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.