Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Black Pants Curse? (I hope not, they look sharp)

Will the Wildcats have new football uniform which looks something like this?
If you’re a member of Northwestern fandom you’ve likely visited Hail to Purple, Spread Far the Fame, or the Wildcat Report message boards recently enough to know insiders say Northwestern has new football uniforms in the works. Those of you who read this blog regularly know I devoted a ton of space over the past summer to NU uniforms of all sports because, to be honest, I’m a fan of uniform history and, specifically, NU’s classic black uniform top. Now, the new rumored jersey does not feature a black top, but supposedly, at least as an option, has black pants. Therefore the basic outline of the jersey would look like the picture above, but the top would be more traditional. It would have block numbers and the Northwestern Stripes would return for the first time since 1996. That’s a good omen, I think.

What might be less of a good omen, what scares the superstitious fan in me, is the decision to potentially go to black pants. Now, I do think the purple jersey black pants look is actually pretty sharp. TCU uses it and I’m a fan of their play and their look. However, Northwestern’s recent history with black pants isn’t good. The black pants went out of the regular rotation at the end of the 2002 season. The same year NU’s black jerseys went out of the regular rotation. After the disaster that was 2002 it made sense for Randy Walker and the ‘Cats to want to try something different. What Coach Walk and the ‘Cats settled on was a purple jersey with purple pants combo for home games and a white jersey with white pants combo for road games. NU has worn the white jersey white pants combo on the road for every road game since the start of 2003 except for one game in 2004 at Minnesota. In that game the Wildcats wore black pants. The result involved Minnesota putting a whooping on the ‘Cats 43-17. The greatest indignity was Gopher Head Coach Glen Mason calling a halfback pass for a TD late in the 4th quarter. It makes me want throw rocks at my TV every time I see him smiling smugly on the Big Ten Network. The Wildcats haven’t worn black pants on the road since.

After the 2006 season NU ditched the all purple look to go with purple jerseys and white pants at home. I do like this look, but I don’t mind the visual of a purple jersey with black pants either. What I mind, however, is the results to the two times NU has tried this. In 2006 Northwestern hosted Ohio State. With NU out of bowl contention it was the Wildcats bowl game. Early in the week at a get together with fans at the Blue Stone Coach Fitz hinted the team would have a “new look”, Fitz didn’t say what the look would be, but it sounded like NU would wear new uniforms. In fact, NU wore old uniform pants. The Wildcats wore the 2000-2002 black pants with their regular purple tops. The uniforms looked good, but the players in them did not. Ohio State pounded NU 54-10.

The greatest disaster of the black pants era is perhaps the blackest day of all in the history of NU football, and that’s saying something. In 2007 the Wildcats hosted Duke at night in Evanston. Going for a different look for the season’s only night contest the Wildcats walked out of the tunnel with the same combo as the pervious year’s Ohio State game. Duke had lost 22 straight games at the time, but they didn’t lose that night. When CJ Bacher’s last pass fell in complete on 4th and goal, the Wildcats fell to 0-3 since 2002 in black pants.

Now, does this recent history of failure in black pants mean anything? No. NU actually beat Wisconsin and Minnesota in two outstanding games while wearing black pants in 2000. Also, while those black pants were the same design as what NU wore in the games mentioned above, next year’s well be different, perhaps with a purple stripe. Regardless of uniforms, I’m sure NU will be successful next year as I like where Coach Fitz has the program. If he asked my thoughts on the uniforms, I’d say if the players like the purple top with black pants idea, then I can get behind it. Personally, though, if NU is going back to black, I’d say lets go back to the black tops we wore when winning 3 Big Ten Titles in just 6 years.*

* For the record one rumor has NU getting black tops for a special occasion game. Perhaps a game at Wrigley Field in 2011 vs Michigan.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Welcome to the Big Ten Fran (and Margaret) McCaffery

The Iowa Hawkeyes have a new head coach
In a move that surprised me, and I believe other Big Ten fans, the University of Iowa has hired Fran McCaffery as their head basketball coach. This is something of a surprise move when you consider that Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobsen was in the same state, took his team farther than McCaffery, and beat McCaffery’s squad by 17 points. It is also a surprise that it seems Iowa never reached out to Tennessee coach and former Tom Davis assistant Bruce Pearl. The odds are Pearl wouldn’t have been interested, but it seems nobody bothered to ask. Even odder, perhaps, is that this job didn’t go to Tom Davis’s son Keno who has coached in-state at Drake and is now at Providence. Perhaps Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta’s apparent disregard for these guys is why many in the Hawkeye fan base seem less than pleased with this hire. Perhaps they also see a lot of similarities between McCaffery and former coach Todd Lickliter who fans in Iowa never warmed up to. It will be interesting to watch how McCaffery gets welcomed to Iowa or, based on this years attendance, if anyone shows up to welcome him at all.

Though the choice seems odd, McCaffery’s background is pretty solid. He was an assistant coach and top recruiter at Notre Dame for 11 years. He’s gotten Siena into the postseason the last three years and pulled off an impressive win over the Big Ten’s Ohio State last season. Obviously he’s skilled enough to coach, but the real question will be can he recruit to the Big Ten? Lickliter had plenty of success at Butler, but he couldn’t consistently recruit or keep Big Ten players. As a result, McCaffery will inherit a team that isn’t exactly loaded. Will Iowa fans be patient? I doubt it. The fans in Iowa City aren’t happy and they aren’t going to welcome another mediocre season from another mid-major coach.

They better be careful if they voice their displeasure, though, because Fran McCaffery’s wife might be listening. Fran’s wife, Margaret, isn’t afraid to share her opinion. She gained a great deal of national attention when both she and Fran were ejected from a 2006 game at Hofstra. He got tossed first and she followed after cursing out an official. A few years later she entered a postgame press conference and when her husband declined to answer a question on some questionable officiating, she declared official Will Bush “horrendous.”

If she thinks Bush is bad, I really have to wonder what she would think of Curtis Shaw. The fact is Margaret McCaffery knows what she is talking about. She was once an assistant basketball coach at Notre Dame and ranks in the top-15 on the Fighting Irish scoring list, so she clearly knows what she is talking about. That said, when the Hawkeyes come to Evanston, I’m not sure I want to sit next to her. Of course, it couldn’t be as bad as my experience sitting behind Bo Ryan’s family and listening to one of his children drop f-bombs at officials until she was asked to stop by the scorer’s table.

So I’d like to welcome Fran and Margaret McCaffery to the Big Ten. It should be an interesting experience for them both on and off the court.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Position Evaluation Group: Centers

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

The last group of NU players to evaluate is the Wildcat centers. I have to say this is the most disappointing group. Yes, Luka Mirkovic had his moments, such as 16 points and 10 rebounds in a win over #6 Purdue, but he was consistently inconsistent and neither Kyle Rowley nor Davide Curletti proved a reliable backup.

Mirkovic finished the year with some respectable numbers. For example, he pulled down 5.7 rebounds per game which is the most for an NU center in a decade (a sad, but true stat). He also averaged 7.3 points per game and led NU’s regulars with a 48.1% field goal percentage. Unfortunately, those numbers didn’t accumulate through consistent play. Mirkovic seemed to either flirt with double-doubles (generally in home games) or fail to dent the scorebook at all (primarily in road contests). It’s hard to understand this. Yes, many players play better at home, but Luka’s life story, which nusports.com documented earlier in the year, is one of triumph over great adversity. After surviving a war and coming to a new country, I don’t really understand why playing in front of 10,000 basketball fans wearing the opposing team’s shirts would be intimidating. It’s not like they’re going to be a threat to your life. Regardless, Mirkovic needs to improve his play on the road. He also needs to become a more consistent shooter from the three point line and the free throw line. In the Princeton Offense the center gets a lot of open looks, but Luka’s 9-for-26 from three won’t cut it next year. Neither will his 55.7% free throw shooting which cost NU some games this season. I’d also like Luka to play more under control. I’m all for fire, but his technical because he threw an elbow cost NU a shot at beating Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament. The call might not have been great, but it was hard to dispute Luka throwing the elbow. Plus, he was apparently warned about putting his elbows up earlier in the contest.

Kyle Rowley and Davide Curletti each did have moments, but there just weren’t a lot of them. After Luka got hurt late in the season, Rowley did start NU’s NIT loss to Rhode Island and he looked as good on the glass as ever. However, he missed free throws (52.4% for the season) and he doesn’t provide any sort of outside threat. This is troublesome because it allows teams to clog the lane and takeaway backdoor cuts, a hallmark of the Princeton Offense. If he ever truly became a force on the boards, I think Rowley would be a worthwhile player, even with his PO limitations. As it stands, though, he’s like an option quarterback on a team that wants to run the Run-and-Shoot, he just doesn’t fit that well.

Curletti is a lot closer to fitting NU’s needs because he’s 6-9 and has a decent shooting touch. He made 3-of-6 three pointers this season (one big one against Iowa State) and converted a not-terrible 19-of-30 free throws. If he becomes more comfortable shooting and can occasionally drop in a post move he might become NU’s best center. He is already a very good option at center in the 1-3-1 defense because he can slide down and help the point guard quicker than Mirkovic or Rowley. Bottom line for Curletti is he needs to work on becoming a consistent shooting threat and actually a threat down low. He had a few inside baskets late in the season, but none looked comfortable. Rowley probably will never develop an outside shot, but if he continues to get into shape where he can attack the glass he might help. He also needs to drastically reduce his turnovers.

Overall, Mirkovic is NU’s best option at center, but really none of the three truly distinguished themselves. Mirkovic has played the best games, but his bad games were at times epically bad. Next year if one of the three doesn’t get consistent, I wouldn’t mind seeing a three guard lineup. Especially since 6-5 Drew Crawford and 6-8 John Shurna looked like NU’s best rebounders at the end of the season. Add them along with 6-8 Kevin Coble who is an excellent rebounder and 6-4 JerShon Cobb who can jump out of the gym, and you suddenly have four players who all might be better rebounders than any center NU can put on the floor.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Position Group Evaluation: Forwards

Position Group Evaluation: Forwards
Players Included: John Shurna, Drew Crawford, Mike Capocci, Ivan Peljusic
Grade: B

Some people might object to this group getting just a B, but while the guards at least got some production off the bench, after John Shurna and Drew Crawford (who was inconsistent) the forwards did nothing. Mike Capocci and Ivan Peljusic played some backup forward, but neither averaged more than 8 minutes a game. Basically, when Shurna or Crawford went to the bench NU played a three guard lineup. I think this fact really shows just how much NU lacked depth. A Big Ten team shouldn’t only have just two decent forwards, but that’s all NU had this season.

The good news is that while NU had just two forwards, they were two of the team’s better players. John Shurna led the team with 18.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg. He was also named 2nd-Team All-Big Ten and The Sporting News Most Improved Player of the Year. He also proved the responsible party for some of NU’s best individual performances this season. Shurna dismantled future NBA players Luke Harangody and Craig Brackins at the Chicago Invitational Challenge. He also posted 31 points in East Lansing in NU’s loss to Michigan and seemingly scored at will until his last shot in NU’s loss in Madison, Wisconsin. Overall, Shurna’s stats are pretty much solid all around. His 35.5% three point percentage is not spectacular, but it is more than respectable. The same goes for his 77.5% free throw percentage. The area where I’d like Shurna to improve most is shot selection. Sometimes I think he settled for threes too quickly when he could have taken the ball to the hoop. Hopefully, an offseason of work on developing his inside game will give him more confidence in the post.

Drew Crawford was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year. He slipped a bit late in the regular season, but finished the year with back to back double-doubles in the postseason. I’d say Crawford’s 10.0ppg and 4.3rpg actually hide just how good he could become. Those numbers are solid, sure, but Crawford has the raw talent to become the type of versatile small forward players like Evan Turner and Manny Harris are in today’s Big Ten. The key for Crawford will be becoming a more consistent shooter. He converted 34.2% of his shots from three and 64.2% of his shots from the line. Those numbers need to go up next season. Since Crawford clearly showed that is possible (see 35 points in a single game) it is possible to believe Crawford can post 15-plus points and 6-plus rebounds a game. If he does, he’ll be first team All-Big Ten by his junior year.

NU’s backup forwards, which I guess were Mike Capocci and Ivan Peljusic, basically filled space every once and awhile. Their big highlight was connecting on an ally-oop dunk at the end of NU’s blowout win over Michigan. They didn’t really have any serious lowlights, but simply weren’t consistent enough to crack the lineup. The reason is because neither is much of an offense threat. Capocci can play some defense and is okay around the hoop, but he can’t shoot. Peljusic is an underrated rebounder, but really isn’t a confident scorer anywhere. Northwestern will need some sort of production from these two next year or I suspect we might see a lot more three guard lineups.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Position Evaluation Group: Guards

This is the first of 4 report cards on NU's 2009-2010 team...

Position Evaluation Group: Guards
Players Included: Michael Thompson, Jeremy Nash, Alex Marcotullio, Nick Fruendt
Grade: B+

This group includes the player I would probably give the highest individual grade to, Michael “Juice” Thompson. However, I can’t overall go into the A-range for NU’s guards because this group never found a solid backup for Thompson and Jeremy Nash’s offensive game disappeared down the stretch of the season.

Thompson was consistently solid during the season and I shutter to imagine this team without him. He averaged 14.2 ppg, converted 41.1% of his three (88-of-214) and made a team best 82.9% of his free throws (92-of-111). Thompson also had a very impressive 139-to-59 assist to turnover ratio. Aside from the numbers, anybody who watched the Wildcats this season could no doubt tell Thompson was the team’s emotional leader. It seemed that whenever Northwestern needed a clutch shot, Thompson ended up taking that shot. Part of the reason was because Thompson remains one of the few NU players who can create a shot on his own. Always able to attack in the paint, Thompson got even better this year with converting his floater in the lane. He also has the ability to get smoking hot from distance as he did in NU’s Big Ten Tournament win over Indiana.

As for the other NU guards, nobody comes close to Thompson in terms of offensive production. Early in the year both Jeremy Nash and Alex Marcotullio displayed good three point range, but both failed to maintain the same consistency Thompson showed. Nash’s three point percentage plummeted to 29.1% or 39-of-134. Marcotullio converted a respectable 41-of-111 three point tries, but early in the year he looked like the type of player who can consistently hit 50% of his tries from deep. He might still become that with an offseason to prepare for the physical stress of the college game. Both Nash and Marcotulliuo proved better than average free throw shooters even when they slumped from distance. Nash finished second on the team at 81.4% and Marcotullio recording a 70.8% mark at the line.

While their offensive slumps reduce this group’s score somewhat, Nash and Marcotullio maintain high B-range scores as they were NU’s two best defenders. Nash led the team with 58 steals and was named to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team. Marcotullio subbed for Nash at the top of the 1-3-1 when Jeremy went to the bench and got 31 steals of his own. Nash also blocked 22 shots and averaged 3.8 rebounds per game, which is good for a 6-4 guard.

The only other Wildcat guard who saw when games weren’t already decided was Nick Fruendt. In the only extended time he got all year he played well vs Illinois and badly at Minnesota. With Jeff Ryan coming back from injury and a possible recruit at the guard spot, Fruendt will have to work hard this offseason to crack the lineup next year.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Road Woes Continue as NU’s Season Finishes with 76-64 loss to Rhode Island

Well, that’s it. Northwestern’s season ends at 20-14 with a first round NIT loss to Rhode Island. If you’ve watched Northwestern all season you can’t be too surprised with the result of this game, but you have to be frustrated that Northwestern did virtually nothing to correct the defensive problems they’ve suffered through all season.

Northwestern’s inability to play defense has been a recurring theme on this blog all season. Once again the Wildcats couldn’t play man-to-man at all. They again switched on every screen and as a result found themselves in disastrous mismatches. The number of times Michael Thompson got himself caught on a 6-8 or 7-0 forward and was forced to foul or allow an easy basket was utterly ridiculous. The 1-3-1 was probably even worse as the number of open looks Akeen Richmond, URI’s only shooter, got was as ridiculous as having Thompson try to guard 7-0 Will Martell. The 1-3-1 also forced Thompson into trouble because as a result of URI not being turnover prone, which had to be in the scouting report, they passed well and threw repeated lob passes over the top which resulted in easy dunks and layups. This problem was also probably somewhat compounded by the fact that Luka Mirkovic was out with a bad back and Kyle Rowley couldn’t rotate down as quickly as Mirkovic could have. Still, that’s no excuse for basically letting a team beat you in the second half with layups and free throws. The number of free throws URI got was astronomical. Yes, a few came late when NU had to foul, but plenty came earlier. The reason: NU can’t move their feet on defense so they just grab guys.

Basically, I’m pretty sure five people off the street could play the Northwestern defense just as effective as NU’s scholarship basketball players. I mean I can grab people and not be in position very well when playing pickup games. I don’t really blame the players, though. They have enough talent to be better. This is a serious coaching deficiency which needs to be addressed. I’m sure a number of other people will use this loss to go strongly after Bill Carmody. I’ll have my grades for all position groups (guards, forwards, centers) and coaches in the next couple weeks. All I will say now on Carmody is that his performance this year was not in my opinion up to the standard he set last season and showed in his stronger years past. If I were Jim Phillips I’d feel reasonably obligated to give Carmody an extension, but I’d want at least one assistant replaced with defensive expert and I wouldn’t extend him past two years.

A big positive for NU was that this contest was postseason game. That hasn’t happened much in NU Basketball. However, as the last team in the NIT, I think you could argue Northwestern would have been more evenly matched with a CBI opponent. I’d also offer congratulations to Drew Crawford who posted his second consecutive double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds tonight. Also, Kyle Rowley had a serviceable game with 7 points and 7 rebounds stepping in for the injured Luka Mirkovic.

Unfortunately, Rowley’s missed free throws and a number of missed shots from Crawford did hurt. Crawford and John Shurna needed to do a much better job converting three pointers for NU to win, but they constantly missed fairly open looks. Michael Thompson did get 24 points and kept NU in the game (to a point) almost by himself. Sadly, Jeremy Nash’s offense disappeared towards the end of the season and it didn’t reappear tonight. In NU’s biggest wins this season Nash scored big points, but since about the middle of February he hasn’t served as an offensive weapon. I was also disappointed that John Shurna finished the year in a slump as well. Like Craig Moore last season, one of the Wildcats best offensive weapons, he struggled in the Big Ten Tournament and the one NIT game. That probably contributed to those defeats. Northwestern isn’t deep enough to seriously believe someone is going to come off the bench and make up for a cold shooting Shurna.

It’ll be a long offseason now for the Wildcats. For the second straight year they’ll be kicking themselves for a number missed chances to go beyond the NIT. Last year NU lost games in the final minutes to loose out on a tourney bid. This year they lost games in the final stretch of the season. It’s awfully depressing. Perhaps the reason has to do with that lack of depth. If that is the case the addition of JerShon Cobb and the return of Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan will help. Next year the ‘Cats should be 10-deep with ease.

For now, though, these losses hurt. It’ll be hard to enjoy basketball for the next few days knowing that NU should still be playing. Eventually, I’ll get over the pain and enjoy the tournament, but part of me won’t even want to do so.

I suppose in the meantime NU fans can concern themselves with NU’s women’s basketball team playing a WNIT game tomorrow at home and the women’s lacrosse season which should see the ‘Cats contend for a 6th consecutive title. There is also spring football and the fun Dan Persa/Evan Watkins debate should start soon. In the end, though, what I really want to see from Northwestern athletics is an NCAA Tournament bid. I’ve waited more than a quarter century for such an event. Given that, I suppose I can wait another 365 days.

Rhode Island up 37-30 at halftime

I've had about enough of what Northwestern calls defense. URI is up 7 points because NU left Richmond, URI's only good shooter, open in the zone and because when NU tried to play man-to-man they switched and it put Michael Thompson on the center who he fouled for a three point play. The failure of man-to-man makes me the most upset. This has been a problem all season but nothing has been done to correct it.

Also Kyle Rowley dunked, but I really hope that isn't the last positive feeling NU fans have tonight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Game 34: Northwestern Wildcats @ Rhode Island

The Matchup: Northwestern (20-13) @ Rhode Island (23-9)

Location: Ryan Center (Kingston, RI)

TV: ESPNU (6:00 PM CT Wednesday March 17th, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Northwestern is 2-4 all time in the postseason. They are 1-0 on neutral courts, 1-1 at home, and 0-3 on the road.

About the Game
Well, here we are, ready for the postseason for the second year in a row. Yeah, it’s a bit disappointing it isn’t the NCAA Tournament, but overall after Kevin Coble’s injury most realists would have predicted NU would wind up in the NIT. The problem is the Wildcats put themselves, and us, in a position where talking about the Big Dance wasn’t unreasonable. They then lost games to Iowa, Penn State, and Indiana and it looked like the NIT was a question mark. Now, the ‘Cats are the final at-large team into the NIT and will travel to Kingston, Rhode Island to take on the URI Rams. Despite URI’s 2-seed and NU’s 7-seed, this is a game Northwestern can win, but they’ll need to put forth a very strong effort.

If you told me you had ten seconds to learn about the game and asked what team NU has played does URI compare to I’d answer, “Minnesota.” It’s not an exact comparison. URI turns the ball over less and shoots worse. They also can’t rebound as well as the Gophers, but the style of play is similar to what NU sees from Tubby Smith’s team. This concerns me somewhat as NU has struggled with Minnesota under Tubby, but they did beat the once Golden Gophers this year and last, though, both times in Evanston.

What makes Minnesota and Rhode Island similar? They both are teams who aren’t great in half court offense, but who score a lot of points off pressure. The Wildcats should anticipate seeing full court press on Wednesday night. I believe NU can handle pressure, but they’ll need Michael “Juice” Thompson to stay out of foul trouble and Jeremy Nash and Drew Crawford to stay cool when pressured in the backcourt. URI and Minnesota are also similar in that their half court defense features of number of players who make up for other defensive deficiencies by blocking shots. 6-8 forward Delroy James reminds me a lot of Minnesota’s Damien Johnson. James scored 12.4ppg, grabs 5.3 rpg, and blocks 1.1 shots. The Rams also have a 7-0 foot center in Will Martell. Martell converts 59.3% of his shots and records 1.2bpg, but his limited minutes per game (22.6) shows he might be prone to foul trouble or exhaustion. Luka Mirkovic will need to keep the pressure on Martell without committing stupid fouls.

6-4 guard Keith Cothran is URI’s top scorer at 14.6ppg. He only makes 32.5% of his threes, though, so you can bet he’ll want to attack the basket. I strongly recommend NU play the 1-3-1 zone against the Rams. These guys look like they’d eat alive the mismatches which could exist in the switching man-to-man, but their 33.3% team three point percentage makes me believe the risk-reward scenario of the 1-3-1 is worth the risk. The only very scary shooting threat for the Rams is Akeem Richmond. The 6-1 backup guard comes off the bench to make 39.2% of his threes. He must be guarded closely and closed out on. Point guard Marquis Jones is at 35.6% from three, but doesn’t take as many shots. With 132 assists this year, it seems clear Jones falls into the category of pass-first point guard.

6-6 forward Lamonte Ulmer wasn’t mentioned above, but his 52.7 FG% means that he can convert close or medium range shots. Most of the Rams have similar numbers and that worries me. I don’t think the matchup/switching man-to-man would be good to play, but if URI gets the ball into the guts of the 1-3-1 they’ll be able to score at will. I so wish Northwestern knew how to play real man-to-man, but they don’t. Maybe Bill Carmody can hire Todd Lickliter as an assistant. If nothing else, his Iowa teams did play defense. This game will be close. URI probably won’t have a great crowd. I’d guess around 4,000 which will make the Ryan Center just over half full. However, the game is still in URI’s gym where they are 12-3. Northwestern is 2-8 in true road games. I don’t know why NU plays so badly on the road. They actually started well away from home with a win at N.C. State, a narrow loss at Illinois, and a win at Michigan, but for some reason since then the ‘Cats have looked lost away from Welsh-Ryan. I think the game will be close, but at this point I can’t pick Northwestern to win a road game. URI, 64 Northwestern, 60

Monday, March 15, 2010

Northwestern's Postseason History: A Review

Kip Kirkpatrick made a big play in NU's 1994 NIT win over DePaul.

At this time I want to review Northwestern's history in the postseason. Sadly, it shouldn't take you that long to read this post...

The first postseason game in Northwestern’s history sent the Wildcats on a short road trip to the Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois. Despite the excitement, one look at a calendar might have been enough to convince even the most optimistic of fans some sort of curse hung over the Wildcats program. After seventy-eight years, the Wildcats were finally playing in the postseason. Their opponent was Notre Dame—on St. Patrick’s Day.

Despite fate's seeming alignment with their opponent, the Wildcats managed to defeat the Irish. Led by the play of Jim Stack, Andre Goode, Michael Jenkins (the first one), and fellow senior Art Aaron the Wildcats cruised to a 71-57 victory. It’s the most lopsided score in the school’s postseason history win or lose.

Before getting into the next game, I want to address an issue. Many players, coaches, and fans use the phrases “we could have won” and “we should have won” interchangeably. Personally, I tend to draw a distinction between the two. To me “we could have won” means both teams played to the best of their abilities and the victorious side was fortunate the clock hit zero with them ahead, because if the game had lasted another five minutes, the outcome might have turned. Most importantly, if you have to say “we could have won” there is nothing to feel bad about.

On the other hand, “we should have won” is a phrase filled with frustration and regret. From my point of view, this unfortunate combination of words can be used to describe two types of losses. The first is a game in which a team was in position to win, but made a series of late mistakes which allowed their opponent to turn an apparent loss into a victory. The second is even more depressing. In this instance, some odd occurrence of bad luck caused a sure win to turn into a loss. The winning team never admits such an occurrence was more luck than skill, but the losing side knows fate, not fitness, doomed them. A good example of this occurred in a college baseball super-regional game a few years back. In this contest, Cal State Fullerton advanced to the College World Series when the opposing pitcher balked in the winning run while intentionally walking a Fullerton hitter. As much as they might have wanted to, Fullerton’s players, coaches, and fans could not argue the balk was anything more than good luck. Their runner certainly didn’t cause the pitcher to get nervous by standing like a statue at third base.

From a Northwestern fan’s perspective, DePaul’s winning margin in the teams’ 1983 NIT game came about as the basketball equivalent of an intentional walk balk. Of course, the perspective of DePaul’s fans is probably quite different. They likely attribute the win to great skill. There is one thing both sides can agree on, though, is the game’s finish was unique.

With about a second remaining and the game tied 63-63 overtime seemed certain. DePaul did have possession of the ball, but they were along way from the basket. Under such circumstances the odds against scoring are considerable. Unfortunately, at least from the Wildcats perspective, nobody told DePaul guard Kenny Patterson the odds. On the game’s final play, DePaul inbounded the ball to Patterson who caught it somewhere north of thirty feet from the hoop. Despite the considerable distance between him and his target, Patterson managed to put enough force behind his shot that the ball traveled all the way to the hoop and through the net. By the time the ball slide through the net’s nylon, the buzzer had sounded. The game was over. The final score: DePaul 65 Northwestern 63.

To this day, most DePaul supporters will argue Patterson’s ability to make his thirty-five foot miracle shot was not luck, but the result of his great shooting skills. They cite All-American honors Patterson received after the 1985 season and his well-known ability to hit long-range jump shots. Based purely on the facts it’s a strong argument, but that doesn’t mean Northwestern fans have to buy it. I wasn’t around then, but from the perspective of my father and the other NU fans in attendance that night, Patterson’s shot will forever remain nothing more than a lucky heave towards the hoop which ended another in a long line of games they walked out of muttering in frustrated disgust, “We should have won.”

Eleven years after Patterson’s long-range basket, the NIT selection committee provided the Wildcats with an opportunity for revenge and this time I was in attendance. DePaul’s Tom Kleinschmidt scored thirteen points in the first half to lead the Blue Demon attack. When the second half started, it was clear the Wildcats intended to shut him down. The ‘Cats defense was all over Kleinschmidt doing everything they could to prevent him from getting an open look. As is often the case in sports, that great defense provided the spark for improved offense. One of the keys to Wildcats improved offense was finding ways to get to the free throw line. As it turned out, this was where the ‘Cats would grab the lead, though, not in the traditional way. With just over four minutes left in the game, Kip Kirkpatrick rebounded a missed free throw and tipped the ball into the hoop to giving the ‘Cats the lead. It was lead they’d hang on to all the way to the buzzer. When DePaul’s last shot missed, I jumped up and pumped both fists into the air. To my left, the student section rushed the court.

A few days later the Wildcats hosted the Xavier Musketeers in the second round of the NIT and the matchup resulted in another classic. Unfortunately, the result of this one didn’t go the Wildcats way. When Kevin Rankin missed a three point jumper with less than ten seconds to go in overtime, the Musketeers grabbed the rebound and made two free throws to seal an 83-79 victory.

Normally the team playing on the road would have an advantage if the home team’s fans didn’t make much noise, but it seemed like the lack of atmosphere in NU’s 1999 NIT game at DePaul made the Wildcats lethargic. DePaul came out and put clamps on Northwestern’s All-America center Evan Eschmeyer holding him to only three shots in the first half. The only reason the Wildcats kept the game close early on was thanks to the dead-eye three point shooting of freshman forward Steve Lepore who nailed four three pointers in the first half. Unfortunately for Northwestern, in second half DePaul realized it was Lepore and not Eschmeyer that was hurting them and they started to swarm the Wildcat shooter whenever he touched the ball. With just over seven and half minutes to go, Blue Demons guard Willie Coleman buried a shot to put his team up twelve points. It looked like the ‘Cats were done.

One of the ways to distinguish a great player is to watch how they respond to adversity. Throughout that game, Evan Eschmeyer struggled to score. That was rare. During the 1998-99 Eschmeyer averaged more than nineteen points a game, but DePaul’s double and triple teams kept him away from the basket while they extended their lead. With his team down double digits late in the game, it would have been easy for Eschmeyer to pack it in and start looking forward to his NBA career. Instead, he railed the young Wildcats and ignited a 10-1 run by scoring three baskets to bring the Wildcats to within three points of the Demons with twenty-seven seconds left. After DePaul’s Lance Williams missed a free throw, the Wildcats got the ball to Eschmeyer with eleven seconds left. The senior star turned towards the hoop, shot, and missed. He didn’t give up though. Eschmeyer’s tenacity ignited a scramble for the ball which eventually ended up in the hands of Wildcat guard Sean Wink. Wink, who’d set the school record for three-pointers the year before, readied himself to shoot a three. He eyed the basket, took a dribble, and lost the ball off his foot out of bounds. A few seconds later, Willie Coleman calmly walked to the free throw line and knocked down two shots to seal the win for DePaul. Without a doubt, the loss was disappointing from Northwestern’s perspective, but the effort put forth by Eschmeyer and the ‘Cats to come back when it appeared DePaul was in total control made me proud to be a Wildcat fan. Also, we’ve got a much nicer arena.

Finally, last year the Wildcats played an NIT game at Tulsa. The script turned out similar to the game 10 years earlier at DePaul. Tulsa’s fans didn’t turn out in great numbers, but their team eventually built a solid lead. With just over seven minutes left, the score was 60-49 in favor of Tulsa. Like ten years before, though, a NU senior responded. Craig Moore hit two threes to help rally the Wildcats to within three points. However, just like Evan Eschmeyer, Moore’s last shot fell short and Tulsa hit free throws to ice an eventual 68-59 win.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Some Very Early Thoughts on NU at Rhode Island

Northwestern playing on the road has been very bad overall for the 'Cats so URI's 13-2 home mark has to be a concern. The good news is that Rhode Island only makes 33.3% of their 3-point shots. That means NU can probably play the 1-3-1 which is a much better choice at this point than NU's awful matchup/switching man-to-man which allows almost constant mismatches in the other team's favor. The Rams do have a 7-0 center in Will Martell, but he only plays 22.6 mpg which means he probably has foul issues. That's good because at 59.3 FG% he would love to get matched up on Michael "Juice" Thompson down low. URI doesn't turn the ball over much, but the 1-3-1 can be trouble for teams if they haven't seen much of it and I don't believe they have. Also, they aren't great rebounders which gives some hope as far as Northwestern not giving up much in terms of second chance shots. It's probably not the best matchup for Northwestern, but it's a game the Wildcats probably can win at first glance. I'd say they'll need a big foul free game from Luka Mirkovic and a hot shooting night from either Nash or Crawford to help Thompson in order to pull the upset. I'd also say NU needs to stay in the game at all times and can't get out of the contest early and then have to try to fight back. Much more to come before Wednesday.

Some Quick Facts
-RIU is in Kingston, RI
-Lamar Odom is probably URI's most famous basketball alum
-They play home games in the 7,657-seat Ryan Center
-Tickets go on sale Monday at 10am via Ticket Master
-The Illinois game at Stony Brook (who is 12-1 at home) follows NU @ URI on ESPNU Wednesday night

Northwestern is in the NIT playing at Rhode Island

Game will be March 17th at 6:00PM CT on ESPNU. The Rams finished 23-9 on the year in the A-10. They lost to Richmond who runs an offense similar to NU 69-67 earlier this year.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

At this Point, the Postseason is the Postseason (Unless, Science Fiction isn't Fiction)

A quick additional thought related to NU making a postseason tournament. Personally, I’m still pretty bummed out by NU’s loss yesterday. I refused to watch either Big Ten Tournament game today (I guess I missed a good game between OSU and Illinois, but I really can’t say I care). I suppose I’ll have to watch tomorrow’s game, but it’ll be really hard for me to get myself to a point where I can watch that game and not feel NU ought to be playing. Despite my disappointment, though, I am somewhat heartened by the idea Northwestern hasn’t played their last game. In a little over 24 hours we’ll know for sure, but I’d say it’s almost certain Northwestern will be playing a postseason game on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week.

Now, a number of people have expressed some disappointment with the idea that NU might not make the NIT. This makes sense as the NIT is obviously better than the CBI or the CIT. It’s on ESPN instead of HDNet or Fox College Sports which gives it more prestige and it is run by the NCAA and not a random organization trying to make money. Those points are all well and good and I’d like to see NU in the NIT, but I don’t understand people’s claim they won’t be excited if NU makes the CBI or CIT. They’re POSTSEASON tournaments.

Postseason play is something that as Northwestern fan I haven’t seen much of. In my lifetime Northwestern has won ONE (1) postseason game in men’s basketball and football combined. If they win number two this year, I’ll be as happy as I possibly imagine being. I’d have preferred that game be the Outback Bowl or an NCAA Tournament contest, but if it’s the NIT, CBI, CIT, or a 5th tournament that gets created in the next day, I really don’t care at this point. I’m going to enjoy it, especially if I can attend in person.

To be honest, unless you’re an NU fan who accidently stepped through a quantum mirror from a parallel reality where Rex Walters to didn’t transfer to Kansas, Geno Carlisle didn’t transfer to Cal, Nick Knapp’s heart never stopped beating and instant replay existed so Brian Musso didn’t fumble in the Rose Bowl, then I think you know the postseason (of any type) isn’t something to take lightly or complain about. Sure, I want to make the NCAA Tournament every year and win the Rose Bowl several times a decade, and I’ll do whatever small part I can to support NU Athletics in building to those goals, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the accomplishments along the way. That is, unless somebody has a spare quantum mirror sitting around in their basement, because I’d really have liked to see the results of Geno and Esch playing together.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Post BTT Thoughts on the Postseason

Bill Carmody said in his postgame that he expected Northwestern to make the NIT. That’s a nice thought, but I doubt Bill Carmody really spends much time analyzing the NIT selection process. Those that do, NITology and The Bracket Project both say NU isn’t likely to get an NIT bid. That’s disappointing, but it’s not unreasonable. In fact, unlike last season when I pretty much called the NIT selection committee a collection of fools for not making NU a top-4 seed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised or upset if they pass on NU this season. As of Friday, 7 conference champs from 1-bid leagues had lost in their conference tournaments. As a result, 7 of the 8 spots in the NIT for 7 or 8-seeds are essentially filled. Unless Northwestern truly passes the so called “eye-ball test” because they are a Big Ten team with 20 wins who beat Purdue and Illinois in January, I doubt the NIT is going to invite them and make them a 6-seed. Heck, even Illinois State who at 22-10 seemed a lock for at least a 6-seed in the NIT is now in danger of dropping to the CBI because of the influx of conference tourney losers.

To be totally honest, I bleed as much purple as anyone, and it’s painful to say, but I don’t think I’d vote for Northwestern were I in the committee room with C.M. Newton and NIT Selection Committee. What exactly is Northwestern’s case? Essentially it rests on 20 wins in 33 games and the fact they have wins over Purdue, Illinois, and Notre Dame. The problem as I see it is all those wins occurred at home or on a neutral court and the most recent was January 23rd. In fact, half of NU’s 20 wins occurred before the calendar even flipped to 2010. Allegedly, the selection committees have stopped worrying about a team’s record in their last 10 games, but I think that’ll still come into play as far as the human element. Committee members, just like any fan, know that Northwestern hasn’t exactly been trending upwards late in the year. That makes them potentially a very quick exit and not the competitive team a committee wants to see in the postseason. NU’s record on the road is also problematic. The selection committee has to consider wins away from home and while NU has a win at N.C. State (who will also be competing for an NIT berth) they really haven’t performed away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. They are 2-8 in true road games and 5-9 overall away from home. Even worse, NU’s RPI is at 113. That’s not impressive compared to a team like Texas Tech who with an RPI of 68 is projected into the same 5-seed NU received last year.

I guess the good news is that because of the NITs automatic bids the CBI and CIT will feature a number of “name” teams. The odds are that Alabama, Harvard, former NU opponents N.C. State and Iowa State, and perhaps even North Carolina will be shutout of the NIT. That could make for some very interesting matchups for either the CBI or CIT which will hopefully occur at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Wildcats Lose Heads and Game in Second Half 69-61

Northwestern’s intelligent student athletes sure played stupid in the second half this evening. In a game which NU should have won easily, a technical foul on Luka Mirkovic, two dumb shots by Davide Curletti, a series of stupid fouls on virtually every player on the court which allowed Purdue 38 free throws, a dumb charge on Michael Thompson for his 5th personal, a boatload of turnovers, and the dumbest foul I have ever seen on a Chris Kramer layup after NU cut the lead to 1 point, combined to finish off the Wildcats effort at making history. This game is the reason those of us who follow this team year after year must be clinically insane. We inevitably get the same type of depressing results season after season. I tell myself suffering through all these depressing results will make NU’s eventual bid to the NCAA Tournament all the more meaningful for those of us who have been crushed by so many depressing losses. However, I have to admit that say that belief in some sort of theoretical future tournament bid doesn’t do a lot to ease our pain today. Northwestern should be playing tomorrow, but their defensive effort and lack of composure simply didn’t meet the magnitude of the game.

Some people will say Northwestern played well to stay close, but to be honest other than making 5-of-5 early threes, they really did not. If Northwestern had played well they would have had the game won at halftime. Yes, NU built an 11 point lead early, but if they hadn’t turned the ball over on six early possessions they might have realistically built a 20-point lead and finished off Purdue before the game even started.

Drew Crawford finally regained some of his Big Ten Freshman of the Year form as he scored 15 points and grabbed (by my unofficial count) 10 rebounds. However, he also committed a number of those early turnovers. Besides Crawford, the Wildcats also got good efforts from Michael Thompson and John Shurna. Thompson scored 12 points and Shurna scored 16 and got 6 rebounds. I have to say, though, I think both should have been more assertive on offense in the second half. No reason exists for Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti to force up threes. NU’s star players need to demand the ball in such clutch situations.

NU’s defense was fairly okay, which is good for Northwestern, but E’Twaun Moore did get 26 points. This is ridiculous. Without Robbie Hummel he is Purdue’s only shooting option. He also has regularly exploded on NU, including a career high 28 points, it is absolutely unacceptable for him to get the shots he got today. This is the type of game which proves my theory NU needs to learn to play man-to-man. The 1-3-1 got beat over the top and in the matchup NU often ended up with awful matchups thanks to their constant switching. I’d go into this more, but I’d just be repeating points from games earlier this season. I guess what has me really upset is that NU hasn’t been able to correct these problems, yet they’ve existed since early February. Just like NU’s players needed to be better and keep their composure under pressure, Bill Carmody and his coaches need to be better. They shouldn’t have allowed these same problems for some long. If Bill Carmody truly is a smart coach (and I do think he is), he’ll swallow his pride and issues with loyalty, in order to find an assistant coach somewhere who is familiar with how to teach defense. Next year would also be the year to do because Carmody will have enough veterans that the Princeton Offense should be pretty well mastered early on.

NU now heads back to Evanston at 20-13. They’ll likely get an NIT invite, though, I think it’s fair to debate if they deserve such an opportunity. After all, NU would likely be a 7 or 8-seed and therefore play on the road where they are 2-8. In terms of advancing, NU would be much better off in the CBI or CIT. The CIT claims to focus on mid-majors, but I think Northwestern fits their criteria well and would almost certainly play at home. Also, the CIT has started handing out bids and I wouldn't mind knowing NU's tournament future sooner than late Sunday evening. Some will say the NIT is more prestigious so even a bottom seed in it is better, but personally I enjoy winning and after the NCAA Tournament it doesn’t matter if you’re the 66th best team or the 81st best team or whatever. What matters is if you win and get more games. NU also would probably have a home game in the CBI which would increase their chance to advance. Bottom line, outside of the NCAA Tournament, the important thing is to play games, so I won’t feel too bad if NU is passed over by the NIT and ends up in one of the other tournaments. We will see exactly what happens on Sunday night if not before.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Juice and the Bench Lead Wildcats to 73-58 Victory over Indiana

Northwestern’s bench has basically been MIA since Alex Marcotullio scored 16 points against Michigan State on January 2nd, but Marcotullio and his friends Mike Capocci and Davide Curletti stepped up today in order to help Juice Thompson lead the ‘Cats past Indiana. Numbers wise Curletti led the three bench contributors with 12 points, but all three provided needed energy to a team which lacked any semblance of life in the first half.

NU only trailed 30-27 at half time, but the way they played that was pretty much due to luck and poor play by Indiana. In the first half Northwestern looked totally lost against Indiana’s 2-3 zone and let the Hoosier offense drill 4-of-8 threes, despite the fact that I’m sure Bill Carmody made it clear the defense wasn’t suppose to allow open looks. Really, the ‘Cats stayed in the game thanks to John Shurna making 5-of-5 inside shots while he and his teammates shot only 2-of-18 from three in the first half. To be honest, it wasn’t so much the 18 three point attempts that bothered me as much as the fact it looked like all NU could do against the IU zone was the pass the ball around the perimeter and then jack up a three.

In the second half, NU made 5-of-13 threes. That percentage isn’t great, but it’s certainly better. Even better than the numbers, though, is the fact those shots were mostly open and setup because NU wasn’t afraid to try and get in the lane. After he made two floaters in the lane, IU’s defenders backed off of Juice Thompson a bit and he then drilled three straight threes. Thompson finished the day 4-of-10 from three point range (6-of-15 overall) with 3 assists and 2 steals. Aggressively attacking the basket also resulted in some baskets and free throw opportunities for Jeremy Nash. Those were critical as Nash went 0-for-5 from three, yet he still scored 13 points thanks to make 4-of-5 twos and 5-of-6 free throws.

It wasn’t just Thompson and Nash who did good work in the second half, though. Davide Curletti had an all around good game, but he really stepped up at the 10:43 mark of the second half when Luka Mirkovic fouled out. Curletti played excellent defense, got a steal and a block, didn’t turn the ball over, and converted 6-of-6 free throws down the stretch. Joining Curletti as a late game reason for NU’s success was Mike Capocci. Drew Crawford really struggled and Alex Marcotullio played great, but needed a rest. As a result, Coach Bill Carmody turned to Capocci. Right off the bench, Capocci scored off an in-bounds play. He then proceeded to play some of the most aggressive defense NU has played all season helping the Wildcats to a 24-7-game deciding run. Numbers wise Capocci had 4 points, 2 steals, 2 rebounds, and a block, but he contributed to by simply playing more aggressively in the 1-3-1 in order to contest shots than Drew Crawford had been earlier in the game.

Before looking ahead to Purdue, I also want to praise Alex Marcotullio and NU’s commitment to the 1-3-1 in the second half with both Marcotullio and Nash at the top. Both players did a great job at the top of that defense causing turnovers and getting breakaways. Nash had a nice slam early and Marcotullio had a critical layup in NU’s big run. The 1-3-1 might not be the right defense for tomorrow, but it was the right defense today and I’m glad NU fully committed to using it in half number two. I also have to praise Marcotullio for not shying away from shooting even after missing early today. I ripped into him a bit for his play on Saturday, but I did so because I believe he’s a tough player who showed a lack of toughness when NU traveled to Bloomington. Today he demonstrated great toughness both mentally and physically. He finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 0 turnovers. The bounce back performance from him and his teammates after a tough game should be commended.

Vs Purdue…So the Wildcats now take on Purdue. The game is tomorrow at 5:30 PM CT and will be telecast on the Big Ten Network. Obviously, the Purdue team NU will see tomorrow is not the team that Northwestern beat on January 16th. The good news for Northwestern fans is that doesn’t necessarily mean the team is better. Purdue is without All-Big Ten 1st teamer Robbie Hummel who posted 20 points against the Wildcats. Of course, Purdue still has guard E’Twaun Moore who has exploded on NU in the past as well as defensive pest Chris Kramer. What might work in NU’s favor, though, is that the 6-3 Kramer might have to guard John Shurna. To be honest, I don’t think Purdue has a better option for defense on the Wildcat forward. Shurna’s play today wasn’t his best as he struggled to 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting, but mostly he was missing threes. I don’t care how physical Kramer gets, the 6-8 Shurna needs to take the 6-3 Kramer inside. No way exists for Kramer to stop Shurna’s post moves without fouls. Shurna has proven he can score on smaller players nearly at will when all things are fair and equal. If the officials don’t call fouls, then Bill Carmody needs to get T-ed up early to ensure they do. Defensively, I’m not sure I want NU in the 1-3-1 versus Purdue, but their matchup has been so bad of late I’m worried about that as well. NU played the matchup well the first time these teams met, but Purdue now has point guard Lewis Jackson who will quickly drive to hoop if he finds Luka Mirkovic on him after a switch. NU might also be able to play 1-3-1 because without Hummel Purdue won’t shoot as well.

Wildcats, 73 Hoosiers, 58

A full recap will come later tonight after the Penn State vs Minnesota game, but thanks to Juice Thompson (16 points) finding his range in the second half and huge day from the bench trio of Alex Marcotullio (8 points), Mike Capocci (4 points), and Davide Curletti (12 points) Northwestern toughed out a victory over Indiana for their first Big Ten Tournament win since 2005.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Game 32: Indiana Hoosiers vs Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Indiana (10-20) vs Northwestern (19-12)

Location: Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianaoplis, IN)

TV: ESPN2 (3:30 PM March 12th, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Northwestern and Indiana have never met in the Big Ten Tournament.

About the Game
I’m not really sure I can offer any insight in this post that I didn’t provide in the pregame post for Saturday’s game or the postgame Saturday evening. I think we all understand that Indiana beat Northwestern on Saturday because the Wildcats played no defense, especially against IU guard Jordan Hulls, and because NU starting playing play ground basketball and chucked up 42 threes. I swear at times some of NU’s players seem like the guys you would dread having on a rec league team because all they want to do is shoot threes.

To be honest, though, as poor as NU’s offense was from a basketball fundamentals standpoint on Saturday, it was good enough to win. When a team scores 69 points in regulation, and 80 points overall, they should win a game. The problem is the Wildcats didn’t play defense. I’ve explained repeatedly my problem with the way NU plays their matchup zone or man-to-man. Basically, NU switches all the time and makes no effort to fight through screens. I think this leads to lazy play which is apparent when players drive the lane or make entry passes with no pressure. My gut tells me NU is better off playing 1-3-1 because that often at least starts to fire the team up. Jeremy Nash can be out front and start tipping passes and before you know it the Wildcats have caused a boatload of turnovers. Of course, if NU can’t convert on TOs, as they couldn’t Saturday, it doesn’t matter how many they cause. The other thing is that if NU does play 1-3-1, they MUST find Hulls. After what he did the other day, he’ll probably be so excited to see NU’s zone that he won’t be able to sleep on Wednesday night. I also wouldn’t forget about Devan Dumes and Derek Elston from deep if I was NU’s coaching staff, but Hulls did account for eight of IU’s ten made threes on Saturday.

Aside from playing defense for 40 minutes, NU needs to get a good inside effort on both ends of the floor if they are to win. Luka Mirkovic needs to score points, as he did when NU beat IU in Evanston, and he and his teammates must stop IU for crashing the offensive glass. Indiana is second in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding, so it isn’t a shock they managed to outrebound Northwestern, but that still doesn’t make it acceptable. NU has quality players inside with Mirkovic and Shurna. Also, Jeremy Nash and Drew Crawford can rebound as well. There is no reason other than effort for Indiana to totally dominate the glass.

On offense, I already said NU needs a good effort for Mikrovic. They also need a good effort from either Drew Crawford or Alex Marcotullio. Both freshmen have really struggled of late, but need to setup now. Crawford has been hurt, but Marcotullio is simply a headcase. He made shots against Chicago State when their wasn’t pressure, but he choked on two chances to give NU the win in the final minute Saturday. To be frank, I expected more from the guy who buried threes to seal wins against Notre Dame (when he was supposed to pass) and N.C. State (moments after he got T-ed up). If Marcotullio or Crawford “flushes” their troubles and plays to their ability NU will win.

This game will be a test of mental toughness more than physical toughness for Northwestern. The Wildcats are the better team and if they can focus on just playing basketball they will win. However, to this point NU hasn’t impressed me as a mentally tough team, especially away from home. They certainly don’t follow the mantras of NU football coach Pat Fitzgerald and “flush” mistakes and concentrate on W.I.N or What’s Important Now. Instead, they seem to let every little mistake fester into disaster. Sometimes they get things together after trouble, but often times it is too late. That was the case in losses at Minnesota and Wisconsin. Will Thursday afternoon be different? I actually think it will be. NU might see a lot of red in Conseco, but it isn’t a true road game. It’s a neutral site game played at an odd time. Hopefully as a result NU’s attitude will be similar to the way they played in the Chicago Invitational Challenge when they left the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena and won two big games. Northwestern, 66 Indiana, 60

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wildcat Flashback: NU's Best Big Ten Tournament Game

Lake the Posts recently did a post on Northwestern rather embarrassing Big Ten Tournament history. Going into Thursday’s game, NU stands at 4-12 in the Big Ten Tournament. This is by far the worst mark of any school. Those four wins were all first round games as NU has never advanced to Saturday in the tournament. Looking back over the years of the Big Ten Tournament, which started in 1998, the Wildcats best run undoubtedly occurred in 1999. Although the ‘Cats only won one game (54-44 in Round 1 over Penn State) they nearly knocked off the nation’s #2 team, Michigan State, in the quarterfinals. I would go so far as to say that the ‘Cats loss on March 5, 1999 to Michigan State was in fact their best performance in the Big Ten Tournament. What you see below is my personal story of that day. I've shared some of these thoughts in the past, but this post has some extra story. Plus, the game itself, despite being a loss, is worth remembering.

I know the obvious joke here is that Northwestern basketball has suffered so many losses that I’ve been forced to dip into that long list of defeats to find NU’s best Big Ten Tournament game, but the truth is any basketball fan that saw the Wildcats and the Spartans play that day would be hard pressed not to list NU’s performance among the most impressive they have seen.

The game was played in front of near sellout crowd at the United Center in Chicago. Sadly, despite the fact Northwestern’s campus is probably less than 10 miles from the UC very few Wildcat fans were in attendance. Perhaps the reason was because it seemed impossible for the Wildcats to pull off the upset of the 26-4 and #2-ranked Spartans. Thanks to the fact not many ‘Cats fans were present, and many Michigan State fans had apparently assumed their game against NU would such a runaway it wasn’t worth attending, the majority of the crowd at the United Center happened to be red clad Wisconsin Badger fans who had shown up early for the day’s second game.

I have to admit that I wasn’t at the game either. As a high school student at the time (and one who wanted to go to NU) I couldn’t very well walk out of school or hang out in the cafeteria missing class, plus I had baseball practice after school. Given this unfortunate, I set my VCR (it was the 20th century) and hoped nobody would tell me what happened before I got home from school and baseball practice. I wasn’t that worried. It wasn’t as if many of my friends followed the Wildcats closely. Most of the guys I was at practice with that day wouldn’t know Evan Eschmeyer from his brother Jeff even though Evan was about ten inches taller.

Given my confidence I wouldn’t find out anything until I got home and watched my tape, I was surprised when waiting for my ride home to overhear Northwestern mentioned in a conversation between my teammate, Mike Cook, and another kid waiting for a ride home.

I remember the moment clearly. I was sitting on the gym stairs looking out the double doors through a light rain waiting for my mom’s car. When I heard NU mentioned I was conflicted. I didn’t really want to know what happened, but I figured if NU was being discussed at all it meant a possible upset. After all, the only time NU gains the attention of Joe-fan is why they doing something remarkable.

As I walked over Mike pointed at me and said, “Tell him, his family has season-tickets at Northwestern.”

“It’s no big deal,” the kid said. “Northwestern played Michigan State today.”

“I know that,” I said exasperated. Who the hell did this guy think was talking to?

“Well,” he said with what I thought was an unnecessarily long pause. “The game was really awesome.”

Having never met the kid before, I assumed he wasn’t trying to drive me crazy, but he was doing a hell of a good job anyway.

“What happened?” I asked a louder than necessary.

I held my breath. Would I have reason to celebrate or reason to despair?

Finally I got my answer, “Northwestern missed a shot at buzzer that would have won the game. Michigan State won by two.”

It would be over dramatic to say I collapsed to the floor, but I do recall stumbling a little. I wasn’t sure what to feel. I was disappointed, but for NU to have some close to the upset was great achievement. I felt pride in the Wildcats effort.

“I guess it was a good game,” I said.

“It sure was,” my informant answered.

With that ringing endorsement I decided despite knowing the unfortunate result of the game I’d still watch my recording of the game. I’m glad I did. In all my years watching sports I may have never seen a better effort from an underdog than what the ‘Cats gave that day. I remember the camera fixing on the Wisconsin fans as they rose to their feet to cheer Evan Eschmeyer as he gave the Wildcats what would be their final lead of the day with about three minutes left in the game.

In the final three minutes, Michigan State managed to scrape together five points. That was enough to secure the victory, but NU didn’t go down easy. Down two with the clocking winding towards zero, David Newman got the ball after an MSU basket and rushed it towards the hoop. Once in the lane, Newman lofted a soft floater which looked on target until Michigan State’s Antonio Smith batted it away. Michigan State’s fans breathed a sigh of relief until they saw the batted ball roll into the hands of Steve Lepore. After one quick dribble, Lepore leaned in over a defender and fired an off balance three point shot. To this day, I believe he came inches from changing Northwestern basketball forever.

When you’re trying to build a program goal number one is a signature win. It’s the win which announces a team’s presence to the nation. It informs all their upcoming opponents that they better be ready to play or they’ll be adding a number on the right column of their record. It’s Northwestern’s 1995 football team beating Michigan or Davidson topping Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. It might even be Northwestern basketball beating Michigan State last year in East Lansing (you could certainly argue that was a signature win), but without a doubt the loss to Michigan State on March 5, 1999 was the closest Northwestern came to signature win before last January. I’d argue it would have been far more significant that last year’s victory given the stage on which it would have occurred and what it might have setup.

If the Wildcats had beaten the Spartans they would have advanced to play Wisconsin in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament. Had they beat the Badgers, which they certainly could have, they would have played the last place Illinois Fighting Illini who had made remarkable run to the final in the conference title game. It would have been almost a perfect confluence of events for the ‘Cats to make their first NCAA tournament. Not only would the road there have been relatively easy, but the team would have been playing with a ton of extra confidence after knocking off the number two team in the nation live on ESPN. Beating Michigan State in full view of a national TV audience could have totally changed the national perception of Northwestern basketball. Not only might the ‘Cats future opponents in the Big Ten Tournament have found themselves very worried about NU’s unstoppable momentum, but the national press which such an upset would have generated might have changed how the average college basketball fan and potential recruits viewed Northwestern basketball. Unfortunately, thanks to the United Center rims, NU’s dream of a signature win remained unrealized.

When the ball left his hand, Steve Lepore’s shot for the win looked as if it was right on, but it ended up slightly short and hit the front edge. When the ball hit the rim, it bounced high into to the air and it looked for a moment as if the ball might still manage to fall into the basket. Unfortunately, on the way down the ball stuck the rim a second time before falling to the hardwood floor.

Although it was sad to watch the ‘Cats play so well and come up short, I think my pain was eased somewhat by knowing that despite failing to achieve their signature win, NU earned the respect of the college basketball world. The broadcasters on ESPN effusively praised Eschmeyer’s fantastic play. In his postgame press conference, Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said NU deserved to win and admitted the Wildcats outplayed and outhustled his mighty Spartans. The most memorable praise for the ‘Cats, though, came from the crowd of Wisconsin fans who rose to their feet and saluted the ‘Cats effort with a standing ovation after the final buzzer sounded. It was a fantastic moment.

Monday, March 8, 2010

All-Big Ten 'Cats

Big Ten Freshman of the Year Drew Crawford

Four NU players got awarded with honors tonight as the All-Big Ten teams from both coaches and the media were released. The highlight for NU was Drew Crawford winning Freshman of the Year from the media. Crawford really struggled at the end of the regular season, but he was big for NU in the team’s biggest wins and certainly outplayed the majority of the other Big Ten freshmen when you look at the season from start to end.

John Shurna was awarded 2nd-team All-Big Ten. In conference games Shurna actually tied for the Big Ten scoring lead at 20.1 ppg, but the truth is the Big Ten was stacked this season with great talent. There is no shame in Shurna being 2nd-team as just a sophomore.

Two other Wildcats got honors. Jeremy Nash was rightly on the Big Ten’s All-Defense team and Juice Thompson was honorable mention All-Big Ten. Perhaps what should give the greatest hope to NU fans is that three of those players, plus former All-Big honoree Kevin Coble, will be in the Wildcat lineup next season.

I’ll release my second annual Welsh-Ryan Ramblings awards after NU’s season comes an official close. I hope it takes awhile.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Forecasting the Big Ten Tournament

The matchups for the 2010 Big Ten Tournament are now set thanks to wins today by Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Minnesota. Northwestern is the 7-seed and, as expected, will rematch with 10-seed Indiana who just beat the Wildcats in the regular season finale. Another interesting rematch exists in the 4 vs 5 game where 4-seed Wisconsin and 5-seed Illinois will meet to decide their season series. Below are my thoughts on all 10 games in the Big Ten Tournament as I predict who will come out victorious and take home the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Round 1

Game 1
#8 Michigan vs #9 Iowa
WRR Pick: Michigan
I’m picking Michigan in part because Manny Harris is the type of player who can carry a team in the postseason, but he’s Mr. Inconsistent, so really I’m picking the Wolverines because I don’t think Iowa’s young team is ready or talented enough to compete in the postseason.

Game 2
#7 Northwestern vs #10 Indiana
WRR: Northwestern
I like the Wildcats to win the season series over the Hoosiers. Yes, it might be a pro-IU crowd, but it isn’t IU’s building as it was on Saturday when it took overtime for the Hoosiers to win. I think NU will learn from Saturday’s mistakes and get by the Hoosiers in Round 1.

Game 3
#6 Minnesota vs #11 Penn State
WRR Pick: Penn State
I don’t think anybody envies Minnesota’s 6-seed. Penn State has become a very good team in the last month and Minnesota will find out just how good when the Nittany Lions beat them.

Quarterfinal Round

Game 4
#1 Ohio State vs #8 Michigan
WRR Pick: Ohio State
This might be the Big Ten’s most hotly contested rivalry, but I don’t expect much of a contest here. I think the Buckeyes roll to the semi-final behind Big Ten Player of the Year Evan Turner.

Game 5
#4 Wisconsin vs #5 Illinois
WRR Pick: Illinois
I think Illinois is going to be a team on a mission after Sunday’s loss. They need to win to even get sniffed by the NCAA Selection Committee. Also, Demetri McCamey needs to show he isn’t the player who nearly got into a fight with his coach on the bench, but is in fact the guy who nearly set a single season record for assists after an early season benching.

Game 6
#2 Purdue vs #7 Northwestern
WRR Pick: Purdue
I think this is where NU’s road problems really show up. Yes, Indy is closer to the IU campus, but Purdue has a lot more to play for and their fans will know that and descend on Conseco Fieldhouse. I think those fans help push a Boilermaker team that is adjusting to the loss of Robbie Hummel to victory. On the positive side, I think the win over Indiana clinches NU’s NIT bid.

Game 7
#3 Michigan State vs #11 Penn State
WRR Pick: Michigan State
Penn State will make Michigan State work for this victory just as they did twice this year. When it is all said and done, though, I think Tom Izzo will be able to orchestrate a narrow win for MSU.

Semifinal Round

Game 8
#1 Ohio State vs #5 Illinois
WRR Pick: Ohio State
This game will be much closer than either of the two meetings these teams had during the regular season. However, Evan Turner, William Buford, and David Lighty are simply that much better than Illinois’s backcourt of McCamey, DJ Richardson, and Brandon Paul. I also think Dallas Lauderdale can push around Mike Tisdale.

Game 9
#2 Purdue vs #3 Michigan State
WRR: Michigan State
When these teams met the first time MSU star Kalin Lucas played on an injured ankle and Purdue beat his Spartans. The second time, Purdue played without Robbie Hummel and MSU won. With Hummel still out, Lucas and the Spartans will win.

Big Ten Tournament Championship Game

#1 Ohio State vs #3 Michigan State
WRR Pick: Michigan State
No disrespect to Purdue, but considering they don’t have Hummel, I think this final pits the Big Ten’s two top teams right now. Ohio State probably has more talent, but I think after having lost to the Buckeyes earlier in the year, Tom Izzo will have a better idea of how to exploit OSU’s lack of depth. I expect the Spartans to rotate their athletic bigs against Lauderdale, pressure the Buckeye guards to cause turnovers, and get away with a close victory and the Big Ten Tournament Title.

What does everybody else think? Share your predictions for NU’s run and the tourney’s champ below.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Hoosiers Beat Wildcats 88-80 in Overtime to end Losing Streak and Deny NU 20 Wins

Northwestern struggled in several areas in Saturday’s loss to Indiana, but once again the obvious problem was NU’s defense which allowed 88 points. Yes, IU had an extra session to score, but throughout the game Northwestern displayed a total lack of understanding about who and where they needed to defend. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the vast majority of the time Northwestern is a lazy defensive team. Every once and awhile they get fired up to play defense, usually while in the 1-3-1, but overall the Wildcats are not actively seeking to deny passing lanes and fight through screens. I can’t stand how much Northwestern switches when attempting to play man-to-man. I know that some of the concepts of the way NU plays are based on switching, but the fact you get to pass off your guy to someone else whenever the slightest rub screen comes by is ridiculous. All that does is make players not have to play hard, because they don’t have to fight through any screens, and create mismatches like Michael Thompson on a center in the post or Luka Mirkovic on a guard outside. Northwestern’s players are not so physically weak or slow that they can’t fight through a screen every once and while. Maybe such a defense would be necessary if NU played Kansas (though I wouldn’t even advocate it them), but against an Indiana team that hadn’t hit double digit wins until today it sure isn’t. Today’s 1-3-1 did help NU record 10 steals, but against the 1-3-1 Indiana was able to hit 10 threes. Of course, eight were by guard Jordan Hulls who was the only Hoosier starter with a relatively decent three point percentage. For some reason, though, Northwestern refused to find him and guard. If Northwestern would have simply started defending Hulls on the perimeter they likely would have won the game with ease.

Last week I commented that Bill Carmody should fire either Mitch Henderson or Ivan Vujic and bring in a man-to-man defense expert. It was intelligently pointed out to me by several readers that for a number of reasons (loyalty, pride, etc.) Carmody probably wouldn’t be willing to do so. I agree, but I would then ask for the sake of all NU fans that Northwestern A.D. Jim Phillips to make Carmody do so. Phillips has publically said he is going to negotiate a contract extension with Carmody following this season. If I were Jim Phillips, I would tell Carmody that part of the deal was he needed to bring in someone who could teach his team to play man-to-man defense without switching whenever two offensive players run by each other. Carmody’s visceral reaction would probably be to object to Phillips sticking his nose into Carmody’s staff, but I would hope that an intelligent man like Carmody would see the logical outcome would actually be his team getting better and his job getting more secure. Despite some people’s objections, nothing is wrong with NU’s offense. If the Wildcats could play even passable defense, I believe they would have 24 wins right not and be headed for a Big Ten Tournament bye and a top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they probably will need to turn the tables of Indiana in Indianapolis on Thursday just to make the NIT.

Part of the problem with defense is probably Drew Crawford can’t play it right now. In fact, he can’t do much of anything right now. That’s way he played only 18 minutes, and in truth those were probably 18 more minutes than he should have played. Right now Crawfor simply can’t move on defense and he is getting way to self-centered on offense when he doesn’t score. I think it probably has to do with being frustrated with how the injury limits him, but a couple times today Crawford fired up what I’ll call, “Me First” three-pointers, basically he took bad shots because he wanted points in the scorebook. I know the kid is hurt and I understand that might impact his play, but if he’s as hurt as his play indicates he shouldn’t be on the floor. He probably should have rested earlier in the year. Now, if he gets benched it’s basically too late to do any good, which is way I think he’s trying to play through his pain.

Of course, Crawford wasn’t the only Wildcat to fire up a dumb three. NU got back into a game they were trailing by getting the ball inside to score or setup a good three. In the end, though, the ‘Cats took 42 threes, and many were not good shots. Thompson himself tried 16 (he did make 7) and John Shurna tried 9 (he made just 3). Shurna did record a double-double (31 points, 12 rebounds), however, because he made 9-of-12 shots inside as well. If he’d attacked a little more instead of shooting some of those threes it might have been a different game. It also would have helped if Shurna and Luka Mirkovic hadn’t missed 5 total free throws at key times. Both should be better free throw shooters than they have been of late. Clearly some sort of mental block exists for them.

Actually, a huge mental block exists for all of NU’s team. They can’t play away from home. This loss, bad as it was, was actually one of NU’s best road performances. That’s scary as NU won’t be hosting a home game if they make the NIT (also, a bid to the NIT is certainly not a guarantee at this point). NU also runs the risk of playing Indiana in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Tournament. That could seem a road environment as well, but at least the Hoosiers won’t be that much more familiar than NU with the playing conditions at Conseco Fieldhouse.

So Northwestern ends the regular season with a record of 19-12. From the point of view of history that’s pretty good. In fact, it’s a school record for wins. From point of view of November 12th (a.k.a right after Kevin Coble got hurt), it’s also pretty good. In fact, it might be considered remarkable, most teams don’t set school records without their best player. From my point of view today, though, I’m somewhat disappointed. Watching and evaluating team as honestly as possible after every game, I feel the Wildcats didn’t achieve to their potential. Wins over Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, and Notre Dame showed what this team was capable of doing. Unfortunately, a collection of games like the December 30th contest at Illinois, the game at Iowa, and today’s loss at Indiana are sprinkled amongst the great games mentioned above. On some days this team played with the best of the Big Ten and the nation, but on others they played worse than the worst. That inconsistency isn’t the fault of Coble’s injury or history. Responsibility (both good and bad) for what happened from November 13th to March 6th rests with those who played and coached the games which occurred between those dates.

As the Wildcats prepare for the Big Ten Tournament, I hope the players and coaches take confidence from the games they played well, but I hope even more so that they learn lessons from the games they didn’t, because if NU can’t improve in several areas (such as defense) a season which once stood on the verge of being the fulfillment of many people’s dreams will quickly, and unceremoniously, come to an end. If they do learn from their mistakes, Northwestern could be playing basketball well into the month of March.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Game 31: Northwestern Wildcats @ Indiana

The Matchup: Northwestern (19-11) @ Indiana (9-20)

Location: Assembly Hall (Bloomington, IN)

TV: Big Ten Network (11:00 AM CT Saturday March 6th, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Northwestern is looking for the program’s first 20 win season.

About the Game
In some ways it seems and lifetime ago and in some it seems just yesterday, but it has been 4 months since the 2009-10 college basketball season started. This Northwestern squad has been through a lot this season from the low of losing Kevin Coble for year to the high of beating #6 Purdue. Now, the Wildcats regular season portion of 2009-10 will come to a close in Bloomington, Indiana. Their postseason portion will begin Thursday about a half hour north in Indianapolis.

If the Wildcats can beat the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday they will make history in a number of ways. NU will win 20 games for the first time and will have 4 straight wins over Indiana for the first time since the early 1930s. In addition, the Wildcats are trying for their second straight win inside Assembly Hall. That might not seem as significant a mark, but before last season Northwestern had never beaten IU in that building.

In order to get the victory, NU must play defense. Their defense has been questionable overall, but it has been particularly atrocious on the road in the Big Ten. NU played primarily the 1-3-1 zone on Wednesday against Chicago State which makes me think they’ll play the same to start on Saturday. If that is the case, NU must extend out and get into passing lanes. If they do not pressure the Hoosier guards between the rings, then Indiana will be able to easily enter the ball inside to forward Christian Watford (12.0ppg, 5.9 rpg). Penn State took advantage of soft NU defense to score inside almost at will. Even Chicago State got some early easy looks which couldn’t have pleased Head Coach Bill Carmody. Perhaps the best news for Northwestern is that Indiana isn’t loaded with great inside players. However, it’s not just post players that can score if NU’s zone gets soft and lazy (as it has much too often). Quick guards can take advantage and get into the lane as well. Indiana has guard Verdall Jones III (14.7 ppg, 27.3% 3PT) who scored 28 points in the two teams’ last meeting and is very good getting inside off the dribble. If NU is in the 1-3-1, I think Indiana will work both Watford and Jones inside using their various skills.

If NU’s zone is good enough that IU must shoot from the outside, that should help NU. Indiana makes only 33.6% of their three pointers as a team. For what it’s worth, the Hoosiers will look primarily at guards Jordan Hulls (37.3% 3PT) and Devan Dumes (31.3% 3PT) when they need threes. Both are streaky three point shooters, but NU must close out on them. They cannot let these guys get their feet set. IU also has forward Derek Elston who while he doesn’t shoot many threes, can knock them down. Right now, the big man makes 36.4% of his treys.

On offense, Northwestern must reestablish their inside game. This has disappeared recently, but when the ‘Cats are successful they get baskets from Luka Mirkovic in the post and John Shurna sets up his own outside by attacking the basket. NU would also get a boost if Drew Crawford were healthy as he can also serve as an inside option both off the dribble and posting smaller guards. If NU does find someway to get an inside game, they have a great chance to equal their convincing win over the Hoosiers recorded February 7th.

Northwestern is the better team in this matchup, but I think anyone who has watched the Wildcats has to be wary of picking them to win on the road. Northwestern just hasn’t been a good road team since the 1st of December. If NU wants to win in the postseason, though, they must win on the road. They’ll be at a neutral site in Indy, but unless NU falls to the CBI they’ll be playing true road games in the NIT. Therefore, NU needs to learn to win on the road. I think this is as good of time as any to do so, because if they can’t win this one I have my doubts about them winning a game in the Big Ten Tourney. Northwestern, 71 Indiana, 68

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Record Set: Northwestern Beats Chicago State 72-49 and Sets School Record for Wins

Alex Marcotullio got back on track with 15 points versus Chicago State

In a game that started extremely sloppy on both sides, Northwestern emerged with a 72-49 victory on Wednesday night. The outcome of the contest remained somewhat in doubt until late in the first half when the Wildcats closed that half on a 10-2 run. That run was keyed by three pointers from freshman guard Alex Marcotullio and senior guard Jeremy Nash. Nash was playing his final regular season home game in Welsh-Ryan Arena tonight. He started slowly, but finished with 7 points, 4 steals, and 3 assists. Early on it seemed like the Wildcats were working too hard to force a spectacular play from Nash. For example, John Shurna overshot his teammate on two ally-oop attempts early on. Thankfully, Nash got into the scorebook a little later with a dunk off a steal and then followed a Marcotullio three with a big three. As a result of those shots, before Chicago State seemed to realize what happened, the Cougars went from down to two points to down double digits and never got back into the game.

The fact Chicago State stuck around for most of the first half shows Northwestern wasn’t perfect tonight. They did play better defense forcing 19 turnovers, including 14 steals. However, in the first half the Cougars did penetrate NU’s 1-3-1 zone for some very easy looks. In the second half, NU seemed to extend the zone and put a little more pressure on passers. The result was Chicago State seemed less comfortable making passes. Much of the credit for that goes to Marcotullio. Though most people will look at the fact he made 5-of-7 threes to score 15 points, fans shouldn’t ignore the defensive pressure Marcotullio puts on teams at the top of the 1-3-1. Some of that is natural instinct and some he likely learned from watching teammate Jeremy Nash, but I have to say that I think that though NU was miss Nash’s athletic skill, they will still be able to play 1-3-1 with Alex Marcotullio on the floor. Marcotullio also has to get credit for his 3 assists against 0 turnovers tonight. With fellow freshman Drew Crawford (1-of-7 FGs, 2 points) still clearly hurt, it is important for Marcotullio to contribute in multiple ways. He can’t just be a shooter or just be a defender. He needs to play an all around game and he did so tonight.

Aside from Marcotullio, NU got double figures from reliable contributors Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna. Thompson finished with 13 points and 5 assists. He made 3-of-6 threes to reach that total, but his best shot was a runner in the lane with the shot clock running down. John Shurna scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but I’d still like to see him attack the basket more. Today, 7 of his shots were threes. With his skill, and often a size advantage, Shurna shouldn’t have to settle for taking threes. He should be able to go to the hoop and have wide open threes as result later. As far as other numbers, Shurna just missed a double-double as he finished with 9 rebounds. He also added 6 assists and 4 steals.

Off the bench, NU got solid minutes from Davde Curletti and Mike Capocci. Culetti played 18 minutes and finished with 4 points and 6 rebounds. Those totals are solid, but Curletti scored all of his points from the free throw line and only made 50% of those tires. For a guy who is a skilled three point shooter to make only 50% of his free throws is unacceptable. NU needs to continue to feed Curletti and NU starting center Luka Mirkovic down low, but both centers must improve their free throw shooter if NU is going to do damage in the postseason.

Mike Capocci scored a season-high 8 points and also had 4 rebounds and 2 blocks. One of the blocks was a spectacular block off the backboard as Capocci hustled the court to ensure a turnover didn’t become an easy basket. With his athletic ability, Capocci offers NU some nice options. The key to keeping him on the court will be to limit his turnovers and make sure he makes smart choices with the ball in terms of passes and shot selection.

As the players left the court today, many young fans approached them for autographs. If that is the final image of the 2009-10 season at Welsh-Ryan Arena, I can live with that. It was a nice moment. Plus, I’m sure both the players and their young fans enjoyed the experience. However, NU might be back at Welsh-Ryan Arena hosting a postseason game. If that happens, I hope NU far exceeds tonight’s attendance of 3,757. Welsh-Ryan ended up a great home court advantage for the 'Cats this year and that’s credit to all the fans who stepped through the arena’s doors. If NU plays at home in the postseason, those fans and many more need to return wearing purple to help push the Wildcats season deep in to March.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Game 30: Chicago State @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Chicago State (8-21) @ Northwestern (18-11)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: www.bigtennetwork.com Big Ten Network On Demand for $2.99 (Wed. 3-3-10)
Radio: WIND 560 AM

Fun Fact: Northwestern has never lost to Chicago State in the history of their intracity rivalry.

About the Game
Northwestern is still trying to set a school record with 19 wins after a disappointing loss to Penn State on Sunday. The odds are the Wildcats will beat a Chicago State team whose best win is over Eastern Washington and who has only twice all year played in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 people, but the real question is how will Northwestern play. In the Wildcats win over Texas Pan-America, NU proved that they can certainly play down to the level of their competition. In addition, Northwestern’s performance against Penn State on Sunday was amongst their worst all year. Many NU fans are understandably disappointed with this loss. As a result, I suspect many fans will choose not show up tonight so NU can’t count on much of a home court advantage.

That’s a shame as Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger will be honored for senior day and NU’s Women’s Lacrosse team will receive National Championship Rings (maybe next year it’ll be a ceremony for the 1931 basketball champs, I’ll get back to working to promote that title in the offseason). I do appreciate the fact Northwestern’s athletic department is taking time to host a ceremony for the lacrosse team, but I’m disappointed they waited until the Chicago State game. At best, 3,500 people will attend this game. The lacrosse team deserves better recognition for their 5th consecutive National Championship. Northwestern should have honored them at the Purdue or Illinois game when Welsh-Ryan Arena was full. Waiting until March 3rd for the lowest profile opponent of the season is silly and, from my perspective, not worthy of the level of respect that five straight National Titles deserves.

As for the game, Chicago State is not the team they were last season when they could have made a case for postseason inclusion. It’s kind of a shame for the Cougars that they and other former independents formed the Great West Conference a year to late as the Great West winner now gets an automatic bid to the College Insider Tournament. CSU could have won that prize last season.

The player to stop on Chicago State is 6-7 forward Carl Montgomery who averages 13.2 ppg and 8.2 rpg. He actually really does scare me since NU apparently lets people get inside looks at will, though, they have played better defense at home. Also, Montgomery’s teammates have 462 turnovers and 282 assists this year. Even with Northwestern’s defensive inconsistency, they ought to be able to stop Chicago State from getting the ball to Montgomery enough to make the game a contest. If they can’t get the ball to Montgomery, guard Christian Wall is CSU’s other major weapon. He scores 12.7 ppg and is the team’s best three point shooter at 32.6%. The fact that leads the team shows how bad Chicago State is shooting. As a team they make just 38.1% from the field overall and only 26.5% from three. Wall also leads the team in assists, but has basically a 1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.

Northwestern should have nothing to fear from Chicago State. Even playing like they played Sunday, Northwestern would probably beat the Cougars. Chicago State is 0-16 on the road and has one of the worst PRIs in D1. However, the goal for Northwestern should be not to play like they played Sunday. They should do what they can to take this game seriously as a tune up for the Big Ten Tournament which starts in just over a week. With only two regular season games left, and a ton of issues on defense, Northwestern must take each opportunity they get to work on defense in game situations as a valuable chance. I hope NU uses the 1-3-1, matchup, and even man-to-man in this game and tries to learn how to play each with the necessary level of effort at all times. It’ll be particularly interesting to see if Drew Crawford plays. Bill Carmody finally made Crawford’s sore groin/back public after the loss to Penn State and said he was considering sitting the freshman down. Given Crawford has played like he was hurt for three weeks, I think that’s overdue. Regardless, I think NU wins this game with ease. Northwestern, 77 Chicago State, 59

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Link To View: Thoughts on a Past Hoops Injury

Lake the Posts hosted NU alum and Big Ten Network anchor Dave Revsine for a profile today. You can check out the interview here. I bring this up because Revsine mentions former NU forward Darreion Dean who injured himself walking into a pole and asks in anybody recalls this. Well, I can say I recall this for sure, though, I thought I heard it was a stop sign Dean ran into in San Deigo when NU was at San Deigo State to start the season. Regardless Darreion Dean ended his NU career thanks to a run in with some sort of large metal inanimate object and I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers it.

Road Woes NU’s Biggest Problem

People will have a lot of theories regarding what sent a promising Northwestern team from a possible NCAA Tournament berth to a lower seed in the NIT. They’ll talk about Drew Crawford’s injury, Luka Mirkovic’s inconsistency, and Bill Carmody’s personnel use, but I don’t actually think any of those was the real problem. The real problem is much simpler—Northwestern can’t win on the road.

NU’s only true road wins are over an N.C. State team that is tied for last in the ACC and a Michigan team that should have beat NU handily, but blew a 17 point lead. Northwestern is 1-7 on the road in Big Ten play and 2-7 overall. The Wildcats are 2-0 on a neutral court, but that neutral court was only about 9 miles from Welsh-Ryan Arena.

What Northwestern’s problem is on the road is a matter of speculation. However, in most of the road contests NU has fallen into a large hole at some point and it’s tough to come back from double digits away from home. In many of those cases, NU has cut into that double digit hole and final score has been close, but only once, the aforementioned Michigan game, has NU actually fully overcome their hole. In other contests, such as Sunday at Penn State and at Iowa, NU has never been in the game. The only road contests where NU hasn’t gotten in a huge first half hole are N.C. State (a win), Illinois (which NU lost in overtime), and Michigan State (which NU got into a big hole in the early 2nd half). I strongly believe why NU beat N.C. State and took overtime to lose to Illinois is the fact the Wildcats weren’t chasing double digits early. When a team gets down 10+ points early in a hostile environment, it’s tough to come back. You either pack it in and seal your fate (NU on Sunday) or you make an huge effort to come back, but probably exhaust too much energy to have a shot in the stretch (see NU at Minnesota). This is especially true of teams like Northwestern who don’t get a lot from their bench.

Why does Northwestern often fall into a hole early? I wish I knew. For whatever reason, this team doesn’t seem to play with the constant urgency necessary to play defense in the Big Ten. It isn’t Northwestern’s offense. In blowout first halves against Wisconsin and Penn State, NU still played well on offense. It was the fact that both times the opposition scored more than 40 points which put NU into a bad situation. What’s frustrating is that Northwestern has shown they can play defense. Sometimes even in a contest they get blown out in the first half, they’ll comeback and play good defense in the second. That makes no sense what so ever. If you can do it in the second half, you can do it in the first half. Why NU can’t come out of the tunnel and play hard is a mystery, but they haven’t done so in 6 of the 8 Big Ten road games they’ve played this year. That’s bad. Maybe Bill Carmody needs to be more aggressive in his pregame speeches, maybe the team’s senior leaders need to get on the freshman more. Who knows? But Northwestern has one Big Ten road left. They play at Indiana on Saturday. The Wildcats are much better than the Hoosiers, but Indiana has a reputation for playing hard at home. If Northwestern doesn’t come out with intensity, it won’t matter that Indiana is resting near the bottom of the Big Ten. They too will find a way to continue Northwestern’s road woes.