Sunday, February 28, 2010

Penn State’s Streak Over NU Continues With Dominating 79-60 Win

Disgusting, pathetic, embarrassing. I could go for several pages with descriptive adjectives for Northwestern’s play today, but we really don’t have that much time. To put it simply, Northwestern played their worst game on the season today and it might have been the worst game the Northwestern basketball program played since NU’s loss to Penn State in the 2006 Big Ten Tournament. I don’t know how Northwestern can beat teams like Illinois and Purdue and look like the JV playing the varsity when they play Penn State, but it happens every time. Now, I’ll admit I expected Penn State to win today, but I didn’t expect them to totally dominate the game like they did.

In the myriad of badness which occurred today, I guess Northwestern’s worst performance was on the defensive end of the court. Northwestern tried 1-3-1, matchup, and man-to-man (which was possibly the worst effort at this ever), but Penn State beat all of them. It was impressively bad just how awful Northwestern’s defensive effort was today. NU didn’t fight through screens, didn’t deny passing lanes, and didn’t hustle on switches. Drew Crawford has been rumored to be hurt, and all I can think is he better be. (Update: Crawford is in fact hurt and may not start vs Chicago State) If he’s not hurt, his effort today on defense might have been the worst defensive effort from a Division 1 player all year. He was unbelievably lazy and passive in fighting through screens and getting out on shooters. The play which best explained Crawford’s lack of defense was Chris Babb’s first three of the second half. NU had cut the lead to 11. When PSU came back on offense, Crawford was screened and barely tried to fight through it. As a result Babb got a wide open three and the lead went back to 14. Further evidence of Crawford’s poor defense is how often he has to foul. He got upset when he was called for a foul after an apparent block, but if he’d actually denied the passing lane he wouldn’t have had to try and block the shot. The ball wouldn’t have got to his man.

Of course, Crawford wasn’t the only Wildcat not to play defense. In fact, many of NU’s top players such as Jeremy Nash and Michael Thompson failed to make much effort on defense either. They let Penn State make easy passes from their guards to their big men all day. The defensive effort (if you call it that) NU put forth in the first half was the worst effort by a Big Ten team in conference game all year. The Wildcats allowed a Penn State team which scores 65ppg to score 49 points. Obviously, NU’s guards deserve blame for letting Penn State make easy passes inside, but NU’s big men didn’t do much in terms of fighting for inside position. It seemed that whenever Penn State caught the ball down low they were in great position to score.

What really upsets me about this contest, though, is NU once again looked like they didn’t care. It was like the first half of the Wisconsin game and all but the last 10 minutes of the Minnesota game. I don’t know what goes on in NU’s locker room, but it is amazing to me how often this team gives no effort. What was really embarrassing was it looked like Northwestern quit in the second half. That reflects poorly on Bill Carmody, though, to his credit I think he recognized this and that’s why Ivan Peljusic and Nick Fruendt saw so much time.

The other thing that reflects poorly on Carmody, or his assists, is this team has no idea how to play man-to-man defense. If a team has decoded NU’s zones, which Penn State, Northwestern can’t stop a team when playing man-to-man. Today they fell for every pump fake and routinely got beat to the hoop, even by players who seemed less athletic. This is probably more of an offseason topic, but I’m now convinced Bill Carmody needs to replace either Mitch Henderson or Ivan Vujic with an assistant coach who is an expert in man-to-man defense. Northwestern has improved a lot the last two years, but I think they need to learn to play man-to-man if they want to become a better than .500 team in Big Ten play. The reason for this isn’t just teams decoding the zones, it’s the fact NU plays with zero intensity about 75% of the time. I think if the team was forced to play man-to-man some more natural intensity would develop.

Finally, let me say that NU got 21 points from Thompson, but I would have liked to see both him and John Shurna (who scored just 9) not settle for so many threes. NU is better when they attack inside, but did not do so today. Hopefully, they will do so when they play Chicago State on Wednesday.

Before I go, I want to add that Chris Babb is the latest in a long line of players that would be All-Americans if they just got to play Northwestern.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Game 29: Northwestern @ Penn State

The Matchup: Northwestern (18-10) @ Penn State (10-17)

Location: Bryce Jordan Center (University Park, PA)

TV: Big Ten Network (11:00 AM CT Sunday February 28th, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Northwestern will set a school record for wins with a victory.

About the Game
Everybody knows what happened last time these two teams met. Penn State finally got a conference win and Northwestern’s dream of making the NCAA Tournament ended. Since that meeting Northwestern lost a close game at Wisconsin and beat Iowa. Penn State beat Michigan and lost close game at home against Ohio State. I’d say those results show both teams have played better since their first meeting.

The key in this game will be how Northwestern defends Penn State. Penn State seems to have decoded the 1-3-1 zone as well as any team in the Big Ten, and NU is not always consistently aggressive when playing a matchup, especially against “weaker” opponents. Making things even tougher, Penn State has some very impressive athletes who could give NU trouble when the ‘Cats have to defend them one on one. Forwards David Jackson, Jeff Brooks, and Andrew Jones all played well when Penn State beat Northwestern in Evanston. The 6-7 Jackson was most impressive showing the ability to score inside and hit jump shots. It was his scoring, and not star Talor Battle’s, that in fact paved the way for the Penn State victory. If Northwestern is going to play a matchup, they must make sure whoever is guarding Jackson is capable of not only stopping him in the post, but also aware he needs to be guarded on the perimeter. Penn State scored getting the ball inside not just to Jackson, but Jones and Brooks as well. Basically, they threw the ball over the top of the 1-3-1 and NU couldn’t stop the 6-10 Jones or 6-8 Brooks with 5-10 Michael Thompson. If NU does play 1-3-1, they must do a much better jump pressuring passing lanes or once again Thompson will be caught in an unwinnable mismatch. Realistically, NU probably shouldn’t play the 1-3-1. The ‘Cats caught a semi-break last time because Talor Battle (19.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.0 apg) was suffering from flu-like symptoms and didn’t shoot well. If a totally healthy Battle gets open shots, which the 1-3-1 will allow, he’ll knock them down. Considering Penn State’s other guard, Chris Babb, did knock down shots against the 1-3-1, I think NU might be smart to avoid that defense.

NU used the matchup zone the entire game against Iowa. While Iowa did miss some open shots, NU did a better job not allowing easy looks inside. In addition, one could argue that those open misses occurred because the ‘Cats actually made Iowa work for shots and the Hawkeyes legs were tired so those open threes weren’t as easy to shoot as in Iowa City. Bottom line, NU’s matchup has been very successful this year when NU really commits to using it. For example, the matchup effectively neutralized Purdue. Of course, NU was also fired up to play Purdue and hustled during the whole game. They’ll need to do the same against Penn State because Penn State does have some talented players.

I’m not feeling too great about this game. I liked what I saw on Thursday, but I’m worried Penn State just knows how to beat NU’s defenses too well. To be honest, if I were Bill Carmody, I might scrap the matchup and the 1-3-1 against Penn State and try something else. Maybe true man-to-man or even a Box-and-1 on Battle. Why? Because Penn State has totally dominated NU over the years and I think it would be smart to get them out of the obvious comfort zone they have when facing the ‘Cats. My biggest worry, though, isn’t NU’s defense. It’s the fact that Penn State is at home, and they’ve become a good team. Penn State does have something of a home court advantage, even if it doesn’t always show. Not that their fans are great, but the trip from Chicago to State College is long and unpleasant and often times Northwestern plays like that on game day. Plus, Penn State has to feel some motivation about possibly getting out of the Big Ten basement and some confidence with their chance to do some going against a team they know they can beat. I hope I’m as wrong as last Sunday, but I fear a depressing result. Penn State, 62 Northwestern, 60

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Revenge Served for NU: Shurna’s 29 points allow ‘Cats to Payback Hawkeyes with 74-57 Victory

John Shurna has been working all season to make a case for All-Big Ten honors

Everybody associated with Northwestern basketball must have uttered something along the lines of, “Well, that’s more like it,” when tonight’s game ended. I know I did. For the first time since a home victory over Indiana on February 7th, Northwestern seemed to show up for both halves of a basketball game. The result was NU’s best win since that early February contest. The victory was keyed by a strong start which involved baskets from Drew Crawford and Luka Mirkovic, but without a doubt the star of the game was John Shurna who finished with 29 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocked shots. Shurna might not be first team All-Big Ten give the loaded talent field in the league, but his game is as well-rounded and versatile as any other candidate for that honor. Plus, as just a sophomore, both Shurna and his team are getting smarter about understanding what he can do.

I think NU learned something in the second half at Wisconsin about how they do not have to settle for threes to score points. Tonight, Northwestern was 22-of-30 on two point field goal attempts. 6 of those 22 makes were from Shurna and 5 each came from Luka Mirkovic and Michael “Juice” Thompson. Without a doubt, Northwestern will continue to shoot and make three pointers, however, NU will get more open three pointers if they attack and score inside consistently. This occurred in the second half at Wisconsin and it occurred from the opening tip tonight. What will make this strategy work consistently, and what helped tonight, is Luka Mirkovic’s continued development and John Shurna’s smart play. The last two games Mirkovic has been able to score inside almost at will with a variety of up-and-under moves, pump fakes, and drop steps. Shurna has also become more assertive inside and is attacking going at the basket off the dribble or off backdoor cuts instead of trying 10+ threes in a game. As a result, these two players, who have a size advantage of many opponents, get easy looks at the basket which they can covert to two points without much trouble. In Shurna’s case, it allows him open threes as well since teams fear his attack at the hoop and they then back off him and give him space to shoot. Tonight, Shurna made 4-of-6 three point shots and he got his first open look because he scored twice on backdoor cuts and Iowa stepped off him a bit. Hopefully, NU will continue to attack the paint with Mirkovic and Shurna. If they do so, I believe they will be successful. However, these two players must convert free throws. Shurna overall has been good from the line, but Mirkovic is inconsistent and must improve as a commitment to getting him the ball will result in him shooting free throws.

Michael “Juice” Thompson’s willingness to attack the hoop tonight also deserves note. Now, certainly Thompson was better able to attack against Iowa because they didn’t have a 7-foot shot blocker, but with his speed Thompson should be able to get the ball inside fairly consistently as a result of drives when NU overloads one side of the court, spread floor situations, or backdoor cuts. He may not always been able to shoot in these situations, he is just 5-10, but these types of drives also open passing lanes. Tonight, Thompson scored 12 points (10 on 5-of-5 from inside the three point line) and dished out 6 assists against only 1 turnover. That’s a great game for a point guard. Also, Thompson is a good enough outside shooter that he doesn’t have to worry about getting and making three point looks. His three point attempts and makes will come as long as NU runs the offense without panic.

I feel the same way about Jeremy Nash. Nash finished his Big Ten home career with a 15 point night. He made 2-of-6 threes, but 4-of-4 inside the arc, including an impressive three point play. At about 30%, Nash isn’t a great three point shooter, but when he gets looks where he has time to set his feet he usually makes shots. Those looks generally come when Nash ends up wide open as result of a well run Princeton Offense that has at some point tossed the ball inside or gotten a Thompson drive.

I also want to give some credit to NU’s bench play tonight. Three players, Davide Curletti, Alex Marcotullio, and Mike Capocci all played double-digit minutes. That’s rare for NU. They only scored 4 points, but they hustled on defense and ended up with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and a blocked shot. Capocci recorded the block on a jump shot and it showed off his athletic skill. I also liked seeing Curletti scrap down low for rebounds (5 total) and look for guys to pass the ball in the offense (3 assists), if he keeps giving NU solid minutes off the bench it will give Mirkovic time for much needed breaks.

Lastly, tonight wasn’t senior night, as originally reported. However, NU did honor a couple alums. First, NU’s newest Board of Trustees member, Michael Wilbon, was honored at halftime of the game. Also, former NU player, coach and retiring Big Ten Associate Commissioner Rich Falk was honored by NU AD Jim Phillips. On Wednesday, NU will hold senior night as the ‘Cats take on Chicago State. Odds are the crowd will be slim, but NU’s Athletic Department is trying to cram a ton of events into that night in hopes the crowd won’t be as small as it might otherwise end up being. In addition to honoring NU’s seniors, the Wildcat women’s lacrosse team will receive their National Championship rings. Also, any elementary school student with a 3.0 or higher can get two free tickets, and it will Heroes’ Night so any armed services member or public safety official and their families can attend free as well. Hopefully, that’ll add to the crowd. I’d also like to see a few more students. The student sections did grow as tonight went on, but it was nothing like the loaded student sections for the Purdue and Illinois games.

NU tied the school record mark of 18 total wins in a season with this victory. Given NU's problems with Penn State, it would be nice if NU could break the record Sunday. I think such a victory could serve as another symbol of NU's effort to move the program forward.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Game 28: Iowa Hawkeyes @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Iowa (9-18) @ Northwestern (17-10)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: ESPN (6:00 PM CT Thursday February 25th, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Bill Carmody has 7 career wins over Iowa, his best mark against a Big Ten team.

About the Game
Iowa hasn’t played since an overtime loss to Michigan more than a week age. That extra time off might be good for Iowa as they aren’t the deepest team. At the same time, sometimes it’s frustrating to go on such a long layoff as it can force you out of rhythm. Of course, Iowa hasn’t exactly been in rhythm much this season. In fact, their victory over Northwestern February 10th was by far their best performance. Iowa scored 78 points in that game. That’s their best mark in a Big Ten game (in regulation) and their 3rd best overall.

In scoring those points, Iowa used a number of players. Forward Matt Gatens was effective from three point range as he has been all season (35.8% 3PT) and forward Aaron Fuller found his way to the basket inside as well. Northwestern picked up the defense in the second half of their loss to Wisconsin and stopped allowing easy penetration or interior passes, but if the Hawkeyes are smart they’ll test the ‘Cats defense with Fuller and center Jarryd Cole down low. Fuller converts 45.8% of his shots, but does take some outside shots. Shooting almost entirely from the block, Cole converts an eye-popping 58.4% of his tries. If NU lets him get the ball in scoring position it’ll be a long day for NU.

Then again, the day can’t get much longer for Northwestern than last time out against the Hawkeyes. Aside from going under screens against Gatens, the ‘Cats ignored Devan Bawinkel sitting behind the three point line and the senior from Winnebago, Illinois made them pay. How bad was the ‘Cats effort against Bawinkle? All 79 of his shots this year have come from three point range, but NU seemed to be insistent on not closing out in case he might drive. Also, Bawinkle made 5 of his 31 good threes just in the game versus NU. Basically aside from the game against NU Bawinkle made 1 three a game all year. If I were Northwestern I’d be embarrassed to let him make any in this rematch.

Speaking of embarrassed, Northwestern’s defensive effort has been pretty embarrassing since the tipoff of that loss to Iowa. NU basically only played good defense for 9:33 seconds against Minnesota (yet somehow got a win) and 10:22 against Wisconsin (resulting in a narrow loss). Why NU can’t play defense for 40 minutes I don’t know, but I hope that the emotions of senior night help get Jeremy Nash fired up as he seems to be NU’s defensive igniter. I’m not feeling the optimism I felt when picking what some thought an insane upset victory in Madison, but I’m not sure Iowa’s 1-7 road record gives them much hope in Evanston. I’ll pick the ‘Cats this time, but if they don’t win, I’m not predicting a win Sunday even if all of Penn State’s starters are declared academically ineligible and the bench players all get concussions in rebounding drills. Northwestern, 56 Iowa, 44

Monday, February 22, 2010

Northwestern Basketball: The Class of 2010

Seniors Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger with NU's Chicago Invitational Challenge Championship Trophy

Thursday of this week at least two seniors, Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger will play their final Big Ten home game. It’s also possible a third, Jeff Ryan, will also see a Big Ten opponent in Welsh-Ryan for the last time. I’m not a big fan of basketball program keeping Ryan in limbo as they pursue a recruit for next season, but that’s simply the nature of college athletics. You have to recruit the best possible players to be successful or you aren’t employed. I just wonder what the uncertainty of his future is doing to Jeff’s academic and career plans. Whatever the case, I certainly hope NU takes time to honor Jeff with Matt and Jeremy in case he doesn’t come back. It he does return, he can join Michael Jenkins and Ivan Tolic as players with multiple senior days.

What I think is most special about this senior class is that they’ve seen some of the lowest lows and highest highs in NU basketball history. They arrived in 2006-07 to a team which lost a number of senior starters, most notably Vedran Vukusic. As a result, Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble (who would have been honored as a senior if not for his injury) got the chance to crack the starting lineup. Ryan started ten games that year and played perhaps the best game of his career when he scored 18 points in a narrow loss to #3 Wisconsin at Welsh-Ryan while subbing for an injured Coble. Ryan’s sub-30% three point percentage has been a point of distress for fans during his three years of play, but he made an amazing banked-in three on that day to help NU almost pull of a shocking upset. I’ll never forget the frustration on Bo Ryan’s face as Jeff consistently blew by defenders. Clearly the Badgers weren’t prepared for Ryan playing instead of Coble and it showed.

Unfortunately for Ryan and the ‘Cats, the 06-07 season was mostly filled with close losses like that Wisconsin game. The ‘Cats went 2-16 in the Big Ten. They beat only Minnesota (in a blowout) and Penn State by two, thanks to a Craig Moore miracle heave towards the hoop with the shoot clock running down. The Wildcats were 13-18 overall that season, but I doubt the players look back with much fondness on wins over North Florida by 1 point and Wheaton College by 2 points. Still, the fact that Coble, Ryan, and every once and a while Jeremy Nash, got solid minutes did probably help develop what would become a solid team two years later.

Sadly, before that solid team emerged in 2008-09, NU faced the 2007-08 season. When I said this group faced the lowest of lows, I was talking about this season. Northwestern finished that year 8-22 overall and 1-17 in the Big Ten. Many of those Big Ten losses weren’t close and that was the year the movement to fire NU Coach Bill Carmody really picked up steam. In fact, during player introductions while starters such as Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble were introduced, the NU student section other gave voice or displayed signs indicting their desire to see NU hire a new coach. The sentiments in the stands probably didn’t make a huge difference of the floor, though, Craig Moore did once to tell group of anti-Carmody students to shut up. Bottom line, playing in a situation where they lost virtually every game and faced uncertainty about their program’s future had to be tough. It was probably especially tough for Jeff Ryan who also ended up missing the season’s final eight games due to injury. While Ryan was out at the end of the season, though, classmate Jeremy Nash made his first major impacts on NU’s basketball program. Nash, who missed the season’s first eight games, started to appear more in the role of defensive stopper and posted career highs in points and rebounds that February before making his first start in the Big Ten Tournament that March. NU lost that BTT game to Minnesota after holding a 10-point, a trend which would depressingly continue the next year, but that game at least showed despite their 1-17 Big Ten record, Northwestern’s basketball team had life.

That life appeared much more clearly in 2008-09. This was the year this class experienced some of the highest highs in NU basketball history, maybe the highest highs since the National Championship of 1931. With Jeremy Nash causing havoc at the point of the 1-3-1 zone, Northwestern upset #7 Michigan State in East Lansing 70-63. It was the Wildcats first ever win at the Breslin Center and their first win over a top-10 team in a decade and a half. Later in the season, the ‘Cats beat Ohio State for the first time in more than a decade and won at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana for the first time ever. Jeremy Nash was active in all those victories, but for classmate Jeff Ryan, the biggest win came when NU won at #19 Purdue. NU’s primary defense in 08-09 was the 1-3-1. However, NU decided to take the rare step on playing man-to-man against Purdue late in the game. When that occurred, Ryan got matched up on Purdue superstar Robbie Hummel and competelly shut him down for a seven minute stretch when the Wildcats surged into the lead.

This season, Jeff Ryan and Kevin Coble have been out virtually all year. Even walk-on senior Matt Steger has spent the majority of the year in street clothes on NU’s bench. As a result, the only senior to any significant time has been Jeremy Nash. With the leadership spotlight on him alone, Nash has responded. People often talk about players making themselves better, but Nash has taken that concept to a whole new level. A guy who looked like he couldn’t through his jump shot into Lake Michigan from the Lakefill as a freshman, Nash now converts about 30% of his threes. That’s not great, but it’s enough that a defense has to respect him as a shooter and that’s given him a much more well-rounded offensive game. It’s the reason he’s second on the team in assists and fourth in scoring. Speaking of Nash making threes, he made what I think is the current front runner for shot of the year when he hit a three to put NU ahead against Illinois on January 23rd. Now, the season isn’t over yet and I hope, and know Jeremy does as well, that both he and his teammates have many more big shots in their future, but it’s impressive that a player who was such an offensive liability in the past can be the guy who made the season’s biggest offensive play. I think it is safe to say that if some players with more talent had Nash’s work ethic they would be far superior to what they are today.

Speaking of work ethic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this post with some words of praise for Matt Steger. Thanks to injury Steger, like Coble and Ryan, has spent most of this year sitting behind the bench. But for three years he practiced just as hard as any player on the NU roster and did so not because he needed to get ready to play and beat teams like Michigan State and Purdue, but so his teammates could be ready to beat Michigan State and Purdue. The legacy of this senior class will not doubt be their contributions to some of NU’s best basketball moments, but let’s please remember the member of this class that helped set those moments up even if we as fans didn’t often see him do so.

Finally, best wishes to Jeremy, Jeff, and Matt in their future, whatever that might be, but let’s remember they’ve got at least two more home games and a big Big Ten Tournament at which they could use our support before they leave Evanston.

Go ‘Cats!

Go 2010 Seniors!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Close Doesn’t Count: Wisconsin Beats Northwestern 70-63

I really don’t know what to say right now. I think I’m more disappointed than I was after Penn State and Iowa. I think I’m more disappointed than I was last year after Illinois. I thought the ‘Cats were going to do it. I hadn't gone crazy, I just really believed it. That’s why I predicted a win. I thought the matchup was favorable and the tide of the season (and maybe the program) was going to turn in Madison. I was wrong. NU nearly got the epic upset, but close counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, not Division I basketball.

I thought John Shurna played great in the second half, but I can’t believe he missed that last shot. I think what happened was he got caught in between shooting it straight in and using the glass. The game Shurna played in the second half is the game I really want to see him play. He’s an okay three point shooter, but his threes need to come in the flow of the offense. He can’t just jack threes up like he did early. If the offensive flow doesn’t present him three point looks, then he needs to attack the basket. That’s what he did today and finished with a more than respectable 24 points. I just wish he would have added two more thanks to that last shot or a couple missed free throws.

Defensively it was nice to see the ‘Cats pick up the intensity in the second half, but that’s the problem with this team, they don’t bring intensity for 40 minutes. I can’t begin to explain why. Personally, I’d be pretty pumped for the chance to play basketball in the Big Ten (heck, I'm excited to watch basketball in the Big Ten), but this team is ho-hum about their special opportunity much too often. Perhaps as a consequence of that, they’re also extremely soft. They let Wisconsin abuse them on the boards and got a number of shots blocked. The reason is that NU way too often tried to finger role in layups. They need to put their shoulder to the hoop and take some contact. For those who can dunk (i.e. Davide Curletti) they need to try and dunk the ball inside instead of finger rolling layups. I will say that overall Curletti played a nice game. He’s a decent athlete, he can shoot the ball, and he’s got an idea of how to play defense inside. I really think Bill Carmody needs to turn Luka Mirkovic and Curletti loose from behind the three point line. They both can make that shot and several times today they passed wide open threes and NU didn’t get a good shot in the possession. Now, I’m not saying the center position needs to try 10 threes a game, but 5 wouldn’t hurt. I also think Curletti's game shows why Kyle Rowley should seriously consider a redshirt next year.

The bottom line, though, is if Northwestern played with the intensity they played with in the second half all the time they’d already have 20 wins. I don’t know why they don’t bring that intensity all the time. Obviously, the players and coaches don’t either because I assume they’d correct that otherwise. Whatever the reason, NU needs to find out quickly. The NU team that showed in the second half could do some damage in the Big Ten Tournament, but the team that played the first half (and Iowa and Penn State) will get crushed by anyone, including Indiana.

The lack of intensity is mostly evident of defense. You can tell when the ‘Cats extend the 1-3-1 zone and Jeremy Nash starts tipping passes and the other guys are hustling after loose balls. Some fans criticize the extend 1-3-1, but when it’s run right it’s tough to beat. A good extended 1-3-1 keeps the ball away from the basket and forces deep threes. Even good three point shooters struggle to hit from 25 feet. The problem is NU sometimes plays a weak version of that zone which allows easy inside shots and 19-foot threes.

What many don’t realize is NU’s lack of intensity is also present on offense. When NU actively passes and attacks the basket, that’s intensity. Look at the second half when they get easy inside looks. When they just pass the ball around the perimeter and force three pointers, that’s the same passive approach which results in poor defense.

Somehow, someway this team needs to wake up and play hard all the time. They actually remind me of another NU team, the 98-99 team. That team also had a habit of digging a hole and trying to comeback, but failing. Two good examples (of several) were an 82-79 loss at Indiana (a game in which Evan Eschmeyer recorded NU’s only triple-double) and the NIT game at DePaul. Basically, this goes back to what I said before the game. At some point an NU team will decide to be different than their predecessors. Maybe this just isn't that team.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Game 27: Northwestern Wildcats @ Wisconsin

The Matchup: Northwestern (17-9) @ Wisconsin (19-7)

Location: Kohl Center (Madison, WI)

TV: Big Ten Network (1:00 PM Sunday February 21st, 2010)

Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Northwestern was the opponent when Wisconsin opened the Kohl Center

About the Game
Wisconsin beat Northwestern 60-50 in Evanston this season. It was the Badgers first game without Jon Leuer and for a time it seemed the team from Madison was in deep trouble without their star. Thankfully for the Badgers, but much to the dismay of the Wildcats, Wisconsin’s other star, Trevon Hughes, picked up the slack in the game’s final 7 minutes to help push Wisconsin on to victory.

The win helped prove to the Badgers they could be successful without Leuer. Now, Leuer is back, having returned in a loss at Minnesota, and the Badgers need to win if they want to stay in the Big Ten Title race. For Northwestern, the loss to the Badgers is one of three or four Big Ten losses which could have turned NU’s season around. The ‘Cats, once seemingly headed to the NCAA Tournament, are now fighting for Big Ten Tournament positioning and a possible high seed in the NIT.

If Northwestern is to pull an epic upset, NU will need to improve on defense. NU’s defensive effort recently has not impressed. The Wildcats have allowed teams to get easy looks at the basket when playing both the 1-3-1 and the matchup zone or switching man-to-man. For whatever reason, it seems this group of NU players lack the innate aggressiveness to pressure passing lanes some of their predecessors have possessed. When they do so, say the last 9:33 of last week’s Minnesota game, this team has the ability to be very good, but it just doesn’t seem to happen enough. Some cite Bill Carmody’s lack of bench use as the reason for this, but I fear many of NU’s bench players wouldn’t be capable of playing pressure defense even if they wanted to do so. If NU wants to beat Wisconsin, the starting five need to fully invest in their defensive effort.

The key guy will be Luka Mirkovic who will be faced with tough matchups down low in Leuer (14.7ppg 5.9rpg) and Keaton Nankivil (8.7ppg 5.0rpg). Both Badger forwards are athletic and can score inside as well as outside. Mirkovic certainly has the skill to defend them, but Luka as a player hasn’t exactly ever taken the advice of NU football coach Pat Fitzgerald and “flushed” bad play. Instead, Luka seems to let it linger, and he missed six key free throws last time out. Mirkovic is perhaps NU’s biggest key to victory. He must “flush” his poor play from Wednesday if NU wants to win.

NU also needs to find a way to contain Trevon Hughes (15.5ppg 38.9% 3PT) and Jason Bohannon (12.2ppg 41.1% 3PT) on the perimeter. In Evanston, Bohannon had a big first half before Hughes finished off the game. While there are some tough matchups in man-t0-man, none are ridiculous in favor of Wisconsin. The key is probably Drew Crawford who would have to face either Bohannon or Hughes. Crawford is physically gifted enough to play man-to-man on anyone, but sometimes he doesn’t bring his “A” game. That’s not uncommon for freshman, but at this point Crawford should have the confidence to show up each game. He’s more than proven he belongs. Now he needs to make sure he lets others know that. His whole team does.

Somehow, it seems Northwestern’s basketball program suffers from some sort of collective mental or physical block. It doesn’t seem to matter what season it is or what personnel are involved. NU hoops remains unable to get over the hump and defy expectations. They’ve come remarkably close multiple times. Probably closer in the last two years than anytime before (though the 98-99 team came awfully close as well, especially in the Big Ten Tournament), but yet NU seems to remain, to paraphrase former NU football coach Dennis Green, exactly what people think they are. They are a team that can certainly pull an upset (ask current #4 Purdue), but they aren’t the team that has truly broken through and become the nightmare matchup a really talented Princeton Offense squad can be for athletic opponents. If NU is to become that team, if they are going to start defying expectations and become more than people think they are, beating Wisconsin in Madison would be a good place to start. It wouldn’t put NU back in the NCAA Tournament, but it would still be one of the more meaningful wins in program history.

So can Northwestern win? The easy answer is that they have no chance. Wisconsin is at home, they’re upset after their last loss, and they have guys like Hughes, Leuer, Bohannon, and Jordan Taylor (9.7ppg 29.4% 3PT). I think the truth, though, is NU does have a chance. As I noted above, NU doesn’t have any terrible matchups with Wisconsin. In fact, I’d much rather matchup with Wisconsin than Michigan State or Ohio State. In NU’s loss to the Badgers, it simply came down to Trevon Hughes making big plays, but that’s not to say that on a different day Juice Thompson couldn’t be the one making big plays. The problem with the game Sunday is that Wisconsin is at the Kohl Center. They’re 52-1 in that building against non-ranked Big Ten teams. Of course, they’re only 1-1 in their last two games. They also almost lost to Penn State and Michigan in that building earlier this season. Clearly this Wisconsin squad isn’t as dominate as past teams. Bottom line, I think NU can win. If NU is to win, though, they need to get through above-mentioned block. They can’t just go through the motions and expect a loss just because the game’s at the Kohl Center. That’s what NU teams of the past have done. Is this team any different? After the loss to Penn State it is easy to answer, “no”, and that’s the answer everybody would expect from NU. No NU team in history has ever answered “yes” to that question. I say that changes Sunday at 1:00PM. Northwestern, 61 Wisconsin, 60*

* We’ll call this the Welsh-Ryan Ramblings Expect Victory Upset Special of the Year. I didn’t have one last year, but looking back at my predictions it probably would have been against Illinois, that almost worked out.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Northwestern Wildcats: Postseason Thoughts

As the Wildcats travel to Wisconsin this weekend they might not be in the NCAA Tournament hunt, but they are in the postseason hunt. Others might disagree, but at this point I think Northwestern could fall anywhere from a top seed in the NIT to out of that tournament all together. It really depends on what happens here on out. NU’s last chance (other than the Big Ten Tournament) at getting another quality win on their resume is this weekend. They Wildcats other contests (Iowa, at Penn State, Chicago State, and at Indiana) are all games which NU is expected to win. In fact, a loss in one of those contests is probably on par with the losses NU has the last two weeks at Iowa and home against Penn State. NU will likely make the NIT as long as they do better than 1-4 in their last four games. However, right now the bracket project and NIT-ology the two most respected (and about the only two) NIT-projection websites have NU as a #7 and #8-seed respectively. That means according to those who study the NIT closely, NU would be on the road facing a #1 (Cincinnati) or #2-seed (Washington) if the NIT started today. To some NU fans this might seem unreasonable, but the truth is this is about right. Yes, last year NU did get a #5-seed with a 17-13 record, however, NU won at #7 Michigan State and at #19 Purdue. They also beat a top-20 Minnesota team in Welsh-Ryan and while the team suffered some crushing losses in which they blew large leads, their only “bad” loss was at Iowa. That was an Iowa team which pushed the .500-mark and almost made it to the postseason themselves.

As much as I hate to say it, those sites are currently on the money. I trashed the NIT-selection committee last year, but things are a little different this season. It’s not NU’s fault that many Big Ten teams, such as Michigan and Minnesota, have underachieved. Or that several “good” non-conference opponents haven’t actually been that good. Bottom line, though, Northwestern’s resume isn’t as impressive this year. If the Wildcats don’t pull off the win at Wisconsin or rock the Big Ten Tourney, I’ll lay off the NIT-selection committee this year. Why? Aside from the two bad losses these past couple weeks which came at a time (last 10 games) when committees are watching, right now NU’s only win that is nearly as impressive as the triad of victories they pulled off last year is beating #6 Purdue at Welsh-Ryan. NU’s next best win is probably beating Illinois in Welsh-Ryan. Illinois is the mythical #29 spot in this week’s AP Poll. NU’s best road win is at Michigan, and that should help in Big Ten Tournament seeding, but that’s not like beating a top-10 that eventually played for the National Title. That’s why Sunday’s game at #14 Wisconsin is so important. If Northwestern pulls the upset that win is at least on par with the Purdue win last year and maybe even the MSU win given how tough Wisconsin is at home. It’ll also move NU up in the conference standing and potentially allow the ‘Cats to get a rematch will an Illinois team they can beat in the Big Ten Tournament. What also might help NU is that by then the Illini might be ranked.

Hopefully, that’ll be the case and the Wildcats will be able to beat not only the Illini, but all their Big Ten Tournament opponents, or at least they’ll win enough to bring postseason basketball back to Welsh-Ryan for the first time since 1994.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Missed Chances Result in Missed Opportunity for NU: Penn State Tops Wildcats 81-70

This loss is significantly worse for NU’s future than last week’s loss to Iowa. Playing at home with some momentum after an impressive overtime win against Minnesota, Northwestern dropped today’s game to Penn State 81-70. With the loss NU’s slim hopes of making the NCAA Tournament are dashed, other than winning the Big Ten Tournament. To be honest, I’m having doubts about NU making the NIT at this point. Other than the Chicago State game, I’m not sure I can predict any wins. If they do get into the NIT, NU will certainly be a 7-seed or an 8-seed in their region. At this point, I suggest all NU fans start reading up on the College Basketball Invitational and check if their cable providers offer HDNet (mine does, but I’d have to up my subscription package). To be honest, the CBI wouldn’t be a bad destination for NU. They’d likely be a high seed and last year’s champ was Oregon State with former NU coach Craig Robinson in charge, which gives Bill Carmody a resource to call on when planning for the tournament.

As to this week’s Wednesday night failure, Penn State played really well on offense using players other than Talor Battle. David Jackson scored 20 points and Chris Babb had 20 points and 6 assists to help Penn State’s offense flow. Honestly, though, I thought once again NU’s defense wasn’t very good. In the first half, Northwestern tried the 1-3-1, but they didn’t deny passing lanes and Penn State got the ball inside easily and got easy baskets. When NU played more matchup and switching man-to-man, but Penn State used a series of screens to always seem to keep NU’s defenders away from shooters. NU has a bad habit of getting lazy in both their regular defenses. In the 1-3-1, NU often doesn’t deny passing lanes or doesn’t step-up to counter drives. In man-to-man or matchup, NU reacts like they’ve never seen a screen before and has no idea how to get over the screen and contest a shot.

I think a lot of this actually goes back to my post before the Minnesota game. The fact is Northwestern is at times a team that doesn’t meet their opponents aggressiveness for 40 minutes. That’s fine against Michigan or Indiana because those teams have players who simply go through the motions. However, other teams don’t. Penn State brought it for 40 minutes tonight and NU didn’t respond.

Part of NU’s failure to respond was a multitude of missed chances. Despite getting easy baskets inside all night, NU settled for 29 threes tonight. Also, Luka Mirkovic missed 6 free throws and a key layup. Jeremy Nash took a three and missed when NU finally cut the lead to two points and following his missed shot, PSU went on an 8-0 (game deciding) run. I don’t really want to pick on Nash for taking the three because he was open, but I think he could have driven the ball or passed to get a better shooter a look as plenty of time remained on the shot clock.

John Shurna and Michael Thompson each will look like they had a good game with 17 points apiece, but they shot really poorly. Thompson was 3-of-8 from three and Shurna was 2-of-9. Combined with Nash’s 2-for-7 it is easy to see when NU lost. NU also got no significant production from Drew Crawford (who looked really lost on defense) and only 4 total bench points. Someone posted a comment on the NU message boards at recently indicating Crawford might be hurt. He didn’t look all that hurt in scoring 18 points Sunday, but today he played like a guy who either wasn’t able to get where he needed to be or didn’t know where he needed to be. Either way the result was the same.

NU now heads to Wisconsin on Sunday. It’ll be a tough task, but if NU felt any NCAA Tournament pressure that’s off. The pressure to try and get a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament is also gone. Now NU is competing with Michigan and Minnesota for Big Ten Tournament seeding and still is trying to do enough to at least make the NIT or the CBI.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Game 26: Penn State @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Penn State (8-16) @ Northwestern (17-8)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:30 PM Wednesday February 17th, 2010)

Radio: WGN 720AM

Fun Fact: A win would tie Northwestern’s school record for wins with 18.

About the Game
Perhaps a small positive to Northwestern’s loss at Iowa a week ago is NU fans won’t go into Welsh-Ryan Arena fearing a loss to Penn State will be NU’s first bad loss. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt many fans will go into Welsh-Ryan fearing a bad loss, but at least in won’t be the first.

Realistically, though, those fears are the result of years of conditioning as NU fans more than an objective look at the facts. Yes, Penn State might be the best 0-12 team in Big Ten history, but they are 0-12. On the other hand, Northwestern is now 6-7 in league play and shook off the loss at Iowa on Sunday with an overtime win over Minnesota.

Most of what makes Penn State good, or at least better than their record shows, is point guard Talor Battle. Battle might be less than 6-feet tall, but he plays the same type of game as the 6-7 Evan Turner. In fact, if Battle and Turner were the same size, I think Battle might even be a better prospect thanks to his superior shooting stroke (36.2% 3PT). As it stands, though, Turner will be in the NBA next year and Battle will be trying to put together the magic he had at Penn State when joined by talents such as Stanley Pringle and Jamelle Cornley. Right now Battle is the only Penn State player who averages double figures (19.5ppg). Battle also leads the team in rebounds (5.3rpg) and assists (3.8 apg). When Battle makes passes he mostly throws to forward David Jackson or fellow guard Chris Babb. Babb’s emergence as a shooter (33.8% 3PT) early in the Big Ten season gave PSU fans hope of a second guard to take some pressure off of Battle, but Babb has been inconsistent. In PSU’s near upsets (such as at Wisconsin) Babb has played well, but his overall play hasn’t matched Battle’s level.

The 6-7 David Jackson is the only player besides Battle to start every game for PSU. His average of 9.2 ppg is second on the team and his 4.7 rpg is third. He is an athletic forward and when teamed with sidekick 6-10 Andrew Jones (4.9rpg) he can make things happen on the offensive glass. Jackson is also a good shooter making 37% of his threes and nearly 78% of his free throws. Jones isn’t a good shooter, but his bigger problem is fouls. Jones is talented, but spends a lot of time on the Penn State bench with foul trouble and that can destroy momentum. When Jones is on the bench, PSU often turns to big man Andrew Ott. A transfer from Villanova, Ott also has size at 6-10 240 lbs, but he isn’t the athlete that Jones, Jackson, or 6-8 junior Jeff Brooks is on the inside.

Prediction: Northwestern successfully used the 1-3-1 on Minnesota in the second half Sunday, a sight which was great to see for NU fans. If NU can get Battle to give up the ball, putting 1-3-1 pressure on Babb and freshman Tim Frazier might be a recipe for NU success. However, Penn State has in the past played well against the 1-3-1, though, the many players who did so were more experienced. Honestly, I’m a little worried about some of the athletic matchups Penn State can force on NU, but I do like the fact NU has a multi-talented offense and PSU is mostly just Battle. To be honest, with the way NU has played matchup zone in the past, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Bill Carmody even employ a Box and 1 defense against Battle. Whatever the defense, I think NU stops Penn State enough to win, but I do expect the game to be close. Northwestern, 72 Penn State, 67

Monday, February 15, 2010

Extra Thoughts on Some Involved in Sunday’s Game

Minnesota Head Coach Tubby Smith has got to be one of the nicest people in the world. When he came out before the game on Sunday he shook hands with everybody at the scorer’s table before going to his bench. I’ve worked the scorer’s table at a number of high school basketball games and I’ve never seen this happen. Also, Tubby took several moments to speak with Kevin Coble (as seen above) before he did the regular pregame ritual of talking to Bill Carmody and the officials.

While Tubby might be one of the nicest people around, official Curtis Shaw must be one of the biggest jerks. Shaw ejected two NU fans for, what according to all reports, was relatively tame taunting after his partner Ed Hightower totally missed an out of bounds call. Shaw’s actions shouldn’t surprise, though. He leads all officials in both fouls called and technical fouls called. He also ejected Alabama fans in their game against Purdue and once tossed the Rice University Mascot out of a game. He was also the official who made the horrid call on Jeff Ryan last year in NU’s loss to Purdue which allowed JaJuan Johnson to shot the game winning free throws. People tend to get on Ed Hightower for loving the spotlight when it comes to officiating, but at least Ed focuses on the game. Shaw (and his rabbit ears) seems to be the type to worry about everything. If I were Rich Falk (The Big Ten's top man on refs and NU 1,000-point club member, he had 1,001), I’d tell Curtis Shaw he ought to go work in the CCIW, not the Big Ten.

Alex Marcotullio played an excellent game on defense yesterday. I believe there is no drop-off between Marcotullio at the top of the 1-3-1 and Jeremy Nash at the top of the 1-3-1. At times yesterday, I thought Marcotullio was actually better at pressuring the ball and keeping Minnesota from making easy entry passes.

Bill Carmody used the 1-3-1 most of the game, and though Minnesota’s shooting made the choice scary at times, it was the right move. Nash and Marcotullio provided enough pressure that when NU made its comeback Minnesota didn’t even get shots because Luka Mirkovic and Drew Crawford were benefiting from the Nash and Marcotullio pressure to get steals.

Luka Mirkovic
really showed yesterday why I believe he is a much better three point and free throw shooter than he has been to this point. He has a very smooth release and doesn’t have much wasted movement. If Luka can get confident with his shot, NU will be that much tougher to defend.

Davide Curletti played 0+ minutes yesterday and Kyle Rowley also saw limited time. I’ll talk more about this when we get to the offseason, but with those two and Ivan Peljusic backing up Luka, I think either Curletti or Rowley ought to take a redshirt next year.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Comeback ‘Cats on the Hardwood: Wildcats Overcome 13-point hole to beat Minnesota 77-74

This has nothing to do with analysis, but the last 9:33 of today’s Big Ten basketball game between Northwestern and Minnesota was the most fun I’ve had at a sporting event in a long time. From Luka Mirkovic’s steal and layup, to great rebounds by Drew Crawford and Luka, to Michael “Juice” Thompson hitting big threes and making great passes and clutch free throws (Luka made a number of clutch free throws as well), the Wildcats were able to bring the fans at Welsh-Ryan to their feet a remarkable number of times in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. It wasn’t exactly Jeremy Nash putting the ‘Cats ahead against Illinois, but Welsh-Ryan was loud and proud in urging the ‘Cats to victory today. Hopefully, the NU fans (and especially the students) will show up on Wednesday when the ‘Cats host a winless in the Big Ten, but talented, Penn State squad. That game will give the ‘Cats a chance at a school-record tying 18th win, but it’s only because the ‘Cats came back from 13-points down to win today.

For almost ¾ of today’s game, Northwestern didn’t look much better than they did at Iowa on Wednesday, but the light went on in the final five minutes of regulation and in overtime for the ‘Cats to capture the victory. I’m found of saying, “games are won and lost in the last five minutes,” my friends and family often make fun of me for repeating this mantra, but today proves my point. The ‘Cats were bad for about 35 minutes today. They struggled to deny entry passes to Ralph Sampson III and Paul Carter, they let the Gophers get open look for three, and found themselves down double digits in the second half. Thankfully, the ‘Cats woke up late. I don’t know what caused it, but Luka Mirkovic appeared from nowhere to practically take the game over late. A guy who NU need to put out an APB for after Wednesday and today’s first half, Luka got NU back into the game with a huge steal and layup to make the game 52-50. He then caught a pass of a Michael “Juice” Thompson drive and hit a three to put NU ahead 53-52 late in the game. NU couldn’t hold that lead, thanks to a Blake Hoffarber three Minnesota sent the game to OT at 57-57, but in OT Luka and Juice went a combined 12-for-12 from the free throw line to allow NU to hold off the Gophers. Minnesota managed to consistently make shots and force NU to shoot pressure free throws down the stretch, but NU made every free throw with the game on the line.

Luka Mirkovic had a very quiet first half (as did most of NU’s players), but overall for the day Luka stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 steals. At times this year I’ve said that Jeremy Nash and Alex Marcotullio were essential players for NU’s success, but now I think it’s clear Luka Mirkovic is the most important key to NU winning. In NU’s two big wins against Michigan and Indiana, Luka had great games. Also, in NU’s only Big Ten road win, the game at Michigan, Luka scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. As the season goes down to the wire, I’ll be looking closely at how Luka plays in hoping for Wildcat success.

NU’s leading scorer in today’s game was John Shurna who finished with 22 points. Shurna’s ability to hit threes (6-of-13) kept NU in the game in the second half until they could start the comeback. Shurna also scored NU’s first basket in the overtime period. I actually think NU should have run that same play for the final shot in regulation. When Shurna gets somebody on his hip in the post he can go up and under and score with ease.

Another Wildcat who had a strong all around game was Drew Crawford. Crawford, like Luka, was somewhat quite early, but he benefited from many of Juice Thompson’s 7 assists to score 18 points. Most notable were an alley-oop layup late in regulation and an easy layup in OT, but Crawford also made his presence felt with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. The Big Ten has a number of good freshman this year, but Drew Crawford has consistently played at a high level and come up big when his team needed him in clutch situations.

Finally, credit has to go to Jeremy Nash who played 42 minutes (second to Shurna’s 45) scored 9 points, had 3 assists, and 2 steals. He also helped apply pressure to Minnesota that resulted in steals for Crawford and Luka at several key moments. Jeremy Nash is an underrated player. I sincerely hope he gets some acknowledgement when it comes to post-season all-defense honors.

NU moves to 17-8 overall. They have tied the school record for regular season wins with 17 victories. If NU can beat Penn State on Wednesday they will tie the school record for total wins and, I believe, with a record 10 game above .500, once again force themselves back into NCAA Tournament discussion.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Game 25: Minnesota @ Northwestern Wildcats

Due to travel and other commitments I won’t be able to post again until after the Minnesota game. Therefore, although this post is the Minnesota preview, I’ll take time to share some other toughts as well.

The Matchup: Minnesota (14-9) @ Northwestern (16-8)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena

TV: Big Ten Network (4:00 PM CT Sunday February 15th, 2010)
Radio: WCPT AM 820

Fun Fact: Tubby Smith is 2-1 in his career at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

About the Game
After the loss at Iowa, the Wildcats return home to face a Minnesota. The Gophers are coming off a 71-63 loss at home to Michigan on Thursday. It’s debatable if the Gopher loss to Michigan or NU’s loss to Iowa is worse. The bottom line is that on Tuesday of this week it looked like Northwestern vs Minnesota was going to setup as an NCAA Tournament elimination game. Now, this game is basically for seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. Honestly, that might make the game more critical. If the only way for the Wildcats or the Gophers to make the Big Dance is getting four victories in Indy, having the best possible draw is essential for that task.

Looking at the larger picture for a moment, I’ve always kind of thought that NU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance would come as a result of the winning the Big Ten Tournament (BTT). I’d pretty much made up my mind that NU was in fact going to win the Big Ten Tournament in 2004 after the 8-8 Big Ten season and the BTT record 22 steals in the first round defeat of Penn State. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I do believe this year’s team can win four games in Indianapolis. I think the bigger question, especially after last night is: do the players and coaches wearing the NU gear share that same belief? There is a very big difference between hoping you can do something and truly believing you can do something. I think a lot of Northwestern basketball teams have been great at hoping they would do something great or historic, but I’m not sure in my lifetime I’ve truly seen a team that truly believed in their abilities. A former Northwestern football coach talked about belief without evidence, in basketball I’ve seen NU teams that didn’t believe even though they had evidence.

Getting back to the game Sunday, the Gophers beat the Wildcats 65-61 in Minneapolis, but NU certainly proved they could hang with the Gophers in coming back from 13 points down to actually take the lead before Gopher guard Blake Hoffarber got crazy hot from behind the arc.

After the Iowa game NU should be very aware of three pointers. Bill Carmody said after the game that NU’s players basically ignored the scouting report and didn’t fight through screens. The scouting report on Hoffarber is he’ll torch NU if he gets open, hopefully the good that will come out of the Iowa loss is that won’t happen.

NU’s 1-3-1 against Iowa was pretty bad, except for one nice Alex Marcotullio steal, based on that and Minnesota shooting about 39% as a team from three, you’d think NU ought to scrap the 1-3-1 on Sunday. However, Minnesota also has trouble with turnovers, and the 1-3-1 produced a bunch in Minneapolis. If I were Bill Carmody, I would start this game in the 1-3-1. If it works and causes TOs, I’d stick in it for the duration. If Minnesota gets Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook hot from the outside in the first few possessions, I’d get out of the 1-3-1 instantaneously.

On offense, Northwestern feel victim to Minnesota’s pressure and Ralph Sampson III’s size in the first game. Sampson kept Luka Mirkovic to only 6 points and blocked or altered a ton of NU inside looks. If NU is to win Mirkovic needs to have perhaps his best effort ever. He needs to not back down and play soft (like he did Wednesday), but needs assert himself early and show he isn’t intimidated by Sampson or Colton Iverson’s size.

Luka and his teammates also need to get much more aggressive in how they go to the hoop. With Sampson, Iverson, Paul Carter, and Damian Johnson inside, Minnesota will block finger roles. When inside, NU needs to go up strong, put their shoulder to the hoop, and if possible even try to DUNK the ball. I can’t say from personal experience (unless you count an 8-foot hoop) what dunking a basketball feels like, but I’m pretty sure if I could dunk, I wouldn’t finger role layups. One of the myths of Northwestern fandom is that Bill Carmody doesn’t like dunks. This is categorically untrue, but I can see how watching NU’s soft attempts at the hoop might lead to this myth. In practice the next few days, Carmody and the staff need to extort aggressiveness from the players in every area, offense, defense, rebounding, coming on and off court, filling up water cups, and anything else that’s going to happen Sunday. By nature Tubby Smith teams are relentlessly aggressive. If you can’t meet their aggressive nature, you lose to them. NU is 1-6 against Smith since he took over in Minnesota. Many of those games have been close, but I honestly believe the difference is that NU almost always sleepwalks for a portion of the game while the Gophers stay aggressive. This either leads to NU blowing a big lead (BTT two years ago) or NU getting in a big hole (07-08 regular season, at Minnesota last year, BTT last year, earlier this year) and not being able to overcome that hole. The only NU win against Minnesota under Smith was last year after NU blew the huge home lead to Purdue and as a result the Wildcats came out fired up with as much urgency and intensity for a single game as any NU team in recent memory. That team needs to show up on Sunday. If they do this game will really be something to see. If they don’t, if we see typical NU sleepwalking for periods of time, it’ll be a good day to be a Gopher.

From reading this post you probably have a pretty good idea of the type of pregame speech I’d be giving Sunday afternoon. I doubt Bill Carmody will be giving that speech, though. He just doesn’t seem to be that type of fire-up coach. That’s actually fine. 95% of the time I perfer coaches be like Carmody. Guys who are fire-breathers all the time just aren’t realistic to me. Nobody can be pumped up all the time. It's just not possible and probably isn't effective after a while either. Against Tubby, though, I'd like to see Carmody and Wildcats get pumped up. It doesn't have to come from Carmody, though. As often discussed by Tom Izzo, good teams are more player-coached than coach-coached on game day. I somehow doubt Jeremy Nash is reading this blog, but I know he’s started to do some player-coaching in the NU huddle and locker room and I’m hoping that based on seven career games against Tubby Smith’s Gophers (more than any other team), that he’s seeing the same need for aggressiveness that I am. So, I’m putting my trust in Northwestern’s one healthy senior to rally his teammates to get aggressive and to start believing instead of just hoping. Northwestern, 71 Minnesota, 68

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

‘Cats NCAA Dreams Very Likely Dead Thanks to Humiliating 78-65 Loss in Iowa City

This may seem like revisionist history, but I was tempted to predict an Iowa win in this contest. But instead of doing so, I told myself, “No, this Northwestern team is different than the teams of the past. They won’t let down, they won’t fail in the big game, they won’t be the group saying, ‘if only this or that had gone the other way’ at the end of the year.” Well, I was wrong. This was the same exact game NU fans have see hundreds of times when they start to have expectations. It was virtually every game of consequence from the 2003-04 season to the 2005-06 season. I could probably spare you all a post and just have you think back to those times, but I've got stuff to say, so I'll post my thoughts.

This was also the type of uninspired effort which NU showed in virtually every game two years ago, when they went 1-17 in the Big Ten. Like that year, tonight Northwestern was pathetic in every area from offense, to defense, to coaching, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the postgame meal is stale.

NU looked totally lost to start the game. They didn’t seem to have a clue as to what offensive set to run, they struggled to get any sort of an open look, and multiple times settled for Jeremy Nash threes. Nash’s offense has obviously improved, but no way was the game plan to have him be the primary offensive weapon to start the game. As bad as that was, though, NU’s defense was even worse. They let Iowa get inside early in the game and therefore decided they need to switch to the 1-3-1. Unfortunately, in the 1-3-1, NU didn’t guard Devan Bawinkle from behind the arc despite the fact Bawinkle has never attempted a two in his career.

NU also didn’t seem able to get a team on the court who could play together without turnovers and forced threes. When NU got down they stopped running offense and started shooting threes like they hoped that if they hit a shot from deep enough it would be a like a “hot spot” in the old NBA Jam video game where you could get 7 or 8 points back with one bomb.

Luka Mirkovic struggled and was pulled. Kyle Rowley struggled and was pulled. Mirkovic came back, but was playing the worst game of his career, so Davide Curletti and Ivan Peljusic played for the first time in eons. Alex Marcotullio saw more time as did Mike Capocci, yet none of them seemed able to play defense or make shots. I don’t mean to pick on those guys. No Wildcat played well. They looked lazy. Almost as if they were either full of themselves because they won two games or looking ahead to Minnesota.

I can’t really quantify just how bad NU played. You can look at the stats and say things like, “NU made only 8-of-26 threes, while Iowa made 12-of-24 or Iowa got 36 rebounds while NU got only 28.” The thing is those stats aren’t enough to explain this game. The best I can do is say if you saw NU’s teams in 95-96, 99-00, or 07-08, that was what this game looked like. NU looked like a team that wasn’t athletic enough or skilled enough to play defense, grab a rebound, or make a shot. The problem is that this isn’t a team that is undermanned like those squads. This is probably Northwestern’s most balanced team ever.

Perhaps the best summary of this game might be to look to a quote from the character of lawyer Jackie Chiles played by actor Phil Morris on the television show Seinfeld. When faced with one of the many times Cosmo Kramer has ruined Jackie’s shot at a huge payday, the frustrated attorney declares, “this is the most public yet of my many humiliations." Northwestern basketball hasn’t exactly impressed in its history. Humiliating losses were the norm at times in the past, but with the nation watching closely, and in many cases rooting, for NU to make the Big Dance, this game is indeed the most public of NU’s many humiliating losses.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Game 24: Northwestern Wildcats @ Iowa

The Matchup: Northwestern (16-7) @ Iowa (8-16)

Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Iowa City, IA)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:30 PM Wednesday February 10th, 2010)
Radio: WGN 720AM

Fun Fact: Todd Lickliter is 2-0 at home against Northwestern is has career as Iowa’s head coach.

About the Game
On the face of it 8-16 Iowa doesn’t appear to be much of a challenge for Northwestern, but the truth is, like their namesake, the Hawkeyes are remarkably tough. After all their off-season and early season problems, it would have been easy for Iowa to mail in the season. To assume their coach was going to get dismissed and that more star players would transfer. Instead, the Hawkeyes have persevered. While that perseverance hasn’t resulted in many wins, it has resulted in a number of teams not wanting to take on the Hawks after hard-fought battles. This will be a tough game for Northwestern.

Like Wildcat teams of the past, because of their limited talent, Iowa plays at a slow pace. In fact, Iowa only averages 61.1 ppg as a team, and probably wants to score less. I’d bet in Todd Lickliter’s ideal world his team would win 52-47 games each night. This might be the one game where Northwestern wants to try to play fast and speed up an opponent. It is also a game where NU’s ability to take care of the ball will be put to the test. Iowa plays tough on defense (freshman Eric May gets more than a steal a game), but even more important is that fact that since the game against the Hawkeyes will be played at a slow pace, every empty possession is even more serious.

When the Hawkeyes do score the responsible party is more often than not sophomore Matt Gatens. The 6-5 Gatens is the only Hawkeye currently on active who averages double figures. Gatens scores 12.0ppg in addition to averaging 4.3 rpg and 3.5 apg. Gatens is also a decent three point shooter making 34.4% of his threes. He has a very smooth stroke on his shot, but some might say his release is not as quick as experts might want. 6-5 forward Eric May is the Hawkeyes next best scorer at 9.4ppg. May has improved during the year as a shooter. He currently is only shooting 29.8% from three point range, but his average has gone up in Big Ten play. Another Hawkeye who has improved in Big Ten season is Aaron Fuller. Fuller is the Hawkeyes top rebounder at 5.6rpg and in Big Ten play is the Hawkeye’s leading scorer at 11.1ppg. Fuller gets most of his points inside (averaging about 1 three point attempt a game) and his improvement at scoring inside has given point guard Cully Payne a reliable player to dump the ball of to when he penetrates the defense. Payne is a freshman from Schaumburg who committed to both DePaul and Alabama before landing in Iowa City. Lickliter was lucky to get him as with the number of defections the Hawks had in the offseason, and Anthony Tucker’s suspension during this season, only Payne and John Lickliter (the coach’s son) are legitimate choices at point.

Iowa’s issues at the guard spot and spotty three point shooting (32.4% as a team) might make one think this is the game for NU to go back to the 1-3-1. I, however, am not so sure. The Hawkeyes have shown the ability to get hot from the outside and in a low-possession game it is a bad idea to give a lot of open looks. In addition, like Indiana, NU has some very positive matchups against Iowa. For example, other than Michael “Juice” Thompson, every NU starter is bigger than or about as big as their Iowa counterpart (Matt Gatens may have an inch or two on Jeremy Nash on paper, but Nash plays much bigger than 6-3). In addition, Iowa’s biggest big man, Brennan Cougill (Iowa’s Mr. Basketball last year) is 6-9 255. That makes him smaller than both Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley height wise. He has some weight on Luka, but Mirkovic has shown how he can use athletic skill against bulkier opponents. What is important in defending Cougill is to remember he is one of Iowa’s better outside shooters. NU must defend him on the perimeter. This might be tough for Rowley, but I think Mirkovic and Davide Curletti or Ivan Peljusic would excel at this. On offense, I expect to see NU attack the smaller Iowa inside players. This could be a big game for Mirkovic and Shurna inside. Iowa’s limited size and depth might even allow Mike Capocci to get into the game and post up as he did against Indiana with positive results.

Prediction: This might the scariest game left on NU’s schedule. Obviously at Wisconsin is tough, but that game doesn’t really feature expectations. Everybody is going to expect Northwestern to win this game to setup a showdown with Minnesota on Sunday. As long as the Wildcats don’t read the press clippings, I think they’ll be fine. They are without a doubt the better team. Iowa’s once impressive home court advantage is gone. NU’s young players should not feel intimidated. As long as makes the right defensive calls (which I believe is limiting use of the 1-3-1 unless Iowa is having major ball handling issues), the Wildcats should triumph in Iowa City for the first time since 2004. Northwestern, 61 Iowa, 51

Monday, February 8, 2010

Who is NU’s Biggest Basketball Rival?

Is Iowa NU's Biggest Rival in Basketball?

So it’s Rivalry Week on the ESPN family of networks this week. Games featured include Duke and North Carolina, Syracuse and UConn, and Purdue and Michigan State. This got me thinking about the basketball rivalries which include Northwestern. Who is Northwestern’s biggest basketball rival? The quickest answer is Illinois. That’s possible. Another quick answer is that NU hasn’t had enough success in basketball to sustain rivalries like they have in football against teams like Iowa and Wisconsin. I refuse to believe this. Northwestern might not have a great deal of basketball success, but they’ve been a pain in the neck for enough teams that at least a couple regular opponents have to be considered rivals. I’ve looked at a few factors such as how competitive games have been, how often the teams have met, and what type of relationship fans seems to have. As a result, I’ve come up with four potential candidates for NU’s biggest rival. They might not be Duke-UNC, but NU does have rivals.

Rival #1: Illinois
Illinois makes this list in large part because they are the only other Big Ten team in state. Also, because of this fact many families and friends in Illinois have connections to both Northwestern and Illinois. This creates some friendly (perhaps even sibling) rivalries which can make attending these matchups fun. On the other hand, I find that the rivalry with Illinois tends to be somewhat relaxed because of these connections. Their simply isn’t the bitterness that exists between other rivals. The other fact is, disappointing as it is for NU fans to admit, NU has struggled against Illinois even when the Wildcats have had respectable teams. The win over Illinois on January 23rd gave NU just their 3rd win over the Fighting Illini in the last 11 years. Northwestern has some poor records against conference foes over that time, but only Ohio State and Michigan State have been more successful than U of I against NU since the 1998-99 season.

Rival #2: DePaul
I’d really argue strongly for DePaul as NU’s biggest rival if the Blue Demons hadn’t dropped NU off the schedule this year. Sure, the teams are going to meet again next season, but I don’t think Indiana and Kentucky are likely to take time off from their rivalry anytime soon. If NU and DePaul want to be serious about their rivalry they need to play. It was a big deal to me when NU and DePaul seemed to recommit to playing regularly in the early 2000s and for the sake of college basketball in Chicago they should stick to that commitment. What I like about the argument for this rivalry is that it has been relatively close recently. The teams have split their last 6 meetings. Also, the two teams have a legitimate postseason history, having met in the NIT three times. DePaul has won two of three, but each has been close. In addition, at least from my personal experience, NU and DePaul can become a rivalry in the stands as well. I remember being somewhat horrified as a youngster when my mother got into a war of words with two drunken DePaul fans who were taunting Evan Eschmeyer during the 1999 NIT game at the Rosemont Horizon.

Rival #3: Wisconsin
This would be more of a rivalry if NU could win in Madison, but then again nobody wins in Madison, so maybe it doesn’t matter. The fact is NU has given Wisconsin a ton of trouble in Evanston over the past decade. Even NU’s losses have more often resembled this year’s tight battle to the wire as opposed the 2008 game which served as Wisconsin’s coronation as Big Ten Champs. This rivalry also gets extra points for NU winning over Wisconsin fairly consistently in the mid-1990s. Wisconsin was NU’s victim twice during the run to the 1993-94 NIT, including a memorable game in Evanston when NU guard Kip Kirkpatrick looked down future NBA-star Michael Finley. Also, during his brief stay in Evanston, Geno Carlisle led NU to a couple victories over the Badgers.

Rival #4: Iowa
If I had to vote (and I actually did in the poll above) I’d vote for Iowa. Some of that might be pent up anger over their way their fans often dis NU in football, but I think during the Steve Alford era this became a pretty decent basketball rivalry. Not only did NU finally breakthrough with a win in Iowa City in 2004, but the ‘Cats and Hawkeyes played a number of down to the wire games which resulted in NU wins. Michael Jenkins became an NU legend for beating Iowa, but people forget his heroics were sandwiched around a buzzer beater from Vedran Vukusic and an improbable off the bench shot from Evan Seacat which helped NU to victory when he hadn’t played in weeks. After each of those games, the Iowa fan base seemed to go crazy with frustration at their loss. In the last two years, the tables have somewhat turned. We NU fans have been the one’s feeling the frustration with a 1-3 record against the Hawkeyes. Last year’s loss in Iowa City was among the most frustrating for NU fans in a season of tough losses. The year before, when NU was desperately seeking a Big Ten win, was even worse as NU blew a double-figure lead thanks to Iowa starting pick apart the 1-3-1 zone. If NU doesn’t pull off the victory Wednesday night, the frustration level will probably hit a new high for NU fans.

Those are my thoughts. What does everybody else think? Comment and vote in the poll.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wire to Wire Win: Balanced and Consistent Offense Gives NU 78-61 Victory Over IU

Northwestern took the lead on the game’s first possession with a dunk from Drew Crawford. They extended their lead at halftime to 40-29 with a dunk from Mike Capocci. They finished with a 78-61 victory when Ivan Peljusic hit a fade-away. The win keeps NU undefeated at home against unranked opponents and gives the ‘Cats their first three game winning streak over Indiana since 1932. The victory was also NU’s second double-figure win in a row against a conference team. NU’s next game is on the road in Iowa City and this victory makes that contest even more critical for NU’s potential tournament hopes.

How did NU manage to grab today’s lead and hold it the entire game? I believe NU got one their best all around efforts of the season. The ball movement on offense was crisp which set up 10 made threes and a number of other open looks which just missed. The defensive effort was solid overall too. NU blocked 9 shots (John Shurna with 3), grabbed 26 defensive rebounds (Jeremy Nash with 10 rebounds overall), and forced Indiana to 35.3% shoot overall and 11.8% from three. If NU hadn’t committed a ridiculous number of fouls, which allowed IU to get 23 points from the line, Indiana might not have broken 50 points in the game. Aside from the fouls (most of which I thought were good calls if the officials wanted to strictly enforce the rules) Northwestern played outstanding defense. The Wildcats helped and hedged on screens very well, they contested virtually every three point look (which resulted in Jordan Hulls and Devan Dumes going 0-for-8 total), and switched to the 1-3-1 at the exact right time in order to protect against fouls and force Indiana to run off a lot of clock before getting a shot. Indivudally, Luka Mirkovic had 2 steals and overall played well in man-to-man defensive against some on Indiana’s athletic players. He got beat a few times, but forced some bad shots from the Hoosiers as well.

On offense, NU had great balance. All five starters were in double figures. John Shurna lead with the way with 16 points on 5-of-8 made threes and dished out 6 assists as well. Shurna looked remarkably comfortable shooting the ball today. Even some of his misses seemed right on the money. Hopefully, he’ll bring the same accuracy to Iowa City as against the slowdown style of the Hawkeyes, every possess counts.

Luka Mirkovic was mentioned above for defense, but he also scored 14 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, and dished out two assist. One of those assists was a key drop-down pass to Drew Crawford at a time when NU’s three point range went a little south and the ‘Cats needed a basket.

Drew Crawford finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds. He had some foul trouble and missed all his three point attempts, but it was good to see Crawford still make a difference even when his shot wasn’t falling.

Michael “Juice” Thompson scored 12 points and had 6 assists in 37 minutes today. Thanks to some foul trouble, Thompson’s 37 minutes actually were slightly below his average giving him a couple mini-rests. When he was on the bench, though, you could tell how NU wasn’t as comfortable on offense. When he came back into the game, NU seemed to stabilize. Thompson had, I think, one of his best assists of the year when he found Jeremy Nash on a sideline cut to setup an and-1 play from Nash.

Speaking of Nash, he was without a doubt the game’s MVP. He recorded his first double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He made a couple big shots both from three point range and going to the rim. Nash still isn’t exactly 100% at going to the hoop, and I’d love to see him try to dunk in order to draw more fouls, but he’s become a real threat with the ball both inside and outside which makes him a serious matchup problem for NU opponents. In addition, he had two blocks on amazing plays where it looked like Indiana would have sure open shots, but Nash’s hustle said otherwise.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning NU got 13 bench points today. Some of those came late, but Alex Marcotullio did hit a key early three and Mike Capocci scored 4 of his 6 points when NU needed something to happen in the first half. Kyle Rowley also added 2 points and 3 rebounds to NU’s bench totals.

NU now takes on Iowa in Iowa City. If the ‘Cats can get that victory it will setup a key showdown a week from today in Evanston against Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Game 23: Indiana @ Northwestern Wildcats

The Matchup: Indiana (9-12) @ Northwestern (15-7)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)

TV: Big Ten Network (1:30 PM Sunday February 7th, 2010)
Radio: WGN 720AM

Fun Fact: Indiana’s roster features two players who played high school ball in Illinois (Verdell Jones III and Matt Roth) and NU’s roster features two players who played high school ball in Indiana (Luka Mirkovic and Reggie Hearn).

About the Game
Indiana is coming off a very close loss to Purdue on Thursday. Verdell Jones III had a shot at the buzzer which would have tied the game, but he missed. Jones said he thought he was right on, and he was very close, but it wasn’t enough. After watching IU play that game and their game against Illinois (also a last second loss), I feel that Indiana has improved significantly over the course of the Big Ten season.

Indiana’s offense features Jeremiah Rivers (son of Doc Rivers) who plays guard and is very good at setting up his teammates. Rivers only scored 6.4ppg and is a bad shooter (no made threes, and 53.9% from the line), but he has 86 assists against only 62 turnovers and is very good at driving the lane and kicking to shooters. NU needs to try and prevent drives from Rivers and Verdell Jones III (14.3 ppg, 24.5% three), who is a good finisher at the basket, but also a less than outstanding shooter. Indiana’s good shooters are guards Jordan Hulls (5.7ppg, 38.4% 3PT) and Devan Dumes (7.2ppg, 35.1% 3PT). NU fans might recall Dumes had a big game at Welsh-Ryan last year. Dumes isn’t a starter this season, but if NU decides to play zone he’ll no doubt see the court quickly. If NU doesn’t play zone, aside from stopping Rivers and Jones attacking the basket, the Wildcats will also need to stop 6-9 forward Christian Watford. Watford will be among Drew Crawford’s stiffest competition for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Right now, the Alabama native averages 12.2ppg and 6.0rpg. Those rebounding numbers lead his team. At 6-9, Watford is smaller than either Luka Mirkovic or Kyle Rowley. However, he is more athletic. That’s why I believe John Shurna should get the defensive assignment on him if NU goes man-to-man. If NU does go man-to-man, I like the matchups they’ll have. Michael “Juice” Thompson can guard Hulls. Jeremy Nash can guard either Rivers or Jones with Drew Crawford taking the other one. Mirkovic will take the 6-9 248-pound forward Tom Pritchard and Shurna gets Watford. Some of those matchups might be even, but I don’t see one where NU is at a disadvantage.

On offense, I’d like to see NU get the ball inside like they did Tuesday night. Just like he did against DeShawn Sims, Luka Mirkovic has a height advantage over Watford and Pritchard. If he gets inside position, he should be able score easy baskets like he did against Michigan. Rowley should also be able to take advantage as long as he can finish at the hoop. From the IU defensive point of view, Tom Crean has a tough choice. Who will he use to guard Juice Thompson? Rivers seems a good choice, but that forces Jordan Hulls to guard either Nash or Crawford which isn’t favorable for IU. This might lead Crean to playing zone, but with NU’s shooters that might not be a good choice either.

It is that defensive conundrum for IU which I believe gives NU the game’s best on court advantage. Another advantage for NU should be playing at home. IU is 1-3 on the road while NU has defeated every non-ranked team they’ve played in Welsh-Ryan this year. Still, I hope NU gets a little more fan support than they did Tuesday. Although the Hoosiers haven’t been playing well, you can beat their rather large Chicago-alumni base will have a number of fans in Evanston Sunday afternoon. It would help if NU’s fan support neutralized any psychological lift a large red-clad crowd gave IU. Because the game is Sunday and well before Super Sunday pregame really starts, I do think the NU fans and students will show up. NU also gets the often overlooked advantage of playing Tuesday while IU played Thursday. This often gives teams a little extra life, but it's an even bigger advantage here because the IU freshmen get less time to prep for playing defense against the Princeton Offense for the first time. Northwestern, 68 Indiana, 60

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Iowa’s Loss to Illinois No Help to NU: Avoiding Bad Losses Could be Key in Battle for Big Ten’s Last Tourney Spot

Iowa hosts NU next week. They just missed helping NU when they lost a close battle to Illinois.

Right now there are four teams in the Big Ten that are sure bets to make the NCAA Tournament: Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. There are also four teams that are surely out of the NCAA Tournament: Iowa, Indiana, Penn State, and Michigan. In between stand Northwestern, Illinois, and Minnesota. Right now none of those three teams are clearly better than the other. In fact, the teams are really very evenly matched. NU split its two meeting with Illinois and has a very good chance to split with Minnesota as well. As a result, what might be most critical to these teams in distinguishing themselves from each other will be avoiding bad losses, say losses to teams with sub-100 RPIs. NU hasn’t done this yet. Iowa almost handed Illinois their 3rd such loss, but the Fighting Illini escaped. If NU can continue to be immune to bad losses they might get picked ahead of Illinois and Minnesota even if the Illini and Gophers don’t pick up any more bad losses, but it’ll be a tough task for NU when they face Indiana and Iowa this week. Iowa didn’t beat Illinois, but came very close. Indiana didn’t beat Purdue, but looked for a long time like they would. No game in the Big Ten is easy.

On a related note, recaps and breakdowns of the Illinois-Iowa game are on various websites devoted to those teams, so I won’t break it down in detail. I do want to make a few observations. First off, I wonder if Iowa regrets running Steve Alford out of town. He certainly had his problems, but despite having fans dissatisfied, he did make regular runs in the Big Ten Tournament which lead to NCAA appearances. Todd Lickliter looks like he’ll still be looking for his first NCAA-bid in Iowa City after this year. Not that you can totally blame Lickliter (though I’m sure most Iowa fans do). He’s been somewhat snake bitten due to transfers and suspensions. Losing Jake Kelley to transfer hurt Iowa’s offense and then losing Anthony Tucker (who could have stepped in for Kelley) to a suspension hurt even more. Now, Iowa is a team with virtually no inside game and only Cully Payne and Matt Gatens can do much with creating their own shot.

Iowa also looks like they have issues with visiting fans just like Northwestern. It might not be to NU’s level in terms of numbers, but yesterday a group of Illinois students were seated right behind the basket. Without a doubt, I would have considered those prime seats, but nobody in black and gold must have wanted them. Even more amazing, the basket they were behind was the goal Iowa was shooting at in the second half. In other words, every time a Hawkeye player went to the line late to try a free throw, he saw a horde of orange-clad visitors staring him in the face. Even when NU was beating the Alford teams regularly, they still struggled in Iowa City. Part of the reason is was the Hawkeye fans made wining in Carver-Hawkeye Arena really tough. Now, I’m not guaranteeing a win in Iowa City (and NU’s team should just focus on Indiana), but it does seem Carver-Hawkeye will be significantly less intimidating this season. Hopefully, that’ll make it easier for NU to win in a place they’ve struggled and avoid their first bad loss.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Taking a Look at Northwestern’s Limited Bench Production

Nick Fruendt has been both praised and criticized for his play off the NU bench
( photo)

One major obstacle to Northwestern’s success down the stretch of the season might be the limited production they get from the bench. Early in the season it looked like Northwestern might have a very deep roster, but as it stands now NU’s offense basically comes from the five starters. In NU’s recent games virtually all the meaningful production has come from starters. Against Michigan, a Kyle Rowley layup was the only basket made by a non-starter before garbage time.

Some people have criticized NU’s coaching for not using much of the bench. Personally, I don’t think the problem is that Bill Carmody only uses 7 or 8 players, that is what most teams use, the problem is players 6, 7, and 8 have posted very limited production, especially on offense. This makes their playing time seem even more minute than it actually is. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a big surprise because nobody on NU’s bench has much history of offensive production. In fact, Alex Marcotullio’s early season success from behind the arc probably makes him NU’s best potential scorer off the bench.

The bottom line fact is that little doubt exists that NU will need some bench production before the end of the season. The Wildcats have eight very tough Big Ten games (plus a game against Chicago State) remaining before the end of the season. Those games will take a toll if the starters all have to play 35 plus minutes because nobody on the bench can score. Even scarier, a team which is over dependent on starter minutes has very little chance to win the Big Ten Tournament, especially if they have to play on Thursday. I don’t think Northwestern (or any team in the Big Ten) could pull off four straight wins with starters producing 95% of the points and playing 90% of the team’s minutes. Some will say NU won back to back games in the Chicago Invitation Challenge, but that somewhat proves my point. In those back to back wins, it was Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti who made the big shots which clinched the victories for NU.

To be clear, I’m not saying NU needs somebody on the bench to start scoring double figures, but it would be nice to see a couple guys start getting 4-6 points and 2-3 rebounds a game.. Can this happen? Well, I think NU has a couple candidates.

The bench player who has been the best contributor of late has been Kyle Rowley. The seven footer had 2 points and 2 rebounds against Michigan. He has recently shown himself to be a greatly improved rebounder as well. The next step is for him to consistently make post moves, especially against smaller players. He went 1-of-2 from the field against Michigan, but both were from point blank range. Given Rowley’s size and the fact he never takes a shot from more than about a foot from the hoop he needs to be the type of player who converts 65% of his shots or more. This is the type of player that Ohio State’s Dallas Lauderdale has become, and Lauderdale is actually several inches smaller than Rowley.

NU’s other bench player to see a lot of minutes regularly is Alex Marcotullio. I know Marcotullio hasn’t done much since scoring 16 points on January 2nd against Michigan State. However, he has more than proven he can score. I think what might help Marcotullio is getting him more involved on defense. He has the ability to play very intense defense at the top of the 1-3-1 and perhaps that’ll give him something other than offense to focus on. He played well on defense against Michigan. If NU wants to switch from man-to-man or the matchup to the 1-3-1 against Indiana, I’d like to see Nash get a rest for a couple minutes at that point and see if Marcotullio can turn defense into offense.

After Rowley and Marcotullio, no Wildcat has really seen consistent bench play. Mike Capocci had a decent game against Michigan State. Nick Fruendt played well against Illinois, but collapsed under Minnesota’s pressure defense. Davide Curletti has seen very little time since a practice injury, and is now clearly the 3rd or 4th center. Of those players, they guy I’d like to see get better would be Fruendt. Not only was he recruited as an offensive threat, but it would be great if NU could somehow find a way to consistently get Michael “Juice” Thompson a rest for just two or three minutes additional minutes, especially when coming down the final stretch of the season and in the Big Ten Tournament when games come fast and furious. Is Fruendt ready for the job? The Minnesota game would say no. But if I’m Bill Carmody I’m watching closely at practice. Any young player can panic at times. If Fruendt can get some confidence he might make a late season impact off the bench. Jeremy Nash did a similar thing as a sophomore and became a consistent contributor as a junior.

What does everybody else think? Can NU win without bench production? Who needs to step up in these critical 9 games?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sweep Complete: 67-52 Win Gives Northwestern First Season Sweep of Michigan in 42 Years

It wasn’t always the cleanest game, but in the end Northwestern came away from tonight’s Big Ten matchup with a key victory in their quest to make the NCAA Tournament. This victory moves the Wildcats to 15-7 overall and puts them in a position to compete for an at-large bid if they finish the season strong. How did Northwestern pull out what turned out to be a very impressive victory? By putting together a total team effort on both offense and defense.

The Wildcats 10-of-20 three point shooting and 21 assists on 25 made field goals were very impressive, but I was even more impressed with the defensive effort NU put forth. Northwestern’s defense has been (correctly) criticized at times this season. Statistics clearly show NU has been much less effective on the defensive end of the court than last season. You could put together a lot of theories for this, but to be honest in my eyes it’s pretty easy explanation. At times it looks like Northwestern simply gets lazy on defense. If you watch closely, you can tell when Jeremy Nash or Alex Marcotullio is really active at the top of the 1-3-1 or when they simply go through the motions. You can also tell when NU seriously fights through screens in the switching man-to-man or when the ‘Cats chose to take an easy and act as if they want to save energy. Early in the game NU looked like they wanted to conserve energy, but from about the under four minute in the first half until the finish of the game, NU got serious about defense. Although he has really struggled on offense, and wasn’t much better today, I have to give credit to Alex Marcotullio for being a big part of that wakeup call. After Jeremy Nash went out with two fouls, Marcotullio had to enter the game at the top of the 1-3-1 and was very active. He tipped and kicked a couple passes and was clearly working hard to move his feet and create difficult passes. Marcotullio’s intensity carried over to Nash and the rest of his teammates in the second half. NU switched out of the 1-3-1 to the switching man-to-man and did a remarkable job defending Manny Harris. NU made a clear effort to make Harris play to his weaknesses. A number of defenders spent time getting in front of Harris and trying to force him to either dribble left and his weak hand, or take a jump shot (where he makes less than 30%) as opposed to take an easy right hand drive to the hoop. Though a number of Wildcats were involved, I want to give special credit to Luka Mirkovic, who despite having obvious athletic disadvantages, played great help defense on Harris when he tried to drive and played man-to-man on DeShawn Sims so well that Sims eventually started committing frustration fouls. Luka also got 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals (one of which was a spectacular effort where he gave up his body). The Big Ten Network show the Journey is supposed to feature Luka this week and he put on a good show for the BTN crew to film tonight.

NU also got a performance from Drew Crawford which might have made Michigan feel as if they were in a time warp. Crawford scored 11 second half points to help put the game out of reach. He made 4 threes, but his runner from the right baseline and his and-1 reverse layup were his most memorable shots. At time Crawford makes silly freshman mistakes and forces passes, but little doubt exists he is NU’s most athletic player and the clear front runner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

NU outrebounded Michigan 30 to 27. Jeremy Nash pulled down 11 of those rebounds and John Shurna added 8. This might not have been Nash’s best offensive game in terms of shooting the ball (2-of-9), but he was all over place on the boards and played great defensive, plus he contributed on offense with 5 assists. Shurna scored 15 points and also had 5 assists. I also really liked how Shurna didn’t force things. He let the game come to him and ended up shooting threes at the right time and shooting twos at the right time.

NU’s other double figure scorer was Michael “Juice” Thompson. Thompson scored 12 points and NU moved to 12-2 when Thompson hits double figures. Juice had 3 turnovers in this game, which is a lot for him, but you can tell just how much confidence Northwestern gets from having Thompson run the team. He always seems to know how to find an open teammate or how to get himself open when NU needs a big three. At times I’d really like to see Thompson be more aggressive on offense, but he knows the system so well that he doesn’t seem to want to do things outside of the team’s offense.

Finally, Northwestern got six bench points tonight. That’s actually a lot for NU, however, four of those came with the game decided. Mike Capocci’s ally-op dunk from Ivan Peljusic was awesome, but the fact is NU really needs help on the bench. Kyle Rowley’s two first half points were the only bench points NU got which were meaningful. As the season progresses, I think getting Alex Marcotullio to break through his freshman wall and Kyle Rowley to continue to grow will be important. I’d also be curious to see if Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci start to develop roles. They each have good athletic skill, but haven’t really found a way into the regular rotation.