Thursday, February 25, 2010
Revenge Served for NU: Shurna’s 29 points allow ‘Cats to Payback Hawkeyes with 74-57 Victory
Everybody associated with Northwestern basketball must have uttered something along the lines of, “Well, that’s more like it,” when tonight’s game ended. I know I did. For the first time since a home victory over Indiana on February 7th, Northwestern seemed to show up for both halves of a basketball game. The result was NU’s best win since that early February contest. The victory was keyed by a strong start which involved baskets from Drew Crawford and Luka Mirkovic, but without a doubt the star of the game was John Shurna who finished with 29 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocked shots. Shurna might not be first team All-Big Ten give the loaded talent field in the league, but his game is as well-rounded and versatile as any other candidate for that honor. Plus, as just a sophomore, both Shurna and his team are getting smarter about understanding what he can do.
I think NU learned something in the second half at Wisconsin about how they do not have to settle for threes to score points. Tonight, Northwestern was 22-of-30 on two point field goal attempts. 6 of those 22 makes were from Shurna and 5 each came from Luka Mirkovic and Michael “Juice” Thompson. Without a doubt, Northwestern will continue to shoot and make three pointers, however, NU will get more open three pointers if they attack and score inside consistently. This occurred in the second half at Wisconsin and it occurred from the opening tip tonight. What will make this strategy work consistently, and what helped tonight, is Luka Mirkovic’s continued development and John Shurna’s smart play. The last two games Mirkovic has been able to score inside almost at will with a variety of up-and-under moves, pump fakes, and drop steps. Shurna has also become more assertive inside and is attacking going at the basket off the dribble or off backdoor cuts instead of trying 10+ threes in a game. As a result, these two players, who have a size advantage of many opponents, get easy looks at the basket which they can covert to two points without much trouble. In Shurna’s case, it allows him open threes as well since teams fear his attack at the hoop and they then back off him and give him space to shoot. Tonight, Shurna made 4-of-6 three point shots and he got his first open look because he scored twice on backdoor cuts and Iowa stepped off him a bit. Hopefully, NU will continue to attack the paint with Mirkovic and Shurna. If they do so, I believe they will be successful. However, these two players must convert free throws. Shurna overall has been good from the line, but Mirkovic is inconsistent and must improve as a commitment to getting him the ball will result in him shooting free throws.
Michael “Juice” Thompson’s willingness to attack the hoop tonight also deserves note. Now, certainly Thompson was better able to attack against Iowa because they didn’t have a 7-foot shot blocker, but with his speed Thompson should be able to get the ball inside fairly consistently as a result of drives when NU overloads one side of the court, spread floor situations, or backdoor cuts. He may not always been able to shoot in these situations, he is just 5-10, but these types of drives also open passing lanes. Tonight, Thompson scored 12 points (10 on 5-of-5 from inside the three point line) and dished out 6 assists against only 1 turnover. That’s a great game for a point guard. Also, Thompson is a good enough outside shooter that he doesn’t have to worry about getting and making three point looks. His three point attempts and makes will come as long as NU runs the offense without panic.
I feel the same way about Jeremy Nash. Nash finished his Big Ten home career with a 15 point night. He made 2-of-6 threes, but 4-of-4 inside the arc, including an impressive three point play. At about 30%, Nash isn’t a great three point shooter, but when he gets looks where he has time to set his feet he usually makes shots. Those looks generally come when Nash ends up wide open as result of a well run Princeton Offense that has at some point tossed the ball inside or gotten a Thompson drive.
I also want to give some credit to NU’s bench play tonight. Three players, Davide Curletti, Alex Marcotullio, and Mike Capocci all played double-digit minutes. That’s rare for NU. They only scored 4 points, but they hustled on defense and ended up with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and a blocked shot. Capocci recorded the block on a jump shot and it showed off his athletic skill. I also liked seeing Curletti scrap down low for rebounds (5 total) and look for guys to pass the ball in the offense (3 assists), if he keeps giving NU solid minutes off the bench it will give Mirkovic time for much needed breaks.
Lastly, tonight wasn’t senior night, as originally reported. However, NU did honor a couple alums. First, NU’s newest Board of Trustees member, Michael Wilbon, was honored at halftime of the game. Also, former NU player, coach and retiring Big Ten Associate Commissioner Rich Falk was honored by NU AD Jim Phillips. On Wednesday, NU will hold senior night as the ‘Cats take on Chicago State. Odds are the crowd will be slim, but NU’s Athletic Department is trying to cram a ton of events into that night in hopes the crowd won’t be as small as it might otherwise end up being. In addition to honoring NU’s seniors, the Wildcat women’s lacrosse team will receive their National Championship rings. Also, any elementary school student with a 3.0 or higher can get two free tickets, and it will Heroes’ Night so any armed services member or public safety official and their families can attend free as well. Hopefully, that’ll add to the crowd. I’d also like to see a few more students. The student sections did grow as tonight went on, but it was nothing like the loaded student sections for the Purdue and Illinois games.
NU tied the school record mark of 18 total wins in a season with this victory. Given NU's problems with Penn State, it would be nice if NU could break the record Sunday. I think such a victory could serve as another symbol of NU's effort to move the program forward.