Friday, December 31, 2010

Purdue’s Hot Shooting and Defense Too Much for Wildcats

This game seemed very similar to NU’s game at St. John’s earlier this month. NU scored what I would generally consider enough points to win, but didn’t play great defense or get enough production from their main offensive weapons. I will say on the positive side that Luka Mirkovic rebounded from a poor first half to score 16 points and make his first to threes of the season. However, his one (1!) rebound wasn’t really all that helpful when his counterpart JaJuan Johnson of Purdue had nine. Another positive for NU was the play of JerShon Cobb who continues to show he isn’t overcome with fear of playing in the big time as he scored 12 points and had 3 assists. I would have liked to see Cobb make a couple threes because I know he can and that will help NU long term. Speaking of threes, for the day NU hit 9 threes, though, one was a useless garbage time bucket by Juice Thompson (18 points, but five costly turnovers against just two assists). Nine threes is generally good, but Coach Carmody has said NU needs at least 10 a game to compete in the Big Ten and the Wildcats obviously didn’t hit that mark today. I’d honestly say that NU probably needs more like 12 a game if they don’t start to play better defense.

Defense and rebounding are weak points that if they aren’t improved make me worry that NU won’t be any better than a 7-11 Big Ten as they were last season. Today the ‘Cats gave up 42 points in the first half and 40 in the second half. To compete they need to reduce those numbers by 10 each. They also need to find a defense that works, they couldn’t stick with Purdue in any defense today whether 1-3-1 zone or matchup Purdue found seams. It’s also, to me at least, ridiculous that E’Twaun Moore, Purdue’s only consistent shooter, found himself open for some many uncontested jump shots. Also, Purdue out NUed NU today with great passing against the zone and has assists on 18 of their 25 field goals. In addition, the ‘Cats were outrebounded 41 to 27 and 14 to 9 in offensive boards. While you have to give credit to Drew Crawford for getting 10 rebounds, the center position got just Luka’s one.

While I had to praise Crawford’s rebounding, I’d say his offensive lack of production played a role in NU’s loss. He mustered just three points on 1-of-6 shooting and 1-of-2 free throws. He needs to produce for NU to win and now hasn’t had a good game from behind the arc since his big game vs St. Francis. The positive in the up and down rhythm of Drew Crawford that probably means a big game is coming vs Sparty Monday night. John Shurna didn’t do much either on offense or defense, but I honestly think he was still pretty hurt and I almost wonder why he even played. He especially looked bad a couple times chasing the play when everyone else got back on defense after a missed shot and he seemed to be 10 feet behind the other nine players on the court. Still, I think NU could have won this game and in terms of looking at production from NU’s big three that ‘Cats were more hurt by Juice Thompson’s five turnovers than Crawford’s no-show or Shurna’s ankle based woes. In NU’s two losses this year Thompson has struggled to take care of the ball and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Today, Thompson committed a couple turnovers when NU was making a run in the second half and Purdue cashed in for threes which pretty much ended the game. Juice is NU’s most valuable player and as much as I like John Shurna and Drew Crawford, NU is going to win or lose games based on how Thompson plays. If he can rebound for NU’s next two contests I wouldn’t count an upset as out of the question vs Michigan State or Illinois.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wildcats Prepare to Battle Injuries, Boilermakers in Big Ten Opener

A much anticipated Big Ten season opens for Northwestern on Friday with muted enthusiasm. The Wildcats (9-1) are preparing for a powerful Purdue (12-1) squad uncertain about the status of backup forward Ivan Peljusic, starting guard JerShon Cobb, and starting forward/leading scorer John Shurna. All three have suffered injuries in the last two weeks and all three (but especially Shurna) are critical to NU’s potential Big Ten success. I said early this week that one of the key’s to NU making its first NCAA Tournament was a healthy roster. The latest reports on Shurna were positive, but even if he plays he might not be at full strength. Positive reports have also come out about JerShon Cobb who suffered a hip injury coming into the year and then got slammed to the ground with great force by a St. John’s player which no doubt made the young freshman extremely sore. Teams can (and do) rally when missing starters, but to beat a very talented Purdue team down two starters would be asking an awful lot of a Northwestern team that while possessing some depth, isn’t deep offensively.

Perhaps NU’s best hopes for an upset rest on the fact that Purdue isn’t that deep on offense either. The Boilermakers are a very hard-nosed aggressive defensive team that will overplay and try to create points off turnovers. On offense, though, the Boilers are primarily a two man team. Center JaJuan John scores 20ppg and guard E’Twaun Moore gets 19.5ppg. If you are primarily a two person offense those are two good guys to have as your two, but if someone NU can take one of them out of the flow the Boilers next best scorer NU will see is D.J. Byrd. Byrd only scores 5.7ppg, but did have a big game in Purdue’s win over Michigan which started the Boilers Big Ten season on December 28th. Purdue also got a good game from guard Ryne Smith versus Michigan. It’s hard to know what defense NU will play against Purdue, but if they play the 1-3-1, Coach Matt Painter will no doubt ask Smith (46.3% 3PT) to once again spot up in the corner and look for threes. Moore, of course, is also a solid three point shooter at over 43%, but the rest of the Boilers are not great shooters. Point guard Lewis Jackson makes just 20% of his threes and scores just 4.5ppg. Basically, he gets the ball to Johnson and Moore and he does that well.

If I were Northwestern’s I would really try to work the backdoor cuts vs Purdue’s very aggressive overplaying defense. In order to do that, though, Shurna needs to be healthy because you need to cut quick given how fast and aggressive Purdue is on defense. Once NU gets a few easy backdoors that should open up the three point shot. NU’s three point shooting has been primarily John Shurna (at least as far as true consistency), but NU will need more than him in the Big Ten play. I’d like to see Juice Thompson get more aggressive on offense and Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio more consistently hit jump shots. If those things happen I think NU can pull several Big Ten upsets.

The bottom line going into this game is that Northwestern isn’t healthy and they’re playing a very talented team which can probably take advantage of playing the undermanned ‘Cats. I don’t honestly think Purdue is that much better than Northwestern, but I think once again bad luck has struck the Wildcats at the wrong time. At some point Northwestern basketball has to catch a positive break, but the long list of inconvenient bad luck which seems never to end now seems to have brought a less than 100 hundred percent John Shurna (who when healthy is the Big Ten’s best all around player and would be a major matchup problem for Robbie Hummel-less Purdue) to West Lafayette, Indiana and I suspect Purdue will take advantage of their good luck. I predict: Purdue, 77 Northwestern, 68

Monday, December 27, 2010

Some Thoughts Before Big Ten Play Starts

Big Ten play starts today with Indiana taking on Penn State. With that game being the tip off of Big Ten play I want to offer up a few thoughts on some of the Big Ten’s 11 teams.

Ohio State is the most physically gifted and deepest team, but they haven’t really been challenged yet. I think their talent level will allow them to win the league in the end, but I’d be shocked if their record was better than 15-3.

Michigan State has taken some lumps, but they’ll eventually get it together. I look for the Spartans to once again be the Big Ten’s best postseason team. The question is can teams beat them early in conference play. NU gets two early chances.

Indiana is better than expected, Illinois is worse. If Illinois doesn’t at least dominate in their Assembly Hall Bruce Weber’s detractors will get louder and louder. At Indiana’s Assembly Hall Tom Crean will gain more and more fans as his solid recruiting pays off.

Iowa and Penn State aren’t that good, but can still beat people. The key for NU making the tournament is winning all the games they should—like vs those teams and Michigan (who is better than Iowa and Penn State).

I like what I’ve seen from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I’d say both are (like NU) middle of the pack teams in the league who will move up based on their ability to dominate at home and steal games on the road.

Purdue was written off by some after losing Robbie Hummel and losing to Richmond, but they might be the second best team in the Big Ten and JaJuan Johnson might be the league’s best player.

Friday, December 24, 2010

NU Men’s Hoops Christmas List

Here’s my Christmas list for the Wildcats. If they get these things I think they’ll get the biggest present of all on Selection Sunday.

1) Consistency on Alex Marcotullio and Drew Crawford’s jump shots: If NU’s two sophomore guards can hit somewhere between 35-40% of their threes during the Big Ten season the Wildcats can run the Princeton Offense with four shooters on the court, a combo that allegedly makes the PO nearly impossible to stop.

2) Toughness from Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti: The Big Ten has several talented big men who if the Wildcats can’t contain they’ll be in trouble. To contain those big men the Wildcats need aggressiveness from their two centers. They both played well Thursday and hopefully that’ll carry over.

3) A healthy roster all season: JerShon Cobb has missed two games this year due to injury and now we have John Shurna potentially facing time off the court due to his ankle injury. If NU is going to make the NCAA Tournament they can’t be missing star players when they face top-25 teams.

4) Great fan support at Welsh-Ryan Arena: Good teams win at home and starting January 3rd, 2011 the Wildcats have a collection of tough Big Ten home games. If the crowd shows up and gets loud like they did last year against #6 Purdue I the fans can help push the Wildcats to victory.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Quick Start, Balanced Attack Enough for NU to Beat Mount St. Mary’s

Northwestern is 9-1. I know people wanted to be 10-0 at this point, but I feel good about NU’s 9-1 record going into Big Ten play. What I think is most important is that NU looks very comfortable playing at home. The Wildcats will need to play well at home and pull off a few upsets in Big Ten play to make the NCAA Tournament. Today, the Wildcats continued their home dominance against a Mount St. Mary’s team which while a little weak, isn’t as bad as their 3-10 record looks.

Northwestern started today with a 20-0 run which set the tone for the day. In that run Luka Mirkovic showed up with some of the intensity I’d been hoping for and scored 8 points. For the game Luka scored 15 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and got 3 steals. I know Mount St. Mary’s wasn’t a big team overall, but I really liked what I saw from Luka today, especially because he shot a high percentage at 6-of-7 from the floor. If Luka plays with that same confidence in the Big Ten the Wildcats will have a very good Big Ten season. Even better, to go along with Luka’s 15 points, Davide Curletti scored 11 points and made 5-of-9 shots. That’s a center combo for Northwestern that scored 26 points. That type of production consistently will take NU to the NCAA Tournament.

Other Wildcats in double figures were Drew Crawford who led the team with 16 points, though, he didn’t shoot well from the outside, and John Shurna who scored 13 points, got 8 rebounds, and dished out 8 assists. The scariest thing, though, was Shurna leaving the game with an ankle injury. NU fans will pay close attention to any news on Shurna in the next eight days before the matchup on December 31st against Purdue.

I know most of the talk over the next eight days will be about Shurna, but I personally am going to be worried about Alex Marcotullio’s shot. Alex is a great all around player in terms of defense and his ability to pass as a guard (8 assists against only 2 turnovers today getting the start for an injured JerShon Cobb), but for a guy recruited as a shooter, Alex has been somewhat inconsistent. I’m heartened though by the fact that Craig Moore didn’t really become a great shooter until his junior year. Still, I’d really like if Marcotullio made progress a little quicker and started hitting about 45% of his threes this year in Big Ten play.

I’ll conclude today with a quick note on the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rebounding line like Mike Capocci’s. Capocci recorded five rebounds today, all offensive, including the Wildcats last points of the game which came on a one handed tip dunk. I truly believe he’ll play a role during NU’s Big Ten season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wildcats Back in Action Thursday Afternoon

The Wildcats take the floor with an 8-1 record Thursday afternoon against Mount St. Mary’s. NU’s loss Thursday was depressing, but the ‘Cats have a great chance to move to 9-1 and regain at least some momentum Thursday in their final game before conference play starts. This will also likely be the only game all season Coach Bill Carmody wears a tie as I suspect we’ll see the reappearance of the undefeated Carmody Christmas tie. Personally as successful as that tie has been if I were Carmody I might break it out for games during the non-Christmas season as well.

Mount St. Mary’s has struggled to a 3-9 record this year and just lost to American University whom NU beat easily just under a week ago. That said Mount St. Mary’s hasn’t been terrible against BCS competition. They lost to Cincinnati by just 10 and lost to Penn State by just three. NU is obvisouly the better squad, but those numbers show they can’t just show up and expect to win. Hopefully, NU learned that lesson Tuesday night. Not that I think NU just expected to hammer St. John’s, but I think NU clearly played their “B” or “C” game and showed just how mortal they are when they don’t fire on all cylinders. I hope such an experience wakes NU up and causes them to play with intensity every night. Of course, the player who most needs to do that is Luka Mirkovic. I don’t usually think it’s a good idea for players to read the press, message boards, or crazy people like me who take time from their everyday life to write pages worth of detail on inconsequential college basketball games, but I hope Luka saw all the crap people wrote about him in the last two days. Actually, I have to say I think I might have been the kindest (and I don’t recall being that kind). Some nut on wrote Luka would by a good junior high role player. I know the person meant it mostly in jest, but my best friend is junior high hoops coach and he assures me Luka would start for his team and probably lead them in all offensive categories. I also know that I WAS a junior high role player and I’m pretty such Luka could take me in a game of one-on-one.

Kidding aside, I want Luka to get pissed off and motivated to do some damage not just Thursday against a Mount St. Mary’s team who doesn’t have a starter bigger than 6-8, but against all the rest of NU’s opponents. I mean if people were saying that crap about me I’d be so pumped to play that other players on both sides would be taking their lives in their hands if they got between me and rebounds. I don’t know if Luka really has that type of personality, but I hope he does and I hope someone tells him JaJuan Johnson or Jared Sullinger was the guy on NU’s message board who suggested he go back to junior high.

As far as Mount St. Mary’s they’re a fairly young team with two freshmen and one sophomore starting. One of freshmen Julian Norfleet is one of three players who averages double figures. A 6-2 guard, Norfleet gets 10.1 ppg. Probably Mount St. Mary’s most physical player is 6-7 220-pound senior Shawn Atupem. He scores 11.1 and grabs 4.9 rebounds per game. The final double figure scoring guy is 5-11 point guard Lamar Tice, he leads the team in points (13ppg) and assists (43) and comes close to Atupem in rebounds (4.0rpg). I think he’ll be interesting guy to watch play. I’m also interested to see if 6-9 forward Kristijan Krajina gets any time. He’s been out also season with an ankle injury, but Mount St. Mary’s game notes give the impression he might be back vs NU. If he is back, he’ll be the Mountaineers biggest player and will likely contest with Luka for rebounds.

The bottom line here is that Northwestern should be a heavy favorite to win this game. The only problem is the odd start time and only a day of rest after back-to-back games in New York. I think that’ll have some factor, but I also think NU is going to be a motivated group after Tuesday. I predict Northwestern, 77 Mount St. Mary’s, 60

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Streak Busted: St. John’s Hammers NU 85-69

The less said about this game probably the better. There is a difference between “losing” and “getting beat” and Northwestern didn’t “get beat” by St. John’s tonight. They lost. Sure, NU hasn’t faced the best competition, but the fact is that other than maybe the UTPA game they played better in every game than tonight.

Tonight NU played poor defense (allowed SJU to make 80% of their 2nd half shots), especially inside in the second half, didn’t shoot well from the field or the foul line, and couldn’t take care of the ball. If NU had played a good high school team they might have lost tonight. Other than John Shurna posting 28 points most of this game was forgettable other than as a learning experience for NU’s players and coaches and since I’m not one of them I’m just going to chose to forget it.

The player that I guess has to learn the most is Luka Mirkovic who just got used and abused by St. John’s big guys. He did manage to end up with 9 rebounds, but scored just two points and missed what seemed like countless short shots while allowing St. John’s to make a whole collection of easy inside buckets. I don’t know what else to say about Luka. He’s probably the key to NU’s Big Ten success, but if he plays like he did tonight NU might struggle to get 5 or 6 wins. Of course, it’s not just Luka. When he has an off night Davide Curletti is supposed to step up, but the big man from Michigan scored just one point tonight (1-of-4 free throws) and wasn’t a factor on the glass.

NU also suffered from losing Juice Thompson to foul trouble in the first half which caused an early 10 point NU lead to disappear. In the end Thompson scored 13 points, but never found a rhythm. I don’t think I’ve seen Juice look so off and out of sorts on offense in a very long time. Drew Crawford wasn’t much better. Crawford scored 17 points, but he left another 17 points on the board thanks to a poor shooting night.

NU plays again Thursday. Hopefully we'll see a much better effort.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Garden Party! Wildcat Shake Off Slow Starts to Each Half to Post 31 Point Win Over St. Francis

I want to start this post with a thank you to Drew Crawford for making me look good. I said after Crawford’s solid all-around but relatively low scoring game vs American I expected a big game from the sophomore tonight and he more than delivered that. Crawford finished tonight with 25 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists. He called the game “team effort” in a postgame interview, but it was pretty clear that it was Crawford who helped NU hang early when St. Francis got off to a fast early start. It was also great to see Drew have his best game of the season with his father Danny in attendance. Drew said his dad told him, “Be confident and have fun” before he went out to play and it sure looked like Drew followed his advice. I was impressed with Drew’s confidence on turnaround jumpers inside the arc and it is very noticeable how accurate he is from deep when he has time to get his feet set. If Drew and his teammates follow Danny’s advice all year I suspect the Wildcats will have a truly special season.

Along with Crawford, NU got double figures from three other starters. John Shurna once again posted a big game with 26 points, Juice Thompson netted 14 points and JerShon Cobb chipped in with his third double-figure game on the season by adding 11 points. I was impressed with how Thompson and Shurna not only hit outside shots, but also scored inside. Both players are great shooters, but it seems to me the Wildcats are at their best when John and Juice get inside points to help open up the outside game. Both players also did a good job taking care of the ball after NU’s slow start. NU turned the ball over just once in the second half and Thompson for the game had five assists and only one turnover. I also felt Shurna was very active inside and probably added to the rebound totals of his teammates by helping keep balls alive.

JerShon Cobb was solid outside hitting both of his three point attempts and making 3-of-4 free throws. That’s critical because with Cobb’s ability to get to the hoop he could become a guy that can draw fouls and make a living at the line.

Though he didn’t post a lot of points Alex Marcotullio was once again a key player for NU on defense. Bill Carmody said “Marcotullio did a real nice job at the top [of the 1-3-1]” and that’s high praise from Carmody. Evidence of Alex’s solid play was the limited minutes from Jeff Ryan as Coach Carmody really relied on the sophomore guard’s defensive efforts. WGN radio analyst Shon Morris praised the sophomore guard for his unselfishness on a play when he had a breakaway, but feed John Shurna for a slam.

NU’s most obvious weakness is the inside game. The good of tonight was Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti combining for 12 points and 10 rebounds. Bill Carmody has said that if those guys post a combined double-double NU will win and that held true to tonight. Still, I think NU needs to get more production from inside. Most of Curletti’s points came late in the game and Luka was his typical relatively unaggressive away from Welsh-Ryan self. Somehow Luka needs to find a way to get tough, fight inside, hold on to the ball, and covert on short shots. When you shot virtually every shot from five feet or less you shouldn’t shoot less than 50% from the field. If NU can’t grab more rebounds to limit opponents’ second chances and can’t get convert more short looks from their centers the Big Ten will be tough.

Overall, Northwestern won this game because once again they proved they’re an amazingly explosive offensive team. The game seemed close in the second half and then suddenly a couple mistakes from St. Francis and it was a 20 and then 30 point game. That explosiveness on offense will be critical as no matter whom NU faces tomorrow they’ll face a more physical team that perhaps they can get tried if they start a running game.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Johnny “Cash” and the Wildcats Ready to Play MSG

Johnny "Cash" Shurna broke out during last year's in-season tournament at UIC

Northwestern is heading the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival for the first time since the late 1960s when they went 1-2 in what was then an eight team event. They’re heading to Madison Square Garden for the first time since a loss to Fordham in 2001. I’m excited about this event and Johnny “Cash” Shurna getting to take his game to “the world’s most famous arena”, but I’m weary given the ‘Cats past history. I have believed for eight years that the 2001 loss to Fordham is what kept the ‘Cats out of the 2001-02 NIT despite their 16-13 overall record. I think the selection committee, based in New York, looked at NU’s schedule, saw a loss to Fordham, and basically said, “Well, Fordham is no good and Northwestern lost to them, so we don’t want them in our tournament.” Now, the truth is events from the past don’t play a role in deciding current games so I shouldn’t let such nonsense worry me. So let’s move on.

Instead, I’ll let the fact that Northwestern’s only challenge in their 7-0 record came on the road at Texas-Pan American worry me. Now, certainly New York, New York is far more accessible than Edinburg, Texas, but the road was tough for NU last year. That’s why the ‘Cats current 2-0 mark in true road games is so significant even if the wins were over Northern Illinois and UTPA. Still, I think we can all agree that NU isn’t losing to Mount St. Mary’s or SIU-Edwardsville which basically means that NU’s potential 11-0 non-conference mark goes on the line Monday and (hopefully) Tuesday.

NU’s opener Monday is against St. Francis (NY) who sits at 6-3 overall this season. They have two players named Akeem both from New York who star for them. Akeem Bennett is a 6-3 guard who has started all nine games and is the team leader in points (16.3ppg) and rebounds (6.1rpg). He’s also a very good three point shooter at 43% overall and has made 6-of-7 in the two Northeast Conference games St. Francis (2-0) has already played. Akeem Johnson is 6-6 forward who is force off the bench at 12.0ppg and 5.9rpg. He makes 60% of his field goals, but only converts 55.3% of his free throws. Perhaps that’s what limits him to around 22 minutes a contest. The other St. Francis (NY) player who averages double figures is Ricky Cadell. Cadell’s another solid shooter at 45.5% overall and 41.5% from three. The major chink in his amour is his 1-to-2.2 assist to turnover ratio. Actually, as a team St. Francis has more turnovers than assists. That means it’ll be critical for NU to apply pressure defense whether in the 1-3-1 or the matchup zone JerShon Cobb, Alex Marcotullio and Jeff Ryan need to keep starting offense by getting their hands on balls and creating turnovers. If NU manages to do that they’ll have a chance at another very solid win. The crowd could be pro-St. Francis as they are a local school, but I’d suspect the majority of the fans in attendance will by St. Johns fans waiting for their game to start. This is actually a good simulation for the Big Ten Tournament when NU often plays in a half-empty NBA arena with no atmosphere at all. One more worry is that in such places sometimes shooting is tough, but I’m thinking John Shurna could make shots pretty much anywhere.

I don’t want to say too much about the Tuesday game because we really don’t know who NU will play. The odds favor St. Johns (5-3) over Davidson (5-4). St. Johns is the home team, they’ve got a deeper roster, and they already who the Great Alaska Shootout so they’re tournament tested (remember when the Great Alaska Shootout was THE preseason event). Even given those facts, Davidson is a very solid program and could spring the upset. If you’re going to attend and stick around to watch that game or stay tuned in on the MSG Network, if you can, then watch 6-7 forward Justin Brownlee of St. John’s who converts 59.2% of his shots for 13.6 ppg and 6-10 center Jake Cohen of Davidson who averages 14.7 and 6.7 that’ll be an intriguing matchup. Also, checkout the sidelines for former Purdue head coach Gene Keady who is an advisor for new St. John’s head man Steve Lavin.

I predict: Northwestern, 77 St. Francis (NY), 62

I’ll save game two predictions till I see game one from all four squads. I will say, though, I think NU will get tested in game two no matter whom they face.
Note: NU will be withour forward Ivan Peljusic due to an appendectomy. If his spot in the rotation comes up look for guard Nick Fruendt.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

20/20 Vision for John and Juice: Shurna nets 28 and Thompson 23 in Wildcats Seventh Consecutive Win

Northwestern won tonight’s game 78-62 and while it wasn’t always pretty, it was a very solid win. American University hung with the ‘Cats in the first half (NU held a 38-34 halftime advantage) and early in the second, but NU pulled away in the second half to cruise to a comfortable lead and eventual victory. NU used some nice pressure defense in their man-to-man and matchup zone defenses to get that lead. I thought NU would play more 1-3-1 coming into this game, but it wasn’t terribly effective when NU did play it early and Coach Bill Carmody said after the game he’d told the ‘Cats at halftime, “we’re not going to that 1-3-1 defense” as he knows they’ll need other defenses to be effective in the Big Ten. In NU’s second half matchup and man defenses Carmody credited the play of Alex Marcotullio and Jeff Ryan for making things happen. It’s impressive to watch those two play defense, whatever the style. They both are adept at tipping balls away and slowing down an offense’s momentum. As a result, they both often mange to start fast breaks for the ‘Cats and while it’s not usually them who scores, they deserve as much credit for many of NU’s points as the guys who actually get them in the scorebook.

Carmody also said that center Luka Mirkovic was “terrific tonight” and I have to agree. I said last time out Luka wasn’t aggressive enough, but he brought his aggressive side tonight. He got a ton of tough two hand rebounds and scored 11 points, most importantly converting 5-of-6 free throws. I still think Coach Carmody needs to get out the blocking pads in practice and start hammering Luka as he tries to make layups so he learns to finish at the rim, but if he can make foul shots and get rebounds he’ll be a solid contributor all year. Monday night should be a good test of consistency as Luka hasn’t had a lot of big games away from the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan.

Drew Crawford had some foul trouble early and only scored 4 points, but he really had a very nice game. Coach Carmody said Drew, “passed the ball exceptionally well” and the numbers prove that out with 5 assists and 0 turnovers for the sophomore. I’ll also say right now that I expect Crawford to have a big scoring game Monday vs St. Francis. Drew showed last year that he’d often precede a really big scoring game with a very solid all-around game that wasn’t necessarily huge in the scoring column, but that helped NU win.

Now, I’ve kind of worked backwards in my praise as obviously the two biggest starts of the game were John Shurna and Juice Thompson. Shurna scored 28 points on 9-of-14 from the field and 7-of-8 from the charity strip. It was great to see the extra work Shurna put in on free throws paid off tonight. Of course, Shurna made a wide variety of shots, but probably the most memorable were a 35-foot three as the shot clock ran down and his last bucket a running one hander on the baseline. Both were spectacular shots. People all across Big Ten country are debating just how good Shurna is or will become. Personally, I think he’s certainly the most consistent scorer in the league right now, but (and these two don’t always go together) he may also be the most explosive. It’s amazing how many points Shurna can put up in short order and how many different ways he can get them.

Juice Thompson scored 23 points and when American locked down Shurna for a stretch thanks to some solid play by Charles Hinkle, Juice stepped up. Thompson made 4-of-6 threes tonight and did a really good job attacking the basket as well. Unlike the Long Island game were Thompson was almost exclusively a perimeter player, he scored half of his baskets inside the arc tonight.

The only major critical issue I want to bring up tonight is one I’ve had for awhile. Bill Carmody is excellent at setting up out of bounds plays, but NU is consistently terrible with the ball in the last possession of the first half. Why is this? Because Carmody doesn’t use a timeout in order to setup a play and inevitably everybody stands around until about 3 second are left on the clock and then Thompson or Shurna forces a shot. This makes no sense to me. You only get to carry four timeouts to the second half anyway. Why wouldn’t you use the non-carry over TO if you got it in order to setup a play? Especially if setting up plays is your best/favorite skill in the world. I’d really like to know.

Overall, though, this game was a solid positive and I look forward to seeing the ‘Cats play in the world’s most famous arena early next week.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wildcats Face Potential Tournament Team in American U.

Let’s be honest, Northwestern’s non-conference basketball schedule isn’t that tough. The ‘Cats are 6-0 currently and will be favored to go 11-0 in non-Big Ten (or B1G) games during the rest of the regular season. With that schedule, NU really won’t get to post many wins they’ll use to impress tournament selection committees. Without any big name non-conference wins, NU needs to find a way to justify its non-conference schedule and one way to do that is to look at the number of teams NU plays that do make the postseason. Teams such Creighton, Georgia Tech, and Long Island have legitimate hopes of making some postseason. Those might not be great wins, but at least when a committee looks at NU’s record against teams who are in the postseason those wins will help. American University falls into the same category for NU. The Eagles will not be a top-25 team at any point this season. However, they have a legitimate shot at a Patriot League title and an NCAA bid. They would likely be a #15 or #16-seed (at least one projection has them as a #16-seed facing Duke in their tourney opener), but they’d be in the Big Dance and thus beating them is as significant as anything else NU might do during the non-conference season. Plus, this game is on real TV on the BTN as opposed to streaming video so more causal fans can watch. That’s potentially good for generating a positive impression in the college basketball world at large if the ‘Cats play well again.

Another reason this game against American U has value for NU is that the Eagles have big man with skill in Vlad Moldoveanu. The 6-9 forward scores 20.3 a game and grabs 5.6 rpg. He’s also a decent three point shooter at 31.2% and knocks down 75% of his free throws. Basically, he’s an all-around good player and facing him should test NU’s centers the same way facing Creighton’s Kenny Lawson Jr. did. I have to say that NU’s duo of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti came through against Lawson so I hope they come through versus big Vlad. That Wildcat duo is maddeningly inconsistent and can’t be so if NU wants to do anything in the Big Ten. Overall at this point I’ve probably been more impressed with backup Davide Curletti than starter Mirkovic. Curletti always seems to be hustling and trying to play hard, he just sometimes seems to have trouble with playing foul-free defense. He’s a lot more confident than he was the last two years as he’s now not worried about shooting a three or making a post move. Luka on the other hand seems to be too easily discouraged by bad results. He’s reluctant to take shots if he doesn’t have success early and doesn’t consistently hit the glass or play defense aggressively. Mirkovic was a highly regarded recruit who has shown flashes, but he needs to really step up if NU has any chance of making the Big Dance.

If American wants to make the Big Dance they need more than just Vlad which is why University of Georgia transfer Troy Brewer is perhaps the Eagles key player. Brewer is legit with BCS credentials as he scored 12 points in the 2008 SEC Championship game as a freshman to lead Georgia to the Big Dance. So far this season he’s hitting for 13.6ppg and knocking down 38.8% of his threes. The one weakness he has is more turnovers than assists. With Brewer and Vlad being AU’s only players making over 30% of their threes I’d look for coach Carmody to drop NU into the 1-3-1 early. I know he wants to work on the matchup/switching man, but Carmody has to see that NU hustles more in the 1-3-1 and this Eagle team seems like a perfect team to play that zone against. The Eagles third leading scorer helps argue the point. Stephen Lumpkins scores 12.4 ppg, hasn’t tried a three all year, and has more turnovers than assist. If NU does play 1-3-1 AU will try to get shooting from the sub-30% three point trio of Daniel Munoz, Nick Bersch, and Nick Hendra. All three are regarded as potential shooters, but their numbers don’t show success. Hendra and Munoz are the team’s best ball handlers though and I’d expect them to be the guys under initial pressure against NU’s zone.

Statistically despite AU being a top team in their league NU should dominate this contest, but I’m a bit worried about how NU’s centers will handle Moldoveanu. Can Luka and Davide really shut down such a player? They did stop Kenny Lawson Jr. Therefore, I’d like to think they can even if NU’s interior defense in their last game was terrible. It’s also worth noting that despite a 5-3 record AU has lost their last three overall and their last two against BCS teams by 21 and 19 points respectively. I also think you’ll actually see NU play better on offense than they did versus LIU, despite the fact they shot 50% overall. That means this probably is another pretty solid win for the ‘Cats which is good as they wrap up this home stand and get ready to play in New York. I predict: Northwestern, 85 American, 64

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wildcats Survive Rust and Late LIU Comeback Attempt to Post Sixth Win

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said after the game his team played “decently” in their 81-65 win over Long Island. That description seems apt to me as I wasn’t overly impressed walking away from tonight’s contest, but I it certainly didn’t fall in the category of a “non-loss” as opposed to win as some other past NU non-conference games over the years have.

Basically, NU used an outstanding game from John Shurna (as long as he wasn’t at the free throw line), a good start from JerShon Cobb, okay defense on the perimeter resulting in nine steals, and a few highlight reel plays from Drew Crawford and Juice Thompson to get away with tonight’s victory in spite of shooting just 13-of-25 from the free throw line and playing what Carmody called “not good” interior defense.

After not playing for 13 days rust is almost always a factor. I watched Ohio State return to action after a long break recently and I think the ‘Cats played a better game tonight than the Buckeyes when took the court after the end of their finals vs IUPUI. That said, if not for JerShon Cobb starting off the game with two early threes and a two, NU would have started very slowly. Thankfully, NU parleyed Cobb’s nice start into an early lead after LIU jumped ahead in the games opening moments. Cobb finished the day 4-of-9 overall, but made 3-of-4 threes, dished out 3 assists to only 1 turnover and set a new career-high with 12 points. If not for picking up early fouls he might have done more.

Fouls were a problem for Northwestern as they committed 14 in the first half. If Long Island wasn’t nearly as bad as Northwestern from the line the game might have been closer. LIU made just 16-of-30 free throws. They also helped NU by committing 15 turnovers while only dishing out 9 assists. Basically, LIU played offense by driving to the basket and trying to get fouled. NU, on the other hand, did execute the Princeton Offense very well at times and finished the game with 24 assists on 29 made field goals. That’s assists on 83% of the team’s made shots which is a sure signal the Princeton Offense is working. The best play in my mind was when John Shurna tossed a backdoor alley-op to Drew Crawford. It showed me that Shurna is as good of passer as he is shooter and that NU isn’t afraid to incorporate their explosiveness into their regular sets. After all, the play was simply a backdoor play that Tim Doyle might have tossed to Craig Moore except that with Crawford as the recipient the play can take place above the rim and become much tougher to spot. That’ll be huge in Big Ten play.

Speaking of Shurna and Crawford, both had good moments and bad moments in this game. Shurna’s 10-of-11 from the field for 26 points along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists with a number of highlight reel shots and dunks are hard to complain about, but his 4-of-10 free throw shooting cost him a 30-point night (which could be huge in his battle for the league scoring title) and might have made a big difference in a closer game. Crawford had two big dunks tonight as both the above mentioned alley-op and a put-back slam brought the crowd to its feet. However, I also saw a lot of forcing shots in his 4-of-16 shooting night. One thing I think Crawford could learn from Shurna is to let the game come to him a bit. Early on Shurna wasn’t getting shots, but he was still finding a way to win by setting up Cobb and Thompson for baskets. On the other hand, Crawford seemed anxious to get going and settled for some bad looks. I’ve seen this tendency in Crawford to get hungry for points more so than pretty much any of his teammates. I think he needs to watch what Shurna does on film and see that on a team with Shurna, Thompson, Cobb, and even guys who can heat up like Alex Marcotullio, Luka Mirkovic, and Davide Curletti that forcing shots isn’t what anybody needs to do.

Part of the credit for this game being kind of close has to go to LIU’s offensive approach which was very aggressive. NU played mostly the matchup zone/switching man-to-man, but again revealed major weaknesses in defending penetration. Somehow, NU needs to learn how to move their feet and when to move and help a player who gets beat. As a result of LIU’s approach both Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti hit early foul trouble. Curletti probably had the better day with 7 points and 2 rebounds to Luka’s 2 points and 6 rebounds, though, neither probably felt great about tonight. In Luka’s case, I think he has the opposite problem of Crawford. Luka is often times very unaggressive and doesn’t seem to really attack the glass. Personally, if I were Bill Carmody I think could care less if Mirkovic ever scored, but I believe I’d find myself nearly in tears begging him to get consistently aggressive attacking the boards and playing defense. Carmody even said after the game that NU’s poor inside defense “didn’t bode well” for facing 6-9 American University dynamo Vlad Moldoveanu who scores about 22 points a game.

That’s Thursday, though. Right now, I think NU needs to go home, feel good about being 6-0 for 12 hours or so, and then comeback to the gym tomorrow morning and work on free throw shooting, and playing help defense in order to get ready for American University.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wildcat Return to Court after Finals

Northwestern is back in action Monday night hosting 6-3 Long Island. It’ll be NU’s first game since defeating Georgia Tech back on November 30th in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. At 5-0 the Wildcats were off to a hot start and I certainly hope the long layoff doesn’t harm their momentum. This is a scary game, though, as LIU isn’t a total cupcake and as a jump shooting team rhythm is a key to NU’s success. They won’t have a safety net a la Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger who can score 40 points inside if the team is cold from outside thanks to the long break.

If NU doesn’t slump numbers would indicate a high scoring affair. Long Island averages 81.1 points per game and NU has already shown that posting 90 is almost routine for these Wildcats. It’s a shame the game won’t be live on TV, but only live on-line at The game will be rebroadcast on the BTN at 4PM CT on Tuesday, but I doubt anybody will try to live in a vacuum in order not to learn the score until then.

In order to score those 81.1 points per game LIU averages four players in double-figures and shoots 34.1% from three. This might be a game in which NU will try to stay away from the 1-3-1 defense and work more on the matchup and switching man-to-man that Coach Carmody has repeatedly said will be critical for the Big Ten season. LIU’s best player is 6-5 guard Kyle Johnson. Johnson hits a high percentage from three (48.8%) and hits the boards hart (6.1 rpg).6-7 Julian Boyd was the best scorer in his teams win over Lafayette last time out with 23 points. For the season he’s a near double-double with 12.4ppg and 8.4 rpg. He does have somewhat of a chink in his amour, though, as he’s only a 63% free throw shooter and he does get to the line a fair amount. It’ll be interesting to see how the Wildcats defend him. NU has actually done better than expected when facing challenging big men this year. Another 6-7 player for LIU is Jamal Olasewere. He’s at 12.2 and 5.9 per game. Amazingly, despite all their players high rebound totals LIU is actually outrebounded on average. However, they still do pull down 41-plus a game so you can what type of pace they play at. The guy who sets that pace is C.J. Garner. He’s a 5-10 sparkplug who is similar to NU’s Juice Thompson. The major difference between the two is that Garner isn’t a three point shooter (only has taken two all year) he prefers to attack the basket or put the ball in the hands of other shooters as he has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Overall, this game may present more of a challenge to NU than some might expect. The long layoff, lack of a crowd thanks to no students, NU’s dependence on outside shootings, and LIU’s offensive talent make this seem like a potentially close game. I think Northwestern will be able to pull out a victory (and I actually think they’ll shoot pretty well), but I think it’ll stay closer longer than people expect. I predict: Northwestern, 83 LIU, 75

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Way to Early Look at NU’s NCAA Tournament Chances

One recent projection of the NCAA Tournament field had Northwestern in the Big Dance as #9-seed. That’s very exciting, but the truth is NU has a massively long way to go if they want to make the school’s first trip to March Madness. The good news is thanks a very strong Big Ten schedule Northwestern will get the opportunity to do that work. The bad news is it could take a lot of work and most of it will have to wait till the new year.

Right now Northwestern is sitting at #94 in the latest RPI rankings. NU has been steadily dropping over the past few days. Some of that is from the ‘Cats not playing, but some is from simply playing teams who aren’t going to be listed as quality wins come March. One of the ways the committee ranks teams is their record against the top-50 and the top-100 RPI rated teams. Currently, Northwestern is 0-0 against that group. They’re 1-0 and against the top-150 with a win over #137 Georgia Tech. This isn’t meant to be negative, but it is meant to make sure we as fans understand where we are right now. The majority of Northwestern opponents so far this season have been rated below #150 nationally. Their next opponent, Long Island, currently sits at #196. The next, American University, is #172. Essentially, unless some of NU’s past opponents pull some upsets then the ‘Cats might win and still slip in the RPI.

In terms of the pre-Big Ten season the game NU needs to target is the expected matchup versus St. Johns on December 21st. The Red Storm currently sit at RPI spot #24 and that will be NU’s third legit road game on the year. Were it not for NU having recorded 40% of their wins on the road thus far this season they might not be in the top-100 of the RPI themselves. Thankfully, the wins over #281 NIU and #319 UTPA aren’t as meaningless as the might have been because they did come on the road.

Bottom line, though, when it comes to Selection Sunday unless NU wins the Big Ten Tournament they probably need at least six (and maybe more) wins over top-100 in order to just be considered for the NCAA Tournament. A win over St. Johns would give the ‘Cats one. That means would need to record at least five major upsets in Big Ten and probably get to an overall Big Ten record of 10-8 or at worst 9-9. That’s possible, but it’ll be tough. The good news is that the league’s difficulty increases NU’s chance of gaining respect even if they finish just .500 overall in league play. The bad news getting to .500 may be tough. The Big Ten is the #3 rated conference right now, but that’ll go up once league play starts. Especially if a team like Indiana becomes a surprise success as I think they might become. Essentially to see NU’s name in the NCAA Tournament bracket I think we need to hope that not only do the ‘Cats do their job with a number of upsets starting in late December and running till early March, but that teams like Creighton (currently #162) and Georgia Tech pull themselves together and pull some upsets themselves to make NU’s wins over them look good.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cobb Brings Right Attitude to Northwestern Hoops

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald at times this season lamented the fact he couldn’t have 22 Dan Persa’s on his team. His comment wasn’t a slap at the rest of his starters, but simply an honest statement of fact his quarterback brought a special combination of fearlessness and self-confidence to the field every game which is often lacked by even the best of players. As I listened to Fitzgerald make this comment a couple times I wondered who (if anyone) on NU’s basketball roster had something like Persa’s unique makeup. I eventually decided that Michael “Juice” Thompson was the guy. After all, playing in the Big Ten at very generous 5-10 and battling against bigger players while playing defense on the bottom of the 1-3-1 zone takes a special kind of toughness (or creativeness if you believe the player survey that had Juice as the Big Ten’s dirtiest player). I still think Juice is pretty good example of Persa-like basketball player, but I also think NU now has another Persa-type guy in JerShon Cobb.

“When I get there we’re not going to be trying make it, we’re going to be trying win it.” – JerShon Cobb on NU and the NCAA Tournament

Last year after Northwestern started the year with a slew of impressive non-conference wins, checked in with Cobb as he started his senior season of high school. They asked Cobb what he thought of the ‘Cats chances of making the tournament. Cobb showed no doubt that the Wildcats would make the dance—probably showing far more confidence than most fans and maybe some members of last year’s team. From that moment I knew I was going to love the kid's attitude. He possessed the same type of belief without evidence that Gary Barnett had when he coached the Wildcats to their first Big Ten title in football in over 60 years during the 1995 season. While the ‘Cats didn’t end up making the tournament last year, Cobb won his second Georgia State Championship with Columbia High School and joined a long line of college and NBA starts as the Atlanta-area Player of the Year. Those two events pretty much clinched my belief that when JerShon arrived NU would be getting a special player.

"I always knew I chose the right school. There was never a doubt in my mind."– JerShon Cobb when asked if NU’s win over Georgia Tech justified his choice of school.

Then Cobb arrived on campus and suffered through injury early this season. He then saw limited playing in NU’s win over Creighton and felt the natural frustration of a high school star in a reduced role. Thankfully, though, he at least felt healthy. It was finally in NU’s game against his hometown team, Georgia Tech, that Cobb was able to put his confidence and his health together and have a big game. He kept NU in the contest early with some impressive hoops and played solid defense all night. Eventually, he earned praise from ESPN for his “smooth game”. After the game the media asked whether the NU victory gave him validation of his college choice. His response was perfect. So many people it seems want to talk about way NU can’t recruit elite players. They try to place blame on Bill Carmody or Welsh-Ryan Arena or any number of other failings with NU’s coaching staff or administration. I think the honest is reason, though, is that 16 or 17 year old kids are fearful of going to a program that doesn’t have tradition and potentially not winning. These are kids and most of them don’t possess the confidence in themselves to get over the potential fear of getting labeled as going to a “loser”. Georgia Tech had one of those kids in Iman Shumpert, an Illinois kid who said he was worried NU wouldn’t surround him with enough talent. Players NU lost out on in recruiting last Spring most likely had the same fear, but JerShon Cobb came to NU with only confidence. Confidence in himself and his vision of the future of Northwestern basketball. That confidence to ignore what others say and believe in oneself isn’t something many people his age have. Dan Persa had it and succeeded despite a so-so offensive line and running game. JerShon Cobb actually has way more talent (and probably confidence) around him then Persa did. That’s why I know I can say Northwestern is going to the NCAA Tournament in the near future and when it happens I know JerShon Cobb will be able to say he never doubted it would happen, because like Persa he doesn’t play worried he’ll lose, he plays knowing he’s going to win.