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).