdue also got a good game from guard Ryne Smith versus Michigan. It’s hard to know what defense NU will play against Purdue, but if they play the 1-3-1, Coach Matt Painter will no doubt ask Smith (46.3% 3PT) to once again spot up in the corner and look for threes. Moore, of course, is also a solid three point shooter at over 43%, but the rest of the Boilers are not great shooters. Point guard Lewis Jackson makes just 20% of his threes and scores just 4.5ppg. Basically, he gets the ball to Johnson and Moore and he does that well.

If I were Northwestern’s I would really try to work the backdoor cuts vs Purdue’s very aggressive overplaying defense. In order to do that, though, Shurna needs to be healthy because you need to cut quick given how fast and aggressive Purdue is on defense. Once NU gets a few easy backdoors that should open up the three point shot. NU’s three point shooting has been primarily John Shurna (at least as far as true consistency), but NU will need more than him in the Big Ten play. I’d like to see Juice Thompson get more aggressive on offense and Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio more consistently hit jump shots. If those things happen I think NU can pull several Big Ten upsets.

The bottom line going into this game is that Northwestern isn’t healthy and they’re playing a very talented team which can probably take advantage of playing the undermanned ‘Cats. I don’t honestly think Purdue is that much better than Northwestern, but I think once again bad luck has struck the Wildcats at the wrong time. At some point Northwestern basketball has to catch a positive break, but the long list of inconvenient bad luck which seems never to end now seems to have brought a less than 100 hundred percent John Shurna (who when healthy is the Big Ten’s best all around player and would be a major matchup problem for Robbie Hummel-less Purdue) to West Lafayette, Indiana and I suspect Purdue will take advantage of their good luck. I predict: Purdue, 77 Northwestern, 68

Monday, December 27, 2010

Some Thoughts Before Big Ten Play Starts

Big Ten play starts today with Indiana taking on Penn State. With that game being the tip off of Big Ten play I want to offer up a few thoughts on some of the Big Ten’s 11 teams.

Ohio State is the most physically gifted and deepest team, but they haven’t really been challenged yet. I think their talent level will allow them to win the league in the end, but I’d be shocked if their record was better than 15-3.

Michigan State has taken some lumps, but they’ll eventually get it together. I look for the Spartans to once again be the Big Ten’s best postseason team. The question is can teams beat them early in conference play. NU gets two early chances.

Indiana is better than expected, Illinois is worse. If Illinois doesn’t at least dominate in their Assembly Hall Bruce Weber’s detractors will get louder and louder. At Indiana’s Assembly Hall Tom Crean will gain more and more fans as his solid recruiting pays off.

Iowa and Penn State aren’t that good, but can still beat people. The key for NU making the tournament is winning all the games they should—like vs those teams and Michigan (who is better than Iowa and Penn State).

I like what I’ve seen from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I’d say both are (like NU) middle of the pack teams in the league who will move up based on their ability to dominate at home and steal games on the road.

Purdue was written off by some after losing Robbie Hummel and losing to Richmond, but they might be the second best team in the Big Ten and JaJuan Johnson might be the league’s best player.

Friday, December 24, 2010

NU Men’s Hoops Christmas List

Here’s my Christmas list for the Wildcats. If they get these things I think they’ll get the biggest present of all on Selection Sunday.

1) Consistency on Alex Marcotullio and Drew Crawford’s jump shots: If NU’s two sophomore guards can hit somewhere between 35-40% of their threes during the Big Ten season the Wildcats can run the Princeton Offense with four shooters on the court, a combo that allegedly makes the PO nearly impossible to stop.

2) Toughness from Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti: The Big Ten has several talented big men who if the Wildcats can’t contain they’ll be in trouble. To contain those big men the Wildcats need aggressiveness from their two centers. They both played well Thursday and hopefully that’ll carry over.

3) A healthy roster all season: JerShon Cobb has missed two games this year due to injury and now we have John Shurna potentially facing time off the court due to his ankle injury. If NU is going to make the NCAA Tournament they can’t be missing star players when they face top-25 teams.

4) Great fan support at Welsh-Ryan Arena: Good teams win at home and starting January 3rd, 2011 the Wildcats have a collection of tough Big Ten home games. If the crowd shows up and gets loud like they did last year against #6 Purdue I the fans can help push the Wildcats to victory.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Quick Start, Balanced Attack Enough for NU to Beat Mount St. Mary’s

Northwestern is 9-1. I know people wanted to be 10-0 at this point, but I feel good about NU’s 9-1 record going into Big Ten play. What I think is most important is that NU looks very comfortable playing at home. The Wildcats will need to play well at home and pull off a few upsets in Big Ten play to make the NCAA Tournament. Today, the Wildcats continued their home dominance against a Mount St. Mary’s team which while a little weak, isn’t as bad as their 3-10 record looks.

Northwestern started today with a 20-0 run which set the tone for the day. In that run Luka Mirkovic showed up with some of the intensity I’d been hoping for and scored 8 points. For the game Luka scored 15 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and got 3 steals. I know Mount St. Mary’s wasn’t a big team overall, but I really liked what I saw from Luka today, especially because he shot a high percentage at 6-of-7 from the floor. If Luka plays with that same confidence in the Big Ten the Wildcats will have a very good Big Ten season. Even better, to go along with Luka’s 15 points, Davide Curletti scored 11 points and made 5-of-9 shots. That’s a center combo for Northwestern that scored 26 points. That type of production consistently will take NU to the NCAA Tournament.

Other Wildcats in double figures were Drew Crawford who led the team with 16 points, though, he didn’t shoot well from the outside, and John Shurna who scored 13 points, got 8 rebounds, and dished out 8 assists. The scariest thing, though, was Shurna leaving the game with an ankle injury. NU fans will pay close attention to any news on Shurna in the next eight days before the matchup on December 31st against Purdue.

I know most of the talk over the next eight days will be about Shurna, but I personally am going to be worried about Alex Marcotullio’s shot. Alex is a great all around player in terms of defense and his ability to pass as a guard (8 assists against only 2 turnovers today getting the start for an injured JerShon Cobb), but for a guy recruited as a shooter, Alex has been somewhat inconsistent. I’m heartened though by the fact that Craig Moore didn’t really become a great shooter until his junior year. Still, I’d really like if Marcotullio made progress a little quicker and started hitting about 45% of his threes this year in Big Ten play.

I’ll conclude today with a quick note on the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rebounding line like Mike Capocci’s. Capocci recorded five rebounds today, all offensive, including the Wildcats last points of the game which came on a one handed tip dunk. I truly believe he’ll play a role during NU’s Big Ten season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wildcats Back in Action Thursday Afternoon

The Wildcats take the floor with an 8-1 record Thursday afternoon against Mount St. Mary’s. NU’s loss Thursday was depressing, but the ‘Cats have a great chance to move to 9-1 and regain at least some momentum Thursday in their final game before conference play starts. This will also likely be the only game all season Coach Bill Carmody wears a tie as I suspect we’ll see the reappearance of the undefeated Carmody Christmas tie. Personally as successful as that tie has been if I were Carmody I might break it out for games during the non-Christmas season as well.

Mount St. Mary’s has struggled to a 3-9 record this year and just lost to American University whom NU beat easily just under a week ago. That said Mount St. Mary’s hasn’t been terrible against BCS competition. They lost to Cincinnati by just 10 and lost to Penn State by just three. NU is obvisouly the better squad, but those numbers show they can’t just show up and expect to win. Hopefully, NU learned that lesson Tuesday night. Not that I think NU just expected to hammer St. John’s, but I think NU clearly played their “B” or “C” game and showed just how mortal they are when they don’t fire on all cylinders. I hope such an experience wakes NU up and causes them to play with intensity every night. Of course, the player who most needs to do that is Luka Mirkovic. I don’t usually think it’s a good idea for players to read the press, message boards, or crazy people like me who take time from their everyday life to write pages worth of detail on inconsequential college basketball games, but I hope Luka saw all the crap people wrote about him in the last two days. Actually, I have to say I think I might have been the kindest (and I don’t recall being that kind). Some nut on wrote Luka would by a good junior high role player. I know the person meant it mostly in jest, but my best friend is junior high hoops coach and he assures me Luka would start for his team and probably lead them in all offensive categories. I also know that I WAS a junior high role player and I’m pretty such Luka could take me in a game of one-on-one.

Kidding aside, I want Luka to get pissed off and motivated to do some damage not just Thursday against a Mount St. Mary’s team who doesn’t have a starter bigger than 6-8, but against all the rest of NU’s opponents. I mean if people were saying that crap about me I’d be so pumped to play that other players on both sides would be taking their lives in their hands if they got between me and rebounds. I don’t know if Luka really has that type of personality, but I hope he does and I hope someone tells him JaJuan Johnson or Jared Sullinger was the guy on NU’s message board who suggested he go back to junior high.

As far as Mount St. Mary’s they’re a fairly young team with two freshmen and one sophomore starting. One of freshmen Julian Norfleet is one of three players who averages double figures. A 6-2 guard, Norfleet gets 10.1 ppg. Probably Mount St. Mary’s most physical player is 6-7 220-pound senior Shawn Atupem. He scores 11.1 and grabs 4.9 rebounds per game. The final double figure scoring guy is 5-11 point guard Lamar Tice, he leads the team in points (13ppg) and assists (43) and comes close to Atupem in rebounds (4.0rpg). I think he’ll be interesting guy to watch play. I’m also interested to see if 6-9 forward Kristijan Krajina gets any time. He’s been out also season with an ankle injury, but Mount St. Mary’s game notes give the impression he might be back vs NU. If he is back, he’ll be the Mountaineers biggest player and will likely contest with Luka for rebounds.

The bottom line here is that Northwestern should be a heavy favorite to win this game. The only problem is the odd start time and only a day of rest after back-to-back games in New York. I think that’ll have some factor, but I also think NU is going to be a motivated group after Tuesday. I predict Northwestern, 77 Mount St. Mary’s, 60

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Streak Busted: St. John’s Hammers NU 85-69

The less said about this game probably the better. There is a difference between “losing” and “getting beat” and Northwestern didn’t “get beat” by St. John’s tonight. They lost. Sure, NU hasn’t faced the best competition, but the fact is that other than maybe the UTPA game they played better in every game than tonight.

Tonight NU played poor defense (allowed SJU to make 80% of their 2nd half shots), especially inside in the second half, didn’t shoot well from the field or the foul line, and couldn’t take care of the ball. If NU had played a good high school team they might have lost tonight. Other than John Shurna posting 28 points most of this game was forgettable other than as a learning experience for NU’s players and coaches and since I’m not one of them I’m just going to chose to forget it.

The player that I guess has to learn the most is Luka Mirkovic who just got used and abused by St. John’s big guys. He did manage to end up with 9 rebounds, but scored just two points and missed what seemed like countless short shots while allowing St. John’s to make a whole collection of easy inside buckets. I don’t know what else to say about Luka. He’s probably the key to NU’s Big Ten success, but if he plays like he did tonight NU might struggle to get 5 or 6 wins. Of course, it’s not just Luka. When he has an off night Davide Curletti is supposed to step up, but the big man from Michigan scored just one point tonight (1-of-4 free throws) and wasn’t a factor on the glass.

NU also suffered from losing Juice Thompson to foul trouble in the first half which caused an early 10 point NU lead to disappear. In the end Thompson scored 13 points, but never found a rhythm. I don’t think I’ve seen Juice look so off and out of sorts on offense in a very long time. Drew Crawford wasn’t much better. Crawford scored 17 points, but he left another 17 points on the board thanks to a poor shooting night.

NU plays again Thursday. Hopefully we'll see a much better effort.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Garden Party! Wildcat Shake Off Slow Starts to Each Half to Post 31 Point Win Over St. Francis

I want to start this post with a thank you to Drew Crawford for making me look good. I said after Crawford’s solid all-around but relatively low scoring game vs American I expected a big game from the sophomore tonight and he more than delivered that. Crawford finished tonight with 25 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists. He called the game “team effort” in a postgame interview, but it was pretty clear that it was Crawford who helped NU hang early when St. Francis got off to a fast early start. It was also great to see Drew have his best game of the season with his father Danny in attendance. Drew said his dad told him, “Be confident and have fun” before he went out to play and it sure looked like Drew followed his advice. I was impressed with Drew’s confidence on turnaround jumpers inside the arc and it is very noticeable how accurate he is from deep when he has time to get his feet set. If Drew and his teammates follow Danny’s advice all year I suspect the Wildcats will have a truly special season.

Along with Crawford, NU got double figures from three other starters. John Shurna once again posted a big game with 26 points, Juice Thompson netted 14 points and JerShon Cobb chipped in with his third double-figure game on the season by adding 11 points. I was impressed with how Thompson and Shurna not only hit outside shots, but also scored inside. Both players are great shooters, but it seems to me the Wildcats are at their best when John and Juice get inside points to help open up the outside game. Both players also did a good job taking care of the ball after NU’s slow start. NU turned the ball over just once in the second half and Thompson for the game had five assists and only one turnover. I also felt Shurna was very active inside and probably added to the rebound totals of his teammates by helping keep balls alive.

JerShon Cobb was solid outside hitting both of his three point attempts and making 3-of-4 free throws. That’s critical because with Cobb’s ability to get to the hoop he could become a guy that can draw fouls and make a living at the line.

Though he didn’t post a lot of points Alex Marcotullio was once again a key player for NU on defense. Bill Carmody said “Marcotullio did a real nice job at the top [of the 1-3-1]” and that’s high praise from Carmody. Evidence of Alex’s solid play was the limited minutes from Jeff Ryan as Coach Carmody really relied on the sophomore guard’s defensive efforts. WGN radio analyst Shon Morris praised the sophomore guard for his unselfishness on a play when he had a breakaway, but feed John Shurna for a slam.

NU’s most obvious weakness is the inside game. The good of tonight was Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti combining for 12 points and 10 rebounds. Bill Carmody has said that if those guys post a combined double-double NU will win and that held true to tonight. Still, I think NU needs to get more production from inside. Most of Curletti’s points came late in the game and Luka was his typical relatively unaggressive away from Welsh-Ryan self. Somehow Luka needs to find a way to get tough, fight inside, hold on to the ball, and covert on short shots. When you shot virtually every shot from five feet or less you shouldn’t shoot less than 50% from the field. If NU can’t grab more rebounds to limit opponents’ second chances and can’t get convert more short looks from their centers the Big Ten will be tough.

Overall, Northwestern won this game because once again they proved they’re an amazingly explosive offensive team. The game seemed close in the second half and then suddenly a couple mistakes from St. Francis and it was a 20 and then 30 point game. That explosiveness on offense will be critical as no matter whom NU faces tomorrow they’ll face a more physical team that perhaps they can get tried if they start a running game.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Johnny “Cash” and the Wildcats Ready to Play MSG

Johnny "Cash" Shurna broke out during last year's in-season tournament at UIC

Northwestern is heading the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival for the first time since the late 1960s when they went 1-2 in what was then an eight team event. They’re heading to Madison Square Garden for the first time since a loss to Fordham in 2001. I’m excited about this event and Johnny “Cash” Shurna getting to take his game to “the world’s most famous arena”, but I’m weary given the ‘Cats past history. I have believed for eight years that the 2001 loss to Fordham is what kept the ‘Cats out of the 2001-02 NIT despite their 16-13 overall record. I think the selection committee, based in New York, looked at NU’s schedule, saw a loss to Fordham, and basically said, “Well, Fordham is no good and Northwestern lost to them, so we don’t want them in our tournament.” Now, the truth is events from the past don’t play a role in deciding current games so I shouldn’t let such nonsense worry me. So let’s move on.

Instead, I’ll let the fact that Northwestern’s only challenge in their 7-0 record came on the road at Texas-Pan American worry me. Now, certainly New York, New York is far more accessible than Edinburg, Texas, but the road was tough for NU last year. That’s why the ‘Cats current 2-0 mark in true road games is so significant even if the wins were over Northern Illinois and UTPA. Still, I think we can all agree that NU isn’t losing to Mount St. Mary’s or SIU-Edwardsville which basically means that NU’s potential 11-0 non-conference mark goes on the line Monday and (hopefully) Tuesday.

NU’s opener Monday is against St. Francis (NY) who sits at 6-3 overall this season. They have two players named Akeem both from New York who star for them. Akeem Bennett is a 6-3 guard who has started all nine games and is the team leader in points (16.3ppg) and rebounds (6.1rpg). He’s also a very good three point shooter at 43% overall and has made 6-of-7 in the two Northeast Conference games St. Francis (2-0) has already played. Akeem Johnson is 6-6 forward who is force off the bench at 12.0ppg and 5.9rpg. He makes 60% of his field goals, but only converts 55.3% of his free throws. Perhaps that’s what limits him to around 22 minutes a contest. The other St. Francis (NY) player who averages double figures is Ricky Cadell. Cadell’s another solid shooter at 45.5% overall and 41.5% from three. The major chink in his amour is his 1-to-2.2 assist to turnover ratio. Actually, as a team St. Francis has more turnovers than assists. That means it’ll be critical for NU to apply pressure defense whether in the 1-3-1 or the matchup zone JerShon Cobb, Alex Marcotullio and Jeff Ryan need to keep starting offense by getting their hands on balls and creating turnovers. If NU manages to do that they’ll have a chance at another very solid win. The crowd could be pro-St. Francis as they are a local school, but I’d suspect the majority of the fans in attendance will by St. Johns fans waiting for their game to start. This is actually a good simulation for the Big Ten Tournament when NU often plays in a half-empty NBA arena with no atmosphere at all. One more worry is that in such places sometimes shooting is tough, but I’m thinking John Shurna could make shots pretty much anywhere.

I don’t want to say too much about the Tuesday game because we really don’t know who NU will play. The odds favor St. Johns (5-3) over Davidson (5-4). St. Johns is the home team, they’ve got a deeper roster, and they already who the Great Alaska Shootout so they’re tournament tested (remember when the Great Alaska Shootout was THE preseason event). Even given those facts, Davidson is a very solid program and could spring the upset. If you’re going to attend and stick around to watch that game or stay tuned in on the MSG Network, if you can, then watch 6-7 forward Justin Brownlee of St. John’s who converts 59.2% of his shots for 13.6 ppg and 6-10 center Jake Cohen of Davidson who averages 14.7 and 6.7 that’ll be an intriguing matchup. Also, checkout the sidelines for former Purdue head coach Gene Keady who is an advisor for new St. John’s head man Steve Lavin.

I predict: Northwestern, 77 St. Francis (NY), 62

I’ll save game two predictions till I see game one from all four squads. I will say, though, I think NU will get tested in game two no matter whom they face.
Note: NU will be withour forward Ivan Peljusic due to an appendectomy. If his spot in the rotation comes up look for guard Nick Fruendt.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

20/20 Vision for John and Juice: Shurna nets 28 and Thompson 23 in Wildcats Seventh Consecutive Win

Northwestern won tonight’s game 78-62 and while it wasn’t always pretty, it was a very solid win. American University hung with the ‘Cats in the first half (NU held a 38-34 halftime advantage) and early in the second, but NU pulled away in the second half to cruise to a comfortable lead and eventual victory. NU used some nice pressure defense in their man-to-man and matchup zone defenses to get that lead. I thought NU would play more 1-3-1 coming into this game, but it wasn’t terribly effective when NU did play it early and Coach Bill Carmody said after the game he’d told the ‘Cats at halftime, “we’re not going to that 1-3-1 defense” as he knows they’ll need other defenses to be effective in the Big Ten. In NU’s second half matchup and man defenses Carmody credited the play of Alex Marcotullio and Jeff Ryan for making things happen. It’s impressive to watch those two play defense, whatever the style. They both are adept at tipping balls away and slowing down an offense’s momentum. As a result, they both often mange to start fast breaks for the ‘Cats and while it’s not usually them who scores, they deserve as much credit for many of NU’s points as the guys who actually get them in the scorebook.

Carmody also said that center Luka Mirkovic was “terrific tonight” and I have to agree. I said last time out Luka wasn’t aggressive enough, but he brought his aggressive side tonight. He got a ton of tough two hand rebounds and scored 11 points, most importantly converting 5-of-6 free throws. I still think Coach Carmody needs to get out the blocking pads in practice and start hammering Luka as he tries to make layups so he learns to finish at the rim, but if he can make foul shots and get rebounds he’ll be a solid contributor all year. Monday night should be a good test of consistency as Luka hasn’t had a lot of big games away from the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan.

Drew Crawford had some foul trouble early and only scored 4 points, but he really had a very nice game. Coach Carmody said Drew, “passed the ball exceptionally well” and the numbers prove that out with 5 assists and 0 turnovers for the sophomore. I’ll also say right now that I expect Crawford to have a big scoring game Monday vs St. Francis. Drew showed last year that he’d often precede a really big scoring game with a very solid all-around game that wasn’t necessarily huge in the scoring column, but that helped NU win.

Now, I’ve kind of worked backwards in my praise as obviously the two biggest starts of the game were John Shurna and Juice Thompson. Shurna scored 28 points on 9-of-14 from the field and 7-of-8 from the charity strip. It was great to see the extra work Shurna put in on free throws paid off tonight. Of course, Shurna made a wide variety of shots, but probably the most memorable were a 35-foot three as the shot clock ran down and his last bucket a running one hander on the baseline. Both were spectacular shots. People all across Big Ten country are debating just how good Shurna is or will become. Personally, I think he’s certainly the most consistent scorer in the league right now, but (and these two don’t always go together) he may also be the most explosive. It’s amazing how many points Shurna can put up in short order and how many different ways he can get them.

Juice Thompson scored 23 points and when American locked down Shurna for a stretch thanks to some solid play by Charles Hinkle, Juice stepped up. Thompson made 4-of-6 threes tonight and did a really good job attacking the basket as well. Unlike the Long Island game were Thompson was almost exclusively a perimeter player, he scored half of his baskets inside the arc tonight.

The only major critical issue I want to bring up tonight is one I’ve had for awhile. Bill Carmody is excellent at setting up out of bounds plays, but NU is consistently terrible with the ball in the last possession of the first half. Why is this? Because Carmody doesn’t use a timeout in order to setup a play and inevitably everybody stands around until about 3 second are left on the clock and then Thompson or Shurna forces a shot. This makes no sense to me. You only get to carry four timeouts to the second half anyway. Why wouldn’t you use the non-carry over TO if you got it in order to setup a play? Especially if setting up plays is your best/favorite skill in the world. I’d really like to know.

Overall, though, this game was a solid positive and I look forward to seeing the ‘Cats play in the world’s most famous arena early next week.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wildcats Face Potential Tournament Team in American U.

Let’s be honest, Northwestern’s non-conference basketball schedule isn’t that tough. The ‘Cats are 6-0 currently and will be favored to go 11-0 in non-Big Ten (or B1G) games during the rest of the regular season. With that schedule, NU really won’t get to post many wins they’ll use to impress tournament selection committees. Without any big name non-conference wins, NU needs to find a way to justify its non-conference schedule and one way to do that is to look at the number of teams NU plays that do make the postseason. Teams such Creighton, Georgia Tech, and Long Island have legitimate hopes of making some postseason. Those might not be great wins, but at least when a committee looks at NU’s record against teams who are in the postseason those wins will help. American University falls into the same category for NU. The Eagles will not be a top-25 team at any point this season. However, they have a legitimate shot at a Patriot League title and an NCAA bid. They would likely be a #15 or #16-seed (at least one projection has them as a #16-seed facing Duke in their tourney opener), but they’d be in the Big Dance and thus beating them is as significant as anything else NU might do during the non-conference season. Plus, this game is on real TV on the BTN as opposed to streaming video so more causal fans can watch. That’s potentially good for generating a positive impression in the college basketball world at large if the ‘Cats play well again.

Another reason this game against American U has value for NU is that the Eagles have big man with skill in Vlad Moldoveanu. The 6-9 forward scores 20.3 a game and grabs 5.6 rpg. He’s also a decent three point shooter at 31.2% and knocks down 75% of his free throws. Basically, he’s an all-around good player and facing him should test NU’s centers the same way facing Creighton’s Kenny Lawson Jr. did. I have to say that NU’s duo of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti came through against Lawson so I hope they come through versus big Vlad. That Wildcat duo is maddeningly inconsistent and can’t be so if NU wants to do anything in the Big Ten. Overall at this point I’ve probably been more impressed with backup Davide Curletti than starter Mirkovic. Curletti always seems to be hustling and trying to play hard, he just sometimes seems to have trouble with playing foul-free defense. He’s a lot more confident than he was the last two years as he’s now not worried about shooting a three or making a post move. Luka on the other hand seems to be too easily discouraged by bad results. He’s reluctant to take shots if he doesn’t have success early and doesn’t consistently hit the glass or play defense aggressively. Mirkovic was a highly regarded recruit who has shown flashes, but he needs to really step up if NU has any chance of making the Big Dance.

If American wants to make the Big Dance they need more than just Vlad which is why University of Georgia transfer Troy Brewer is perhaps the Eagles key player. Brewer is legit with BCS credentials as he scored 12 points in the 2008 SEC Championship game as a freshman to lead Georgia to the Big Dance. So far this season he’s hitting for 13.6ppg and knocking down 38.8% of his threes. The one weakness he has is more turnovers than assists. With Brewer and Vlad being AU’s only players making over 30% of their threes I’d look for coach Carmody to drop NU into the 1-3-1 early. I know he wants to work on the matchup/switching man, but Carmody has to see that NU hustles more in the 1-3-1 and this Eagle team seems like a perfect team to play that zone against. The Eagles third leading scorer helps argue the point. Stephen Lumpkins scores 12.4 ppg, hasn’t tried a three all year, and has more turnovers than assist. If NU does play 1-3-1 AU will try to get shooting from the sub-30% three point trio of Daniel Munoz, Nick Bersch, and Nick Hendra. All three are regarded as potential shooters, but their numbers don’t show success. Hendra and Munoz are the team’s best ball handlers though and I’d expect them to be the guys under initial pressure against NU’s zone.

Statistically despite AU being a top team in their league NU should dominate this contest, but I’m a bit worried about how NU’s centers will handle Moldoveanu. Can Luka and Davide really shut down such a player? They did stop Kenny Lawson Jr. Therefore, I’d like to think they can even if NU’s interior defense in their last game was terrible. It’s also worth noting that despite a 5-3 record AU has lost their last three overall and their last two against BCS teams by 21 and 19 points respectively. I also think you’ll actually see NU play better on offense than they did versus LIU, despite the fact they shot 50% overall. That means this probably is another pretty solid win for the ‘Cats which is good as they wrap up this home stand and get ready to play in New York. I predict: Northwestern, 85 American, 64

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wildcats Survive Rust and Late LIU Comeback Attempt to Post Sixth Win

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said after the game his team played “decently” in their 81-65 win over Long Island. That description seems apt to me as I wasn’t overly impressed walking away from tonight’s contest, but I it certainly didn’t fall in the category of a “non-loss” as opposed to win as some other past NU non-conference games over the years have.

Basically, NU used an outstanding game from John Shurna (as long as he wasn’t at the free throw line), a good start from JerShon Cobb, okay defense on the perimeter resulting in nine steals, and a few highlight reel plays from Drew Crawford and Juice Thompson to get away with tonight’s victory in spite of shooting just 13-of-25 from the free throw line and playing what Carmody called “not good” interior defense.

After not playing for 13 days rust is almost always a factor. I watched Ohio State return to action after a long break recently and I think the ‘Cats played a better game tonight than the Buckeyes when took the court after the end of their finals vs IUPUI. That said, if not for JerShon Cobb starting off the game with two early threes and a two, NU would have started very slowly. Thankfully, NU parleyed Cobb’s nice start into an early lead after LIU jumped ahead in the games opening moments. Cobb finished the day 4-of-9 overall, but made 3-of-4 threes, dished out 3 assists to only 1 turnover and set a new career-high with 12 points. If not for picking up early fouls he might have done more.

Fouls were a problem for Northwestern as they committed 14 in the first half. If Long Island wasn’t nearly as bad as Northwestern from the line the game might have been closer. LIU made just 16-of-30 free throws. They also helped NU by committing 15 turnovers while only dishing out 9 assists. Basically, LIU played offense by driving to the basket and trying to get fouled. NU, on the other hand, did execute the Princeton Offense very well at times and finished the game with 24 assists on 29 made field goals. That’s assists on 83% of the team’s made shots which is a sure signal the Princeton Offense is working. The best play in my mind was when John Shurna tossed a backdoor alley-op to Drew Crawford. It showed me that Shurna is as good of passer as he is shooter and that NU isn’t afraid to incorporate their explosiveness into their regular sets. After all, the play was simply a backdoor play that Tim Doyle might have tossed to Craig Moore except that with Crawford as the recipient the play can take place above the rim and become much tougher to spot. That’ll be huge in Big Ten play.

Speaking of Shurna and Crawford, both had good moments and bad moments in this game. Shurna’s 10-of-11 from the field for 26 points along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists with a number of highlight reel shots and dunks are hard to complain about, but his 4-of-10 free throw shooting cost him a 30-point night (which could be huge in his battle for the league scoring title) and might have made a big difference in a closer game. Crawford had two big dunks tonight as both the above mentioned alley-op and a put-back slam brought the crowd to its feet. However, I also saw a lot of forcing shots in his 4-of-16 shooting night. One thing I think Crawford could learn from Shurna is to let the game come to him a bit. Early on Shurna wasn’t getting shots, but he was still finding a way to win by setting up Cobb and Thompson for baskets. On the other hand, Crawford seemed anxious to get going and settled for some bad looks. I’ve seen this tendency in Crawford to get hungry for points more so than pretty much any of his teammates. I think he needs to watch what Shurna does on film and see that on a team with Shurna, Thompson, Cobb, and even guys who can heat up like Alex Marcotullio, Luka Mirkovic, and Davide Curletti that forcing shots isn’t what anybody needs to do.

Part of the credit for this game being kind of close has to go to LIU’s offensive approach which was very aggressive. NU played mostly the matchup zone/switching man-to-man, but again revealed major weaknesses in defending penetration. Somehow, NU needs to learn how to move their feet and when to move and help a player who gets beat. As a result of LIU’s approach both Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti hit early foul trouble. Curletti probably had the better day with 7 points and 2 rebounds to Luka’s 2 points and 6 rebounds, though, neither probably felt great about tonight. In Luka’s case, I think he has the opposite problem of Crawford. Luka is often times very unaggressive and doesn’t seem to really attack the glass. Personally, if I were Bill Carmody I think could care less if Mirkovic ever scored, but I believe I’d find myself nearly in tears begging him to get consistently aggressive attacking the boards and playing defense. Carmody even said after the game that NU’s poor inside defense “didn’t bode well” for facing 6-9 American University dynamo Vlad Moldoveanu who scores about 22 points a game.

That’s Thursday, though. Right now, I think NU needs to go home, feel good about being 6-0 for 12 hours or so, and then comeback to the gym tomorrow morning and work on free throw shooting, and playing help defense in order to get ready for American University.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wildcat Return to Court after Finals

Northwestern is back in action Monday night hosting 6-3 Long Island. It’ll be NU’s first game since defeating Georgia Tech back on November 30th in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. At 5-0 the Wildcats were off to a hot start and I certainly hope the long layoff doesn’t harm their momentum. This is a scary game, though, as LIU isn’t a total cupcake and as a jump shooting team rhythm is a key to NU’s success. They won’t have a safety net a la Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger who can score 40 points inside if the team is cold from outside thanks to the long break.

If NU doesn’t slump numbers would indicate a high scoring affair. Long Island averages 81.1 points per game and NU has already shown that posting 90 is almost routine for these Wildcats. It’s a shame the game won’t be live on TV, but only live on-line at The game will be rebroadcast on the BTN at 4PM CT on Tuesday, but I doubt anybody will try to live in a vacuum in order not to learn the score until then.

In order to score those 81.1 points per game LIU averages four players in double-figures and shoots 34.1% from three. This might be a game in which NU will try to stay away from the 1-3-1 defense and work more on the matchup and switching man-to-man that Coach Carmody has repeatedly said will be critical for the Big Ten season. LIU’s best player is 6-5 guard Kyle Johnson. Johnson hits a high percentage from three (48.8%) and hits the boards hart (6.1 rpg).6-7 Julian Boyd was the best scorer in his teams win over Lafayette last time out with 23 points. For the season he’s a near double-double with 12.4ppg and 8.4 rpg. He does have somewhat of a chink in his amour, though, as he’s only a 63% free throw shooter and he does get to the line a fair amount. It’ll be interesting to see how the Wildcats defend him. NU has actually done better than expected when facing challenging big men this year. Another 6-7 player for LIU is Jamal Olasewere. He’s at 12.2 and 5.9 per game. Amazingly, despite all their players high rebound totals LIU is actually outrebounded on average. However, they still do pull down 41-plus a game so you can what type of pace they play at. The guy who sets that pace is C.J. Garner. He’s a 5-10 sparkplug who is similar to NU’s Juice Thompson. The major difference between the two is that Garner isn’t a three point shooter (only has taken two all year) he prefers to attack the basket or put the ball in the hands of other shooters as he has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Overall, this game may present more of a challenge to NU than some might expect. The long layoff, lack of a crowd thanks to no students, NU’s dependence on outside shootings, and LIU’s offensive talent make this seem like a potentially close game. I think Northwestern will be able to pull out a victory (and I actually think they’ll shoot pretty well), but I think it’ll stay closer longer than people expect. I predict: Northwestern, 83 LIU, 75

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Way to Early Look at NU’s NCAA Tournament Chances

One recent projection of the NCAA Tournament field had Northwestern in the Big Dance as #9-seed. That’s very exciting, but the truth is NU has a massively long way to go if they want to make the school’s first trip to March Madness. The good news is thanks a very strong Big Ten schedule Northwestern will get the opportunity to do that work. The bad news is it could take a lot of work and most of it will have to wait till the new year.

Right now Northwestern is sitting at #94 in the latest RPI rankings. NU has been steadily dropping over the past few days. Some of that is from the ‘Cats not playing, but some is from simply playing teams who aren’t going to be listed as quality wins come March. One of the ways the committee ranks teams is their record against the top-50 and the top-100 RPI rated teams. Currently, Northwestern is 0-0 against that group. They’re 1-0 and against the top-150 with a win over #137 Georgia Tech. This isn’t meant to be negative, but it is meant to make sure we as fans understand where we are right now. The majority of Northwestern opponents so far this season have been rated below #150 nationally. Their next opponent, Long Island, currently sits at #196. The next, American University, is #172. Essentially, unless some of NU’s past opponents pull some upsets then the ‘Cats might win and still slip in the RPI.

In terms of the pre-Big Ten season the game NU needs to target is the expected matchup versus St. Johns on December 21st. The Red Storm currently sit at RPI spot #24 and that will be NU’s third legit road game on the year. Were it not for NU having recorded 40% of their wins on the road thus far this season they might not be in the top-100 of the RPI themselves. Thankfully, the wins over #281 NIU and #319 UTPA aren’t as meaningless as the might have been because they did come on the road.

Bottom line, though, when it comes to Selection Sunday unless NU wins the Big Ten Tournament they probably need at least six (and maybe more) wins over top-100 in order to just be considered for the NCAA Tournament. A win over St. Johns would give the ‘Cats one. That means would need to record at least five major upsets in Big Ten and probably get to an overall Big Ten record of 10-8 or at worst 9-9. That’s possible, but it’ll be tough. The good news is that the league’s difficulty increases NU’s chance of gaining respect even if they finish just .500 overall in league play. The bad news getting to .500 may be tough. The Big Ten is the #3 rated conference right now, but that’ll go up once league play starts. Especially if a team like Indiana becomes a surprise success as I think they might become. Essentially to see NU’s name in the NCAA Tournament bracket I think we need to hope that not only do the ‘Cats do their job with a number of upsets starting in late December and running till early March, but that teams like Creighton (currently #162) and Georgia Tech pull themselves together and pull some upsets themselves to make NU’s wins over them look good.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cobb Brings Right Attitude to Northwestern Hoops

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald at times this season lamented the fact he couldn’t have 22 Dan Persa’s on his team. His comment wasn’t a slap at the rest of his starters, but simply an honest statement of fact his quarterback brought a special combination of fearlessness and self-confidence to the field every game which is often lacked by even the best of players. As I listened to Fitzgerald make this comment a couple times I wondered who (if anyone) on NU’s basketball roster had something like Persa’s unique makeup. I eventually decided that Michael “Juice” Thompson was the guy. After all, playing in the Big Ten at very generous 5-10 and battling against bigger players while playing defense on the bottom of the 1-3-1 zone takes a special kind of toughness (or creativeness if you believe the player survey that had Juice as the Big Ten’s dirtiest player). I still think Juice is pretty good example of Persa-like basketball player, but I also think NU now has another Persa-type guy in JerShon Cobb.

“When I get there we’re not going to be trying make it, we’re going to be trying win it.” – JerShon Cobb on NU and the NCAA Tournament

Last year after Northwestern started the year with a slew of impressive non-conference wins, checked in with Cobb as he started his senior season of high school. They asked Cobb what he thought of the ‘Cats chances of making the tournament. Cobb showed no doubt that the Wildcats would make the dance—probably showing far more confidence than most fans and maybe some members of last year’s team. From that moment I knew I was going to love the kid's attitude. He possessed the same type of belief without evidence that Gary Barnett had when he coached the Wildcats to their first Big Ten title in football in over 60 years during the 1995 season. While the ‘Cats didn’t end up making the tournament last year, Cobb won his second Georgia State Championship with Columbia High School and joined a long line of college and NBA starts as the Atlanta-area Player of the Year. Those two events pretty much clinched my belief that when JerShon arrived NU would be getting a special player.

"I always knew I chose the right school. There was never a doubt in my mind."– JerShon Cobb when asked if NU’s win over Georgia Tech justified his choice of school.

Then Cobb arrived on campus and suffered through injury early this season. He then saw limited playing in NU’s win over Creighton and felt the natural frustration of a high school star in a reduced role. Thankfully, though, he at least felt healthy. It was finally in NU’s game against his hometown team, Georgia Tech, that Cobb was able to put his confidence and his health together and have a big game. He kept NU in the contest early with some impressive hoops and played solid defense all night. Eventually, he earned praise from ESPN for his “smooth game”. After the game the media asked whether the NU victory gave him validation of his college choice. His response was perfect. So many people it seems want to talk about way NU can’t recruit elite players. They try to place blame on Bill Carmody or Welsh-Ryan Arena or any number of other failings with NU’s coaching staff or administration. I think the honest is reason, though, is that 16 or 17 year old kids are fearful of going to a program that doesn’t have tradition and potentially not winning. These are kids and most of them don’t possess the confidence in themselves to get over the potential fear of getting labeled as going to a “loser”. Georgia Tech had one of those kids in Iman Shumpert, an Illinois kid who said he was worried NU wouldn’t surround him with enough talent. Players NU lost out on in recruiting last Spring most likely had the same fear, but JerShon Cobb came to NU with only confidence. Confidence in himself and his vision of the future of Northwestern basketball. That confidence to ignore what others say and believe in oneself isn’t something many people his age have. Dan Persa had it and succeeded despite a so-so offensive line and running game. JerShon Cobb actually has way more talent (and probably confidence) around him then Persa did. That’s why I know I can say Northwestern is going to the NCAA Tournament in the near future and when it happens I know JerShon Cobb will be able to say he never doubted it would happen, because like Persa he doesn’t play worried he’ll lose, he plays knowing he’s going to win.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tech Wrecked: Wildcats Win by 20 and Take One for the Big Ten

“If they (Northwestern) shoot like that they’ll make the Final Four.” – Karl Ravech

The above quote was said at halftime of the ESPN2 broadcast of tonight’s game and I think it pretty much sums up my feelings. I honestly think NU still has a number of areas that need improvement, but if you aren’t impressed with the way the Wildcats shoot the basketball, well, then put simply, you must be awfully difficult to please. NU’s 55-point first half was actually better in terms of offensive execution than their very impressive first half against Creighton. I would suspect that any opposing coach who watches that tape will be beyond perplexed at how to defend as NU as the ‘Cats got great production not only from Drew Crawford and John Shurna, but also from JerShon Cobb, Alex Marcotullio and a number of others.

Obviously, John Shurna played his usual solid game. He finished the day with 21 Pts, 1 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 Stl, 2 Blk. That total of 21 points will actually lower his average, but like a number of Wildcats he has only himself to blame as even Shurna, a solid free throw shooter, struggled from the charity strip tonight making only 3-of-6 freebies.

As good as Shurna was, it was Drew Crawford (19 Pts, 6 Rebs, 3 Ast, 3 Stl) and JerShon Cobb who really stepped up early for NU and set the tone. Georgia Tech actually started off quick with a big dunk from Glen Rice Jr. and the ‘Cats found themselves in a hole. When that happened, both Crawford and Cobb made tough shots to ignite a Wildcat run that to be perfectly honest continued all the way until the break. Bill Carmody mentioned Cobb wasn’t too happy with his limited playing time Sunday night, and to be honest I was worried about the youngster's confidence if Coach Carmody decided to go with Jeff Ryan or Mike Capocci in that spot, but after tonight I suspect Cobb is happy and I feel happy for him. Like Crawford last year, it seems to have taken a little time for Cobb to get totally comfortable and healthy, but he brought out an assortment of moves tonight which show why he’s got a great future. His second basket of the game, a reverse layup after a lighting-quick drive, needs to make every highlight reel of this game and this season. Cobb finished with a career-high 10 points as well as 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Most importantly, though, he likely found a comfort level which will carry him into the rest of the season.

Before the game reader Mikey K said NU needed a big game from Crawford and I have to give him credit for that observation. Without Crawford hitting tough shots early I think things could have gone bad quickly. Crawford also had an under the radar big play in the second half when he took the ball to the hole hard for two after Georgia Tech got a dunk and seemed to gain some momentum.

Together Crawford, Cobb, and a much more aggressive than ever Juice Thompson are giving NU more players than ever before who can get the ball to the hoop and finish on their own. That doesn’t even include John Shurna who might not be as quick off the dribble as those three, but who also goes to the rack with authority when he sees the opening.

NU made 12-of-19 threes tonight and some major credit needs to go to Alex Marcotullio who made 4-of-4, including one he converted into a 4-point play after sinking a shot while drawing a foul. Coach Bill Carmody was actually most impressed with Marcotullio’s only non-three point field goal saying that Alex, “threw in a runner on the baseline ala Tim Doyle,” when talking with Doyle postgame on WGN.

In my ideal vision of this season Marcotullio is the guy off the bench who can bring NU instant offense and he showed up big time in that role tonight. He also (along with Jeff Ryan and Cobb) provided his usual solid defense atop NU’s 1-3-1 zone. NU played both the switching man and the 1-3-1, but Georgia Tech’s aggressive style made playing the 1-3-1 and almost goading Tech into driving into the middle of the defense where NU could collapse and force a mistake a better option for the ‘Cats tonight.

Some other big plays tonight came from Juice Thompson who had 14 points and 4 assists. Those assists gave him 403 for his career. The NU record is 452 by Patrick Baldwin (the point guard on the last NU team to go 5-0 and to win a postseason game). Also, Luka Mirkovic was credited by Coach Carmody as being “terrific” tonight. If you eliminate the skill of free throw shooting, where Luka went 3-of-7, I agree. Luka played well on defense (7 defensive rebounds), was spectacular as a passer (a team leading 7 assists), and attacked the basket in one-on-one situations well enough to score 11 points. When combined with Davide Curletti (who didn’t play as much because Luka did play so well) NU’s center’s posted a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. With Luka’s 7 assists, they barely missed a triple-double. I’d bet anything Carmody would take those numbers from that spot every night. Also of note is that thanks to the effort of those two centers, and some solid shooting, NU outrebounded Tech 32-28.

Really, I have only two major criticisms after tonight. First, NU still has a number of players who get beat off the dribble simply because they don’t get low in a defensive position and move their feet. Second, unless they plan to shoot 64.6% from the field every night (which would fine) NU can’t only shot 56.7% from the free throw line. Think about that—NU almost was 10% better from the field. They were if you take out a few late game heaves from the bench players.

One other note, the attendance of 4455 isn’t awful for an NU home game, but the crowd could be much better. It could also look a lot better on TV if people in the purple seats decided to show up. It’s really bad when the announcers are in close-up and behind them are only empty seats. I really think NU needs to start to find a way to move the season ticket holders who show up every game but are either in the upper level or the bleachers over to the better seats which are almost always unoccupied.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Northwestern Needs to Build on Momentum from Creighton Win Against Georgia Tech

If Northwestern (4-0) played entire games on offense as well as they did in the first half versus Creighton and as well on defense as they did in the second half of that game they would likely go undefeated. NU’s execution on offense in the first half Sunday night was nearly flawless, but that paled in comparison to how amazingly well the much maligned defensive team did on defense in half number two. Holding a talented offensive Creighton team to just 20 points in a half was an outstanding performance. NU will need to build on that effort on Tuesday as they’ll entertain a Georgia Tech (4-2) team that has a number of offensive weapons and is coming off a solid performance in an 80-76 loss to Syracuse on Saturday night in the title game of the Legends Classic in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Northwestern did a very strong job of switching defenses from the matchup zone/switching man-to-man to the 1-3-1 zone and back again on Sunday night. Those efforts seemed to confuse Creighton at times. It also helped that NU brought more intensity to defense. I also liked seeing that both Jeff Ryan and Alex Marcotullio are very comfortable atop the 1-3-1 and that Mike Capocci is clearly able to use his athleticism to help out on larger players down low. This Georgia Tech team isn’t as powerful offensively as the famous “Lethal Weapon 3” team of 1990, but like that squad they feature a hot shooter named Brian Oliver. The 1990 Brian Oliver scored 34 against North Carolina while the 2010 version has already posted a 32 point game against Syracuse. At 6-6 Oliver can play guard or forward and can, like NU’s 30-point threat John Shurna, work both inside and outside. Oliver hits 38.8% of his threes so NU needs to contest on his shots, but he also can work inside as he’s comfortable enough to lead the Yellow Jackets with 6.7 rebounds a game.

His top scoring teammate is a Chicago-area product in Iman Shumpert. NU recruited Shumpert, but the guard from Oak Park chose Georgia Tech in part because he thought he would be surrounded by a deeper supporting cast. I’m not sure if he was asleep or what when his Huskies visited Glenbard West for their matchup with John Shurna’s Hilltoppers, but those West Suburban Conference rivals will renew their acquaintance on Tuesday. Shumpert has an impressive 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and scores 14.2 ppg. Also, like Oliver, he’s comfortable going inside. He’s 6-5 and pulls down more than five rebounds a game.

The third Yellow Jacket in the quest for the 2010 squad to rebuild a “Lethal Weapon 3” like group is 6-5 guard Glen Rice Jr. You probably aren’t surprised to learn that a guy named Glen Rice leads his team in field goal percentage. Inside, Tech will lean on 6-11 258-pound redshirt freshman Daniel Miller. Miller doesn’t have the greatest stats, but he’s obviously a big body. NU will need Luka Mirkovic to get a body on him when shots go up. Part of what made NU win the Creighton game was the nearly even rebounding stats. The ‘Jays pulled down just one more rebound than the ‘Cats at 33-32. The bigger and athletically skilled Georgia Tech team could make keeping that stat close to even much more difficult. If Tech starts really hitting the boards hard NU will need to try and make up for the deficit with turnovers and that’ll mean more 1-3-1. In such a defense NU can’t forget about the shooters Tech has. The good news is teams that don’t get to see the 1-3-1 regularly often struggle with it. Even Creighton, who at least had a coach who saw it recently, couldn’t solve the thing consistently. That works in NU’s favor for this game. What also works in NU’s favor is Georgia Tech has been criticized just as much as NU in regards to defense. They’ve even been called undisciplined. That’s music to NU’s ears as the Princeton Offense will take advantage of over aggressive teams. The home court also works in NU’s favor and with the game on ESPN2 I expect a big student turnout. This game should be close, but I’d expect Northwestern capture their third straight challenge win and their fourth in five years. I predict: Northwestern, 82 Georgia Tech, 74

Sunday, November 28, 2010

John and Juice Take ‘Cats to 4-0 for First Time Since ’93-94

Northwestern beat Creighton 65-52 on Sunday night to move to 4-0 for the first time since the ’93-94 season. That is the same year the Wildcats last won a postseason game when they defeated DePaul in the NIT. NU has bigger goals than the NIT this season and this win combined with the chance to get a victory Tuesday against Georgia Tech could help them reach those goals. Not surprisingly NU was led by John Shurna both in points and rebounds, but he wasn’t the only player to really step up today. Juice Thompson scored a season high 18 points and dished out 3 assists including an impressive alley-op feed to Shurna for Shurna’s third impressive slam of the night.

NU also got really good contributions off the bench from Davide Curletti, Mike Capocci, Jeff Ryan, and Alex Marcotullio. The only one of those guys who posted a real significant stat line was Curletti who scored 7 points and tied for a team high with 6 rebounds. It was great to see Curletti find a shooting touch hitting an early three and swishing two free throws. If NU gets shooting production from the five spot the offense will open up even more. Curletti also did do a respectable job defending the larger Kenny Lawson Jr. Capocci only scored two points, but was another Wildcat to really hit the boards hard and he helped the inside defense as well. If JerShon Cobb’s shots don’t start to fall with some regularity, I’d look for Coach Bill Carmody to use Capocci more as the season continues. Marcotullio and Jeff Ryan did their usual solid job defensively. They both played tough at the top of the 1-3-1 and made life tough for the Blue Jay offense. Marcotullio’s biggest play was to tip a pass on the play which allowed Drew Crawford a dunk to finish off the Wildcat victory.

Crawford actually had a really subpar game, but he did manage to score 7 points. The fact is that he will have much better games and probably will have one Tuesday night. We’ve become so use to having Juice, Shurna, and Crawford all play great, but the fact is that they all probably aren’t going to have great games every time out. It is an excellent sign that one of the big three can have an off night and the ‘Cats can still get a 13 point win.

Part of the reason for that double-digit win was NU’s improved defense in both the 1-3-1 and the switching man-to-man. In that switching-man it was an improved second half effort on Blue Jay star Kenny Lawson Jr. that really made a difference. After the game Bill Carmody credited Luka Mirkovic’s hard work on defense in the second half. I have to say that after a tough first half Luka really did step up on the defensive end. He still needs to get much better on offense and can’t miss late free throws like he did tonight and last year vs Wisconsin, but at least he stepped and didn’t get pushed around in the second half. Perhaps offensive improvement is the next step for Luka.

I’ll wrap up here for now and tomorrow look back a little more at this win and ahead to Tuesday’s big game vs Georgia Tech.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Visit from Creighton gives NU chance to Boost Resume

Northwestern doesn’t have many chances in their non-conference schedule to build a tournament resume, but they will get a challenge from a Creighton squad and program with considerable postseason experience. This year’s Blue Jay squad is 4-1 and returns four starters from last year’s Tournament semi-finalist team. On Friday Creighton beat Kennesaw State (who beat future NU opponent Georgia Tech) 75-57. Northwestern (3-0) hasn’t played in over a week since beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Wildcats are 3-0 and will get another chance of their own to play with a short turnaround when they face Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on November 30th.

Creighton is led in the backcourt by 6-0 guard Antoine Young. He’s a versatile guard who averages 13.6ppg and also greater then four rebounds and assists a game. He’ll be an interesting matchup for the Wildcat backcourt and especially freshman JerShon Cobb. Cobb showed great athleticism playing defense against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but he also had some major turnover problems and will need to secure the ball as NU won’t be able to turn the ball over as much and still get away with a victory as they did versus Pine Bluff.

One reason this game will be a good game for NU in terms of improving and getting ready for the Big Ten and Georgia Tech is Creighton has some size. NU is still looking to get production from the center position, especially from Luka Mirkovic who is NU’s only player with both size and mass. Mirkovic will be facing the MVC preseason Player of the Year in 6-9 250 pound Kenny Lawson Jr. who is posting 12.6ppg and 6.2rpg. He is by far the best big man NU has played this year. Mirkovic has the talent to be one of the better true centers in the Big Ten, but hasn’t lived up to the hype he had when recruited. Watching what other teams in the Big Ten have inside it is important that he start to do so consistently or the Wildcats will struggle and might actually post less wins this year than last year.

Fans should also watch forwards Doug McDermott and Darryl Ashford who both post double figures from the Blue Jays at 14.4 and 10.2ppg. On the face of it one would conclude this could be an offensive shootout with those guys shooting for the Jays and John Shurna, Drew Crawford, and Juice Thompson making shots for the Wildcats. That could very well happen, but in such a matchup the team which plays better on defense is usually the winner. It’s well known that NU hasn’t been great on defense, but Creighton struggled against Iowa State who is the only team they played that has anything close to a trio as strong as Shurna, Crawford, and Thompson. Plus, NU has been reported to have been working on their defense over the long break. Northwestern also has the advantage of playing at home, though, the crowd isn’t expected to be great. Still, Welsh-Ryan is sometimes a tough place to shoot the first time you visit and Creighton doesn’t have anybody who has visited Evanston before. I predict: Northwestern, 81 Creighton, 67

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Time Off is Time for NU to Change Mindset on D

Northwestern has two long layoffs this season. The first is currently occurring due to the fact the ‘Cats couldn’t find a team to fill an opening on the schedule this week. The second long layoff will occur during Finals Week. Anyhow, this layoff occurs before NU takes on Creighton and Georgia Tech in a three day span. Those two teams have a good chance of being NU’s toughest non-conference opponents. Tech is off to a slow start, but still is an ACC team and Creighton is currently sitting at 3-1. With those two teams NU won’t be able to play so-so defense and escape with wins because they overpower the opposition on offense. Hopefully, NU is taking their time off to work on their defensive play as ‘Cats head coach Bill Carmody stated his squad would after their win last Friday.

To me the area where the ‘Cats need to improve is simply playing one-on-one defense as part of their 2-3 matchup zone or switching man-to-man defense. NU seems to have slow feet a lot and lets players drive around them. Sure, someone can come up and help, but then another player is left open and NU has way to often been victimized by hot shooting. NU gets decent defense from Jeff Ryan and Alex Marcotullio, but somehow NU needs to get Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and John Shurna to improve their defense. All three are good athletes, but sometimes they don’t look it on defense. However, I think all that is separating them from success on the defensive end of the court is having an intensity about how they play.

I’ve watched several college games today and the good teams all have the ability to turn up the dial on defense quickly. When they do, games that seem close often seem to turn into blowouts in an instant. I want NU to be able to pull off the same type of game. A great example was VCU vs Wake Forest. Wake Forest got up on VCU in the second half, but then VCU got intense on defense and quickly turned the game into a blowout. VCU might not be more talented than Wake Forest, but their effort on defense allowed them to dominate the game. Northwestern is going to be in the same situation a lot this year. Watching those games has also told me the Big Ten is loaded with talent this year. I still think NU can have a nice season, but a great many of their Big Ten opposition have more talent. That means NU needs to make up the difference some how. How can they do that? I say get intense on defense. I also believe that since so much of defense is mindset that we could see a huge turnaround with NU on D. However, it won’t happen if NU doesn’t work on getting the right mindset and that’s what I hope they’re doing right now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Thoughts on Several Current NU Athletics Issues

In this post I’m going to share some quick thoughts on a series of current NU athletics issues. NU sports have certainly made the news more often in the last couple days than usual. Unfortunately, a rather depressing percentage of that press hasn’t been positive.

ISSUE 1: Kevin Coble

I admire the fact that Bill Carmody is keeping his mouth shut on this. I wish Kevin Coble would do the same, though, I must say that based on today’s Tribune article it sure sounds like goaded Coble into making his comment by sending him what very well might have been just part of a Carmody quote that made Kevin look bad. Of course, Coble probably should know better than to trust quotes from a reporter. Also, as far as I can tell Kevin probably acted somewhat selfishly in wanting not to go to Italy with the rest of his team and instead choosing to do his rehab his way. I’d also really like to know the exact dates of Kevin’s Hawaii trip. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have gone to Italy with the team—he should have. However, to really get a sense of this issue I’d like to know where exactly Kevin was when the rest of the team was in Italy. Of course, whether he was in Hawaii, Evanston, or Alaska, the fact he basically said I don’t want to go on the trip because I’m hurt and Jeff Ryan, who was actually going to be in rehab longer than Coble, did go on the trip makes Coble look bad. Still, it seems like we’re not getting the whole story and I’d prefer to have it before making a lot more judgments.

The worst part of this whole thing is that it sounds like a point in time existed where despite everything Kevin wanted to play again and Carmody wanted him to play, but somehow something got in the way. I’d guess that something had to do a lot with streaks of selfishness from Coble (and his family) and probably some stubbornness from Carmody (NOTE: a coach being stubborn about rules and expectations is to me WAY MORE acceptable than a selfish player), but also, sadly, with miscommunication. I think that’s just really unfortunate because I bet Kevin is going to miss playing basketball and I bet NU misses him. It’s also sad to me because I have nagging suspicion that both sides reacted in anger when they should have sat down and tried to work something out and now both Kevin—who I’m very sure will never get a look from a good professional team given that he hasn’t played an organized game in over a year—and NU—who very well may be one more scorer short of being an NCAA Tournament team—might both pay the price. And even if Kevin does make it in the pros and NU does make the NCAA tournament this odd story will follow both the kid and the program for some time.

ISSUE 2: Wrigley Field

I had seats on the scoring side of the stadium so I can’t comment on how it looked from the east side, but I do have a lot of sympathy for those who did. It doesn’t seem fair that those fans didn’t get the product they expected to get. I will say that the pregame build up to the contest was fantastic. I really enjoyed walking around both inside and outside the stadium before the game. However, once the game started all that joy disappeared quickly. Some say the event was so great that the loss didn’t diminish it. I’m jealous of those who feel that way because as far as I’m concerned if I never see Wrigley Field again it will be far too soon. For the record, I'm not even saying NU needed to win for me to have fun (the Outback Bowl was fun despite the loss), but with everything NU put into making the game the keystone event of the while Chicago's Big Ten Team and such to lose like it was 1981 and not like it was Jan. 1st 2010 was what made me some sad about the whole event. The story went from NU as Chicago's team to how fired up Illinois was to prove they were Chicago's team and they did a pretty darn good job. Kudos to them.

ISSUE 3: Kain Colter, Evan Watkins, NU’s Football Coaching Staff, and the future of the this season

So one source on the message boards has Colter upset because he got less plays than he was promised. Another says he should start because Watkins gives NU no chance to win. For all I know both facts could be true, but these essentially anonymous statements do teach us the dangers of message boards. Do we really know Colter is upset? No. Do the people who think Watkins doesn’t give NU a chance to win know how much difference a full game and another week of practice makes? Probably not. I will say this, though, I think NU should have used Colter more. NU was twice inside the ten against Illinois and settled for field goals. I think using more Colter close to the goal line might have helped the ‘Cats punch in a couple more scores. I’ll also say that I do sincerely hope we see a jump in play from Evan Watkins because on Saturday I saw a player who needs a lot of work. That said, I don’t think he got much help from his coaches. To be honest, I think it’s amazing how Bill Carmody can be criticized for what he likes to drink and NU’s football coaches totally bungle basic football strategy and many fans give them a pass.

I’ll give one simple example. After Mike Trumpy’s 80 yard TD run every time he got the ball Illinois’s defense swarmed him with basically all 11 guys coming up to tackle him. The basic play on an over aggressive defense is to run a reverse; however, NU didn’t seem to consider such a play. In fact, if you throw out flanker sweeps to Venric Mark, which aren’t reverses, I can only think of one reverse NU has run all season that was with Charles Brown vs Central Michigan. It is just bizarre to me how easy NU’s run offense is to defend and it got a lot easier without Dan Persa. I’m not a football coach and don’t know the talents of all NU’s players, but to not try some misdirection when the defense was flying at Trumpy was really stupid as far as I’m concerned. I’m pretty sure Jeremy Ebert would be fast enough to take a reverse flip from Trumpy and make yards.

Instead, NU simply found itself in long yardage situations trying to force Evan Watkins to convert them by throwing deep passes. Shorter yardage to go also might have given Watkins some shorter throws which he did seem more comfortable with the few times he got to throw them. Plus, those involve the reliable Ebert while downfield Watkins was forced to work to less experienced receivers.

Better defense may give NU a shot this week at Wisconsin, but what I’m most thankful for is that NU is for sure in a bowl and that Watkins has (counting this week) five more weeks to get ready for that game. As far as I’m concerned the bowl is the only game that matters at this point. Wisconsin can beat the ‘Cats by 80 and as long as Watkins uses the experience to get ready to lead the offense to a bowl win then I don’t care. Of course, his odds of doing that would be better if a game plan were created to actually help the kid by successful and which didn’t try to force him to make throws which while mastered by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are awfully tough for redshirt freshmen.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wildcats Add Another Ugly Win

The Wildcats are now 3-0 and their two road wins put them in position to exceed last year’s total of wins away from Welsh-Ryan. However, the fact is the Wildcats haven’t been impressive in their last two wins. Tonight, NU did play a little better on defense, but their offensive game play wasn’t sharp for the second game in a row. Of course, much of those troubles occurred in the second half when Coach Carmody used his bench for the majority of the period. In fact, the entire Wildcat roster saw action in tonight’s 71-45 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

I will say that I think we can safely say that NU will continue to get good production from their big three. Even with all three playing less than 30 minutes (which might not happen again all year) Drew Crawford and John Shurna each posted 17 points and Juice Thompson had an off night shooting (only 1-of-6 from three), but did score 11 and dish out five assists.

The fact is aside from defense, which again was a bit better, the key to NU living up to the hype is going to be finding production for players other than those three. Tonight, JerShon Cobb saw his first extended minutes and struggled on offense, but did post eight rebounds and three steals by jumping in passing lanes. That would almost be acceptable, but he does need to work on his one-on-one defense. I hope that is the result of his hip injury, but if it isn’t, I’d like to see more minutes from Jeff Ryan. He won’t likely offer as much offense, but he is one of the Wildcats best defenders.

To continue to beat a dead horse, NU also needs more from Luka Mirkovic. After two early baskets I thought Luka might be getting ready to assert himself, but he never even took another shot. He did get six rebounds, but he wasn’t exactly facing Jared Sullinger out there.

Defensively, NU played mostly the matchup zone. It worked better than it had earlier in the year, but there were also several moments where Arkansas-Pine Bluff schooled NU’s defenders. After the game Bill Carmody said defense will be the focus of practice starting Monday. With nine days off before the ‘Cats play their next game it will be interesting to see the payoff to that hard work.

Finally, I’ll end tonight’s post with a comment on the Carmody-Kevin Coble/Italy-Hawaii issue. Basically, I’m with Carmody on this. First off all, if you’re part of the team and the team is going on a trip you should go on the trip. Second, if the Coble really needed to continue therapy, I assume NU brought a trainer or two with them. Most importantly, though, since Coble apparently went to Hawaii, it basically seems like Coble misled in his interview earlier today. Like all NU fans, as someone who was a big supporter of Kevin for three years and who really respected his decision to leave the team when it seemed to be purely for health reasons, I’m somewhat disappointed. I mean I honestly don’t even have a problem with Coble leaving over the Italy conflict if he just didn’t want to go, but if he really went to Hawaii and didn’t stay in Evanston to finish his rehab then he basically lied to the press in order to make Carmody look bad and you can’t respect that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Northwestern Looking to Prove Something vs Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Despite a 2-0 record the doubters are out in full force when it comes to this year’s edition of the Wildcats men’s basketball team. After an unimpressive win a number of critical articles and message board posts appeared Wednesday night and Thursday morning which took the Wildcats to task for their poor defense and inconsistent offensive play. On Friday evening the Wildcats get a chance to prove their critics wrong in person as they prepare for the home opener against 2010 NCAA Tournament qualifier Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The crowd in Welsh-Ryan is expected to be larger than usual for a game of this caliber because many fans in town for the All State Wrigleyville Classic on Saturday will attend the basketball game as well. Pine Bluff is 0-2 this having been blown out by Colorado State and future Big Ten member Nebraska. However, I really feel considering the number of critics who have appeared the last couple days, the Wildcats are almost playing against themselves. They’ll likely win the game, but will they look like a team that can compete in the Big Ten or a team that almost lost to a UTPA team that only won six games last season? We will see.

In terms of who Arkansas-Pine Bluff does have in their lineup, 6-8 220 pound forward Daniel Broughton is a legitimate threat on offense and on the glass. Broughton averages 12 points and 5 rebounds a game. With Luka Mirkovic’s recent problems, look for Pine Bluff to try and involve Broughton early and often. Mirkovic will also contend with 6-6 250 pound bruiser Terrell Kennedy who will lineup at center as well. One other front court player of note is Anthony Jones. A 6-6 240 pound forward from Evanston.

In the back court, Pine Bluff trusts in 6-1 guard Savalance Townsend who scores 11 points and dishes off two assists a contest. However, Townsend has struggled somewhat with his outside shot making only 33% of his threes and just 34.8% of all his shots.

On the Wildcat side of things the most important thing to watch will be defense. Northwestern has looked bad defensively and let a mediocre UTPA team drill 9-of-11 threes and make 57% of their field goals. With defense like that, NU will be able to keep any opponent in a game. Pine Bluff has topped out at 51 points for this year, but with the way NU has played, I bet they’re hoping for more.

On offense, Northwestern didn’t have their best game at UTPA, but still got decent nights from the big three of Crawford, Shurna, and Thompson. Certainly, NU would like Shurna to be more consistent, but I think we can count on those three to show up each night. My interest is whether NU can get production from a fourth and fifth scorer. A healthy JerShon Cobb might help in that department. I’d also really like to see Alex Marcotullio find his range and, of course, have Luka Mirkovic live up to the potential he has as an offensive threat. If I could talk to Luka, I’d tell him that he’s a junior now and needs to get over and apparent fear and trepidation and start to get more aggressive. Cutting out the weak layup attempts and attacking the basket more directly would be a great start.

Looking at the situation, I’m worried NU is going to give their critics more ammunition after this contest. It was long trip back from Edinburg, Texas and NU didn’t get much rest or time to practice. I do think NU wins be a greater margin than Wednesday, but I don’t think they’ll match Nebraska’s 43 point margin over UAPB. I predict: Northwestern, 83 Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 62

Note: The game is on-line for a fee at (MAJOR ups to UTPA for giving us something free to watch. Until webstreams actually work all the time and look like real TV, I can't believe we have to pay, but we do for the BTN's). The game's on the radio at 1160AM.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NU Survives UTPA Upset Bid for Second Consecutive Year

I won’t call UTPA and Northwestern a rivalry, but over the last two seasons the Broncs have certainly found ways to give Northwestern trouble. The Wildcats survived tonight with a 77-71 win. The small victory has some NU fans feeling as bad as a loss, but I think NU’s problems can be summed up fairly easily and hopefully corrected. The ‘Cats struggled defensively and didn’t produce offensively at the level they can. The second problem I think is easily correctable, despite the feeling inside the UTPA Fieldhouse the NU was getting a lot of calls, UTPA did catch a huge break as NU Coach Bill Carmody pointed out in the postgame that, “They (UTPA) were bumping us on our cuts and it just took us out of our game.” To run the Princeton Offense you need your cutters to be unimpeded and the Big Ten has done a significantly better job of policing this in recent years, but UTPA Coach Ryan Marks probably told his guys to try and get physical with NU’s cutters and when the officials didn’t make calls on that contact early he told them to keep doing so. That’s good coaching by Marks. I think, though, that in a Big Ten game, especially one at home, that NU might get a few more calls on defenders impeding the progress of a cut. Things also might have opened up a bit more for NU if John Shurna got off to a quicker start, but for the second game in a row Shurna struggled at the get-go and didn’t heat up until the second half. Shurna posted a total of 20 points, but 14 came in the second half. He also struggled somewhat with his shot and had an embarrassing missed dunk where he was bailed out by the officials. However, he was part of a strong Wildcat free throw effort. NU made 23-of-29 free throws and was 22-of-25 until late misses by Juice Thompson and Alex Marcotullio.

The biggest problem, and the issue which will keep NU out of the postseason, is the fact NU still can’t play defense. They started in the matchup zone and weren’t effective. Tim Doyle asked Bill Carmody why he didn’t switch out of it earlier and Carmody basically said because the team has to learn to play it before the Big Ten season starts. I like Carmody’s insistence on something other than the 1-3-1, but the fact the team hasn’t played defense now since the 2008-09 season is a problem. I stated earlier this month that I basically supported Carmody’s contract extension, but I become convinced each day that one requirement of the extension should be one assistant is replaced with a defensive expert. The current staff simply doesn’t seem capable of getting, what is probably NU’s most athletic team ever, to be able to move their feet defensively.

The other major problem is as Coach Carmody said, “We gotta get Luka to finish off some of those things and don’t know how we’re gonna do it.” NU’s center rotation of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti is currently leaving a lot to be desired. It’ll be interesting to see if Luka plays better on Friday as he is a notoriously bad road player, but he simply isn’t playing well right now. He has the ability, but if NU wants to be a good team the player who showed up and schooled JaJuan Johnson last year when NU upset #6 Purdue needs to make more appearances.

A couple other notes…

*Drew Crawford led NU with 22 points. He had a nice tomahawk slam, but like Shurna, also missed a chance at another dunk.

*Michael “Juice” Thompson scored 17 points and made the biggest shot of the game with one second on the shot clock when NU was clinging to a three point lead.

*JerShon Cobb reportedly only practiced the last two days and isn’t really in shape yet, but he got his first start and scored his first 4 points. Based on limited action the scouting report of good mid-range shooter, solid at the line, but needs work from distance would seem accurate.

*Alex Marcotullio scored 5 points and in about a minute almost won the game for NU, but then almost lost it with an ill-advised three which started UTPA’s final run. Marcotullio needs to get consistent on offense, but I feel like he and Jeff Ryan are really the only two Wildcats you can count on to play defense.

*Some of you will say I’m making excuses, and to an extent I am, but I Google mapped Edinburg, Texas. This couldn’t have been an easy trip. NU flew into McAllen and then bused to Edinburg which is near the Mexican boarder kind of close to Rio Bravo (good movie by the way) and Harlingen. Honestly, I almost feel like the Italy trip might have been easier and this certainly is the most challenging logistical trip of the year (unless a bus driver in Columbus once again forgets that time changes).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Northwestern’s Road Show Hits Texas (Game #2 Preview)

The 2010-11 Wildcats have been to Italy and to DeKalb, Illinois. Now, they head to one of my favorite states—Texas. The game will tip off at 7PM Wednesday on and 560AM. It also looks like UTPA may have setup a webstream as this link leads to something called BroncsLive which is linked from the details page on their main sports site and If it works, that’s great news as I hate to try and evaluate games from just listening to the radio. It makes sense for UTPA to have some type of stream as this is the biggest home game on their schedule by far. The next closest thing this year is when the Broncs host Army on December 29th of 2010.

In an interesting coincidence, the Broncs actually just left Chicago where they played three games in the Nick Kladis Classic at Loyola University. The Broncs posted a 1-2 record in the tourney. They defeated Eastern Kentucky 67-53, but lost to Indiana State by 23 points and lost to the host Ramblers 79-57. NU played a closed scrimmage against the Ramblers so you wonder if Loyola gave UTPA any tips on this year’s ‘Cats. Of course, UTPA has been a fixture on NU’s schedule so they are probably as aware as anybody about how to defend Northwestern’s Princeton Offense. That’s actually my biggest worry about this game. Northwestern is a team I think you could probably beat if you based all your off-season on training on trying to learn the counterpoints to the Princeton Offense. Now, nobody in the history of college basketball has ever even thought about doing such a thing, but with this being such a big game, I’m a little worried UTPA might have. Seriously, hosting a Big Ten team in Edinburg is, basically, UTPA’s All State Wrigleyville Classic. The good news, though, is I think even with extensive Princeton Offense prep, this NU team will be tough to stop as they can break out and hit quick shots with ease. If it were three years ago, though, I’d be really worried about this game.

Looking at the stats, it seems UTPA will have trouble running with Northwestern. The Broncs score just 56.7ppg and their leading scorer Aaron Urbanus scores just 12.7ppg. He by the way is a 6-0 guard from Austin, Texas. He’s supported by his backcourt mates 6-3 Brandon Provost from Katy, Texas who scores 7.0ppg and 6-1 Perry Petty who scores 10.0ppg. Petty is a Milwaukee kid and actually is one of a few Midwestern players on UTPA. Most notable to local fans is 6-6 senior forward Matt Mierzycki who played alongside Jeff Ryan at Glenbrook South High School. Mierzycki is the Broncs best inside player averaging 5.3 rebounds per game, but he’s just 6-6 and 216 pounds. UTPA will no doubt need increased minutes from 6-7 245 pound forward Ruben Cabrera who posts averages of just 3.7 and 1.7, but with his size he could give the notoriously soft on the road Luka Mirkovic trouble. It will be interesting also to see if NU sees the debut of 6-9 center Enique Mason who hasn’t played a minute this season for the Broncs, but is the only true center on their roster.

Defensively, NU could employ their 1-3-1 as only Urbanus and Provost have impressive shooting numbers from downtown (both over 40%), but it would also be great to see NU step up their intensity in the 2-3 matchup/switching man-to-man that they’ll likely have to use more in the Big Ten.

To bottom line this game, it probably still comes down to the fact the Broncs won’t be able to hold down Big Ten Player of the Week John Shurna and the Runnin’ Wildcats. I predict: Northwestern, 91 UTPA, 70

Monday, November 15, 2010

Evan Watkins Pep Talk

It’ll be a huge weekend for NU sports with a home basketball game on Friday night (and a road game Wednesday which we’ll talk about tomorrow) and hosting the All State Wrigleyville Classic along with ESPN’s College Game Day on Saturday. However, some people are doubting NU’s chances of beating the state’s Other Big Ten Team thanks to the news of Dan Persa’s injury. I say to them have some faith in Evan Watkins, but it’s probably more important Watkins have faith in himself. If I were given the chance this is what I’d say to NU’s new QB1.


You’ve got to be excited, right? I mean I know you’re sad about your friend Dan’s injury too, but you didn’t come to Northwestern to warm the bench did you? I didn’t think so. Coach Fitz recruits guys who have great character and want to compete—and that’s you! Now, here’s the thing; over the next couple days you’re going to hear about how NU can’t win because you’re starting at QB and not Dan Persa. Some of those comments might even come from NU fans. In fact, I know you’re already aware of a few comments which have been made saying as much. Ignore that crap! What a bunch of idiots who have never seen you do anything more than throw pregame warm-ups say isn’t worth even thinking about. Instead, you need to focus on doing what Coach Fitz talks about all the time—Trust Yourself. You wouldn’t be in this position if you weren’t a darn good player. Look what you did cold off the bench at Indy, now you’ve got a whole week to prep.

Also, trust those around you. Coach McCall is going to come up with a great game plan and you’ve got great resources to give you advice. Talk to Dan about how he approached stepping in for Mike Kafka last year. Call up Mike and talk to him about stepping in for C.J. Bacher in 2008. They’ll tell you that Northwestern’s offense is quarterback friendly and that you’ll have plenty of chances to make plays. Will things go perfectly? Probably not. So what do you need to do? Respond. When things go wrong forget them and press on. If you do that you’ll end up having more successful plays than unsuccessful ones.

Finally, the most important advice I can give you is to have fun! This game is going to be awesome. Have as much fun as you’ve ever had in your life on a football field! You’re a good player and I know if you have fun out there you’ll have great success.

So, go get us that Land of Lincoln Trophy, big guy!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thanks, Dan.

Northwestern played a football game today against the University if Iowa and defeated the Hawkeyes 21-17 thanks to a fantastic fourth quarter rally led by quarterback Dan Persa. Unfortunately, Persa was hurt on the same play he threw the game’s winning touchdown and will be out for the rest of the season. As I think of the amazing year that Dan Persa has had, I want to say thanks and hope that his warrior spirit carries over to his backup Evan Watkins and the rest of NU’s student-athletes.

Dan Persa is obviously a talented football player, but my admiration for him isn’t simply for that. It’s for the type of competitor he is. Because this is a basketball blog I’ll make this connection—Dan Persa is the football version of my all time favorite NU basketball player Jitim Young—people called both too small or said they didn’t have certain athletic abilities, but they both played at an All-Big Ten level because they competed relentlessly.

That relentless competiveness is a special thing. Pat Fitzgerald talked about wanting 22 Dan Persa’s and some fans didn’t like his comments, but it’s a simple fact is that Dan’s a rare type of kid. That’s not to see NU doesn’t have other talented players or good leaders on the roster, but the way Persa competes has simply been at another level. His willingness to do whatever was necessary and put his team on his back was truly remarkable. To be honest, I think much of the time NU’s offensive calls have been rather predicable and unimaginative, but Persa has made up for this with his amazing ability to stay cool under pressure and make something out of nothing. The final drive today and the final drive in NU’s forth quarter comeback at Minnesota were both made in large part by Dan Persa’s amazing instincts. His ability to avoid pressure and find open space or open receivers saved the ‘Cats on multiple occasions this season.

Now, Dan won’t be able to save the ‘Cats with his legs again till 2011, but I know he’ll still make a positive impact. That’s just the type of leader he is. He won’t feel sorry for himself, instead I know he’ll do everything in his power to help make sure Evan Watkins is ready to play against Illinois, against Wisconsin, and in a bowl game. Let’s not count Watkins out either. Sure, he’s only 3-of-7 passing this season, but he made a big third down throw in what turned out to be the game winning drive against Indiana.

You also have to credit NU’s coaches who helped get Persa ready to step in for Mike Kafka last year and got Kafka ready to step in for C.J. Bacher the year before. Clearly, Mick McCann knows how to develop quality quarterbacks. I just hope McCall too takes a lesson from Persa and doesn’t play it safe. Sure, Persa’s injury hurts, but if he’d played conservative and scared all season NU would only have 3 wins. Instead, his fearless play has NU at 7-3. There will be a temptation to keep Watkins in a safety net thanks to his zero-experience backups, but NU can’t win that way. They need to be aggressive. Plus, with Watkins own limited experience giving him rollouts where he can run or pass makes great sense to me. Therefore, I hope McCall and Watkins both have a little Dan Persa in them and display the fearlessness necessary to lead the ‘Cats to victory.