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.