Sunday, January 31, 2010

Women's Basketball: Northwestern Wins at Wisconsin

I want to offer congratulations to Northwestern’s women’s basketball team for their win today at Wisconsin. Winning at the Khol Center in women’s hoops might not be as impossible as in men’s, but it’s still tough. Wisconsin came into the game third in the Big Ten and would have moved into second place with a win. Instead, the Wildcats got a 20-point 10-rebound double-double from Amy Jaeschke and used a 17-2 run to start the second half in order to pull out the 68-62 win. Let’s hope NU’s men’s basketball team can model this feat in February. Overall Northwestern is 13-9. 13 wins is the most for an NU women’s hoops team in 14 years. Like men's team, this team has a shot at making it to the postseason this year.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Michigan State Runs Past ‘Cats in Second Half for 79-70 Victory

Michigan State lead Northwestern 30-28 at halftime, but despite being down two points, it looked like Northwestern might actually have control of the game. Unfortunately, it didn’t take Michigan State long to extend their lead and completely gain control of the game in the second half. While they settled for 11 three point attempts in the first half, in the second half Michigan State shot only 4 threes. Instead, they worked the ball inside against Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone and rushed down the court to get easy looks (i.e. dunks) in transition. The result was Michigan State shooting 75% in second half overall and 81% on two point field goal attempts. Credit has to go to Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo for making a coaching adjustment which essentially turned the game in his favor.

Of course, Izzo’s ability to make that adjustment has a lot to do with the fact he has a team of superior athletes. Even if Bill Carmody wanted Northwestern to push the ball in transition, I don’t think their effort would be anywhere near Michigan State’s. As far as attacking the 1-3-1, Michigan State’s superior inside athletic skill helped their as well. What also helped was it was clearly evident Michigan State had been fully prepped for facing the 1-3-1. They seemed to know exactly where the openings were and what to do in order to get easy baskets. The day ended with Michigan State committing only 10 turnovers (NU had 11) and getting six steals (NU had 4). Last season Northwestern dominated both those categories in their huge upset win. If NU wants to pull off wins later this year they have to get back to regularly forcing turnovers.

NU made a couple unique personal moves tonight. Kyle Rowley played only three minutes, probably because he didn’t matchup with MSU’s athletic front court. In place of Rowley, Davide Curletti played 18 minutes. Curletti didn’t score, but he did grab 3 rebounds and get 4 assists. That was better than starter Luka Mirkovic who really struggled tonight and ended up with 4 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists, and 3 turnovers. I honestly think Mirkovic could matchup with MSU’s inside players, but he didn’t seem comfortable or confident tonight.

Mike Capocci played 9 fairly strong minutes. He scored 4 points (including a nice dunk on a backdoor pass) and got 2 rebounds. I think Capocci is clearly earning more time and should be used as a backup for Drew Crawford. NU’s guards, however, have virtually no reserve support. Michael “Juice” Thompson played 39 minutes and stayed on the court until he fouled out. Thompson didn’t have a great game shooting only 2-of-8 overall and 1-of-5 from behind the arc. Much like the game in Evanston, MSU did a great job defending Thompson and taking him out of NU’s offense. Drew Crawford had similar struggles with his shot. He finished 3-of-9 from the floor.

NU did get 31 points from John Shurna and Jeremy Nash made 3-of-5 shots and dished out 3 assists without a turnover. Shurna’s 31 points came on a lot of shots (23) and he made 6-of-13 threes. That might seem like a lot of shots, but at times it seemed like NU’s other players didn’t want to shoot the ball.

Northwestern ends January 3-6 in the Big Ten and 4-6 overall for the month. John Shurna has asserted himself as one of the Big Ten’s best offensive players and despite a poor game tonight, Luka Mirkovic has started to give NU an inside game. With their wins over Purdue and Illinois, the Wildcats made a case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. Now they have to build on that case by being victorious in a number of “should-win” contests in February and March.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Game 21: Northwestern Wildcats @ Michigan State

The Matchup: Northwestern (14-6) @ Michigan State (18-3)

Location: Breslin Center (East Lansing, MI)

TV: Big Ten Network (6:00 PM January 30th, 2010)
Radio: WYLL AM 1160

Fun Fact: Northwestern’s win over Michigan State in East Lansing last season was the Big Ten Network’s Game of the Year for 2008-09.

About the Game
Michigan State enters this game undefeated in the Big Ten and ranked #5 in the nation. Northwestern enters with a respectable 14-6 overall record, but NU’s loss to Minnesota dropped the Wildcats to 3-5 in the Big Ten and out of most NCAA Tournament predictions. If Northwestern can beat Michigan State, though, they’ll be right back in those tournament projections and probably have an even bigger win on their resume than last season’s titanic upset.

In early January these two teams met in Evanston and Michigan State lit up Northwestern’s defense. MSU scored 91 points and the Wildcats looked entirely helpless against Michigan State’s athletic skill. The good news for NU fans is that the Wildcats seemed to recommit to defense after that loss. The bad news is most of the recommitment occurred in the matchup zone or switching man-to-man. Even matching up and/or switching, it’ll be tough for NU go toe-to-toe with MSU’s athletes. That means the Wildcats might have to get back into the 1-3-1 which produced a ton of Michigan State turnovers last year. Unfortunately, Tom Izzo seemed to have his Spartans more than prepared for the 1-3-1 earlier this year in Evanston. Choosing a defense will be a tough, but very critical decision for NU coach Bill Carmody. The truth is Michigan State isn’t a great three point shooting team. Kalin Lucas makes 38.6%, Chris Allen makes 38.4%, and Korie Lucious makes 34.8%, but none of the other Spartans are great shooters. In fact, Durrell Summers is the only other Spartan who even considers trying threes, but he makes just 25%. Given those numbers, it might make sense to try the 1-3-1 as it looks as if NU won’t get beat from the outside. The 1-3-1 might also help deny the ball inside to Draymond Green (10.4ppg and 58.3% FG) and Raymar Morgan (11.7ppg and 58% FG). Green is closer to a classic post player who wants to catch with his back turned while Morgan can take a lesser athlete off the dribble. Either way, NU’s front court would be best served in keeping the ball away from those guys. To do so, John Shruna and Luka Mirkovic will need to hit the defensive glass. MSU has 290 offensive rebounds already this season.

Michigan State’s other great skill is how fast they push the ball. If you miss a shot you must get back on defense, if you turn the ball over you must get back on defense, and if you make a basket you don’t have time to feel happy because you need to get back on defense. MSU took advantage of some NU laziness in January and got some easy baskets. For Northwestern to win they can’t allow those easy baskets and they must get some easy baskets of their own thanks to turnovers and the open threes the Princeton Offense will produce.

I think Northwestern is a better team now than they were in January. I would be shocked if this game is decided by more than 12 points, but I also don’t think NU can duplicate their feat from last season. Michigan State, 71 Northwestern, 60

Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Expert’s Analysis of NU’s Tournament Chances

Last year when I was breaking down Northwestern’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament I got most of my stats from The site has a wealth of knowledge and it is very easy to navigate between the excellent analysis and the detailed statistics. One of the site’s writers and founders is 2004 Northwestern graduate Brendon Desrochers. Brendon graciously agreed to answer a few questions and share his statistical breakdown of NU’s tournament chances with us today. He also took the time to share some fun memories of his time watching hoops as an NU student. Here’s what he had to say…

WRR: Obviously the loss to Minnesota hurt Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances, but just how badly did it hurt?

BD: Unscientifically, I put Northwestern's chances to make the NCAA Tournament at about 40 percent entering the Minnesota game, and I've dropped that to 35 percent although that might be a bit generous. I don't think this one loss was particularly damaging -- perhaps less damaging than the Wisconsin loss was -- but it just leaves little margin for error. Barring an unlikely win at Wisconsin or Michigan State, Northwestern will have to win seven of the nine other games (plus Chicago State) merely to stay in the mix.

Since I started looking at Northwestern closely, I've said that the magic number was 24. Twenty-four wins will get Northwestern in, and 23 will put the Cats at just about even money, maybe 40/60 to go. It sounds like a lot of wins out of a Big Ten team just to get in, but with eight conference games this season against teams unlikely to finish in the top 100 of the RPI, NU has little margin for error.

In terms of my model -- I call it the BTI (Baseline Tournament Index) -- there are still about a dozen teams between Northwestern and the at-large cutline. That's a lot of teams, and the only way to pass those teams -- especially with scarce opportunities at eye-popping wins -- is by winning a lot of games.

If you extrapolate the projections for this site(, you get about a 20 percent chance of Northwestern reaching the threshold it would need to get in. I do think the Sagarin ratings he's using to do his projections sells Northwestern a smidge short, though.

WRR: Is there a magic number of wins which will put Northwestern into the Big Dance? I know in the past people talked about 20 wins, but that was back when the NCAA only allowed teams to play 27 regular season games. Now teams play 31 games plus a conference tournament, so I assume the number has changed.

BD: I realize that I probably answered this question above. To be clear, a 10-8 conference record plus a win over Chicago State and a win in Northwestern's first Big Ten Tournament game will put NU right at the bubble heading into Selection Sunday. Whether the Cats are in or out at that point will depend on how things break in conference tournaments and with other bubble teams. A 24th win would be a clincher, but that means no slip-ups in the games against Penn State, Indiana and Iowa, plus the home games against Minnesota and Michigan. Win those eight to finish 11-7 and win another in the Big Ten Tournament, and it's hard to imagine Northwestern being left out.

WRR: What games on the remaining schedule would you consider “must-win” games for Northwestern?

BD: This is tricky, because any loss to the bad teams in the conference will kill the RPI, but any home loss will also really damage the RPI, and a loss to Minnesota would mean a sweep and make it hard for NU to get in ahead of the Gophers. And then, of course, there is Chicago State. That makes nine must wins -- I'd say Northwestern will need to go 8-1 against those teams or take one of the two tough roadies as a replacement for an extra loss. A slip-up at Iowa, Penn State or (especially) Indiana is my biggest fear as a Wildcats fan. (Editor’s note: Penn State really scares me. They might be the best 0-8 team in Big Ten history)

WRR: Are there any teams Northwestern fans should actively be rooting against because they’ll be teams Northwestern ends up competing with for a bid?

BD: I would root against Illinois. Five bids seem the most likely figure for the Big Ten, and so finishing ahead of Illinois in conference should give Northwestern an edge. And, considering the non-conference play of the Illini, just finishing tied with Illinois in conference should give NU the edge.

In other conferences, it's always hard to say which teams will be at the cutline in March, but some that come to mind are Florida, Dayton, Seton Hall and Cincinnati. Basically, root for the chalk and dreck in the major leagues at the expense of the middle teams.

WRR: Bottom line, what do you see as the end result of this season for NU. NIT? NCAA? CBI?

BD: To not get invited to the NIT at this point would require a near disaster, and in the NIT is where I'd expect the Cats to end up. I think there will be a slip-up against one of the bottom teams on the road -- the two consecutive weekend trips to State College and Bloomington make me cringe -- and that will be enough to derail the dream, barring a deep Big Ten Tourney run.

It's a real shame, because Northwestern really hasn't done anything wrong this season. It's the other Big Ten teams, especially the bottom three plus Illinois, Michigan and, yes, even Michigan State, whose non-conference play has set the bar so high for the Cats.

I do already have plans to attend should Northwestern make it. I'm hoping that, if the Cats do, they'll go to Providence, where I have family, and not to the very-hard-to-get-to Spokane. Either way, I won't complain.

WRR: As an NU graduate, what do think about the current state of the NU hoops compared to your time on campus?

BD: Well, I'll be honest -- I've never much liked watching the Princeton offense, although I did think that Coach Carmody was a good hire because of the institutional fit and the slow pace that should help a perpetual underdog. He started at Northwestern the same year I did, and I think he's an awesome guy. There were times, though -- as recently as before last Big Ten season started -- when I thought there was little hope in Evanston.

When I was at school, Northwestern had three pretty decent years but never really sniffed the NCAAs, and even fell tantalizingly short of the NIT twice, because of poor starts out of conference. Jitim Young and Tavares Hardy brought some big wins to NU, and they were part of not-terrible teams (which is pretty good at Northwestern). I was ushering at Welsh-Ryan the last time Northwestern beat Illinois (prior to Saturday). My spot was right at the corner of the court, across the way from the Northwestern bench, and watching the crowd storm the court was one of my favorite moments at Northwestern. I remember that the Daily Northwestern had this great shot with fans rushing everywhere and Carmody's head popping out of the crowd and looking directly at the camera, despite there being no way he could have seen it.

So, there were moments, but just too far and few, and every Big Ten win felt like an upset (except for the ones against Purdue) -- and it seemed we were gimmicking our way to those upsets. Northwestern's performance last year, and even without Kevin Coble this year, has changed the feel around the program. Suddenly, Northwestern is expected to beat teams like Indiana, Penn State, Iowa. So, however, Northwestern handle's the pressure that comes with that change is less important than that the change has occurred. And that change came with better players. Craig Moore, Coble and Juice meant business as usual for Carmody and recruiting -- one good player per year, but things began to change with Hardy's arrival on the staff and the Shurna/Mirkovic class followed by this year's Crawford/Marcotullio class.

As good a coach as Carmody is, he needs players, and he simply hasn't had them until now. What Carmody can do with players who fit his system -- and even some like Crawford who can flourish when it breaks down -- is hopeful. There was no way an earlier Carmody team could have lost a player as critical as Coble and finished anywhere near .500 in conference. For instance, there was a lot of optimism entering what was to be the senior seasons of Hachad/Vukusic/Parker (2005-06), and then Parker left for Europe, and Northwestern struggled to 6-10. The fact that that hasn't happened this season is probably the biggest transformation since when I went to school.

The question is whether this class of juniors -- Thompson and now Coble -- can close the deal and reach the Big Dance, or whether it will fall on the underclassmen to bring it home. They'll become legends if they do, and there's reason to believe that it will happen by March 2011 with a few good bounces.

WRR: Thanks, Brendon. We’ll have to bring you back for another breakdown of NU’s chances closer to Selection Sunday if the ‘Cats close in on those 23 wins.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One Play Away: Gophers, Hoffarber Make Just Enough Big Plays to Put ‘Cats Away Late 65-61

Northwestern deserves credit for a second half comeback from down 13 points (the move to risk playing the 1-3-1 really paid off) to take a lead in this contest, but Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarber deserves even more credit for essentially taking over the game in crunch time. Hoffarber scored two big threes and two big free throws, plus got the game’s key rebound to ensure the Gophers held off NU’s comeback attempt. For Minnesota this game will place them back in the running for the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, this loss puts Northwestern in a Mission Impossible situation James Phelps and Ethan Hunt would find intimidating—the Wildcats now must win at either Michigan State or Wisconsin in order to have a legitimate case on Selection Sunday.

In a game like this any one play might have been the difference, but the truth was Minnesota’s 21-7 first half run, which started after NU missed a shot which would have put them up eight, was essentially the game changing moment. Minnesota upped their pressure and the Wildcats, most notably reserve guard Nick Fruendt, melted under the pressure like the Wicked Witch in rain storm. The worst moment had to be the play where it was clear Fruendt was terrified to throw the ball inbounds despite the fact that two players were standing so close he probably could have handed the rock to them. Instead, he gave the ball to Michael Thompson in the corner and Thompson proceeded to pass the ball out of bounds to Bill Carmody.

The other element of the Gopher pressure which hurt NU was the size factor. With Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson inside NU became essentially just a three point shooting team. The Wildcats made 12 threes in the game, but only 10 twos. Also, many of those twos were jump shots as the Wildcats basically couldn’t get near the rim. Luka Mirkovic had a good game on the glass with 13 rebounds, but was routinely swatted when attempting to convert at the hoop. I don’t understand why Mirkovic won’t throw in a head fake or something on occasion. It doesn’t need to be anything elaborate, but something to the defender out of balance sure would help. I also want to clearly convey the fact to NU’s players that when trying to finish in traffic against a bigger player a finger roll is not a good choice. When forced to go up in traffic please try to DUNK THE BASKETBALL! Even if you don’t convert, they won’t be able to swat you like they can a finger roll and you’ll probably get fouled.

Of those 12 threes, Thompson made five and John Shurna made four. Thompson’s five threes, though, were his only offense as he ended with 15 points. Shurna managed to score 19 points and get 7 rebounds. It was another solid performance, but I wish he would have pulled the trigger on a three instead of dribbling and taking a forced two with 15 seconds left and NU down three. I’m not really sure what that two would have even accomplished and doubt that was the end result the coaching staff envisioned for that play.

Some people will say Minnesota used their superior bench to win the game, but I didn’t really see NU tire at all. In fact, NU played much better in the second half. However, I do think NU’s lack of bench production is something of an issue. Right now, if every NU starter doesn’t play well, Bill Carmody has no other options. Tonight, NU’s bench contributed 3 points, 2 rebounds, and a whole lot of panic. As a result, even if Crawford and Nash weren’t playing their best games, Carmody had to leave them on the court.

The Wildcats now sit at 3-5 in the Big Ten with 10 games left. NU can probably go 6-4 in those 10 games to get to 9-9, but I’m a little disappointed because this reminds me a ton of last year’s game at Ohio State, and I honestly believe had NU held their late lead in that game the ‘Cats would have been in the Big Dance. I hope the same story doesn’t hold true with this contest.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Game 20: Northwestern Wildcats @ Minnesota

The Matchup: Northwestern (14-5) @ Minnesota (12-7)

Location: Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)

TV: Big Ten Network (8:00 PM CT Tuesday January 26th)
Radio: WIND 560 AM

Fun Fact: Since taking over Minnesota, Tubby Smith has played Northwestern more than any other opponent thanks to two matchups in the Big Ten Tournament.

About the Game
We’re 19 games into the season and as long as Northwestern keeps winning, the magnitude of each game will continue to rise. In game 20 the Wildcats travel north to Minneapolis with a potential at-large NCAA-birth on the line. Right now, Northwestern is in slightly better shape than Minnesota for an NCAA bid. The Wildcats have a better RPI (#56 compared to #64) and have two more wins. Minnesota does have a stronger strength of schedule (#32 to #71). Those numbers will get pushed aside, though, starting at 8:00PM CT tomorrow. By the end of the night, one team will have a legitimate case over the other for an invitation to the big dance.

If Northwestern wants to get out of Minnesota with a victory they’ll have to counter some impressive Gopher athletes. The good news is that Minnesota is actually a very similar team to Illinois, who the ‘Cats just beat. Minnesota’s leading scorer is guard Lawrence Westbrook. Westbrook scores 13.3 ppg and along with fellow guard Blake Hoffarber is the reason I hope NU sticks to the switching man-to-man avoids playing the 1-3-1 zone. Westbrook makes 42.2% of this threes and Hoffarber is the best shooter in the Big Ten with a three point percentage of 49.5%. The good news for NU is that while many of the Gophers are very athletic, Hoffarber is more of a standstill shooter. If Northwestern can put Drew Crawford on Hoffarber in man-to-man, I believe Crawford can blanket the Gopher guard and keep his damage to a minimum.

The area where I’m more concerned about Minnesota doing damage is on defense. The Gophers are masterful at using their small, quick, and smart guards to cause turnovers and turn those turnovers into easy points. Westbrook, Devoe Joseph, and Justin Cobbs will go after Michael “Juice” Thompson and Jeremy Nash in the backcourt. It is critical that Thompson play his normal smart game and, unlike Illinois, stay out of foul trouble. While Nick Frudent and Alex Marcotullio were able to hold the fort against Illinois, I don’t want them to have to face the Gopher pressure.

Part of what makes Minnesota’s pressure so effective is that Tubby Smith rotates fresh players constantly. Athletic forward Damian Johnson (10.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg) leads the Gophers in minutes per game with 25.4. That’s a far cry from Thompson leading NU with more than 38 minutes per game. The Wildcats use of their bench against Illinois might prove very useful in preparing for Minnesota. I expect fans will see more time from Kyle Rowley in order to rest Luka Mirkovic from having to face the constant rotation of not only Johnson and Ralph Sampson III inside, but also Gopher big men Paul Carter and Colton Iverson. Other Wildcats subs like Mike Capocci and Ivan Peljusic may be called on once again as well.

Some of have said this game could, like the Illinois contest from Saturday, be an NCAA elimination game. It is almost certainly that for Minnesota, but I’d like to think NU’s better record might allow them to survive even with a loss. Still, this might be NU’s best chance at big road win as winning in East Lansing or Madison will be tough. That might make this a must-win for NU as well. Perhaps the best news for Northwestern is that while the ‘Cats seem to be trending upwards, the Gophers are dealing with academic issues which have disqualified guard Al Nolen and the disappointment of two close losses in a row. The other good news is that NU has risen to the occasion every other time they faced a must-win. They beat Michigan on the road to help stabilize their season in a tough stretch, they beat Purdue for a signature win, and they bested Illinois in a contest selection committee members will look back on in March. I’m looking at those contests as evidence this year’s Wildcats are one of those teams who constantly succeeds when backed up against the wall. Northwestern, 66 Minnesota, 63

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Let’s Talk Tournament...

I’ve tried to stay away from this talk somewhat since it is still January, but after last night’s supposed NCAA Tournament elimination game I think it’s time to talk NCAAs. Especially since the ‘Cats weren’t the team eliminated. Most people are still skeptical of Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances. That’s in part because NU only has one big win (vs Purdue) and Northwestern has only two true road wins (vs Michigan and vs N.C. State). But NU will get multiple chances to prove themselves dance worthy in the next few weeks.

Perhaps the best way to study NU’s current NCAA chances is to look at a team who many experts say will be among the last four in or out and compare them with Northwestern. Right now, Joe Lunardi has Cal as one of his last four teams in the tournament. This comparison is also somewhat more relevant because the teams do have some common opponents in Iowa State, Ohio State, and Stanford.

Looking at RPI, Cal has something of an advantage. The Golden Bears current RPI is #25. Northwestern’s is #53. However, the Wildcats do have the advantage both in number of wins and with fewer losses. Northwestern is sitting at 14-5 against Division 1 teams while Cal is 13-6. The Wildcats also have the best win of the two teams with their victory over Purdue. Cal is actually 0-4 versus RPI top-50 teams. Against RPI top-100 teams Northwestern is 4-5. Cal is 3-5. Based on those numbers Cal is probably slightly better, but for them to be one of the last four in and Northwestern not even to be in the last eight out doesn’t seem entirely logical.

What Lunardi is likely looking at is the team’s strength of schedule. Right now Cal’s SOS is 3rd in the nation. NU’s is 69th. However, the best team Cal has left on their schedule is RPI ranked #60 USC. Northwestern still gets RPI #10 Wisconsin and PRI #16 Michigan State on the road. Besides that, the Wildcats have #64 Minnesota twice. Those games are huge as Minnesota might have replaced Illinois as in-conference competition for an NCAA bid. If Northwestern can get wins over those teams their case will be greatly improved. Playing tough competition is great, but you have to beat those teams. Personally, I think team’s records against the top-50 and on the road should mean more than SOS. Sure, you might play a bunch of good teams, but who cares if you can’t beat them. If you play some good teams and some bad teams, beat all the bad teams and a fair number of the good teams, and win regularly away from home—that’s a impressive resume. An NCAA-worthy resume.

A good example of this is UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels have an SOS similar to NU (#67), but are projected into the tournament by virtually every analyst as somewhere between a 7 and 10-seed. Lunardi has them as a 9-seed. Part of the reason for this has to be the fact UNLV is 3-2 vs RPI top-100 teams and 7-1 on the road. Northwestern is 2-2 on the road and Cal is 2-3. NU does have an advantage with a 2-0 record on neutral courts while Cal is 0-2.

Bottom line, Northwestern’s resume should be considered competitive for a tournament bid right now. NU’s most important games, though, haven’t yet happened. The Wildcat resume would greatly improve with wins over Minnesota (one of the first four out according to Lunardi) and either Wisconsin or Michigan State (who have top-20 RPIs). If NU gets those victories and holds serve against weaker teams, I think the ‘Cats will dance in March.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

State of Joy: 73-68 Victory Gives Wildcats First Win Over In-State Rival in Six Years

In a game some experts termed an NCAA Tournament elimination game, the Northwestern Wildcats persevered and hung around long enough to fight and scrap their way to a 73-68 win over the University of Illinois. That star for Northwestern was senior Jeremy Nash who earned his first career victory over the Illini by posting a career-high 22 points. Along with those points, Nash totaled 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists. He also made 9-of-10 free throws, including the final two which iced the game when Illinois cut NU’s late lead to just three points.

What made this win even better, though, was Nash wasn’t the only star. Northwestern played 10 players in the game and all seemed to make at least some small contribution to the victory. Part of the reason for Bill Carmody’s need to clear his bench was early foul trouble for Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna. Juiced played his season low in minutes with only 27. He totaled only 4 points and made just 1-of-5 shots, but in the end his only made three was one of several clutch shots helped NU hold the lead after Nash put them ahead 53-52. Thompson also had 3 assists and one of those assists setup a John Shurna three which also helped NU’s efforts to ice the victory. Shurna finished the game with 19 points total. Like Nash, he made 9-of-10 free throws including a number of which helped NU hold off Illinois.

Another Wildcat who deserves some credit is freshman guard Drew Crawford. Northwestern actually got out to an early lead thanks to 9 early points from Crawford. A couple of those came on drives which showed why some believe Crawford is Northwestern’s most athletic recruit ever.

Illinois took their lead with Thompson on the bench. During that period, it was a combination of guys, but especially Nash, Crawford, and Kyle Rowley who helped keep NU with in striking distance until the ‘Cats could find the range for big threes late from Nash, Thompson, and Shurna.

While Nash, Shurna, and Crawford were NU’s offensive leaders, Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley provided solid efforts in the post and just enough offense. Mirkovic scored 9 points and grabbed 9 rebounds (3 offensive). Kyle Rowley came off the bench and might have played his best six minutes of the year. When Illinois was trying to make a run, Rowley made two huge baskets which ensured the game didn’t fall out of reach for NU.

NU also got solid minutes from Ivan Peljusic, Nick Fruendt, and Mike Capocci. Peljusic and Fruendt more or less just helped keep the game close by not making mistakes. Capocci did the same, but also has to get a major thumbs-up for getting two rebounds, including an offensive rebound which setup a big three, in just six minutes.

One interesting statistical note from the contest was Northwestern won despite allowing Illinois to shoot 55.3%. Even more amazing was that NU only shot 40.4% and made just 7-of-28 threes. NU was able to win despite these stats because they got more offensive rebounds than U of I (10 to 6) and because Northwestern was able to force Illinois to take more difficult shots than they did in Champaign. Yes, the Illini’s guards got some easy drives and open threes, but Mike Tisdale only took 6 shots and Mike Davis only took 6. Those two combined for 51 points in Champaign. Today they got only 14 points (all from Tisdale). Davis scored 0 points and got only 2 rebounds. Credit for stopping U of I’s easy baskets has to got to go to NU’s ability to consistently and successfully change defenses. It looked like U of I was never totally sure what defense NU was playing. That led to 16 Illinois turnovers which also contributed to keeping NU in the game until they made their run.

A few highlight plays from the game included John Shurna throwing down a two-handed dunk on back door pass from Luka Mirkovic. Credit to Coach Carmody for coming up with that play. Also, a great play by Juice Thompson to take a charge from Brandon Paul when NU needed a key stop. Kyle Rowley’s two baskets also showed some of the best footwork on his career and came at key times. I believe we might be seeing signs of a very positive future from Rowley based on his last three games. Finally, I have to say the three by Jeremy Nash which gave NU the 53-52 lead has to be the game’s biggest shot. It was big not just because it gave NU the lead, but because the way Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted after that shot was unbelievable. It might have been the loudest Welsh-Ryan has gotten since March of 1994 when NU defeated DePaul in the NIT. If Welsh-Ryan is like that in NU’s last six home games, I think Northwestern might have one of the best home court advantages in the nation.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Game 19: Illinois @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Illinois (12-7) @ Northwestern (13-5)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:00 PM CT Saturday January 23rd, 2010)
Radio: WYLL AM 1160

Fun Fact: Northwestern hasn’t defeated Illinois since 2004 (okay, this fact wasn’t that fun).

About the Game
Looking at this game for Northwestern’s point of view, a fan has to hope the Wildcats learned for their loss at Illinois in late December. In that contest Illinois used superior inside play from Mike Tisdale (who scored 31 points) and Mike Davis (who get 20 points and 17 rebounds) to withstand Northwestern’s early three point barrage and eventually prevail in overtime. In that game, Illinois was most successful against NU’s 1-3-1 zone. This wasn’t a surprise to most, though, as D.J. Richardson’s 45.1% 3-point percentage is among the Big Ten’s best. Also, the Illini have another excellent shooter in Demetri McCamey who scores 15.5 ppg and dishes out 6.0 apg. With Richardson’s shooting ability and McCamey’s ability to pass or knock down shots the 1-3-1 isn’t that hard for the Illini to beat. Illinois also got big shots from Bill Cole last time these teams met. Since the first meeting with NU, the 6-9 junior Cole has replaced freshman Brandon Paul in the starting lineup. Aside from being a decent shooter, Cole hits the offensive glass well. He has 22 offensive rebounds this season. It will be important for NU to block out like they did against Purdue. Were I Bill Carmody, I would stick with the switching man-to-man and avoid playing 1-3-1.

If NU does play man-to-man they will need a good performance from Kyle Rowley. In the first meeting, Luka Mirkovic was abused by Tisdale on the way to his 31 points. Rowley, however, was able to push Tisdale away from the hoop and make easy conversions more of a difficult task. Yes, the NU offense functions better with Mirkovic, and yes he’ll need to step up, but I think Rowley’s defense will be a key to NU’s success.

The final key to NU’s success will be how they approach the game on offense. In NU’s Big Ten wins, the ‘Cats have run their offense, found good shots, and even gotten fouled. In their losses they’ve fired up early threes and not run offense. Although NU might have some early looks against Illinois, I believe it is critical the ‘Cats run their offense and get the best possible shot. It will also be important to get Michael “Juice” Thompson involved in the scoring process. When Thompson adds punch to NU’s other scoring threats, NU is much more successful.

While this game will likely feature no shortage of Illini fans, I still think playing at home will help Northwestern. I also think the Wildcats will have learned from the first matchup and won’t let Illinois get as many easy baskets. Finally, as bad as NU’s loss to Ohio State was, I think it helped get several players, especially Jeremy Nash and Luka Mirkovic some extra rest. Having those two well rested to help attack the boards should assist NU. Northwestern, 65 Illinois, 60

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rushing the Court: Appropriate if NU beats Illinois? Too Common in Sports? Some Thoughts...

I was pleased to see the Northwestern fans rush the court after the upset of Purdue. I was pleased because it was a meaningful win and because I remember rushing the court after the Michael Jenkins game as one of the best moments of my NU fandom. When a team beats a top-10 opponent, even one who is struggling, that is without a doubt a court-rush worthy win.

On the other hand, I was surprised to see Michigan rush the court after beating UConn and Indiana rush the court after beating Minnesota. Michigan was actually a two-point favorite over UConn, and while Indiana isn’t great, Minnesota isn’t exactly a powerhouse either.

Is rushing the court becoming too common? Were the Michigan and Indiana fans jealous of those of us at Northwestern? Would Penn State rush the court if they beat the Wildcats? Should NU fans rush the court if the ‘Cats beat Illinois on Saturday?

All those questions are worthwhile, but I want to focus on the last one. The Wildcats host their instate rival on Saturday and it has been 6 years since NU beat the Illini in hoops. In that time Illinois has beaten the ‘Cats in every possible way. They’ve hammered the ‘Cats, they’ve won close games, and last year in Evanston they literally stole a win.

That victory drought would probably be enough for some people to say rush after the win, but I’m not sure that alone is enough. Rushing the court should be special. It will be less special if it is done after consecutive wins. Also, while Purdue was #6, Illinois is unranked. Apparently beating an unranked team is enough for Indiana to rush the court, but, believe it or not, winning should be more of an expectation in Evanston than Bloomington this year.

That said, I do think one circumstance exists which would dictate a court rushing after a victory over Illinois. That would be a last second game winning shot. If the game is the reverse of last season, in other words NU wins on a buzzer-beater, then I say rush the court. Part of the fun of rushing after the Jenkins shot was the spontaneous joy of victory. If at any point the same type of victory occurs, I’m all for a court storming. Overall, though, I think rushing the court should be saved for beating teams like #6 Purdue, not a UConn team you’re favored against or a Minnesota team which might not make the tournament.

Honestly, I think court/field rushing has become too common because people want to get on ESPN. As I said above, I think rushing the field of play is cool when it’s spontaneous. When football fans are waiting on the sidelines to rush I think that’s a bit ridiculous. I must say, though, I’ve come to enjoy what has become an NU football tradition of taking the field after winning the season’s last home game, expected or not, to congratulate the team. With NU ending the basketball season on the road, I’m not sure the a similar circumstance is possible, but if NU is a sure tournament team on March 3rd after they beat Chicago State, then maybe a similar event can occur.

What does everybody else think? Rush Saturday? Too Common?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Over Before It Started: Buckeyes Get Lead Early and Beat Wildcats 76-56

Northwestern hasn’t won at Ohio State since 1977. There was little question that doing so Tuesday night would be tough. What is disappointing more than the loss, though, is that this team looked like it could have been any of the Wildcat teams since 1977 which posted 0 or 1 Big Ten wins that played in Value City Arena—not possibly the best team Northwestern has ever fielded. Now, I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say Ohio State might be the Big Ten’s best team right now. Evan Turner, who put on a good show with 20 points and 13 rebounds, is the Big Ten’s best player. What’s frustrating about this game isn’t Northwestern lost to such a team, but that Northwestern basically handed Ohio State the game in the first 8 minutes. While Ohio State looked prepared to attack Northwestern’s defense, Northwestern looked lost on offense. After getting down, the Wildcats started to wildly force shots and try to make seemingly impossible passes. The result was a 40-17 halftime advantage for Ohio State and NU shooting just 18.2%. That type of shooting is simply a recipe for disaster. Some people will say that NU was just cold, but I firmly believe Northwestern made themselves cold by letting panic set in when OSU built a big early lead. For example, it was almost impossible to count the numbers of times someone made hopeless drive into the lane or forced up a three. What’s odd is Northwestern staged a big comeback against Ohio State last year so they should have known a comeback was possible. Not to mention if they players watched any basketball this weekend they saw comebacks from Minnesota and North Carolina, which while falling short, at least made games which looked out of hand very close down the wire.

I guess a certain amount of credit has to go to OSU coach Thad Matta who must have altered his attack after NU forced so many OSU turnovers last year. Instead of passing the ball out of bounds against the 1-3-1, Evan Turner was finding William Buford on the baseline for some of the easiest dunks I’ve ever seen. Aside for the ease which Buford got his dunks, what was also disappointing was the fact NU’s defensive change, a press, then resulted in even more easy Buckeye baskets. I felt that at that point NU’s athletic limits were very much in display.

Bill Carmody tried some different personal (Peljusic and Fruendt both played early) to ignite the Wildcats, but in the end only John Shurna truly stepped up. Shurna had 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting. NU’s next highest scorer was Drew Crawford who scored 11 points on 3-of-10 from the field. Crawford and Michael Thompson combined to shoot 5-of-20 overall and 4-of-13 from three. Crawford also only connected on 3-of-6 free throws. Perhaps one minor bright spot other than Shurna might have been Kyle Rowley’s five rebounds, but elements of Rowley’s offensive game still showed he has a way to go before becoming a complete player.

I would say the best move is for NU is to try and forget this game and concentrate on a huge game against Illinois this Saturday.

Also, don’t forget that Big Ten Network’s series HOOPS ON CAMPUS is coming to Northwestern!
They're looking for the best basketball players who don’t play for the team to participate in a SLAM DUNK CONTEST.

Open try-out Wednesday, January 20 at 7pm @ SPAC Courts.

They're also looking for 100 of the biggest NU hoops fans to come out and show your team spirit!

The contest takes place Thursday, January 21 at 7:30pm @ SPAC Courts.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Game 18: Northwestern Wildcats @ Ohio State

The Matchup: Northwestern (13-4) @ Ohio State (13-5)

Location: Value City Arena (Columbus, Ohio)

TV: Big Ten Network (6:00 PM CT Tuesday January 19th, 2010)
Radio: WCPT 92.7FM

Fun Fact: This is the only scheduled meeting between these teams this season. They split last year in two games which both came down to the final minute.

About the Game
Northwestern travels to Columbus Tuesday night to fact the Big Ten’s best player at a location where his team is unbeaten. Both the Wildcats and the Buckeyes defeated ranked teams in their last outing with the ‘Cats beating Purdue and OSU beating Wisconsin. Before their win over Wisconsin, OSU also beat Purdue behind a career night from Evan Turner.

As I’ve said before, there is no question in my mind that Turner is the best player in the Big Ten. His numbers 18.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg, and 5.3 apg tell some of that story. Watching him play against Purdue and Wisconsin pretty much told the rest of the story. When the Buckeyes needed someone to push them to victory over top flight opponents all they had to do was give the ball to Turner and get out of the way. It was the same story last year in Columbus when NU took a lead with just under 4 minutes left, but then Turner took over and essentially ended NU’s chances at victory.

So, how will NU try to stop Turner this year? Well, the ‘Cats played a great switching man-to-man defense against Purdue for most of the game. The only negative was that E’Twaun Moore was virtually unguardable for the ‘Cats. This is somewhat of an issue because Evan Turner is better than Moore. Last year, the ‘Cats played some man-to-man against Ohio State and forced some turnovers. However, it was injured guard/forward Jeff Ryan who was the ‘Cats primary defender on Turner. With Ryan out, it might be a lot to ask of Drew Crawford or Jeremy Nash to guard Turner with his 6-7 size.

Ohio State is still turnover prone because they don’t have a set point guard. Getting pressure on them is critical. NU’s 1-3-1 zone might be useful in doing this, but OSU has some very good shooters in Jon Diebler (45.2% 3PT), Jeremie Simmons (42.9% 3PT), and William Buford (36.9% 3PT). Those guys could pick apart the 1-3-1 if NU doesn’t force turnovers.

The best move for Northwestern might be to switch defenses regularly and not let the turnover prone Buckeyes get comfortable. NU has at times shown some press when playing man-to-man and the Buckeyes might be a good team to breakout the press against for extended periods. If you force them to make decisions in the backcourt, Minnesota showed those decisions are often bad. The other advantage NU would have in switching back to man-to-man regularly is how well playing man allowed the ‘Cats to rebound. Despite some inside beef from Dallas Lauderdale, OSU isn’t the best rebounding team. In fact, Turner and Buford get more boards than Lauderdale. As a team, OSU gets 33.7 rpg game. That’s about two more than their opponents.

This is a tough game to predict because while it looks like Ohio State has some big advantages, Northwestern’s John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic could offer some matchup problems for the Buckeyes. Of course, Evan Turner might neutralize those matchup issues all by himself because I don’t think anybody on NU’s roster can guard him. The biggest advantage Ohio State has, though, might be playing at home where they are 11-0. Part of me thinks it’s about time OSU’s current home winning streak and the home winning streak against NU (which dates back to before every player who will compete in the game was born) comes to an end. Another part of me thinks NU will have to wait to go to Minnesota to pick up their second Big Ten road win. Ohio State, 69 Northwestern 68

I’ll say that prediction could get reversed to a 1-point NU win if the Wildcats three point range, which has been mostly absent the last two games, returns to make up for some of the easy twos Turner will get breaking down NU’s defense. With as much as OSU likes to zone, I do think it is possible NU will hit about 14 threes and pull off the big upset.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Checking In On…Nikola Baran

Today at Welsh-Ryan Ramblings we’re going to start a new feature. Everyone once and awhile we’ll go around the country and take a quick look at what’s happening with a former Wildcat player or coach. It is my hope to eventually expand this feature to include interviews with former NU greats. If any former players are reading this and want to give the NU community an update on their current doings please send me and e-mail.

Today, we’re starting with former Wildcat center Nikola Baran who transferred from NU to Rollins College after the 2007-08 season. Most people probably remember Baran as a slim 6-7 guy who tried to play center, did poorly, and was eventually replaced by 6-8 Ivan Peljusic. I like to remember Baran for the picture above in which he shows the outpouring of emotion Wildcat players and fans had after NU finally broke through with their first Big Ten win in 2007-08 after a slew of close losses.

When NU recruited Baran the idea was that he would be a three point shooting big man. It never really worked out at Northwestern, but Nikola recently made a big splash in Division II with a three, and that’s part of the reason I want to spotlight him today. Baran's hit 25-of-59 threes this year, and when Rollins took on #2-ranked Florida Southern, it was a Nikola Baran three pointer with 2.3 second to go which gave Rollins the huge upset victory.

Overall, Baran averages 7.6 points per game for the Tars and plays just less than 20 minutes. On the face of it, you’d probably say Baran did the right thing leaving NU. He was undersized at center and NU brought in Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic, and Davide Curletti in a single year. Then again, he might have found a position as a backup forward this season after Coble and Ryan down. Regardless, it appears he has found a home in central Florida and I wish him continued success.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rush the Floor! Northwestern Takes Down #6 Purdue 72-64

Last month I listed the top 10 Northwestern basketball games of the 2000s. A number of those were games which, even though they occurred years ago, fans still talk about today. Tonight’s Wildcat victory over sixth-ranked Purdue will no doubt be another contest fans will talk about for years to come. It was a win which included contributions from all throughout the Wildcat roster. From guys you expect to play well in big wins like Michael “Juice” Thompson to surprises like Kyle Rowley. It also came at a time when the Wildcat program was teetering on the brink on slipping from early season ranked team to NIT-bubble resident. The ‘Cats might not get their ranking back after this win, but at least they have a win over a top-25 program which boosts their NCAA Tournament credibility.

The first half of the today’s game ended with NU holding a 26-25 lead. It was a sloppy first half with nine Northwestern turnovers, but the ‘Cats had done a few small things which setup their second half success. First off, they attacked the paint with Luka Mirkovic. Mirkovic’s ability to get a couple early baskets forced Purdue center JaJuan Johnson into foul trouble. In fact, Johnson didn’t even start the second half because of three fouls. NU also hit the glass aggressively. Kyle Rowley, who has taken a lot of criticism of late, came up big with 4 rebounds in the first half to help NU to a double-digit rebound advantage. Rowley also made four big free throws. Looking closely, it appears Rowley has worked hard at the line. He’s changed his shot to have less of an arc and now it looks much more likely to fall into the net instead of bricking on the back of the iron.

With NU’s centers having helped establish Wildcat inside dominance in the first half, NU started the second half attacking Purdue in the paint with Johnson on the bench. Luka Mirkovic picked up one of his two assists on a slick pass to Jeremy Nash and Mirkovic himself got an early second half look from Juice Thompson. Purdue then put Johnson back in the game and would eventually take the lead away from NU, but that was when NU’s backcourt started making a difference.

Thompson was NU’s leading scorer in the contest with 20 points. Three came when he converted a three point play to help the Wildcats answer a Purdue run on an amazing backdoor pass from Drew Crawford. Speaking of Crawford, when Purdue claimed a 50-48 lead and had NU inbounding with only 2 seconds left on the shot clock, momentum seemed about to swing Purdue’s way. However, Crawford got a huge screen from Jeremy Nash and found himself wide open to drill a three which gave the momentum back to NU.

A few moments later another Wildcat stepped up. Jeremy Nash made a one point game a three point game when he forced one of only six Purdue turnovers by jumping a pass and going all the way to the hoop for a layup. Shortly after that layup, Crawford made another big three with the shot clock running down to get NU up five and added a big three point play when he crossed over Purdue guard Ryne Smith and took the ball to the basket with authority.

To Purdue’s credit, the Boilers never gave up. But with the clock running down, and Purdue desperately trying to foul, the Wildcats went back to Luka Mirkovic when Juice dribbled around the defense and found the 6-11 center in a spread court situation with just over 18 seconds left. It should also be noted big free throws from Juice, Luka, Crawford, and Nash also helped NU salt away the game late. NU made 26-of-30 free throws in this game, almost the exact opposite of Wednesday against Wisconsin. If you look closely you’ll seen that when NU hits free throws (like today and at Michigan) they win Big Ten games. When they miss, they don’t. NU’s continued ability to come through at the line will bear close scrutiny the rest of the way.

Some numbers of note besides the free throw percentage were Luka’s final totals, 16 points and 10 rebounds. Juice’s shooting, 6-of-9 overall, 2-of-2 from three, 6-of-6 from the line. Also, Drew Crawford’s overall day, 15 points, 7 rebounds, 7-of-10 free throws, 2-of-2 threes. Finally, NU’s total rebounding numbers, a 42-23 advantage, making up for the fact the ‘Cats struggled to force turnovers and get off three points. In fact, the only 4 made threes NU had were the ones from Thompson and Crawford. The rest of the ‘Cats went 0-of-7 from behind the arc.

The bottom line, though, is this win gave Northwestern’s program a much needed second January victory. If NU gets two more wins this month they’ll be in great shape to make a run to the tourney. The stat people will probably contesting mention is the fact this is Northwestern’s first home win over a top-10 team since beating Michigan 97-93 in overtime at the end of the 1994 regular season. What I think is important is what this game does for NU’s collective psyche. After Wednesday, Northwestern was 0-2 at home in the Big Ten. That had to weigh on a team that knows very well winning at home is the key to making the Big Dance. Also, the ‘Cats also hadn’t recorded a truly big win in their previous 12 victories. Now, they have a marquee victory. Trust me, in the end Purdue might not be top-10 material, but they’ll finish in the top-25. From a fan’s perspective, it was also nice to see the ‘Cats give a big home crowd something to cheer about and a reason to rush the floor.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Game 17: Purdue @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Purdue (14-2) @ Northwestern (12-4)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (4:30 PM CT Saturday January 16th, 2010)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern and Purdue have split their last ten meetings. Before last year’s season split, both teams ran off four game win streaks. Northwestern first and then Purdue in the 2007 and 2008 Big Ten seasons.

About the Game
I didn’t expect Purdue to come into to this game having lost two straight. The loss at Wisconsin wasn’t totally unexpected, but Purdue losing at home to Ohio State was a big surprise to me. Of course, when I first looked at the schedule I didn’t think Ohio State would have Evan Turner back for that contest. I know NU doesn’t play Ohio State till next Tuesday, but as an aside, I still can’t believe Turner wasn’t Big Ten Player of the Year last season. I’m a Kalin Lucas fan, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t think of a more complete player than Turner.

Back to Purdue, obviously their best player is 6-8 forward Robbie Hummel, but before scoring 29 points and hitting 8 threes in the first half against Ohio State, Hummel was shooting just 28% from beyond the arc. Hummel’s performance in that first half should serve as an education for NU. He got those numbers because OSU played a lazy 1-3-1 zone. I’m not saying Coach Carmody shouldn’t play the 1-3-1, but NU cannot lapse into their lazy mode that they sometimes fall into if they want to beat the Boilermakers. To be honest, though, I’d like to see NU try some man-to-man against Purdue. Ohio State basically shut down Purdue in man-to-man and last year in NU’s win over Purdue, NU played man-to-man with their bench players and basically shut the Boilers down as well. The only missing element for NU might be that Jeff Ryan was the guy who guarded Hummel, but I think Drew Crawford could do the job this season.

Another note on NU’s victory over Purdue was the Wildcats did a good job cutting to the wing to get open threes or mid-range shots and avoiding Purdue shot blocker JaJuan Johnson inside. Johnson is an improving offensive player (14.2 ppg, 54.3% FGs), but he is potentially even more of a game changer on the defensive end of the floor. Johnson is the type of guy who can shutdown an inside game like NU’s by being a one man recovery unit for his teammates who get beat backdoor.

Other key Boilers, many of whom it seems have been in West Lafayette so long they must have played with Glenn Robinson, include E’Twaun Moore and Chris Kramer. Moore (16.9 ppg, 34.5% 3FG) is the Boilermakers top scorer this year and a traditional pain in NU’s backside. The most frustrating moment might have been two years ago when Moore scored 28 points against NU and then declared that he really wanted to attend NU, but wasn’t recruited by Bill Carmody. I have no idea of the truth of that story, but it was annoying to hear from a guy who just hit 10-of-15 field goals and pretty much won the game for his team. Chris Kramer is called by some the best on-ball defender in college basketball. He’ll probably get the job of chasing around John Shurna. Can Shurna use his height advantage on Kramer? If he can NU might have a recipe for easy points in the post, but Shurna better be ready for a battle because Kramer won’t shy away from contact.

Purdue and Northwestern are both pretty desperate. Purdue is trying to save their shot at the Big Ten Title (which to them is what this season was about) and NU is trying to save their shot at the NCAA Tournament (which to them is what this season was about). Both teams are also somewhat flawed in areas where the other can take advantage. Without Lewis Jackson, Purdue struggles against pressure. Without a consistent effort to blockout, Northwestern struggles against good rebounding teams. I could see Northwestern using pressure defense to turn Purdue over about 20 times and literally stealing a win. I won’t be shocked at all if that happens. However, I think it is more likely the game plays out like Wednesday, NU and Purdue will play close, but Purdue’s talent will win out. The game will just feature more points. Purdue, 70 Northwestern, 65

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Make NU Hoops Look Good

You might have read about this today at Lake the Posts, but I wanted to post it here as well. On Wednesday January 20th the Big Ten Network will be coming to Welsh-Ryan Arena to have tryouts for their Hoops on Campus program which airs on Friday nights. The program showcases basketball fandom at the various Big Ten institutions and this Northwestern’s chance to show off. Not only will the program feature a slam dunk contest, but the Big Ten Network wants to the see 100 biggest NU basketball fans as well to help make SPAC into a gameday like environment I know a great many of you reading this probably fit that bill, so take a look at this and consider coming out to help make NU look good. Here's the info:

Show your support of NU MEN’s HOOPS on NATIONAL TV!

Big Ten Network’s series HOOPS ON CAMPUS is coming to Northwestern!
We’re looking for the best basketball players who don’t play for the team to participate in a SLAM DUNK CONTEST.

Open try-out Wednesday, January 20 at 7pm @ SPAC Courts.

We’re also looking for 100 of the biggest NU hoops fans to come out and show your team spirit!

The contest takes place Thursday, January 21 at 7:30pm @ SPAC Courts.

Contact with questions or suggestions.

Let me say, I think this event, and the BTN's show, are great ideas. Part of the fun of the Big Ten Network should be that it can showcase elements of the Big Ten schools networks like ESPN and CBS ignore when they boardcast games. So let's make SPAC look awesome on Thursday the 21st.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Opportunity Lost: Badgers top Wildcats 60-50

There really isn’t much to say about this game (but I’ll probably say a fair amount anyway). This contest can be boiled down to Northwestern missing a ton of opportunities to not only win the game, but actually take a solid lead and put Wisconsin away. First, at one point Wisconsin missed ten straight shots and NU couldn’t take control of the game. The biggest lead NU got in that sequence was 3 points. Second, NU allowed Wisconsin a ton of second chances and failed to get steals. If you can’t get rebounds, you have to get steals. Northwestern did neither. Third, Northwestern couldn’t make free throws. They finished 9-of-16 from the line, but all seven misses were big. Luka Mirkovic and Drew Crawford missed opportunities to extend the lead and Michael Thompson missed a chance to keep NU in the game with Wisconsin up 52-48. Thompson’s miss essentially resulted in a five point play when he missed the front end of the 1-and-1 and Hughes drilled a three.

Northwestern has at least 16 games left before Selection Sunday, but in failing to take this game on their home court, a game which Wisconsin wanted to give away, Northwestern looks more like a team destined for the NIT or CBI than the NCAA Tournament. Some will say I’m jumping the gun in that declaration, and for the record I’m not saying NU won’t make the NCAA Tournament, but I’m just evaluating what I see right now. If NU wants to make the NCAA Tournament they will need to take a lesson from last year’s Badgers and at some point make up for a poor stretch with a huge run. Saturday would be a good opportunity to start. Purdue will be looking to preserve their shot at the Big Ten Title, NU will be looking for the key chance for a marquee win they let slip through their fingers today.

Right now, as good as the Wildcats are in some areas, they are seriously flawed in others. Not as flawed as teams like Michigan or Iowa, but the Wildcats do have some clear deficiencies which have kept them from what could have been a 3-1 league start. For starters, what was supposed to be a deep team gets no production off the bench. Injuries aside, the ‘Cats are a five man team. In the last two games, NU’s bench production has been two Kyle Rowley rebounds and a lot of fouls. That’s not a recipe for success. Also, NU really isn’t a consistent free throw shooting team. The ‘Cats came through with free throws Sunday, but could have built an addition to Welsh-Ryan with their bricks tonight. Good teams are consistent from the line, especially from guys who are ball handlers and three point shooters. A little more consistency from behind the arc would also help NU. Somehow, Bill Carmody needs to get some pressure off of Thompson so he can get shots. Wisconsin is a good model. Letting Jordan Taylor handle some of the point guard load helps Hughes get into the offense more as a shooter. NU also failed to get anywhere near the 11 three pointers I said they would need to win. In fact, the ‘Cats hit just 5 and only 1 in the second half.

Looking at the stats, John Shurna played another solid game with 15 points and 6 rebounds (by my unofficial count) and Jeremy Nash added a more than adequate 13 points. I was very pleased see Nash play well. Also, Luka Mirkovic scored 8 points and had 10 rebounds, but as much as Wisconsin controlled the glass, I’m not sure I’d call Mirkovic’s performance his best. Some of those rebounds would have been tough to get too, but Coach Carmody did pull Luka after the two he missed out on when Wisconsin extended the lead and it looked as if he felt Luka didn't get into position.

Finally, I have to say the students did a very nice job of showing up tonight. However, I was still disappointed by the number of Badger fans present. I suspect it’ll be a similar situation Saturday with Purdue. Hopefully NU can fix some of their issues and those fans won’t have as much to cheer about.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Game 16: Wisconsin @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Wisconsin (13-3) @ Northwestern (12-3)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:30 PM CT Wednesday January 13th, 2010)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Wisconsin has six players on their roster of 16 players from their home state of Wisconsin. Northwestern has 7 (or 8 if you count Rowley) from their home state of Illinois.

About the Game
Wisconsin comes into this game fresh off a big upset win over then #4 Purdue. That has to give the Badgers confidence, but Welsh-Ryan hasn’t been an easy place for Bo Ryan’s teams over the years (plus NU has to feel pretty good after beating Michigan on the road). During Bo Ryan’s career as the head coach at Wisconsin, some very good Bager teams have taken an “L” or been forced to fight to the finish against the Wildcats in Evanston. Perhaps this is because Northwestern generally matches up well with Wisconsin as long as a raucous Kohl Center crowd isn’t there to intimidate the Wildcats.

Thinking about NU's matchup with Wisconsin, I think a key guy to stop will be Jason Bohannon. Bohannon has always been a great shooter, but he played one of the most impressive all around games of the season against Purdue. Not only did he shoot, but he got rebounds, got assists, and even blocked shots. A few days before against Michigan State he didn’t even seem to want to shoot. Taylor also had a great against Purdue, more than doubling his 9.3 points per game average. Part of the reason for that, though, was Wisconsin’s point guard Trevon Hughes was in foul trouble against the Boilers and spent a ton of time on the bench. Without Hughes’s 15.8 ppg, the Badgers looked more for Taylor. I’d predict that one of the two will have a good game against Northwestern. Therefore, it’ll be stopping Bohannon from getting easy looks at threes (as MSU did) which might be a defensive key for NU.

Obviously, a key issue in this game will be that Wisconsin will not have the services of Jon Leuer. Leuer is 6-10 and talented enough to score both inside (15.4 ppg) and outside (35.5% from three). Basically, he’s the player that Northwestern expects Luka Mirkovic to be. Often times teams rally after losing a star player, but Leuer going down is going to hurt Wisconsin. Fellow forward Keaton Nankivil will have to step his game for Wisconsin to continue to be successful not just vs the 'Cats, but all season.

The other major issue for NU will be handling Wisconsin’s defensive pressure. Purdue failed to do so, but they’re actually still a little weak in the backcourt without Lewis Jackson. Hopefully Juice Thompson’s two years of experience against the Badgers will make Wisconsin’s defense a non-factor against NU’s offense.

Wisconsin won with limited production from Jon Leuer on Saturday, but his presence on the court still helped the Badgers. His being on the bench will be an advantage to NU. Unfortunately, right now Wisconsin may still have something of a big crowd in Evanston as tickets remain. Hopefully a full NU student section can neutralize that advantage. I believe the two magic numbers for an NU victory will be 11 and 10. I think Northwestern needs to break the Wisconsin defense and hit 11 threes and they need to pick up 10 steals to counter the fact that even without Leuer, Wisconsin still has size. With Drew Crawford breaking out and Jeremy Nash waking up, I think NU can do both and win a close game. Northwestern, 67 Wisconsin 65

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Most Important Player in NU’s Quest to Upset Top-20 Foes

It might surprise some people, but I don’t think Michael “Juice” Thompson or John Shurna will be NU’s most important player when NU takes on two of the Big Ten’s top teams this week. Don’t get more wrong, they’re great players who are critical to NU’s success, but I think the guy who NU needs to show up and play big in order to ensure success is senior guard Jeremy Nash. More specifically, Nash needs to be involved in the offense as a three pointer shooter and the defense as someone who aggressively seeks steals.

Part of the reason for this is the team can greatly benefit from Nash’s experience which seems to stabilize the young ‘Cats , but Nash’s importance isn’t just intangible. It is in fact very tangible. Take a look at NU’s three biggest wins (Notre Dame, Iowa State, and N.C. State) and you’ll find a common element. Jeremy Nash stuffed the stat sheet.

Against Notre Dame, Nash played 39 minutes. He scored 6 points (2 threes), grabbed 6 rebounds, dished out 5 assists, had 2 steals, and 2 blocks.

Against Iowa State, Nash played 36 minutes. He scored 10 points (2 more threes), grabbed 3 rebounds, dished out 5 more assists, and had 2 more steals.

Against N.C. State, Nash played only 33 minutes due to foul trouble, but he scored 12 points (again 2 threes), grabbed 8 rebounds, dished out 4 assists, had 2 more steals, and added another block.

If you’ll notice, in all those games Nash made critical threes. This was important because it forced the defense to respect his shot and allowed for more open looks from guys like John Shurna in the post and Juice from the outside. When Nash doesn’t hit shots, like MSU or UTPA, teams are allowed to focus more on NU’s better known three point threats.

Jeremy also helped administer the offense in those three games above. When Nash isn’t involved as a distributer NU struggles. This is because as a senior Nash probably has the best command of NU’s Princeton Offense other than, perhaps, Juice. Nash plays smart. He knows when to attack the basket and when to throw the ball backdoor. However, Nash’s ability to attack and get clear passing lanes is assisted by his ability to make three pointers. On cold shooting nights, Nash’s efforts to attack the hoop tend to be more desperate and forced and they result in nights like the game against Michigan State where Jeremy missed three shots from 2 feet or closer.

On defense, Jeremy Nash had an average of 2 steals per game in those big wins. He also was a massive disruption to Michigan’s offense in NU’s huge comeback. On the other hand, in NU’s recent losses Nash struggled to get his hands on any passes. It seems NU’s entire defense takes their cues from Nash. When he is lazy, the team’s lazy. They don’t hustle to deny passing lanes and they watch other teams grab rebounds. This was evident on Sunday when an aggressive Jeremy Nash started tipping passes and seemed to wake up NU’s 1-3-1 defense.

Bottom line, Jeremy Nash filled up the stat sheet both offensively and defensively in NU’s biggest wins. If the ‘Cats want to pull upsets against Top-20 Big Ten foes they need big games from thier senior leader.

News and Notes: DePaul fired coach Jerry Wainwright. This isn't much of a suprise, but after bringing him back after last year I'm suprised they fired him so early this year. It will be interesting to see if the Demons move to hire a full-time replacement right away or wait until till the end of the year...Wisconsin has lost forward Jon Leuer due to a wrist injury. More on Leuer in the game preview I'll post Tuesday.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Crawford Rallies Wildcats From Down 17 to Top Michigan 68-62

In front of a large Michigan crowd, but also his father, NBA official Danny Crawford, Northwestern freshman guard Drew Crawford scored 25 points and proved the key force in getting the Wildcats a much needed 68-62 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor. If Northwestern wants to make the NCAA Tournament they probably need at least three Big Ten road wins and after the loss to Illinois this was a much needed W.

The Wildcats fell down 31-14 with a little over four and a half minutes to go in the first half and things looked like they were in danger of getting ugly. However, Drew Crawford went of a personal 11-0 run to bring the Wildcats back into the game before half. In the second half, Crawford added 13 more points including the dunk of the year (even better than his own dunk against Illinois) on a put-back of a Jeremy Nash missed layup to help the ‘Cats pull out a hard fought victory. In sum total, Crawford added 8 rebounds and a steal to his 25 points. Of those 25 points, 12 came from three point range and an impressive 7 came from the free throw line. His free throws included four huge free throws which to first give NU a 63-62 lead and another two to extend that advantage. The only criticism would be he did have five turnovers. Those TOs are somewhat excusable, however, because this was really the first time in Drew’s college career he was being looked to as a go-to guy in a conference contest. I think NU will now look to Crawford even more. I am confident he’ll be able to deliver solid double figure efforts, especially if his teammates continue to get him open looks.

Part of the reason Crawford managed to get looks was a surprisingly big game from Luka Mirkovic who scored 13 points and had 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Mirkovic used his height advantage on DeShawn Dims to get some easy looks at the basket and he converted the majority of them. If Mirkovic can continue this type of performance it will be a huge lift for Northwestern as pressure will come off on NU’s primary three point shooters.

Aside from Crawford and Mirkovic, the Wildcats also got solid games from both Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna. Through both were nearly invisible in the first half, they both finished in double figures. Thompson scored 15 points and Shurna netted 11. The fact NU staged its comeback, and even built at 10 point lead, when both these guys were scoring shows something critical. If both Thompson and Shurna both have big games, and they can do so against Big Ten teams, Northwestern is nearly impossible to beat. This is akin to Kevin Coble and Craig Moore last season. Often times teams stop one or the other, but when they both score the Wildcats can get any shot they want. The good news is with Crawford emerging, and possibly Mirkovic as well, Thompson and Shurna should be able to get better shots because defenses can’t just focus on them.

Speaking of defense, I have to say I was really worried when I saw NU play 1-3-1 in the first half and Michigan started drilling threes. At first, I couldn’t believe Bill Carmody didn’t switch out it in the second half, but the Wildcats made their coach look smart by increasing the intensity in the 1-3-1 in half number two. Jeremy Nash got a couple steals and tipped a ton more passes and it actually seemed like if NU had played with that same intensity early in the game they would have won by 15. Regardless, the ‘Cats did get the win, but they probably will not be able to play such a lackluster first half and still win in their next two games against Wisconsin and Purdue.

A couple other areas NU will need to improve before welcoming two top-20 teams to Welsh-Ryan include bench production and free throw shooting. Northwestern scored zero (0) bench points today. Now, I’ll admit the starters played a lot of minutes, but both Kyle Rowley and Alex Marcotullio had chances to score. I’ll get to Rowley in a second because it relates to point two. On Marcotullio, I fear he has hit a freshman wall. Crawford might avoid such a problem because he looks like he can physically stand up to the rigor and intensity of the Big Ten basketball games and practice every day. On the other hand, Marcotullio isn’t physically at the same point as Crawford. Marcotullio still looks like a high school player. Now, he’s had very good year, but right now I think he is probably a little beat up and exhausted. Hopefully, he’ll break through that wall soon.

On point number two, other than Drew Crawford going 7-for-8, Northwestern struggled from the free throw line. Kyle Rowley missed two free throws, Jeremy Nash made only 2-of-4 (and is in a major slump after being automatic early) and Juice made just 1-of-2. If NU wants to upset Wisconsin and/or Purdue they must take advantage of free throw attempts.

Finally, I want to give some props to two people. First, to Nick Fruendt who played just one minute, but broke into the scorebook with a key steal. Also, to Loretta8 from Sippin’ On Purple who wrote the only preview I read which predicted a Northwestern win.

The Wildcats are at home Wednesday against Wisconsin. I haven’t officially heard if it is a sell-out, but I suspect it will be by tip off, so let’s get as much purple in there as possible because I know there will be red.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Game 15: Northwestern Wildcats @ Michigan

The Matchup: Northwestern (11-3) @ Michigan (8-6)

Location: Crisler Arena (Ann Arbor, MI)

TV: Big Ten Network (1:30 PM CT Sunday Jan. 10th)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: Bill Carmody got his first Big Ten road win at Michigan. Michigan was also the site of the 2007-08 Wildcats only Big Ten win.

About the Game
These two teams are very similar in how they play. Michigan was the only Big Ten team to beat the ‘Cats twice during the league schedule last season and that may have had to do with Michigan’s familiarity with the 1-3-1 defense. It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats attack the Wolverines offense this season. The 1-3-1 hasn’t been that effective of late, so NU might just scrap it all together versus UM.

UM’s offense is led by two future NBA players, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, the good news for NU is that while those two might be the best players in game, NU star John Shurna probably has a stronger supporting cast. You have to respect Harris scoring 19.4 points per game and Sims (17.3 ppg) playing as a threat both inside, where he converts more than 50% of his shots, and outside where at around 30% he converts enough to get the respect of other big men. This is important because like NU, Michigan will use the fact centers have to play outside on defense to setup backdoor cuts. This could the less of an issue for NU’s defenders if the ‘Cats play some type of zone. Sims is coming off two huge games in the Wolverines two game Big Ten winning steak against Ohio State and Penn State. Against OSU, Sims scored 28 points and he added another 25 versus Penn State to move his career total to 1,290 points. He should get to 1,300 against Northwestern.

UM’s other players are mostly three point shooters or ball handlers. However, they’ve really struggled shooting the three as they’re last in the Big Ten in three point percentage at 29.6%. As far as handling the ball, UM’s coaching staff has rotated a number of players to the point guard spot. Stu Douglass and Zack Novack are probably the best at taking care of the ball. Novack only has 9 turnovers this year in 421 minutes and Douglass has 10 in 387. NU will also need to be aware of him and Laval Lucas-Perry who helped the Wolverines break out of a major shooting slump in the second half at Penn State by hitting four threes. Before that, UM was 0-for-14 from behind the arc. With Michigan, like Northwestern, dependent on made threes for much of their offense, hitting open shots is critical to the team’s success.

This is a tough game to predict. A week and a half ago I would have said NU could go into to Crisler and win easy, but now I have serious questions about NU on both offense and defense. I think the past few games we have finally seen Northwestern start to miss Kevin Coble. Sure, John Shurna has scored a lot of points, but NU has seemed to lack a go to guy when suffering long scoring droughts where Coble could have taken the ball and got a good shot at the hoop. Shurna can get good looks, but he’s more dependent than Coble would have been on getting a teammate to set him up for a good look. If NU’s scoring problems continue in Ann Arbor, it’ll be a problem because I’m not sure how NU will stop Harris and Sims. Sims is actually scarier to me because Harris could have an off day shooting, but I don’t know how Luka Mirkovic or Kyle Rowley can defend Sims. I think this game will offer a chance for Ivan Peljusic or Davide Curletti to show their stuff. Hopefully they’ll take advantage because this game is critical for NU. However, after Thursday night I can’t honestly predict a Northwestern win. I hope I’m wrong, but I see Michigan’s athletes being too much for an NU squad which is slumping shooting and getting lazy on defense. Michigan, 77 Northwestern, 64

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shurna Enough to get ‘Cats Past UTPA 53-44

John Shurna now has 20 points or more five games in a row. (AP Photo)

“If Shurna wasn’t out there I don’t think we would have scored.” – Bill Carmody

The above quote, provided by Coach Bill Carmody during his postgame interview on WIND radio, pretty sums up tonight’s game between Northwestern and Texas-Pan America. John Shurna scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to record his first career double-double. Luka Mirkovic helped out with 11 points and 11 rebounds for a double-double of his own. No other NU player made more than one field goal.

NU’s second leading scorer, Michael “Juice” Thompson, didn’t score until 11:53 remained in the game. Jeremy Nash, an 87% free throw shooter, converted only one of his first four free throws attempts. Thankfully, Nash did covert his final three in a row to help seal the game.

Basically, this looked a lot more like an NU team from two or three years ago than the NU team from two or three weeks ago. The ‘Cats started the game with two missed layups and three turnovers on their first five possessions. They finished the game with a season-high 19 turnovers. Thompson had probably the worst game of his career since taking on a loaded Michigan State team two years ago as a freshman. He finished 1-of-9 shooting with 5 turnovers. He did covert 4-of-5 free throws some of which were critical down the stretch. It should also be noted that Coach Carmody did indicate Juice has been taking an easy in practice since hurting his hip late against Illinois. That might impact his rhythm. It’d be nice if Juice could just rest a bit more given the injury situation, but NU’s really short at the guard spots. Also, NU’s freshman guards looked more like freshman tonight than maybe any games since the contests in the season first week. Alex Marcotullio had 4 turnovers which were pretty much the result of his making terrible decisions on attempts to enter the ball in the post. Drew Crawford went 1-of-7 shooting and missed all his three point attempts. I hope this doesn’t mean they’ve hit that wall freshman often encounter early in the Big Ten season.

Basically, Coach Carmody’s quote above is dead on. This was John Shurna’s game, with a little late help from Luka. Shurna hit 5-of-7 threes tonight and had a 20+ point game for the fifth game in a row. If his teammates had been able to get him the ball more regularity Shurna probably could have scored 30 tonight. Luka Mirkovic continues to, at times, look unaggressive, but I did like how he attacked the glass against a smaller opponent tonight. However, Luka needs to get more comfortable looking to score close to the hoop. Also, for a player billed as a shooter, right now Mirkovic’s shot isn’t very consistent. He was 5-of-9 from the free throw line tonight and his struggles both there and from the arc since the Stanford game are well documented.

Off this uninspired effort, NU now plays their biggest game of the season to date Sunday at Michigan. The Wolverines have been inconsistent, but they’re feeling good right now after a big comeback win over Penn State which will no doubt give them some positive momentum. Northwestern needs to forget their past few games and refocus on becoming the confident team they were in late December. If that NU team arrives in Ann Arbor the ‘Cats have a good shot at Michigan. If the team from tonight visits Chrysler Arena, I think Manny Harris will be a happy camper.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Game 14: Texas-Pan America @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Texas-Pan America (1-15) @ Northwestern (10-3)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: for $2.99
Radio: WIND 560AM

Fun Fact: Two possible UTA starters Julius Hearn and Matt Mierzycki are from the Chicago area.

About the Game
On paper this game doesn’t seem like much of a contest. Northwestern is competing for its first NCAA Tournament bid in history and has played well at home other than losses to a top-25 Butler team and the disaster contest Saturday versus Michigan State. The Wildcats also have Big Ten Player of the week John Shurna. On the other hand, the UTPA Broncs don’t have a player who scores in double figures and have serious problems winning on the road.

UTPA’s leading scorer at just over 9 points per game is Jared Maree. Maree is a 6-3 guard from Houston, Texas who makes just about 40% of his shots from the field and from three point range. The leading rebounder for the Broncs is a Chicago area product. Junior Forward Matt Mierzycki went to high school at Glenbrook South before playing two years for Parkland Community College. Mierzycki has only played 7 games so far this year and was originally planning to redshirt, but the Broncos coaching staff inserted the 6-6 forward against Texas and he has been in the starting lineup most of the games since. He is the only Broncs player with more than 5 rebounds per game.

Looking at how the much smaller Broncs might attack NU, guard Ben Smith shoots a ton of threes, but makes less than 33%. His teammate Nick Weiermiller also likes to shot the three (about 50% of his shot attempts), however, like Smith his percentage of made threes is in the low 30% range. As a team, the Broncs have struggled to make threes this year.

The best overall player on the Broncs is probably 6-7 forward Luis Valera scores about 9 points per game and averages a bit short of five boards. He is also the only Broncs started to covert more than 50% of his field goal attempts.

This game shouldn’t be much of a contest. I expect Northwestern to work on what they need to do in order to win a tough Big Ten game coming up at Michigan. If I were Bill Carmody I would have my guys put emphasis on defense and not forcing bad threes with a ton of time on the shot clock. Northwestern, 89 UTPA, 54

Monday, January 4, 2010

Full Student Section Can Make a Difference

Welsh-Ryan can be a very tough place to play when students pack in below the baskets. ( photo)

As we go through the rest of the season, I think one off the floor aspect which could help NU is a full student section. NU’s students have done a really good job of filling the seats beneath the baskets so far this season when in school. I hope that continues.

Thursday, the ‘Cats play a non-conference game against Texas-Pan America at 6:00PM. On the face of it, that day on the schedule looks like Welsh-Ryan Arena could be a dead zone, but I’m hoping that will not be the case. UTPA is the first home game of Winter Quarter and the first home game for students since NU busted into the national media spotlight for its Kevin Coble-less success. Yes, the ‘Cats are somewhat out of the spotlight thanks to the underwhelming game last week vs MSU, but it could also be a very entertaining game as these Wildcats have shown the ability to play a little “showtime” style basketball when facing an undermanned opponent and UTPA, with just one win so far, is pretty undermanned.

In fact, I think this would be a great game for students who don’t always attend home games to attend in order to get a look at the team’s ability. Hopefully, they’ll like what they see and comeback when Purdue, Wisconsin, and the rest of the Big Ten come to town.

With this post I want to specifically encourage the students who attend all the time to try and bring a friend or two out to the game Thursday night. I know it's tough, but see if you can get them hooked on the Wildcats. At least you've got a 10-3 record to help your sales pitch. It’s very clear the ‘Cats seem to feed off the energy of the student section and I bet they’d love to see the place packed not only for the “big guys” but for any contest they play. I also bet the players would appreciate seeing a large crowd after the MSU loss. These guys are Northwestern athletes, they’re smart, and they know the crowds at NU tend to shrink after losses, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Let’s make Thursday an exception the rule.

I also believe a full student section of purple has to be intimidating to those teams that come into Welsh-Ryan. Because it’s different in design than most college arenas Welsh-Ryan has been known as a tough place to shoot. When student fans that are nearly on the court can start screaming at players as they come to the free throw line the place can get even more intimidating.

Finally, I’d like to hear from students about what sort of buzz exists on campus for the ‘Cat hoopsters. Did Saturday have a negative impact? Are people planning on going to upcoming games or watching road contests? Send in your e-mails to and let me know what’s being said in Sargent and LR2 (and other dorms and classrooms) about the ‘Cats.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Positive Thoughts...

This week has been really tough as an NU fan. Therefore, I went back into my archives decided to rerun a post from last year about my favorite experience as a Wildcat fan. I hope this reminds everyone why following the ‘Cats is so much fun.

On January 26, 2005, Northwestern and Iowa met for what is my favorite ever game as a Northwestern fan. Though I hold great hope that this year’s team will provide me tournament action which will usurp Michael Jenkins’s clutch three as my favorite NU basketball fan moment, the heroics of Jenkins and Vedran Vukusic will always be my favorite NU student fan moment.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Another Painful Loss: MSU Thrashes Wildcats at Home 91-70

Good teams make other teams play badly. That’s why they are good teams. They play defense or execute offense in such a way that their opponent is not able to play the game they are accustom to playing. Michigan State is a good team and did a number of things to take Northwestern out of their standard game such as always having a bigger player guard 5-10 Michael “Juice” Thompson and attacking the basket in transition flawlessly. Combined with a less than strong effort from NU on defense and a number of missed easy shots and free throws, Michigan State handled Northwestern with what can only be called from NU’s point of view embarrassing ease.

For example, Michigan State executed their offense well, but NU was pretty unaggressive on defense in the second half in both the 1-3-1 and 2-3 matchup zone. That might have been due to foul trouble, but NU didn't really start the half that aggressive either. NU always seemed to be reacting to something Michigan State did (which to be honest is what resulted in fouls) instead of aggressively trying to play defense and deny the passing lanes. I still think Northwestern is a solid team (a postseason team), but we’ve now seen NU play poorly on defense in both its Big Ten games. Today was particularly bad as MSU shot better than 60% from the field. NU’s next game is at home on Thursday versus Texas-Pan America. UTPA is awful, but if Northwestern plays defense like did the last two contests it’ll be a close game. If I were Bill Carmody I would use practice to put extra emphasis on working on defense. Maybe working more on the press NU has briefly shown.

Northwestern knows how to play offense. Even tonight NU got a lot of good shots. What was disappointing on offense for NU was how many layups NU missed. After John Shurna missed two early layups (though he at least made the rest of his easy shot attempts) I started counting missed layups for NU. The final total for missed layups by NU excluding layups missed when fouled (though I think NU could have finished a number of those) was 10 missed easy layups. That’s 20 points. Add 7 missed free throws and the total is 27 points NU without a doubt should have scored. That’s the difference between a close game and getting manhandled on your home court. If you want to place specific blame on players for not converting at the hoop, Jeremy Nash and Luka Mirkovic each missed three layups, but they had plenty of company in the category of guys who failed to finish.

The only Wildcats who really played well tonight were John Shurna who scored 29 points and does legitimately look like a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate (though his teammates will need to pick it up for him to get real consideration) and Alex Marcotullio who hit enough threes and free throws to score 16 points. Marcotullio also had one of NU’s few good defensive plays when he jumped in front of pass at the top of the 1-3-1 for a steal.

As I said above, I still think Northwestern is a good team, but they’ll really have something to prove their next two games. A home game versus UTPA should be an easy win, but with NU’s recent poor execution they have plenty to work on that night. Then NU starts Big Ten road play at Michigan. If NU seriously wants to be an NCAA Tournament team they need to pick up at least three conference road wins and that game presents an opportunity which can’t be missed after the OT loss at Illinois.