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.