It wasn’t always the cleanest game, but in the end Northwestern came away from tonight’s Big Ten matchup with a key victory in their quest to make the NCAA Tournament. This victory moves the Wildcats to 15-7 overall and puts them in a position to compete for an at-large bid if they finish the season strong. How did Northwestern pull out what turned out to be a very impressive victory? By putting together a total team effort on both offense and defense.
The Wildcats 10-of-20 three point shooting and 21 assists on 25 made field goals were very impressive, but I was even more impressed with the defensive effort NU put forth. Northwestern’s defense has been (correctly) criticized at times this season. Statistics clearly show NU has been much less effective on the defensive end of the court than last season. You could put together a lot of theories for this, but to be honest in my eyes it’s pretty easy explanation. At times it looks like Northwestern simply gets lazy on defense. If you watch closely, you can tell when Jeremy Nash or Alex Marcotullio is really active at the top of the 1-3-1 or when they simply go through the motions. You can also tell when NU seriously fights through screens in the switching man-to-man or when the ‘Cats chose to take an easy and act as if they want to save energy. Early in the game NU looked like they wanted to conserve energy, but from about the under four minute in the first half until the finish of the game, NU got serious about defense. Although he has really struggled on offense, and wasn’t much better today, I have to give credit to Alex Marcotullio for being a big part of that wakeup call. After Jeremy Nash went out with two fouls, Marcotullio had to enter the game at the top of the 1-3-1 and was very active. He tipped and kicked a couple passes and was clearly working hard to move his feet and create difficult passes. Marcotullio’s intensity carried over to Nash and the rest of his teammates in the second half. NU switched out of the 1-3-1 to the switching man-to-man and did a remarkable job defending Manny Harris. NU made a clear effort to make Harris play to his weaknesses. A number of defenders spent time getting in front of Harris and trying to force him to either dribble left and his weak hand, or take a jump shot (where he makes less than 30%) as opposed to take an easy right hand drive to the hoop. Though a number of Wildcats were involved, I want to give special credit to Luka Mirkovic, who despite having obvious athletic disadvantages, played great help defense on Harris when he tried to drive and played man-to-man on DeShawn Sims so well that Sims eventually started committing frustration fouls. Luka also got 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals (one of which was a spectacular effort where he gave up his body). The Big Ten Network show the Journey is supposed to feature Luka this week and he put on a good show for the BTN crew to film tonight.
NU also got a performance from Drew Crawford which might have made Michigan feel as if they were in a time warp. Crawford scored 11 second half points to help put the game out of reach. He made 4 threes, but his runner from the right baseline and his and-1 reverse layup were his most memorable shots. At time Crawford makes silly freshman mistakes and forces passes, but little doubt exists he is NU’s most athletic player and the clear front runner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
NU outrebounded Michigan 30 to 27. Jeremy Nash pulled down 11 of those rebounds and John Shurna added 8. This might not have been Nash’s best offensive game in terms of shooting the ball (2-of-9), but he was all over place on the boards and played great defensive, plus he contributed on offense with 5 assists. Shurna scored 15 points and also had 5 assists. I also really liked how Shurna didn’t force things. He let the game come to him and ended up shooting threes at the right time and shooting twos at the right time.
NU’s other double figure scorer was Michael “Juice” Thompson. Thompson scored 12 points and NU moved to 12-2 when Thompson hits double figures. Juice had 3 turnovers in this game, which is a lot for him, but you can tell just how much confidence Northwestern gets from having Thompson run the team. He always seems to know how to find an open teammate or how to get himself open when NU needs a big three. At times I’d really like to see Thompson be more aggressive on offense, but he knows the system so well that he doesn’t seem to want to do things outside of the team’s offense.
Finally, Northwestern got six bench points tonight. That’s actually a lot for NU, however, four of those came with the game decided. Mike Capocci’s ally-op dunk from Ivan Peljusic was awesome, but the fact is NU really needs help on the bench. Kyle Rowley’s two first half points were the only bench points NU got which were meaningful. As the season progresses, I think getting Alex Marcotullio to break through his freshman wall and Kyle Rowley to continue to grow will be important. I’d also be curious to see if Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci start to develop roles. They each have good athletic skill, but haven’t really found a way into the regular rotation.