Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Visit from Creighton gives NU chance to Boost Resume

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Time Off is Time for NU to Change Mindset on D

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Thoughts on Several Current NU Athletics Issues

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

ISSUE 1: Kevin Coble

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

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

ISSUE 2: Wrigley Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wildcats Add Another Ugly Win

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Northwestern Looking to Prove Something vs Arkansas-Pine Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NU Survives UTPA Upset Bid for Second Consecutive Year

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

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

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

A couple other notes…

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Evan Watkins Pep Talk

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


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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thanks, Dan.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wildcats Use Hot Second Half to Top Huskies 97-78

Northwestern still struggled on defense, especially it seemed early, but the group Coach Bill Carmody has jokingly referred to as the “Runnin’ Rebel Wildcats” made that name into anything but a joke as they piled up a Carmody-era record 97 points. The Wildcats even improved in the second half scoring 54 of those 97 in the second half of the contest thanks mostly to a huge 25 point second half from John Shurna and 8-of-16 threes total in that half.

Obviously, as noted above, NU’s defensive effort wasn’t great. In the first half the Wildcats allowed 38 points and pretty much looked awful whenever they were forced to actually play defense inside the three point line. Thankfully, the Wildcats 1-3-1 completely flummoxed Northern Illinois. I have to say that I truly believe when played correctly the 1-3-1 is a pretty good defense. Especially against a team which struggles from deep as Northern does. Alex Marcotullio (who got the start thanks to a JerShon Cobb injury) and Jeff Ryan played the top of that zone and both caused enough havoc to make Bill Carmody happy. The biggest need for improvement NU will have to make is their ability to play straight forward defense in their man-to-man, switching man, or matchup zone. I will say that some of NIU’s 40 second half points came as a result of facing NU’s second team defense, so I’m less concerned there. Bottom line, NU isn’t a good defensive team, but it might take a couple games to figure just how much of problem their defensive liabilities are going to cause.

Now that we’ve addressed NU’s lackluster defense, let’s address their awesome offense. John Shurna posted a career high-tying 31 points tonight with 25 coming in the second half when he simply caught fire. Shurna made two quick threes (7-of-10 3s overall) in the first 90 seconds of the second half which seemed to ignite the ‘Cats. He also made a couple of very difficult deep and off balance shots which showed just how good of a player he has become. After watching tonight, I feel Shurna should feel totally confident as a team leader and a serious contender for Big Ten Player of the Year. In fact, if NU does make the NCAA-tournament I’ll say that Shurna will be named Big Ten Player of the Year by a number of publications.

NU also got good games from the other two members of their triumvirate of stars. Drew Crawford stepped up early in the game when Shurna struggled and ended up starting the Wildcats scoring run which took the ‘Cats from down eight to up eight early in the first half. Overall, Crawford made 9-of-13 shots and scored 20 points. That’s the type of efficiency I’d like to see from Crawford. He can make threes, but he’s so effective in the lane that I expect him to shot over 50% for the season. Crawford had NU’s only dunk of the game on a breakaway and I also liked the number of little runners he found ways to make as well. Juice Thompson contributed 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting. He also had 6 assists and played what we can expect to be his regular total of 38 minutes. In fact, Thompson may end up playing all 40 minutes in a number of games this season. The only thing that might prevent him from leading the nation in minutes is the fact NU doesn’t have the toughest non-conference schedule, but based on tonight, Bill Carmody may keep Thompson on the court regardless of how big NU’s lead gets in a game.

Before I wrap up I have to give major props to Jeff Ryan, Davide Curletti, and Luka Mirkovic. They all did just enough to be key contributors and make me believe NU has support for their big three. Ryan played his usual great defense and hit a big three early in the game. Curletti scored 9 points (also hit a key three) and gave NU some needed minutes in the post. Luka Mirkovic scored just seven points, but recorded 10 rebounds which were a game high. Similar contributions by these three combined with a healthy JerShon Cobb will give Shurna, Crawford, and Thompson good support this year.

On Wednesday Northwestern earns frequent flyer miles as they head to Texas-Pan America. Northwestern has traditionally handled UTPA with ease, but word is the UTPA coaching staff has billed this as the program’s biggest game so I expect the ‘Cats will need to be ready to play in order to post the victory.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

‘Cats Start Season with Short Road Trip (Game Preview)

Northwestern will open the 2010-11 season on Friday at Northern Illinois. The game can be heard on WGN and can seen for a fee through NUsports.com’s all-access package. Of course, that fee is setup as a monthly subscription package so you can’t just order one game. You have to remember to cancel afterwards. Note that if you’re going to pay for this service. To be honest, I think it’s beyond ridiculous a single game service option isn’t offered. Basically, because the monthly system is auto renewed it’s essentially trying to scam people because they might forget to cancel their subscription. One should also note if you plan to do this that NIU's monthly fee is $6.95 compared to NU's $9.95, so I'd go with NIU. I think the money goes to CBS anyway so it's not like you're shorting Northwestern. Of course, I'd pay $9.95 if I didn't have to worry about remembering to cancel later.

Now, on to the game…

Northern Illinois went 10-20 last year and only returns one player who made significant scoring contributions. That player is guard Xavier Silas who transferred to NIU from Colorado when NIU hired former Colorado coach Ricardo Patton. Numbers wise I’d compare Silas to Penn State’s Talor Battle. Battle’s numbers are more impressive because he’s 5-10 and Silas is 6-5, but both players score high double figures and pull down more than five rebounds a game from the their guard spot. Last year Silas averaged 19.7 and 5.3. What he doesn’t do as well as Battle is handle the ball. He had 41 assists and 60 turnovers last season. With that in mind look from NIU to lean heavily on Kyree Jones a freshman from Indiana. James drew interest from some Big Ten schools and is notable in the Chicago area as the son of former Chicago State head coach Kevin Jones. At 6-2 Jones will be bigger than Juice Thompson when going head-to-head, but Juice’s three years of starting experience against bigger Big Ten guards gives NU a major advantage here.

In the front court for NIU probably watch Lee Fisher. At 6-5 Fisher is actually one of NIU’s bigger players. He started 21 games at forward last year and averaged basically 4 points and 4 rebounds a game. He’ll need to do more if NIU wants to pull the upset. It’s also wroth noting that Fisher is bad free throw shooter if that becomes an issue in any way. With Fisher fans might also see Tim Toler a transfer from Danville Area Community College. A Junior College All-American, his 6-7 270 lbs. frame should be a good test for the bulked up Luka Mirkovic.

Bill Carmody made the comment that he might start Mike Capocci in some games depending on matchups, but in this contest I think we’ll see what I expect to be the regular starting line of Thompson, Cobb, Crawford, Shurna, and Mikrovic for NU. I will be interested to see how Capocci, Jeff Ryan, and Alex Marcotullio are used off the bench as I don’t think the exhibition game gave true sense of Coach Carmody’s sub pattern plans. If NU has defensive issues guarding Silas, I’d expect to see more of Ryan and Marcotullio who looked like NU’s best defenders last week. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see NU in the 1-3-1 Friday night. NIU was a terrible three point shooting team last year and even Silas only made 32.1% of his threes. In fact, against such a team the 1-3-1 might be the best way for NU to defend.

This is a road game and those came be tough, but as I posted earlier this week I don’t think the road should faze this NU team. I also think that despite a couple potentially quality additions, NIU still hasn’t recaptured their early-mid 90s form. It could be close early, but NU should win this one pretty easily. I predict: Northwestern, 85 Northern Illinois, 71

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Carmody and Phillips Finalizing Extension: The Fictional (but based on fact) Fan Reaction

The Chicago Tribune reported today that Bill Carmody and NU Athletic Director Jim Phillips are close to finalizing an extension to the coach’s contract which runs out at the end of this season. It sounds like for the most part the details are worked out, but according to Carmody “lawyer language” is left to be dealt with. I don’t know what “lawyer language” is exactly, but then again I suspect I don’t really want to know either. I have to assume this means that Carmody is going to be coaching Northwestern for at least the next two or three years (as I’ll guess that’s a fairly standard extension length) and I have to say I’m fine with that. I suspect everyone will be when NU makes the NCAA Tournament this year—and I do think that’ll happen—but let’s have some with some possible reactions from the wide variety of positions NU basketball fans hold. I came up with four, but more probably exist.

NOTE: I didn’t actually see all the reactions below, but I’ve heard things close to a number of them. Also, while #1 and #4 are meant to be pretty extreme, I’d be willing to bet that you can find people inside Welsh-Ryan Arena or on Wildcatreport’s message boards who hold those perspectives.

Reaction # 1: The Overly Optimistic/Blindly Positive Fan

This is the greatest thing ever to happen to NU basketball. Bill Carmody knows more about basketball than James Naismith, who by the way also wouldn’t have gotten NU into the NCAA Tournament in the last 10 years either, and doing this will tremendously help recruiting because Dai-Jon Parker was just worried NU would fire Carmody so he went to Vandy because he knew Stallings was on solid ground. This move ensures NU the NCAAs in the next two years.

Reaction # 2: The Positive, but Realistic Fan

This is the right move. Yeah, it’s been ten years, but let’s be honest it’s been 100 years and NU didn’t even sniff the NCAA Tournament until two years ago. That makes Bill Carmody the best thing NU basketball has going right now. Sure, it’d have been better to have been in the tourney before twitter became a thing, but if we’re going to go this season it’s because of what Carmody’s has built over the last two years. Plus, if we go this year we probably go back next year with Shurna as a senior. Also, it might help recruiting, that’s debatable, but it can’t hurt.

Reaction # 3: The Confused Fan (and somewhat negative) fan

Why do this now? I get that NU has had two nice years, but what happened to this being a make or break year for NU? How is it a make or break year for the ‘Cats if Carmody can go back home to Wilmette after his teams blow leads and not worry about his job? Who the hell does he think he is—Pat Fitzgerald? (ed note: this fan is so confused he forgot about the 317 times the story about Fitz’s Northfield home was linked on Wildcat Report). Look, if NU makes the tournament this year I’ll pay Carmody’s extension myself, but I don’t know why any reason existed to do this now. It just has me confused.

Reaction # 4: The Anti-Carmody Reaction/Negative Fan Reaction

WHAT!!!??? Thanks, Phillips. Next you’ll be moving home football games away from Ryan Field. HE DID THAT TOO?!!? WHAT! I miss Mark Murphy. This is awful I can’t believe any athletic administrator would reward ten years of failure. That’s right. The last ten years have been a total failure. I don’t care about the NIT! If you do you’re just someone who is satisfied with being mediocre. That’s not me. I’m a Winner! You know what NIT stands for? Not in Tournament. You see that first word. Yeah, NOT!!! Jeez, this just ensures we’ll see another half a decade of average at best recruits, negative body language on the sideline, and not enough public appearances to promote the program. If Phillips is going to be stupid enough to give Carmody an extension one of the requirements ought to be that he heads down to Michigan Avenue to pass out free Northwestern Basketball T-Shirts to everybody he sees. We’re supposed to be Chicago’s Big Ten team, right? I’m so upset I’m staying home from the Arkansas-Pine Bluff game now.

My Final Thought: I’m personally with #2. My view is Carmody is a good coach who has NU in a position to be successful this year. With one or two more solid recruits I think NU basketball will trend solidly upwards with Shurna and Crawford getting better and better all the time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fans Rarely Know Reasons

I recently went to a high school soccer playoff game. I don’t really know much about soccer, but a friend of mine was coaching and his team was playing a team ranked in top-5 in nation. Not in the state mind you, the nation. Having had lunch with this friend and listening to him detail his strategy for countering this powerful opponent, I wanted to see how things worked out. Soccer fans will have to forgive my ignorance of major terms, but basically my friend’s strategy was keep the majority of his team back on defense and load up in front of the goal to prevent this powerful opponent from getting clean shots. Having faced the team earlier in the year and having been blow out 6-0 it made sense to play with a defense first mentality and hope to catch a break or get into a shootout where he might have the stronger goalie. To a great extent my friend’s strategy worked. His kids played a great defensive game and even though they allowed 27 shots on goal and only got three, they went into overtime tied 1-1 before losing 2-1 in that OT period. In a contest against a vastly superior opponent with a top-5 ranking and two players who will likely by high school All-Americans you’d think people would have been impressed with the way the game stayed close. Especially since this opponent beat their other playoff competition like a drum. I’m sure most were, but behind me one fan kept saying, “What the hell is the coach doing? Is he just playing to tie? We need to get more aggressive!” Personally, I wanted to turn around and pick a (verbal) fight with the guy, but I restrained myself. Another friend of mine did try to point out the earlier 6-0 loss which showed our side simply couldn’t play such a strong team heads-up, but this gentleman (term used loosely) would have none of it. He didn’t understand why it was a good idea to play such a strategy. He thought the way the game was setup up was “wussy” and not tough enough. Now, this post isn’t meant to be an exercise is ripping a random soccer fan whose name I don’t even know. The guy is entitled to his own opinion. My point, though, is that his opinion is based on total ignorance of the situation. He didn’t have the insider knowledge to know why a defensive game plan made more since. Such a state of mind, however, is not uncommon amongst fans. In fact, we’ve all been there more than not.

As we start the basketball season and come into a potentially dark time in the football season, I think this is a point worth noting. I’m not saying we as fans shouldn’t criticize coaches, but let’s be aware of just how ignorant we are. I sat with my friend at lunch and he explained his strategy and the reasons for it. It wasn’t a random decision at all. It was a choice he agonized over and eventually made (which went against his team’s usual style of play) because he reasoned out that it gave his team their BEST CHANCE TO WIN against a vastly superior opponent. It almost worked. In fact, if not for a deflection on a corner kick it probably would have. That’s the coach’s job. Develop a game plan which after careful thought you believe gives you the best chance to win. You do this after careful study of past games (both yours and the other sides) and after careful consideration of the abilities of your players and their performance in practice and previous contests. You don’t just walk into the arena and start haphazardly calling plays. The plan might not work, but you didn’t choose to play that person or call that play without truly doing the work to think it was the right choice.

Despite all this work done by coaches, we as fans still think we know better. Now, I say it’s totally fine for us to offer our opinions. But, let’s be realistic about it. Even if the game plan looks odd to you (which my friend’s did to that guy behind me) the coach has to honestly thinks his plan gives his team the best shot at victory. We need to respect that. I have no problem saying or listening to fellow NU fans say that the 1-3-1 defense is scary and I hope Bill Carmody plays it less or that if Mike Hankwitz goes to three down linemen again this week he ought to be looking for work at the end of the year, but let’s be honest. Do any of us know more about basketball than Bill Carmody? Honestly. Has anyone else out there devoted their entire life and livelihood to studying the game? (If so I’d love for you to contribute to the blog, but you’re probably busy coaching your own team). Do any of us have more defensive football knowledge than Coach Hank? I suspect the fact he’s been coaching longer than many of us have been alive means likely not. Whether we agree with them or not, let’s keep that in mind and respect they have a reason for the strategic choices they make. After all, their ability to feed their families is based on making the right choice. Considering that, we have to admit that jumping all over coaches without truly having inside knowledge of who does what at practice or without having broken down every play of another team’s season makes us look pretty ignorant. Now, will this stop me from offering my opinions on what defense NU should play? No. But, I want to go on record right now saying that I know Bill Carmody has a plan and a reason for his moves and really does believe he is doing the right thing. Just like every other coach. I’m just a fan with passion who sometimes can’t help but share how he feels.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wildcats Should Be Ready for Road Trips

NU hopes to post many more road wins in 2010-11

Northwestern might be the only BCS-conference school to open the season with two true road games. The Wildcats make a fairly short trip to Northern Illinois on Friday and then a long trip to Texas-Pan America next week. I have to admit to some fear about these games given NU’s historic problems away from Welsh-Ryan Arena and the consistent ability of Northwestern teams to get upset by weaker opponents. However, looking at things logically, this season Northwestern should be more ready for road games than ever before.

This summer the Wildcat traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to Italy to play four basketball games. The ‘Cats went 4-0 on the trip and while the environments might not have been all that hostile and the competition might not have been outstanding, playing those games overseas still gave the ‘Cats great practice at playing out of their comfort zone. Not only were the ‘Cats playing outside of Welsh-Ryan Arena, but they were playing under the rule alterations that professional basketball in Europe uses. This means NU had to get used to playing in a new environment and playing a different type of game. This will help the ‘Cats this year.

While none of the European venues were exactly the Khol Center, NU was obviously the visiting team and the majority of the small crowds in attendance did cheer for their home teams. Also, if the officials in those games were going to make hometown calls, those calls weren’t going to go to the team from the other side of an ocean. Over the course of this year NU will be rooted against and fall victim to some hometown calls, but confidence that they can overcome such events should exist thanks to their dominance against the Italian pro teams.

Having played under the European rules will also help NU. The shorter shot clock NU needed to adjust to overseas will be a huge advantage for these ‘Cats. The fact is the Princeton Offense gets a bad rep as a slow down game. Sure, NU has had seasons where they ran off 30 seconds a possession, but those were also ugly seasons. The Princeton Offense is really at its best and toughest to stop when it’s a game played quickly. You might take 30 second off the clock, but it’s not holding the ball. It’s quickly passing and cutting and trying to get up an open shot. Having been forced, thanks to the short shot clock, to play fast in Italy should help NU this season. Having seen his team’s strong offensive outputs overseas and against Robert Morris, and knowing they still aren’t strong on defense, I think Coach Carmody will allow the ‘Cats to play a quick Princeton Offense. This might anger some NU fans because it will result in some “bad” shots, but its payoff will be an offense which will be the toughest to defend in Carmody’s time in Evanston.

Lastly, I think simply the extended time away from Evanston should make the ‘Cats more comfortable and focused on the road. Hopefully, this will eliminate the traditional bad road starts which have been an unwanted staple of NU basketball.

Tip Off is just five days away. Go Cats!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wildcat Win Exhibition over Eagles 91-71

As former Northwestern football coach Randy Walker was found of saying, “It wasn’t a game of perfect, but it never is.” Northwestern won an exhibition basketball game over Robert Morris University tonight by the score of 91-71. In the contest the Wildcats had some major highlight moments and some moments which no doubt will frustrate both the players and coaches when they watch the film of the contest tomorrow. Still, it was a solid start to NU’s season with some good stuff for NU to feel happy about and some stuff that the team knows they most improve on before they start the season for real a week from tomorrow at Northern Illinois.

Northwestern led the Big Ten in scoring in conference games last season and while the Wildcats didn’t burn out the lights in the Welsh-Ryan Arena scoreboard, they didn’t have much trouble scoring against the Eagles. Northwestern, not surprisingly, was led in scoring by John Shurna. NU’s leading returning scorer and last year’s Sporting News Most Improved Player in the NCAA scored 22 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 4 assists. He also was the only Wildcat who really stayed in rhythm from three point range all night and ended up 5-of-7 from behind the arc. NU will have nights when other players have hot streaks from three, but it was nice to see Shurna assert himself when others struggled to hit the deep ball early on. I also loved seeing Shurna pass with ease as I have to imagine he’ll see some double teams where he’ll be able to find a wide open teammate under the basket.

NU’s other two big guns, Drew Crawford and Michael “Juice” Thompson, also got in double figures for NU. Crawford scored 16 points and finished one rebound short of a double-double with nine. Most importantly, though, four of those nine boards were on the offensive end. The most impressive of which involved him grabbing a missed three out of the air with one hand and slammed it down with ease. He also had six blocks and while many of RMU’s players were shorter than Crawford, that stat still shows his athletic ability.

Juice Thompson had an easy night playing 25 minutes which I think is a pretty safe bet will be the lowest total he plays all season. He made 4-of-8 shots overall and 2-of-4 from three, both when the game was still kind of close, and ended up with 10 points and 2 assists. Not surprisingly for a guy who probably knows the Princeton Offense as well as anybody in the program other than Bill Carmody, Thompson only had one turnover (the team had just four).

The other Wildcat in double figures was freshman JerShon Cobb. Cobb seemed to find his game in the second half and he finished with 12 points, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds playing mostly during the second stanza. He also showed a nice touch from the free throw line after missing his first two attempts. By all reports Cobb is a good free throw shooter.

I mentioned my worries about the center spot, but Luke Mirkovic got 8 points and 8 rebounds and Davide Curletti got 4 and 2. That means NU’s centers posted 12 points and 10 rebounds. That’s a combined double-double from that spot and totals which, if repeated regularly, will lead to a lot of Wildcat wins.

I’ll also say NU got some decent bench production, 23 points, but I also have to guess that Coach Carmody was more apt to play the bench tonight than he might be later in the season. Still, it was great to see Jeff Ryan get extended time and when Mike Capocci took off on his backdoor slam it was clear the kid is a freakish athlete, we just need to hope he can find enough basketball skills to go with that athleticism because it could sure help in the Big Ten.

My biggest disappoint was, again not a surprise if you followed the team last year, defense. NU tried to play a lot of man-to-man, but wasn’t that good at it. Some will say that’ll improve over more games, but the team does practice. They should be better. I will say that Robert Morris was very athletic, but most of the Big Ten is as well and somehow NU needs to learn how to play real man-to-man at least every once and a while. Wisconsin does it every possession of every game and I really don’t think they are any more athletic than NU. In fact, many of their guys in recent years would be insanely jealous of Drew Crawford, Mike Capocci, and JerShon Cobb’s athletic ability. Closer to home, Alex Marcotullio always plays good defense (today was no exception) and he isn’t NU’s most athletic guy. Some of his teammates need to take a lesson.

NU’s other area for improvement statistically is free throw shooting where they were only 9-of-17, but some of that is based on who got to the line. Some fans will also mention the ‘Cats got outrebounded, but it was by one and I was impressed with NU’s better rebounders when they were in the game.

Overall this was fine start down the road of the 2010-11 season, but to once again reference Coach Walk, I’m not all Chuckles the Clown about it. NU still has a lot of work to do in order to reach that road’s ultimate destination—the NCAA Tournament.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Exhibition: Robert Morris @ Northwestern

Northwestern starts the game portion of the 2010-11 schedule with an exhibition matchup on Thursday against Robert Morris College. The game can be seen on-line at bigtennetwork.com or, of course, by spending $5 to go to Welsh-Ryan Arena. Two years ago NU lost to Robert Morris and then posted one the best seasons in school history, so I don’t honestly expect to learn much from this game, but I’ll be watching a four key areas. Speaking of four, I don’t know if excellence in all these areas can get the ‘Cats to the Final Four in April, but it might get them into the Big Ten Tournament’s final four for the first time.

1) Defense

Northwestern played terrible defense for most of last season. Coach Carmody and the players have admitted as much. If NU could have played even halfway decent defense they likely would have been bound for the NCAA tournament. NU has worked on various defensive changes (including man-to-man) and I will be fascinated to see what defenses NU uses against Robert Morris. Personally, I’d really like NU to just play man-to-man regardless in order to work on it in a game setting. With Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and John Shurna, NU has athletes who can play man against similar players.

2) The Center Position

The Center combo of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti wasn’t great in Italy and Luka was arguably NU’s most important and inconsistent player last year. When he played well NU won games, but when he was bad the Wildcats were pretty bad as a team. Somehow, NU needs to find a way to get double figure points and at least seven or eight rebounds a game out of these guys combined regularly if they want to compete in the Big Ten.

3) JerShon Cobb

What role NU’s highest rated recruit of the Carmody era will play is a question many fans are asking. I honestly think JerShon will start, but even if he doesn’t, Coach Carmody isn’t going to leave a potential offensive and defensive playmaker on the bench long. It’ll be great to see JerShon on the floor.

4) The Bench

NU’s bench has at times been invisible, but this year it features 5th-year seniors Jeff Ryan and Ivan Peljusic as well past starter Mike Capocci. It’ll also likely feature Alex Marcotullio coming off the pine to add three point shots and aggressive defense. Basically, this should be a good bench and I want to see how Carmody (generally a short rotation type of coach) uses these guys.

What is everyone else going to be watching?