Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wildcats Host Penn State on New Year’s Day

Wildcat Nation might still be depressed that Coach Fitz’s football couldn’t get the monkey off their back and win a bowl game, but the basketball ‘Cats are focused on a monkey of their own. Northwestern has lost for consecutive games to Penn State by an average margin of 17 points. Many of Penn State’s players and coaches haven’t been a part of those games, but most of Northwestern’s have and they know those losses have been disappointing and critical to harming NU’s postseason dreams over the past three years. The last Northwestern win over Penn State was in 2007 in Evanston.

Coach Patrick Chambers brings in a Penn State team with an 8-6 record. The Lions are led by point guard Tim Frazier who took over the do everything role that used to belong to Talor Battle. Frazier leads the team with 17.4ppg, 5.6rpg, and 6.9apg. This will be another tough matchup for freshman guard Dave Sobolewski who faced off versus Ohio State’s Aaron Craft in NU’s first Big Ten game of the year. It’s tough to ask Sobolewski to battle these guys, but that’s the Big Ten. You don’t get any off nights as Wisconsin found out in going down to Ohio State.

The fact is that while the Frazier v. Sobolewski matchup might not be an advantage for Northwestern, I think the rest of the floor offers positives for NU. One of the key notes is that NU has size over Penn State at nearly every spot. Penn State’s biggest starter is 6-8 Billy Oliver. Off the bench they’ll bring in Sasa Borovnjak who is 6-9, but the fact is that Luka Mirkovic will have a significant size advantage over anybody Penn State plays. That means Luka needs to get involved in the game early. Luka’s inconsistency has been frustrating for NU fans over the years, but we all know that a strong game from Luka equals a Wildcat victory and this game presents the Wildcat center with the chance to have a big game.

Another Wildcat who has to be expected to have a big game is John Shurna. At 6-9 Shurna is also bigger than any Penn State starter. Sure, Penn State might play zone as opposed to let a 6-5 guy try to guard Shurna, but that means Shurna should have the advantage in getting off open shots and getting off shots with a size advantage. Personally, I called out Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb for what I thought was selfish play in the Ohio State game, but it seems to me that Coach Bill Carmody had more issues with Shurna based on what he said in the post game after Ohio State. Penn State isn’t one of the stronger teams NU will play this year, but it is probably important that Shurna respond to the adversity of the last game and show up focused from wire to wire on Sunday evening.

As for the rest of Wildcats Drew Crawford should have an advantage in terms of athletic skill which he didn’t have versus Ohio State, but I’d still like to see him take shots within the offense instead of freelancing. Reggie Hearn has been very quite since his big game versus Central Connecticut. I’d like to see either Hearn or Alex Marcotullio start to hit some three point shots and give the Wildcats another realistic scoring threat from behind the arc that teams need to respect. Will that happen on Sunday? It’s hard to say as the consistency hasn’t been there for those two guys yet this year. However, I do think NU will do enough to win this game. I predict: Northwestern, 77 Penn State, 70

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wildcats need to get more Physical and Less Selfish to Win in Big Ten

Northwestern lost to Ohio State and that’s fine. But what wasn’t fine was some of the play Northwestern put forward in that loss. The Big Ten is a physical league and to let a team just push you around is never a good idea. Sure, Ohio State is stronger than Northwestern, but the number of times Northwestern players just stood flat footed and thought they’d get a rebound just because they were on the weak side was pathetic. If Northwestern doesn’t get more aggressive going to the glass I don’t expect a lot of success for the Wildcats over the course of this season. Luka Mirkovic might not be a great athlete, but he’s 6-11 and that will make him the biggest player on the court more often than not. Even last night he was actually taller than the players Ohio State started on the front line. Yet, Luka doesn’t get aggressive enough to let his height work for him. He needs to play like he’s 6-11 and not 6-1. The rest of the Wildcats are equally as guilty of just going through the motions and not capitalizing on the skills they have when it comes to rebounding and defense.

Perhaps even worse than the rebounding issue was the selfish play some of NU’s players demonstrated last year. The Princeton Offense is a team concept which should allow players to get open shots by passing the ball well until the best shot opens up. However, last night a number of Wildcat players tried to go off on one on one moves and it simply didn’t work. The must guilty was Drew Crawford. Crawford has for 2.5 years looked to me like the type of player whose success if very much determined on what happens early in a game. If he hits his first couple shots he can be great, but if he does not he tends to start to force shots because he thinks he should score. Last night he seemed like he felt the need to score points and starting taking some of the dumbest shots I’ve ever seen from a Northwestern player.

Along the same lines, JerShon Cobb is starting to remind me of the guy you desperately want to avoid having on your team in a pickup game. It seems like as soon as Cobb gets into the game he’s going to try and make some type of move to score. Sadly, it seems like more often than not that shot ends up as a brick. That’s not a surprise when you consider he’s only shot over 50% in one game this season. Until he starts making shots more regularly Cobb needs to be more willing to be part of the offense and just try to make one on one moves.

I could go on with other examples of NU’s selfish play last night. For example, John Shurna needs to shoot, I think we all know that, but he too put up some really questionable shots last night. Anyhow, I think I’m done talking about this for now. Wildcat Nation should focus on Saturday’s bowl game at this point and worry about basketball after that. If the ‘Cats win in Texas at least one long and unfortunate streak will be put to rest this week.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ohio State Out Shoots and Out Efforts Northwestern

Let’s all remember before we panic that Ohio State is a very good team. They are a legitimate contender for the national title. That said Northwestern’s effort in this game was poor. It starts on defense were Ohio State was able to get clean open looks and go on a big run in the first half. Northwestern tried a 2-3 zone at the start of the game which was ineffective. They went then to the 1-3-1 which was also ineffective. In both cases Ohio State was able to pass and cut with ease and inevitably would find a player with their feet set waiting anxiously to shoot a wide open three. Making matters worse for Northwestern in the rare case that the Ohio State player missed that shot it seemed that a Buckeye player was there for an offensive rebound.

Ohio State’s shooting aside, perhaps the bigger issue was that Northwestern just seemed to get out efforted. Now maybe that was the a case of being out athleted, but I still think the effort could have been better. A number of times in the case of those offensive rebounds the NU player didn’t even jump and the Buckeye player pulled in the rebound over them. Also, while you have to give credit to Ohio State for making their three point shots and creating the three point shots they made in the game. However, more often than not the Wildcat defender seemed to be late getting out on the shooter and late getting his hands up and getting off the ground. Basically, it looked like the Ohio State defender always had enough space to shoot comfortably. That wasn’t the case when Northwestern shot.

The other place where the game seemed to turn for Northwestern was shot selection and offensive patience. Last year NU challenged Ohio State because they played with patience and burned time off the clock. This year Drew Crawford decided he was Kobe Bryant but instead looked more like William Cullen Bryant. Crawford’s missed wild shots lead to several secondary breaks for the Buckeyes which resulted in threes and simply sped up the game which was big no-no. Then once the Wildcats were down the rest of the Wildcats started to try and mount a comeback by forcing equally quick and ill advised shots. I am shocked that Bill Carmody allowed Crawford and the Wildcats to what they did. It almost looked like the ‘Cats just decided to see what would happen if they tried to play Ohio State straight up. The answer, not surprisingly, was nothing good.

I’ll conclude simply with the fact that while I’ve never been a believer in the concept of the must win game outside of tournament play the fact is that Northwestern must win the next two games at home against Penn State and Illinois if they want to continue to have hope of playing in the postseason. To do so they’ll need to put together a better effort than what we saw today. Also, making more shots and playing something that looks like defense would help a lot too.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wildcats Open Big Ten at Two Time Defending Champion Ohio State

This is a very tough game for Northwestern to have to open the Big Ten season with this year. However, it does also present a significant opportunity. If Northwestern were to win the game, and I know that’s a big if, they would basically have to play just average the rest of the season to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid. Obviously, pulling off an upset of the #2 team in the nation which features multiple preseason All-Big Ten and All-American picks isn’t the easy way into the NCAA Tournament, but its worth noting the possibility.

Ohio State’s roster is so full of talent that it is almost ridiculous to expect anybody in the Big Ten to beat them. Preseason National Player of the Year Jared Sullinger headlines the OSU front court which also features athletic forward Deshaun Thomas who has stepped up his game this season especially in the contests which Sullinger sat out with an injured back. The Ohio State backcourt features two players listed amongst the top-25 nationally in the preseason in guards Aaron Kraft and William Buford. Kraft is the defensive stopper who while not a great shooter (30% from three) does tend to impact the game on defense in getting steals and handling the ball very well with a nearly 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Buford is more of scoring threat at 15.8 ppg and making 37% of his threes. He’s also a nice athlete that can get to the hoop when he needs to do so. These two will present a major challenge for NU’s backcourt of Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn. If he’s closer to 100% look for more action from JerShon Cobb to at least try and even out the athletic skill battle.

NU’s front court seemingly is the their strong point with Drew Crawford and John Shurna, but when you stack it up against Sullinger and Thomas it looks more average. Obviously, neither Shurna nor Crawford will battle Sullinger one on one. That’ll be the job of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti who I actually think played Sullinger about as well as they could have last year, but the result was still 20 points and 18 rebounds for Sullinger when the teams met in the Big Ten Tournament. Those 20 points were mostly on free throws, though as Sullinger only made two field goals. Nevertheless, if NU can’t keep Sulinger and Thomas at least somewhat off the glass they can’t win unless they shoot a ridiculous percentage from three point range. To do that Shurna needs to have a big game and he also has to do a good job containing the athletic Thomas and not committing fouls.

Last year Northwestern used mostly a switching man to man defense versus Ohio State. However, I think last year’s Buckeyes were better shooters. I could see NU be successful with the 1-3-1 zone this year. It’ll clog the paint and may slow the game down. NU has to slow this game way down compared to the Creighton game which at times was a little too fast. I suspect NU will do this and that’ll help them for about 30 minutes before Ohio State pulls away. I predict: Ohio State, 63 Northwestern, 50

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Close Counts in Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, but Not Basketball

This wasn’t an awful game, but the fact is that playing the way they’d played tonight Northwestern is NOT an NCAA Tournament team. They’re a good team, they’re a 20-win team, but they aren’t an NCAA Tournament team. To be an NCAA Tournament team you need to beat other NCAA Tournament competition from leagues that aren’t one bid leagues. Thus far Northwestern hasn’t done so. Right now I think Northwestern will be back in the NIT to once again. To get beyond that point a couple things need to happen. The most obvious is Northwestern cannot be so dependent on Drew Crawford and John Shurna. If Crawford hadn’t had the game of his life tonight scoring 34 points (the most ever by a Creighton opponent) this would have been the Baylor game all over again. Shurna scored 18 points, but the fact is Creighton did an outstanding job defending him in NU’s offense. A good number of Shurna’s points came from scoring on out of bounds plays.

I think the key player for NU is JerShon Cobb. The natural talent is there for him to score points because while he’s not a great shooter he has the ability to get to the hoop and he’s a good enough free throw shooter to make shots if he gets fouled. The problem is that he doesn’t seem fully healthy from his injured hip and concussion and he still needs to find a way to get somewhat more consistent with his outside shooting in order to create a few more driving lanes. Reggie Hearn has been something of an option as an outside shooter, but I’m afraid his struggles tonight against Creighton might be a portent of the struggles he’ll have against the top-6 teams in the Big Ten.

The major overall issue for Northwestern is defense. The 1-3-1 was okay tonight, but he eventually Creighton started hitting shots against it. The man-to-man was flat out bad as the Blue Jays guards were able to enter the ball into the post and get Doug McDermott any shot he wanted from about a foot away from the basket. I’m very worried about how successful Northwestern will be against teams like Ohio State with Jared Sullinger or Illinois with Myers Leonard if they can’t deny those guys the ball in the post. Perhaps the saving grace is that Creighton is a better shooting team than Illinois or Ohio State, but I can’t be one hundred certain of that because teams have a history of going crazy versus NU from three.

Rebounding is also obviously and issue as NU got outrebounded by 10 tonight. Now, I don’t expect NU to outrebound everybody or really anybody, but I think NU needs to prevent teams for getting second chance shots. I lost count of the number of times that Creighton got a second or third look and cashed in often times for three.

It’s a little frustrating to be at this point right now because I know I started to buy into a lot of the tournament hype. The problem I think is that Northwestern isn’t getting any better. I actually think they played better defense at the start of the year in the Charleston Classic than they have in the last three games. Maybe that is simply because those teams were worse than the teams NU has played the last three games, but I have trouble believing Tulsa is worse than Eastern Illinois. Bottom line, work has to be done for NU to make the Big Dance. The good news is that the Big Ten is strong enough plenty of chances for quality wins exist, the bad news is the Big Ten is strong enough that if things don’t get better Northwestern will once again finish with 7 or 8 league wins and be right back where they ended last year. The NIT is better than nothing, but it’s tremendously frustrating to have the NCAA Tournament within sight, but constantly trip and fall before reaching the finish line.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Northwestern @ Creighton: My Prediction

I don’t know why this game gets an entirely separate post for a prediction, but it does. I suppose one could say it is due to the importance of this game, but I don’t want to start putting too much emphasis on any one contest as we saw the possible disappointment of that with the Baylor game. Still, this is an important game. A win tomorrow night will put Northwestern in a great position for a successful NCAA Tournament run. However, such a win will be tough to get. Not only does Creighton field a pretty good team, but they’ll have a Big Ten-like home court advantage with 17,000 people expected at the CenturyLink Center. The fact is that Northwestern didn’t excel on the road last season in Big Ten play has me a bit nervous. Still, if Northwestern is going to make the tournament they need to play well on the road in the Big Ten so why not establish that ability vs Creighton?

Looking at Creighton, they’re a fast paced, score a ton of points, play average defense type of team. That’s fairly similar to Northwestern, though, I’d say Northwestern can be better on defense just based on the unpredictability of using the 1-3-1 zone. Also, while we can’t say Luka Mirkovic is a superstar, he does give Northwestern the biggest player on the court. That counts for something on defense and on the glass if Luka brings an attitude of aggression to the court.

The numbers say Creighton is a better offensive team than Northwestern and Creighton forward Doug McDermott is playing out of his mind. He’s the nation’s second leading scorer and makes 57% of his threes! Basically, he’s John Shurna last year before Shurna’s ankle injury. I know Northwestern is going to present more of a challenge for McDermott than the Jays’ previous opponents, but I’m still worried about him and his offensively talented teammates.

I expect a fast paced up and down style game. I’m a little worried NU won’t have as much of an advantage as they might in some non-conference games because this is the second year in a row NU has played Creighton and it is the third year in a row Greg McDermott has coached against NU having guided an Iowa State team NU beat two years ago. Without a doubt this game will be high scoring. The team that shoots better will probably win it and though I totally hope I’m wrong, Creighton does average more made threes than NU and I think Creighton has the advantage playing in Omaha. I predict: Creighton, 87 Northwestern, 82*

*I predicted NU to beat Baylor so clearly I can be wrong.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wildcats NCAA Tournament Hopes Can Get Serious with Wins in Next Eight Days

I know various projections have Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament right now, but at this point I don’t see Northwestern as an NCAA Tournament team. So far Northwestern has lost to the only sure BCS-conference NCAA Tournament team they faced in Baylor and that loss wasn’t even close. Yes, the ‘Cats have nice wins over some mid-major tournament teams and a win over possible bubble team Seton Hall, but that’s not enough yet for me to put them in the Big Dance. There was a time when I would have been more optimistic, but perhaps I’ve been beaten down by getting my hopes up so much over the past few years only to see them crushed. Sometimes I honestly wonder if Northwestern has a basketball program just to make their fans’ lives miserable. Of course, that misery would turn to total joy if Northwestern were ever to make the NCAA Tournament because so many long suffering fans and former players would feel as if everything they hoped and worked for over many years finally paid off. So while NU isn’t an NCAA team as of this moment, we have to wonder if they can be one as of March. March might be several months away, but I actually think we’ll get a clue as to NU’s fate on Selection Sunday in the next eight days.

Northwestern will be on the road at ranked opponents Creighton and Ohio State before the New Year starts. While many will say NU has no chance to beat Ohio State and a limited to shot at Creighton, I think wins in both games are possible, though, winning one of two is more realistic. Even just getting one of the two wins, as long as the loss doesn’t look like the Baylor game, will make me shift my view about NU’s tourney chances. The reason is that to make the NCAA Tournament a team can’t just beat everyone they are supposed to beat. They need wins which boost their resume. Perhaps making Creighton even more important, it often helps if one of those resume boosting wins comes outside of conference play. Therefore, let’s look at what NU needs to do to beat the Blue Jays.

Creighton is led in scoring and rebounding by Doug McDermott. The Jays are 9-1 and McDermott has been their leading scorer in 9 of the 10 games and the leading rebounder in 8 of the 10 games. But don’t start to believe Creighton is a one man team. They squad also features point guard Antoine Young who is a double figure scorer and an excellent ball handler. He’s not a great shooter like McDermott who makes 57% of his three point shot is, but Young’s quickness could give NU’s guards some trouble.

Creighton also has a center in Gregory Echenique who scores almost double figures and who has collected 1/3 of his rebounds on the offensive end of the floor. Considering that the ‘Cats struggled at times to secure the glass against smaller teams this season this has to be a concern. NU needs to see Luka Mirkovic put together his second strong game in a row and really play with attitude and focus.
Stopping McDermott and Young is perhaps an even tougher task with Creighton as a team making 43% of their threes and having almost a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. The 1-3-1 zone seems a little risky to employ. The only thing that might make it worth considering is that Northwestern might be a stronger team than any of the squads Creighton posted those numbers against. Still, I’d like to see NU play man defense. I think the ‘Cats can handle the Blue Jays if they play with focus and intensity. They just can’t be lackadaisical. Also, I’d like to see Reggie Hearn guard Young as I think his 6-4 size and bulk will be tough for the 6-0 Young. I’d also like to see Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb rotate on McDermott as they are NU’s most athletic players and the best way to stop him is probably not to let him catch the ball in an area where he can make plays. Some might suggest John Shurna take that defensive assignment, but I don’t want Shurna so exhausted from chasing McDermott through screens that he doesn’t have the legs to hit shots. Realistically, this should be a high scoring game and NU needs at least 25 points for Shurna to win that type of game. If John has no legs to get into this shot we could see a Central Connecticut State type performance and nobody wants that. However, if Shurna knocks down 6-7 threes NU has a got a great chance. As a team, I’d say Northwestern needs to make at least 12 threes to win this contest. That’s possible as Creighton’s three point defense has been just average, but NU needs to make it look just bad. NU’s centers need to hit some shots and a healthy Alex Marcotullio would help a lot too (though I don’t want to assume he’ll play). Also, NU cannot just expect to hit threes and win. The threes are a key factor, but the basket must be attacked as well. With that in mind, I’m really hoping we’ll see JerShon Cobb step up and have a big game. He’s got the talent and he seems to be getting more into the flow these last few games. This would be a big game for him to up his game and make some big plays. Obviously, Drew Crawford is also a factor whenever NU wants to attack the hoop, when he does so he must make his free throws. It’ll take a great effort, but NU can beat Creighton. They can beat Ohio State too, but that’ll take an even greater effort, but beating Creighton could be a great springboard. I’ll have an official prediction up in the next day or so. I want to believe NU can win this, but I know it’ll be a tough task.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wildcats Finish 3 Games in 4 Days Stretch at 3-0

Okay, everyone can relax now. John Shurna still knows how to make three pointers. After an abysmal performance against Central Connecticut State, Shurna rebounded just over 24 hours later today to score 32 points total and make 9-of-12 threes. The performance left him one made three short of the Big Ten record for made threes in a game and officially tied for the NU record (NU did have Kenneth “Dion” Lee hit 10 threes in a game but NU voided Lee’s record when he was involved with a gambling scandal). Perhaps the most impressive thing about Shurna’s day was he clearly came into the game still confident even after his poor game yesterday. Shurna took shots early and although he missed his first, once he caught fire he seemed unstoppable. I feel like the only reason he didn’t hit a 10th three was that he didn’t get another shot. He also dished out 5 assists and found a number of teammates for open looks which helped the Wildcats make 54.2% of their shots.

Really, it seems like NU has a number of players who can step up and make big shots. Yesterday’s hero Reggie Hearn only attempted one shot (and missed) but Shurna got scoring support from Luka Mirkovic, Drew Crawford, and Dave Sobolewski who all scored in double figures.

Mirkovic is a player who we all agree can be frustrating, but he’s also critically important to Northwestern’s success. Today, Luka played one of his best games scoring 18 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and dishing out 7 assists. Yes, the competition from Eastern Illinois wasn’t spectacular, but Luka has the potential to play at a high level. He just somehow needs to find consistency. Can he do that in next 20-some games of his career when he hasn’t in three-plus years? I don’t know, but I’m holding out hope he can. You never really know what is going to cause someone to change their outlook and approach and I think we all agree Luka’s biggest issues are in his head. Yes, he’s not Jared Sullinger, but he’s still a Big Ten center. Somewhere along the way between now and the final game of his career in purple maybe he’ll realize that.

Drew Crawford is another player who NU needs to get consistent and unlike Mirkovic it seems Crawford has made it to a point in his career where he can be a consistent threat to score the basketball and help run offense even if his three point shot isn’t falling. Today despite making just one three, he scored 14 points and provide 6 assists against 0 turnovers. He also stuffed the stat sheet with 3 steals, 3 blocks, and 7 rebounds.

Another NU player who consistently plays well is guard Dave Sobolewski. Taking over for Juice Thompson is not an easy task, but so far Sobolewski has been up to the task. Today he scored 12 points and tabulated 3 assists while only turning the ball over once.

The biggest issues I leave this game with are related to defense and free throw shooting. With all the shooters Northwestern has they should be a good free throw shooting team. Therefore, I’m hoping they’ll step up that aspect of their game very soon. The bigger concern has to be defense. Northwestern has success with using the 1-3-1, but they can’t become overly reliant on that defense. Early in the year NU’s man-to-man was somewhat better, but it seemed to slack at bit recently. Against Baylor it was talent issue and perhaps the last couple days it was simply exhaustion. Nonetheless, the way NU plays man-to-man needs to be better quickly because the ‘Cats have two tough road games in the next 10 days, but those tough games also make for great opportunities. As I wrote a couple days ago, change may be a process and not an event, but at some point in that process one needs to take advantage of the chances the events along that process present.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reggie Hearn’s Big Game Helps Northwestern Escape from Central Connecticut

Central Connecticut gave Northwestern a great challenge and while some fans will be frustrated Northwestern didn’t beat this mid-major opponent by more points, Central Connecticut State has some very good players. Kyle Vinales scored 27 for the Blue Devils and Kyle Horton scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Devils tried to upset the Wildcats. I really believe that while Central Connecticut State and Stony Brook aren’t big name mid-major teams these are decent wins for Northwestern because both have a shot to make the NCAA Tournament. Getting wins over NCAA teams, even mid/low-major NCAA teams, isn’t a bad thing. Does Northwestern have to play better if they want to make the NCAA Tournament? For sure, but at least winning games builds a winning attitude.

Probably the biggest concern for Northwestern is that John Shurna has struggled with his shot in two of the last three games NU has played. Shurna scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds which looks on the face of it like an okay game, but the fact was he struggled on offense. He made only 3-of-14 shots and only hit one three pointer. I will say that I thought he played hard on defense and while Central Connecticut State did have some players put up decent numbers, I think Northwestern defended them better than some of their previous opponents. The bottom line, though, is that for Northwestern to really be a strong team John Shurna needs to score and needs to be effective from three point range. Whatever he has to do to get himself focused it is critical he do so soon.

A major positive for Northwestern today was the play of Reggie Hearn. Hearn scored a career high 17 points, made all four of his three point attempts, and just overall was fantastic as far as his effort on the court. Plus, he took a nice pass from Luka Mirkovic and made an and-1 layup which sealed the game for NU. At the start of the season nobody probably envisioned Reggie Hearn as the go to clutch player for Northwestern, but he excelled in that role today.

Drew Crawford also made a clutch shot late and made several other tough shots in the lane during the game. Crawford didn’t shoot great from three point range today, but I liked the fact he didn’t seem to let that get him down and made an effort to make things happen by driving the ball at the basket. He’s developed a nice assortment of shots and I think he’ll be a key player in Big Ten play because he’s better than most of NU’s guys at getting his own shot.

Another Wildcat player who can get his own shot is JerShon Cobb. Still recovering from injury, Cobb played 16 minutes and scored 9 points. He made two nice pull-up jump shots and hit a three. The biggest key to Cobb becoming a great player is that he develops a consistent three point shot. If that happens, he might become NU’s best player.

Northwestern plays tomorrow against Eastern Illinois who enters the game at 6-3. The Panthers just lost to fellow instate rival Western Illinois to snap a three game win streak. EIU has some talent including Jeremy Granger who scored 18 in the loss to WIU. NU needs to refocus quickly and hopefully give a full 40 minute effort tomorrow.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Northwestern Starts Busy Stretch With Easy “W”

This game was pretty much what we expected. Texas Southern struggled on offense and NU used a balanced attack which put four players into double figures to cruise to an 81-51 win. I think NU fans had to be impressed with the athletic skill shown by NU tonight as Drew Crawford had two dunks (one off an ally-op pass from John Shurna), Shurna put down a dunk, and Reggie Hearn slammed one home as well. Those dunks came off of fast breaks which NU created due to getting some steals using their athletic skill. Overall, it was a good day for the ‘Cats and while I won’t say this erases the Baylor loss, at least that’s not the last thing that happened for NU.

One of the guys who certainly needed to rebound from the Baylor game was Luka Mirkovic. Luka’s play tonight still won’t get him listed amongst college basketball’s elite centers, but he was far more solid than he was versus Baylor. Was Baylor much better than Texas Southern? For sure. But getting good play from Luka is so key for NU that I’m thankful whenever he plays well. Tonight, I was thankful to see Luka demonstrate skill as a passer with five assists, though, I wish he’d have scored a bit more.

NU’s leading scorer was John Shurna who certainly stepped up his game in the second half as did JerShon Cobb. Shurna’s 20 points and 5-of-7 made threes were a nice bounce back from the Baylor disaster. Cobb finished with 10 points and looked really rusty early on in the first game back from a concussion. In the second half, though, he seemed to relax and let the game come to him a bit more. As a result, he ended up hitting some open shots and looking more comfortable on the floor. He’s a big player for NU especially while Alex Marcotullio battles a foot injury. At some point I’d like to see Marcotullio and Cobb both healthy at the same time for NU, but it seems as though that hasn’t happened at all in the last year and a half.

I think when people talk about this game and look at the stats they’ll wonder how NU could hit 13 threes in this game and not even make five versus Baylor. Obviously part of the answer is who the ‘Cats were playing, but it’s still good to see NU once again show the three point touch. I really liked seeing Dave Sobolewski hit the high-point of his young career with five made three pointers. Sobolewski was 5-of-8 shooting for the night with all the attempts from three point range.

NU’s other double figure scorer was Drew Crawford with 17 points. Perhaps even more impressive than his points, Drew had 5 assists and 0 turnovers and recorded two steals.

NU only gets one day off now before playing a decent Central Connecticut State team. I’m excited to see NU play that game because it should provide an increased competition level from tonight and will give us a little more insight into what this NU team really has. Of course, we might have to wait until the tough road tests in late December against Creighton and Ohio State to really know.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Northwestern is Back in Action Versus Texas Southern

I fully intended to post more thoughts between the end of the Baylor game and now, but I just never found the time. I was, as we all were, upset with the way the ‘Cats played versus Baylor, but I haven’t given up hope for the NCAA Tournament just yet. Still, I do think NU needs to improve from where they are now if they want to make the Big Dance. Especially as the rest of Big Ten looks strong with the possible exception of Penn State and Iowa.

1-6 Texas Southern shouldn’t present much of a challenge to NU and that’s probably a good thing after the loss to Baylor. The Tigers are a team that lost 62-46 to Denver in their last game so they clearly are not an offensive powerhouse. In fact, they’re pretty much the antithesis of that. They rank second to last in the NCAA in points per-game as a team with only 50.9 on average. Omar Strong is their leading scorer with 13 points per which does mean he averages more points per-game than anyone on the roster of the Stony Brook team NU almost lost to earlier this season, but I’m not worried about the Wildcats in this contest.

NU will be without guard Tre Demps who elected to have his season ending surgery and redshirt this year. He’ll most likely join fellow freshman Mike Turner as a guy who will watch all this season and then have the opportunity to step into a larger role next season. I think this is the right move as Demps was never 100% and guards Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski have handled things just fine as NU’s starting backcourt. The concussion injury to JerShon Cobb has been an issue for NU, but he should return to action in the future much closer to 100% than Demps would ever have been this year. Hopefully, we’ll see Cobb on the court if not tomorrow at least at some point over this weekend stretch of three games in four days.

It really is important for NU to get off on the right foot in this game and get their confidence back. The effort against Baylor was so poor that even those who have been so beaten down by watching Northwestern basketball over the years had to leave Welsh-Ryan feeling like they’d been somehow wronged by the cosmos. Personally, I think my mistake was I confused my understanding of the concept of change. I’ve waited for years to be able to see NU get a big upset win and then say, “That’s it! That’s the win that’ll change what Northwestern basketball is.” It’s a nice dream and I’d convinced myself the Baylor game would see that dream given form. The problem is that in fact change isn’t an event it is actually a process. What we all need to believe as NU fans is that the process of change for Northwestern basketball is ongoing. It’s hard to believe when watching a game like NU played versus Baylor that such an event could in anyway be part of that process, but in fact it can be. In the end that process has to take Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament sometime in the future (preferably before my death). Will that happen this season? Honestly, I have no idea and beating on Texas Southern isn’t in anyway going to answer that question. Nonetheless, winning big ought to feel pretty good. I predict: Northwestern, 88 Texas Southern, 47

Sunday, December 4, 2011

NU Embarrassed in High-Profile Loss to Baylor

I don’t know what to say. I really thought the wheel had turned enough that this Northwestern team would be able to handle the pressure of a big game and compete and win. They couldn’t. This team in fact really looked worse than last year’s squad in big games. Dave Sobolewski was outmatched by Baylor’s quick guards and Luka Mirkovic was as clueless as he’s ever been and that’s really saying something. Luka’s had some nice games, but when he plays his last game for NU in March I seriously doubt NU will have a major drop off at center next year no matter who plays it.

I’d also say that this game pretty much shows John Shurna isn’t an NBA player, though, I’m not sure anyone ever thought he was. Shurna will probably still get drafted in round two and play in the preseason, but if he wants to make money in basketball long term it’ll be overseas against players who play a game that isn’t as based on athletic skill and that feature more finesse.

I was also really disappointed in Drew Crawford and his lack of assertiveness, but I think some of that was simply proving the concept that while Drew Crawford is “Northwestern-athletic” he’s not really athletic.

The worst part, though, was every player on the court for NU looked intimidated by Baylor. That’s awful and something that needs to change if Northwestern ever wants to be anything. Other teams will be better, but at some point NU needs to be mentally ready to play a big game. Aside from seeing Juice Thompson do that last year, I can’t think of another NU player who clearly showed mental toughness.

At least the crowd was good, though, too bad they didn’t see anything from Northwestern which will make them want to come back.

NU now takes time off for finals and that’s maybe not a bad thing. They still have a shot at a big win when they play at Creighton, but that’ll be a tough game as well.

FOOTBALL NEWS: NU to play Texas A&M in Houston

At least something good came from Northwestern today.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wildcats Welcome #7 Baylor for Non-Conference Showdown

Northwestern has passed every major non-conference test thus far this year to move to 7-0. Tomorrow, they’ll face what is likely going to be the toughest game between them and an unbeaten non-conference season when 6-0 and top-10 ranked Baylor comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena. The big advantage for Northwestern is that this game is at home and it is Baylor’s first road game of the season. Northwestern is also the best team Baylor has faced and while the same can be said of Bears for NU, Northwestern has probably faced a more challenging slate of games to this point in the season.

When talking about Baylor you have to start with Perry Jones III who is likely top-5 NBA draft pick. He’ll be playing just his second game of the season on Sunday after being suspended early in the year, but he scored 27 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in his first game back so it doesn’t seem he has any rust. Jones is 6-11 and along with 6-10 Anthony Jones and 6-9 Quincy Miller gives the Bears some major size in the front court. It’s hard to envision who on NU’s team would play Jones III in man-to-man based on size I’d guess it would be Luka Mirkovic, but I wasn’t thrilled with Luka’s defense on 6-9 Herb Pope of Seton Hall who is the best front court scorer the ‘Cats have played to this point so I’m not really sure what to think. I know John Shurna played 6-11 Daniel Miller of Georgia Tech well, but he’s a different of player from Jones III. I wouldn’t be surprised to see NU in more zone on Sunday whether that be the 1-3-1 or even a 2-3.

The problem with a zone is Baylor has a number of players who can knock down threes and many of those players have size. 6-10 Anthony Jones is really more of wing player and he shoots 44% from three. 6-9 Quincy Miller makes 50% of his threes. Guards Pierre Jackson at 56% and Brady Heslip at 42% are also excellent three point shooters. To be honest, as much as it seems like a potential mismatch, I hope NU at least tries man-to-man because I’d almost be happier to see Baylor making twos early than just pouring in three pointers to start they game which might happen against a zone. Still, at some point in the game NU is going to go to the 1-3-1 and when they do, the must be active and hustle out on shooters because they probably can get turnovers out of the 1-3-1, but those won’t be enough if the Bears are canning threes at will.

Baylor like Northwestern has scored a lot of points this year and the Bears average right around 80. Miller leads the way amongst the guys who have played every game with 15.2, but six Baylor players average more than nine points a game. 6-7 senior Quincy Acy hasn’t gotten the same amount of message board and media hype as Perry Jones III leading up to this game, but I’m also worried about his size and ability to hit the glass at 235 pounds and his average of eight rebounds a game.

For Northwestern to win this game they need to take advantage of a Baylor defense which hasn’t been great in terms of allowing the three point shot. Hopefully, the Wildcats will continue their hot streak from Friday night. I also think NU needs to slow this game down in a way similar to what they did versus Ohio State least season. I just can’t see NU winning a shootout against Baylor since the Bears have athletes at virtually every position. Hopefully, a slow pace, changing defenses, and a solid home crowd will be enough to make Baylor uncomfortable as they face a team unlike any they’ve seen so far this year. The key player if NU does slow the game down is Dave Sobolewski because it’ll be up to him to trigger the offense when the shot clock gets to 15 and make something happen if called sets aren’t available. That’s a lot of reasonability on a young player, but I think he can handle it. I really think this Northwestern team is better prepared to handle this type of game than any previous incarnation of the Wildcats. I predict: Northwestern, 55 Baylor, 54

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wildcats Follow Ideal Script vs Mississippi Valley State

This game couldn’t have gone better for Northwestern. Not only did the Wildcats post an easy victory, they managed to rest all the key players with former walk-on Reggie Hearn being the only starter to play more than 20 minutes and they still scored 92 points thanks to some production from the bench. Perhaps the only depressing result to this game is that John Shurna only scored 9 points which will lower his scoring average, but he hit three of four three pointers on the way to helping the ‘Cats make a total of 20 three point field goals.

Four of those 20 three point field goals came from Nick Fruendt who saw his first extended action of the year. Fruendt has the ability to make shots and actually led NU with 21 points tonight. Obviously the feeling in the Wildcat coaching staff is that his defense isn’t up to par for most games, but his ability to hit shots makes me wonder if he can still find a role before the end of the year.

Freshman point guard Tre Demps also saw a lot of action tonight and scored eight points. He also dished out four assists and when combined with Dave Sobolewski the Wildcats two freshman guards combined for 8 assists and 1 turnover. NU did a great job with handling the ball tonight. The starters combined with 14 assists and only four turnovers. Overall, I know that this wasn’t a great opponent, but I thought NU’s effort was solid.

The guy who always puts in great effort, Reggie Hearn, led NU with seven rebounds and continued to show a nice shooting touch with three of five three pointers. He finished with 15 points and played his usual solid defense.

I also think it’s important to note that Luka Mirkovic played his second consecutive solid game. He went 5-of-5 from the field dished out three assists. Hopefully his confidence is high going into Sunday. Another guy who should have good confidence going into Sunday is Drew Crawford. Crawford looked great shooting ball today making 4-of-5 three pointers and scoring 14 points. He also grabbed 5 rebounds and had two steals.

Bottom line, this game was the game it was supposed to be. Now, Northwestern gets ready to play #7 Baylor on Sunday. The Wildcats will go into that game unbeaten and with a chance to make a huge statement to both the Big Ten and the entire college basketball world.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wildcats Look to Avoid Trap Versus Mississippi Valley State

Based on every objective measure (and probably most subjective ones) 6-0 Northwestern is much better than 1-6 Mississippi Valley State and will most likely win this game easily. However, I can’t help but be a little worried. I remember a 47-45 loss to Mississippi Valley State in 2003 that was one of the games that cost Northwestern an NIT bid that season and I know that every person involved with Northwestern basketball (whether they admit it or not) has Sunday’s massively important game versus Baylor in the back of their minds. Therefore, this is a trap game and one that Northwestern needs to stay focused in on or a disaster could occur.

As noted above, Mississippi Valley State isn’t great record wise, but they have played some good teams. They’ve faced Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, and South Carolina already this season. While only the South Carolina game was really close (a 61-57 S.C. win) only the North Carolina game saw Mississippi Valley State get totally blown off the court. What does that mean? To me it means that Northwestern has to be ready for some of the better players in the Mississippi Valley State lineup and has to maintain their defensive intensity in this contest.

Defense to me is the key. Mississippi Valley State hasn’t played much of it this season as they allow on average more than 82 points per game and let their opponents make 40% of their three point shots. That’s really bad defense and with NU’s multiple talents on offense the Wildcats should be excited to play this game because it could be one where everybody gets into the scorebook.

On offense, Mississippi Valley State is average. They scored 90 points in their lone win (but that was an OT game) and for the year score about 65 points per game. Their best player is Terrence Joyner who averages about 11 points per game and joins Brent Arrington as solid three point shooters. Still, if Northwestern maintains the defensive intensity they have in their previous games then it is realistic to believe that the ‘Cats should win this game fairly easily.

Given the magnitude of Sunday’s contest, it would be ideal if NU got some rest for the frontline players and gave Nick Fruendt and Tre Demps a little action off the bench. Will that happen? I’m exactly sure. I’m hoping so, but I also know that Bill Carmody knows this game is one which he needs to put extra emphasis on to make sure his players don’t lose focus and start to look too far forward. With Mississippi Valley State’s defensive issues, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I predict: Northwestern, 88 Mississippi Valley State, 63

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wildcats Pass Georgia Tech’s Challenge to move to 6-0

John Shurna started hot to get Northwestern an early lead and played an all around excellent game both on offense and defense to lead Northwestern to a 76-60 win over Georgia Tech. The win was Northwestern’s fourth straight in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge meaning that Shurna’s class went 4-0 in the event.

Shurna scored 25 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. I also thought he did a great job on defense as he grabbed three steals which helped result in some of NU’s 17 fast break points. On defense Shurna played both 6-11 center Daniel Miller and athletic forward Glen Rice, Jr. at various times in NU’s man-to-man. I thought it was impressive how Shurna handled the various skills of both players well and kept them contained. I think it is also huge that Shurna showed up so well on defense as it shows the emphasis that NU must be placing on defense this season. It would be real easy for a scorer like Shurna to take an easy on the other end of the court, but he doesn’t and the result is nothing but positive for the ‘Cats.

Another area where I thought NU looked good in this game was bench production. Tonight, Alex Marcotullio was the leader off the bench as JerShon Cobb was held out after not passing a post-concussion test after suffering a head injury in the game against Stony Brook. Marcotullio had 7 points, 2 steals, and 3 rebounds. He also showed his usual good understanding off the offensive system and it seems the team really plays well when he comes on the court. Along with Marcotullio his fellow Michigan-native Davide Curletti also stepped up off the bench. He became the first NU center this season to hit a three which is huge in NU’s offense and he got four rebounds as well. After the issues Curletti and fellow center Luka Mirkovic had versus Stony Brook it was nice to see them both do well tonight. Mirkovic ended the day with 13 points and three rebounds. If NU gets 18 points total from their centers (as they also did versus Seton Hall) they will win. Can they win with less? Yeah, but it’s so much tougher. The center position is really critical to NU’s success.

Also critical to NU’s success is continued strong play of guard Dave Sobolewksi. I know the Rivals boards have had some debate about Sobolewski, but some of that seemed spurred by animosity amongst posters as much as any debate on Sobolewski’s skill level. After all, I think he’s more than proven he can play. Not only did he post a 6-to-1 assist to turnover night, but he made some moves to the hoop tonight that I didn’t see Juice Thompson make until he was a more experienced player. The area where Dave still might need to get more consistent is three point shooting, but he’s got that skill in his tool kit as evidenced by his early shots against Stony Brook and his big three versus LSU.

Before closing, I also want to draw attention to Drew Crawford’s 14 points and 3 steals and Reggie Hearn’s 5 rebounds. I’m certain both players would admit they could play better with Crawford having some turnover issues and Hearn missing a couple threes that I expect him to knock down, but they both contributed to the win. Also, my compliments to guard Omar Jimenez a Georgia-native who scored the first two points of his career tonight. That was pretty cool. Now, NU is ready to face Mississippi Valley State on Friday before a huge game vs Baylor Sunday.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Wildcats Travel to Georgia Tech for ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Last year when Northwestern met Georgia Tech in Evanston the game wasn’t all that much of a challenge for NU, but this year the ‘Cats are on the road in Atlanta and new Tech head coach Brian Gregory (an NU assistant under Kevin O’Neil) has the Yellow Jackets playing some pretty good basketball. Tech sits at 4-2 on the season and is 3-0 in home games (though this is actually the first game at Philips Arena for Tech in seven years) with all three wins coming in blowout fashion. This will be Northwestern’s first true road game of the year, but the ‘Cats are 3-0 away from Welsh-Ryan with three wins in the Charleston Classic. Whether or not the Philips Arena setting makes this more of a neutral court game remains to be seen, but despite the fact that NU’s JerShon Cobb should have a large contingent of family and friends in the stands, the crowd should be pretty partisan in favor of Tech.

The Jackets feature a three guard lineup around 6-11 center Daniel Miller who averages 9.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He’s also a good shot blocker and an overall decent athlete. He’s potentially a difficult matchup for NU’s Luka Mirkovic, however, Mirkovic’s best game of the season was against Seton Hall’s Herb Pope who is probably the best player NU has faced this season. However, Luka has massively underachieved in most of the other games the ‘Cats have played this year so it is hard to know what to expect. I’d say that a good game from Luka and his backup Davide Curletti will probably propel the ‘Cats to victory, but NU could win without their tag-team centers doing a lot of damage—it’ll just be a lot harder.

While Miller is a good player, Tech’s biggest star is Glen Rice, Jr. Rice was suspended at the start of the season and didn’t start when he came back, but he still has scored double figures in three consecutive games. He’s shot pretty much lights out with 66.7% overall and 42.9% from three being his season marks. If NU goes to the man-to-man look for Cobb, Drew Crawford, and Reggie Hearn to get a rotating assignment on Rice in order to slow him down and potentially tire him out. It’ll also help NU’s case if Rice has to play defense on either Crawford or John Shurna when the ‘Cats are on offense.

It would really help NU in this game if Shurna shows up from start to finish. Looking at Tech’s roster I’m not sure who their best bet to play Shurna man-to-man would be. You know whoever does it will work hard because Coach Gregory learned from Tom Izzo how to teach defense (a maybe a little from KO as well), but I can’t tell if Rice or 6-8 Kammeon Holsey (he averages 12.3 and 5.2) would be the best bet to defend Shurna. Rice is more athletic, but smaller and Holsey might be the type of player that Shurna can beat from the perimeter.

Brian Gregory is a good coach (he actually was rumored to be some NU administrators preferred choice for head coach when Kevin O’Neil left and Bill Carmody got the job). However, he’s new to his team hasn’t had a ton of time to prepare them for the Princeton Offense and 1-3-1 zone. Yes, some of the players saw it last year, but Tech has several new starters as well. In addition, I think a lot of what Tech does mirrors what Michigan State does and while NU hasn’t had great success versus the Spartans, at least they are familiar with the concepts of how to approach such a team. Combined with Tech not really having a home arena and hopefully NU getting a big game from JerShon Cobb as he comes back home, I like Northwestern to win this one. I predict: Northwestern, 71 Georgia Tech, 61

Pooley's Big 10/ACC Challenge Predictions

So pumped for this.

Michigan @ Virginia: Michigan. KenPom has Virginia as a Top 10 defense, but Michigan got some really valuable experience in their Maui games against Duke and Memphis and plays an unusual style. I think they win a close game in the high 50's/low 60's.

Northwestern @ Georgia Tech: Northwestern. The fact that it’s on the road scares me, but Georgia Tech is playing in a new building while theirs is being renovated, so it’ll be pretty new to them too. Also, we won the Charleston Classic and they went 1-2 in it, so there’s that.

Illinois @ Maryland: Maryland. Illinois could still be very good this year, but I see them struggling as an inexperienced team in their first true road game.

Miami @ Purdue: Purdue. They seem to have gotten it together a bit after some scares in their first few games (High Point?).

Clemson @ Iowa: Clemson. What happened to Iowa? Basabe was supposed to blossom into a star this year, but he’s playing less than 20 minutes a game and averaging 7.2 and 4.5. As a team they’re shooting pretty well but have been struggling defensively but got blown out by Creighton on a neutral court and by Campbell at home.

Duke @ Ohio St.: Duke. I hope I’m wrong on this, but I’ve watched a lot of Duke games and they’re sneaky good. Curry, Dawkins, Kelly, and Rivers combined with the Plumlees will be tough for Ohio St. to handle. Ohio St.’s favored but my hunch is that Duke is one step ahead of them, even in Columbus.

Indiana @ NC State.: Indiana. Only slightly though. Indiana has looked good in their wins but still hasn’t done anything that impressive yet, as a very down Butler at home is their best win. NC State, on the other hand, beat Texas and played close with Vanderbilt. Still, Indiana is humming so far and I haven’t seen any glaring weaknesses from them yet, so I’m going to give them the nod.

Penn St. @ Boston College: Penn St. Penn St. is not as bad this year as they could have been, having lost most of their players and their coach, while Boston College is just as bad as everyone expected them to be.

Florida St. @ Michigan St.: Michigan St. Florida St. should be extra motivated, trying to avoid losing 3 in a row, but Michigan St. wins this at home. Get ready for an ugly, low-scoring game.

Virginia Tech @ Minnesota: Virginia Tech. I’ll be shocked if Minnesota is able to pull this one out four days after losing Trevor Mbakwe for the season/forever. Virginia Tech is a pretty good team, and Minnesota was struggling even with Mbakwe.

Wake Forest @ Nebraska.: Nebraska. They’re the better team and playing at home.

Wisconsin @ North Carolina: North Carolina. If UNC hadn’t lost to UNLV, I would have picked Wisconsin to win this, but I’m not going to bet on UNC losing twice in a row, especially since they’re at home. Wisconsin is scary so far this year, though.

Result: 7-5 B1G, we win another Challenge.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

'Cats Fall to DePaul

We're catching up with the women's team who lost to No. 20 DePaul this afternoon, 88-72. The game was very close throughout, however, and the final score is misleadingly lopsided. Northwestern was down by only 4 with 3 and a half minutes left, but was unable to stop DePaul from scoring. There were other problems -- NU turned the ball over 19 times and didn't shoot well themselves, but NU was in a position to win it at the end and couldn't get the stops when they mattered most. Coach McKeown sounded extremely frustrated with the team's defense in the post-game interview and I imagine that'll be the focus of upcoming practices. It should be noted that DePaul has been a high-scoring team in general this season, scoring over 80 in every game this season, so it's not that NU struggled defensively against DePaul more than other teams.

Dannielle Diamant had a big first half and finished with 19, playing most of the second half with 4 fouls. Brittany Orban had 7 offensive rebounds and 16 points and Morgan Jones had 17 points, including hitting some clutch free-throws near the end of the second half to keep NU within reach. Kendall Hackney had an off-night but should bounce back. One big bright spot today was NU's excellent free-throw shooting, going 22-24 from the line (NU has struggled with free-throw shooting at times this season). All in all, NU played tough and was close but just couldn't get over the hump to pull it out.

The team is now 4-1 on the season, having beaten No. 23 LSU and Illinois St. last week and will face NC State on Wednesday in Evanston.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Northwestern Survives Stony Brook’s Upset Bid

This game was much closer than I expected, but that’s not bad. Northwestern is clearly learning how to play and win close games which is critical. I’m convinced that the Big Ten is the most even conference in college basketball and that means any number of the 18 conference games that the ‘Cats will play might come down to the final possession. Therefore, I’m pleased that we’ve see a number of Wildcats step up in the clutch so far this year. Today, it was JerShon Cobb knocking down the clutch three pointer when Stony Brook triple teamed John Shurna in an effort to not let the NU star beat them. Cobb played 25 minutes toady in part because Alex Marcotullio didn’t see any time (though Marco twice went to the scorer’s table and then came back to the bench). That’s big for Cobb to see that much time since he’s still recovering from his injury.

Stony Brook did a pretty good job with hard-nosed man-to-man defense (and so did NU) the Stony Brook defense helped make it tough for John Shurna and Drew Crawford to get doing early for NU. That meant that early on Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewksi had to step up for the ‘Cats. Hearn hit two early threes and Sobolewski made a total of three three-pointers and scored a career high 16 points. Sobolewski, who has taken a lot of strange criticism from some fans, did turn the ball over three times today, but dished out four assists and played very good defense against some athletic guards.

As the game went into the second half it seemed Shurna and Crawford tried to step up more. I still think Shurna needs to look to score more often, but he did enough to help the ‘Cats to victory with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting. His three point shot seemed off, but I have no doubt it’ll be on the money in future games. Crawford scored 12 points and had 7 rebounds. He also absolutely posterized a Stony Brook defender with one of the most athletics dunks I’ve seen from an NU player.

Overall, this game seemed to be a game NU played without great focus at times, but the defense was good and some new players stepped up. The biggest issue is still inconsistent play from the center position. Today the centers did combine for 6 rebounds and 5 assists, but they didn’t score at all. They cannot get shut out in Big Ten games.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Northwestern Ready to Host Stony Brook in Post-Thanksgiving Game

If you’re looking to take a break from post-Thanksgiving shopping tomorrow you might want to stop by Welsh-Ryan Arena at noon to see Northwestern take on Stony Brook. Now, you first reaction might be to assume that this game wouldn’t be all that entertaining, but the fact is Stony Brook is a respectable team that could give Northwestern a challenge. Of course, Northwestern should win the game, but the Sea Wolves played close with Indiana for a half and are projected as an NCAA Tournament team. Therefore, a win over Stony Brook would give NU wins over three potential NCAA teams in their first five games. Hopefully, that fact makes the ‘Cats focus as this could be a trap game with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against Georgia Tech coming up on Tuesday.

Stony Brook is one of the most balanced offensive teams I’ve ever seen. They manage to score more than 70 points per game, but don’t have a single player who averages double figures. Instead, they have seven players, including Chicago’s Al Rapier, who average more than 6.5 points per game. Looking at those numbers it becomes hard to decide who to focus the defense on. Hopefully, NU can play man-to-man and work on that defense.

Stony Brook has some good shooters in Anthony Jackson, Bryan Dougher, and Ron Bracey. I’d think that given that fact the 1-3-1 won’t be a defense NU plays much in this contest. The only possible reason to consider the 1-3-1 might be because Stony Brook isn’t the greatest ball-handling team ever. Guard/Forward Tommy Brenton has a 16-to-6 assist to turnover ratio, but most of the rest of the Sea Wolves are turnover prone.

I’m hopeful that this game will present Northwestern the chance to use some of the bench a bit more. If Nick Fruendt and Tre Demps are going to play any sort of a role for this team they need to get some action on the court before the Big Ten starts. This could be a chance to do so. Also, given that Tuesday will be another road trip and the ‘Cats still aren’t 100% healthy I’d like to see if some of the ‘Cats who aren’t feeling their best don’t have to play 30+ minutes. That might limit the scoring a bit, but I’ve still got a fairly easy Wildcat win. I predict: Northwestern, 77 Stony Brook, 54

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Northwestern Overcomes 15-0 Seton Hall Run to Hold on For Charleston Classic Title

Early in the second half of the Charleston Classic Title Game between Northwestern and Seton Hall it seemed Northwestern was in control. However, a 15-0 Seton Hall run put the Pirates up and forced Northwestern to have to play from behind. With great leadership from John Shurna and Drew Crawford Northwestern responded to that adversity and eventually regained the lead and held on at the end thanks to clutch free throw shooting from Shurna, Davide Curletti, and Alex Marcotullio to post an 80-73 win. This is Northwestern’s second in-season tournament title in the last three seasons joining the 2009 win of the Chicago Invitational Challenge against Iowa State.

What really makes this a good win besides beating another team (like Tulsa) which could compete for an at-large NCAA-bid is the fact that NU got production from several key supporting players to get the win. Most notably and most importantly Luka Mirkovic scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting and contributed 2 assists. He struggled somewhat on defense, but he made enough of an impact that he stopped NU from having to just be the John Shurna and Drew Crawford show. Developing that third scoring option will help NU when Big Ten play starts. If Mirkovic can hit some three pointers he’ll become a serious scoring threat as that shot will be open for the center in Northwestern’s offense on most nights. Credit also has to go to Luka’s tag-team partner at center Davide Curletti who also did a nice job in tonight’s game. Not only did he make some key free throws, but he contributed 3 assists and had a huge block of SHU star Herb Pope late in the game.

Also contributing off the bench was Alex Marcotullio. Marcotullio clearly has an excellent understanding of the Princeton Offense and made some extremely tough passes to setup teammates for easy backdoor layups. He also did a nice job at the top of the 1-3-1 which while it didn’t cause turnovers did somewhat slowdown SHU’s offense, though, Herb Pope never was completely stopped. Another member of the supporting cast who deserves note is guard Dave Sobolewski. Although the freshman guard had some trouble defending Seton Hall’s Jordan Theodore, he once again played heavy minutes and kept possession of the ball. In 31 minutes Sobolewski had 2 assists and 0 turnovers.

In the end, though, you have to once again say that NU’s leaders were John Shurna and Drew Crawford. They’ve both developed their game over the summer and the evidence of that is clear as each has shown the ability not only to hit threes, but also to score at the hoop. Crawford led the way with 27 points and was tournament MVP. He made 4-of-8 threes (including one he banked in with the shot clock running out) and also grabbed six rebounds. Shurna scored 19 points and most importantly made all his free throws which were often occurring when NU desperately needed points. He also had 7 rebounds and 4 blocks.

With both Crawford and Shurna showing the ability to score heavy point totals NU is getting tougher to defend and if Luka Mirkovic starts hitting his threes the ‘Cats will become nearly unstoppable. Now at 4-0 NU will play a home game on Friday against Stony Brook in Evanston, and then they go back on the road to play Georgia Tech who was also in the Charleston Classic. Clearly the early season is presenting Northwestern with chances to get solid wins over BCS-conference or tournament-level teams and so far they’ve taken advantage. Hopefully that will continue as boosting the tournament resume early in the year is something which bubble teams have to do.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wildcats Get Another Chance to Add to Resume Early vs Seton Hall

It’ll be Northwestern versus Seton Hall for the Charleston Classic Title on Sunday night, but what’s potentially more important for both squads is the fact this is a game between two teams which might be on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament in March. Like Northwestern this Seton Hall team is trying to move up from the lower-tier of their conference into a position where they could potentially crack the NCAA Tournament. Last year Seton Hall picked up four wins over NCAA Tournament teams, but like NU their overall performance was not enough to make the Big Dance. This year’s version of Seton Hall is improved and they’ve started the year 3-0 just like Northwestern. So far the Seton Hall schedule looks like this:

St. Francis (NY)…W 75-71 in overtime
VCU………W 69-54
St. Joseph’s…..W 78-70

While Seton Hall doesn’t have any blowout wins like Northwestern has with the 60-36 victory over UTPA, one can certainly classify the Seton Hall performance thus far as very solid. The player who has led Seton Hall to those solid wins is 6-8 forward Herb Pope. Pope was once one of the nation’s top recruits but is now more famous for an odyssey of a career which includes getting shot at a party, being arrested for driving under the influence, and punching a Texas Tech player below the belt twice in an NIT game. All those negatives aside, though, Pope can still play basketball as well anyone. Like NU’s John Shurna he declared for the NBA draft but can back to school. It’s paying off as he’s started the season posting dominating stats which include averages of 19.3ppg and 12.3rpg. Some will point to a Pope-Shurna matchup at Power Forward, but they are very different players. Pope’s an inside scorer who wants to make post moves to score or get fouled (he’s an excellent free throw shooter) whereas Shurna has the outside shot and the ability to attack the hoop going at a defender. If Seton Hall tries to have Pope guard Shurna look for Shurna to take the ball at Pope in an effort to get him to commit fouls. If NU plays man-to-man I’d rather see Drew Crawford on Pope than Shurna, but really as I’ll mention below, this game is more of a 1-3-1 from the start type of matchup.

Pope’s not the only Seton Hall player who qualifies as more of a scorer than shooter. The leading Seton Hall scorer is guard Jordan Theodore who scores 21ppg. However, he’s made just one three pointer in three games. The only real serious shooter threat from Seton Hall is 6-6 forward Fuquan Edwin (50% 3PT). Combined with the fact that aside from Pope Seton Hall hasn’t shown great ability to hit the glass and the fact Theodore averages four turnovers a game it might be a good idea for NU to use the 1-3-1 zone even more often than they have in the first two games of the Charleston Classic. In fact, the numbers would make you believe that you couldn’t blame Bill Carmody if he wanted to start in the zone. If he does start man-to-man look for Reggie Hearn to get Theodore and Alex Marcotullio to potentially play some point guard as Theodore will be a tough guard for Dave Sobolewski.

Personally, I’m expecting to see NU play 1-3-1 for most of the game and it’ll be a test to see how well the extra day between games has been used by Seton Hall Head Coach Kevin Willard to prep has team for NU’s unique offense and defense. This game should be close, but I’m optimistic that NU will get some production from Luka Mirkovic, who will be the biggest player on the court, and that will push the ‘Cats over the top. I predict: Northwestern, 67 Seton Hall, 65

Friday, November 18, 2011

'Cats Win Again In Charleston; Beat Tulsa

Whew. That game was close from start to finish. Neither team led by more than 6 at any point, but Northwestern once again pulled it out at the end. These two close wins have got to be huge confidence builders for the 'Cats, who have been poised down the stretch (even though they missed a few free throws today) and made plays on both offense and defense to seal the deal.

The hero today was Drew Crawford, who was everywhere, making 5-8 from 3, driving and kicking, and making short jumpers. He still takes some bad shots, but I don't actually mind because he needs to be a big part of this team's offense. Carmody himself said he wants Drew to play "loosey-goosey", which I think Drew did tonight. He also grabbed a few rebounds and played some pretty good D. Shurna had an off shooting night and had a quiet (for him) 15, but made a huge and-1 with a minute and a half to go to put NU up by 5.

We were badly outrebounded, 36-20. Shurna led us with 6, but Mirk and Curletti only combined for two. The centers have been getting a lot of flak from the fans lately. These past two games these bigs from LSU and Tulsa have been bigger and stronger and have outplayed them. However, I actually think both Mirkovic and Curletti (especially Curletti) played better today than yesterday and had some success with slowing down Tulsa's big men. The damage could have been a lot worse. Anyway, I believe in those two and think they'll both have strong games this year, especially against some of the less dominant centers in the B1G.

We won this game because we were able to force 15 turnovers (9 steals) while we only turned it over 6 times, which made up somewhat for the bad rebounding and enabled us to take 9 more shots from the field than Tulsa. The ability to force turnovers that we've shown through three games is something that makes me hopeful, though the trend may be tough to continue in the Big Ten given how disciplined Big Ten teams tend to be with the ball.

A few notes on other players: Marco only played 10 minutes -- I wonder if he's still somewhat injured or if Carmody simply went with other players. Jershon was crafty in his 16 minutes today, picking up 2 assists and 3 steals and getting to the foul line. Sobolewski once again was solid, with 9 points, 3 assists and 0 turnovers.

Northwestern will be playing the winner of tonight's Seton Hall/St. Joseph's game on Sunday in the Charleston Classic Championship game. Great win and go 'Cats!

NU Faces Tulsa in Charleston Semifinal Today

At 2:30 Northwestern plays Tulsa in the second game of the Charleston Classic. Tulsa is a tougher team than LSU, who NU won a close comeback win against yesterday, but I still think Tulsa could be a favorable matchup for NU and we should pull out the win if we bring the kind of effort we brought in the second half yesterday.

The first thing you notice about Tulsa is that they're big at every position and very athletic. They play a bunch of 6'4", solidly built guards and have three huge forwards/centers who play a lot of minutes in Steven Idlet, Kodi Maduka and DJ Magley (speaking of Magley, how does a 6-9, 270 guy run around a basketball court for 20 minutes a game? Your guess is as good as mine.) So they're big. What are their other strengths? Well, as their size would suggest, they're strong in the paint, as Maduka and Idlet are their leading scorers. They've got a guy, Scottie Haralson, who has made 38% of 21 3-point attempts in three games this year. And their man defense, with their size and length, looked pretty good yesterday against Western Kentucky.

So what does Northwestern need to do to beat this team? One thing that might be on NU's side is that Tulsa doesn't seem to have a player like LSU's Anthony Hickey, those fast guards that NU always seems unable to guard. Yesterday we addressed the Hickey problem by switching to the 1-3-1, but if LSU had known how to beat that we would have been in trouble. My guess is that Tulsa might actually be a slightly easier matchup for us in man-to-man. For that to happen, though, NU will need better efforts from Mirkovic and Curletti than we saw yesterday. We'll probably play some 1-3-1, especially because outside shooting isn't really Tulsa's game, but we're not going to be able to do that the whole time, and those two will need to play tougher defense and rebound. They didn't do either of those things well yesterday.

We're going to have to run the offense and avoid getting bogged down around the perimeter like we were so much of the first half yesterday. I loved watching John Shurna take over and play so assertively when that happened yesterday, taking it to double- teams to take a shot, draw a foul or pass to an open shooter. He took on the number 1 player role yesterday, and while he's not going to score 37 every game, the fact that other teams have to pay so much attention to him will open things up for other players to drive or take open threes. I think we'll see that today, and we'll need to see it if we're going to win this game.

Our depth at guard is also really fun to watch this year and should help us out. For once, our guards can afford to play a little more aggressively on defense, and they seem to have a little more energy for every possession. Look for active hands on defense from these guys today.

Tulsa is a talented team that scares me a bit, but I think NU can utilize the 1-3-1 in spurts to force turnovers and long-range shots and will make enough shots themselves to pull out a close game. NU 72, Tulsa 65

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wildcats Use 1-3-1 Defense to Comeback on LSU

I’m not a basketball genius at all, but early in the first half of Thursday afternoon’s game between Northwestern and LSU I repeatedly stated that Northwestern needed to go into the 1-3-1. I was well aware on the new emphasis that Coach Bill Carmody was placing on man-to-man but the fact was that LSU’s athletes were just killing the Wildcats in man-to-man. Now, to be honest I think NU’s players didn’t work very hard in man-to-man and could have done a much better job, but the fact was Carmody wasn’t getting them to work any harder at that moment and the game seemed to be slipping away. Thankfully, in the second half the Wildcats went to the 1-3-1 and forced LSU to turn the ball over and settle for the threes and the result was a victory for the Wildcats 88-82. It’s a good start to the Charleston Classic where the ‘Cats will next face a Tulsa team that could win Conference USA this year and will no doubt provide a good challenge to the guys from Evanston, IL.

My other observation in the first half was that John Shurna wasn’t getting the ball enough. Shurna has the ability to just eat people alive on the court if he gets the ball because little guys can’t stop him from getting shots because of his height and big guys can’t stop his ability to go to the hoop because of his quickness. Yet, in the first half John seemed too content to just go through the motions as he did vs UPTA. Thankfully in the second half he woke up. Personally, if I were coaching Shurna I’d tell him, “John we’re probably going to play somewhere around 35 games this year. That means you’ve got 35 times you need to go out there and just be a killer whether it’s Central Connecticut or Ohio State doesn’t matter. You’re gonna be the best scorer out there so go out there and look to score.” When he did look to score in the second half Shurna lit up LSU. He finished the game with a career-high 37 points and added 7 rebound and 4 assists. I’d also say that while making 4-of-9 threes as John did is statistically very good, I think he can actually shoot a higher percentage. Basically, as good Shurna was today he can better and that’s something which has to make NU fans grin from ear to ear.

Aside from thinking just how great Shurna can be, I’m also thrilled with how Dave Sobolewski and JerShon Cobb played down the stretch of the game. Without Juice Thompson I didn’t know who would hit big shots for NU. Sure, Shurna will get some, but at times it’ll hard to get him the ball when a defense is totally focused on him. That means NU needs clutch guards. When LSU cut into the lead late, first it was JerShon Cobb drilling a pull up jumper and then it was Sobo knocking down the ice-cold three pointer as Shurna drew the defense inside the arc. Those were big time shots and types of shots which makes me believe NU has guys they can count on in the backcourt. Overall, Sobolewski had a Juice-like line with a very solid 10 points and 6 assists against only two turnovers. Cobb took some madding Jordan-like fade-away shots in the first half, but he can make those and showed that down the stretch. He scored 8 points total. The major flaw in his game is that he’s probably NU’s worst three pointer shooter of the regulars and eventually he’ll need to hit threes or else people will play off him and take away his mid-range shot.

I don’t know if Reggie Hearn has a fan club, but he should. If he doesn’t I’m willing to start it. The guy is all over the court with hustle and he has enough of an offensive game that he’s worth having on the court. Hearn finished with 6 points, 2 rebounds, an assist and a steal, but numbers don’t tell the impact he had. When Alex Marcotullio went to the bench in foul trouble Hearn along with Drew Crawford and Cobb played the top of the 1-3-1 zone and made LSU make the mistakes which got Northwestern back in the game. This also is probably a good time to mention Crawford who helped lead the comeback on offense and finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds. He, like Shurna, just needs to go out there and just play with attitude all the time. He’s got all the skills to be a big time player, but sometimes he seems to get lost in the shuffle. That can’t happen if this time wants to be big time. The best players need to look to be assertive all the time.

The other thing that needs to happen if Northwestern wants to be any good is the center position needs to step up. A Princeton Offense team will never be truly good without a good center and today NU’s tag-team duo of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti were pretty much awful. One might say they both managed their worst game ever at the same time. In total they scored 4 points and grabbed 3 rebounds to go along with 2 turnovers on 1-of-5 shooting. The fact NU won with the centers playing so bad is fantastic and pretty remarkable. When 6-11 Tulsa center Kodi Maduka fresh off a 16-point 7-block performance in a win over Western Kentucky shows up tomorrow with his running mate 6-11 Steven Idlet who was C-USA player of the week last week Luka and Davide better be a lot better than they were today, especially on defense. Overall, tomorrow’s game will be the toughest in this tournament for Northwestern I’m very sure (and today wasn’t easy). Tulsa is big and athletic and they’ll avoid some of LSU’s dumb mistakes. I’d look for more 1-3-1 and hope that NU’s 56.7% second half shooting percentage holds for the entire game.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wildcats and Tigers Battle for Early Season Momentum In Charleston

Northwestern has some more significant non-conference games this year than in years past. As a result, building some early momentum could be key for the Wildcats. They’ll get a chance to start to do that in the three games in four days Charleston Classic which tips off Thursday. In the first game for NU the ‘Cats will battle LSU. LSU comes into the contest with a 1-1 record desperately seeking some positive momentum of their own after losing to Costal Carolina in their last contest. LSU coach Trent Johnson, who knows NU from his days at Stanford, specifically called out his team’s inability to rebound as Costal Carolina outrebounded the Tigers by 19. With NU’s own rebounding issues versus UTPA one starts to wonder if anybody plans on grabbing the ball when it goes off the rim in this game. Theoretically, 7-0 260-pound LSU center Justin Hamilton should be the main man on the glass as he pulled down 7 boards to go along with 9 points versus Costal Carolina. He should give Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti a more Big Ten-like challenge than the players from UTPA did. Also in the LSU front court is forward Strom Warren who played a nice game against Costal Carolina with 14 points and 9 rebounds of his own. NU needs to be able to keep both Hamilton and Warren from getting easy inside looks.

LSU also didn’t shoot very well against Costal Carolina, but NU needs to make sure they’re ready to defend a number of talented LSU scorers. Guard Ralston Turner led LSU with 15 points vs Costal and made two three pointers as well. Several other LSU outside shooting threats, including highly-touted freshman Johnny O’Bryant, had poor games but came fill the scorebook. NU needs to play with the same level of defensive intensity they brought at the end of last season and that Reggie Hearn showed in the opener on Sunday.

That brings up the question of whether Hearn will start and just what NU’s lineup will be come Thursday afternoon. JerShon Cobb is reportedly ready to play, but he may or may not get that start. I think Cobb’s an important player for Northwestern, but if he’s not 100 percent I don’t know that he has to start with options such as Hearn and freshmen Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps available to Coach Bill Carmody.

Obviously, the two freshmen were somewhat underwhelming in their first official action, but they were good in the exhibition. Also, look for Alex Marcotullio and Drew Crawford to get back into the starting lineup and see significant action if the game is close. I’d really like to see Crawford assert himself on offense and have Marcotulllio take the led as he did last season in getting NU’s entire team to play hard on defense.

I’ll also pay close attention to John Shurna who more or less looked like he was just going through the motions against UTPA. Now, Shurna’s going to face tougher challenges on both offense and defense, but he’s still going to be the best player on the court. He, like Crawford, needs to get assertive and demand the ball because when he does the ball usually goes through the hoop.

Overall, I actually like NU’s matchup with LSU and think it gives the ‘Cats a good shot to start this tournament well. I see a close game, but I think Shurna will help edge the Tigers. I predict: Northwestern, 71 LSU, 65

'Cats Get Another Win vs.W. Kentucky

Quick post today. Another win for the 'Cats last night as they beat Western Kentucky, 71-57, and have now moved to 2-0 on the season. Kendall Hackney once again led the team with 17 points. Dannielle Diamant had a big game with 15 points and 9 rebounds in 28 minutes, Brittany Orban notched 11 and 8, and Karly Roser had a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists.

McKeown lengthened the bench slightly in this game, but he's still relying mainly on the starting 5 with Tailor Jones first off the bench. Alex Cohen got 11 minutes off the bench, but seems to still be adjusting to the college game, while Morgan Jones is still struggling to make shots. Overall, though, We've got a solid six players and a few more who could be almost there. The next test is Illinois St. tomorrow night. Good win, go 'Cats!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wildcats Notch Easier Win Over UTPA

For the first time in three seasons the game between Northwestern and Texas-Pan America didn’t come down the final few minutes as NU posted a 60-36 victory. Combined with Northwestern beating Robert Morris by 30 more points than they did a year ago I hope that means this Northwestern team is better than last year’s Northwestern team. I’m not sure if that’s the case yet, but I did see some good things along with some areas that need work.

To start though I have to say that one of the strangest things was to watch this game without Juice Thompson playing point guard for Northwestern. When you consider Thompson played virtually every meaningful minute of basketball for the past four years it makes sense that not saying Juice running the show was rather odd. Other guys have been four year starters, but none were on the court from day one as much as Juice.

Without Juice Northwestern gave the point guard reins over to a combination of players. Freshman Dave Sobolewski got the majority of the time and did a nice job. He handled the team well and usually got NU into the offense without a lot of trouble. He also posted a 3 assist and 0 turnover line which was great to see from a freshman. I was also glad to see him finally hit a three pointer late in the game because it should at least give him some confidence. However, he didn’t have Juice’s ability to take the ball with the shot clock running down and make something happen. To be honest, I’m not sure who on NU’s squad has that ability. The best candidate is JerShon Cobb, but his health remains a question mark at this point.

One player who very few questions remain about is John Shurna. Shurna played enough to make a mark on the game, but Coach Bill Carmody did a nice job of getting him out of the game with the lead and letting some other guys play. Shurna scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds. He also notched two steals. NU’s three point shooting wasn’t great in this contest, but Shurna who might be NU’s best shooter didn’t really seem to look to shoot the three all the much. I expect to see him look for shots more when the ‘Cats travel to the Charleston Classic.

NU also got a decent game from Luka Mirkovic (though I’d like to see him shoot better from the line and from three) who asserted himself early as the tallest player on the floor. He posted 12 points and five rebounds for the day. Granted the competition gets a lot tougher, but those numbers from Luka would be solid and probably help NU to a number of victories. Especially if NU gets anything out of Luka’s tag-team partner at center Davide Curletti. Tonight, though, Curletti really struggled and was basically a non-factor.

Two players that were factors were Reggie Hearn and Drew Crawford. Crawford came off the bench to post 11 points and grab six rebounds. He also almost brought the house down with an attempted tomahawk slam. If he could have finished that play it probably would have been the best dunk in NU history. Hearn was all over the place with 7 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and a block. I was really impressed with the quick release he showed when shooting from three point range. A case could be made that Hearn’s effort on defense and all around game dictates keeping him in the starting lineup. It might not be a bad idea either as Alex Marcotullio has shown nice ability to bring energy off the bench. I’d look potentially for a Sobolewksi, Crawford, Hearn, Shurna, Mirkovic lineup in the future.

The biggest issue NU had was that they did get out rebounded 35-32, but some of those were long rebounds that just happened to bounce the Broncs way. Basically the same NU team (minus Juice who wasn’t a rebounder) NU competed on the boards with Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament last year so the potential exists. The other issue NU faces is neither NU nor UTPA shot well. Some of UTPA’s issues were NU”s nice man-to-man defense, but NU better hit more shots if they want to compete in their upcoming games. I’d especially look at Sobolewski and Demps who want 1-of-9 combined from three. Juice on percentage would have made about four of those and they have to do the same. I’d also like to see Marcotullio and Crawford get going from the outside, but ankle issues impact the ability to get lift on a shot so let’s just hope they’re in the process of healing.

Overall, NU won and that’s good, but we’ll get a better sense of where this team is over the next week of games.

Injury Update

Hopefully we won’t be posting many of these injury updates during the year as the healthier Northwestern is as a team they better chance they’ll have to compete for that NCAA bid. As it stands, the latest news is Alex Marcotullio and Drew Crawford got the okay to play, but JerShon Cobb still out. The odds are Alex and Drew still probably won’t start, but at least they’re good to go and will get some on court time before the Charleston Classic. Cobb is still suffering from his lingering hip injury. Hopefully he gets over that as he is an athletic player who needs to be 100% to bring his total game.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Women Beat Central Michigan 69-60

The women's basketball team knocked off Central Michigan, 69-60, in their season opener yesterday. Kendall Hackney led the team in points and rebounds with 18 and 8 while Brittany Orban had 16 and 6. Hackney put up a really nice stat line: besides the 18 and 8, she shot 4-7 from behind the arc and had an assist, a steal, and a block. Five players had 6 or more rebounds in this game. Rebounding was the biggest difference maker, as we outrebounded them 39-28, including getting 23 offensive rebounds to their 8. Those are eye-popping numbers that tell me NU could once again be tough to keep up with on the glass this season.

Freshman Morgan Jones played well in her first (real) collegiate game, scoring twelve points and grabbing 6 rebounds. She was inefficient, but her shot selection should improve quickly as she gets used to the college game and not being the team's number one scorer. Freshman Karly Roser also had a good game. She's been a big surprise with her huge contributions in the preseason and now in the team's first game. She ended up with 10 points, 8 assists, and 4 rebounds and has taken over the role of starting point guard.

The team mostly played 6 players -- Orban, Hackney, M. Jones, Roser, and Diamant starting with Tailor Jones coming off the bench for 23 minutes. Alex Cohen and Meghan McKeown each played 6 minutes. I don't know if the short bench was a the coach's decision or if there are injury issues, but I'd like to see more players play significant minutes in the future. We've got a lot of size on the bench that we could use come Big Ten play.

The team did a lot of things well in this game, but there are a couple of weaknesses I hope they can sort out as the season goes on. First, they shot a low percentage from the field, only 37.7%. Getting offensive rebounds, as this team does, reduces the need to shoot well, but it obviously doesn't eliminate it. We can hope that the poor shooting was a fluke -- we'll see as the season goes on. Second, the team turned the ball over 20 times (Roser unfortunately accounted for 7 of those). Turnovers were a big problem for this team last year and I hope that doesn't repeat itself again this season.

All in all, the 'Cats played a good game and got the first W of the season! Congrats to them -- we'll see more from them on Tuesday when they play Western Kentucky. Go 'Cats!

‘Cats Ready to Tip-Off Regular Season Versus Texas-Pan America

Northwestern officially opens the 2011-12 season on Sunday versus Texas-Pan America. The game is on the Big Ten Network at 6PM CT and seats remain inside Welsh-Ryan Arena for those who are thinking about attending. Of note is the fact that Northwestern could potentially play their first four games of the season on national TV. The first two will be on for sure with ESPNU telecasting Thursday’s showdown with LSU at 2PM CT. This is a huge step for a program which at times has been pretty much an afterthought (if a thought at all) when it comes to the media. Obviously, some of this media attention is the result of the national attention which has been on the ‘Cats the last three years as they’ve come close to making their first NCAA Tournament. When you consider the role this year’s seniors have played in turning program into a competitive force in the Big Ten you can’t help but hope they’ll be the group to breakthrough in March.

As far as this game goes, UTPA was a 6-win team last year and dropped a 91-72 game to DePaul on Friday night. Some people aren’t happy with NU playing UTPA because they refer to the game as an RPI killer, it’s true UTPA isn’t going to be a top-100 squad in March, but NU does get a great advantage from playing UTPA. The advantage? It’s a team NU plays every year. Why is that important? Because UTPA won’t be as clueless as to what NU’s Princeton Offense entails and NU will actually have to work to get good shots. That’s important because I think some of the success NU has had in non-conference, including the 10-1 and #25 national ranking start of two years ago, has been because they’ve played teams that weren’t used to seeing the Princeton Offense. Well, the Big Ten has all seen the Princeton Offense so playing other teams that have also at least makes NU not get so many cheap baskets because defenders are essentially running into each other trying to defend backdoor cuts.

For NU, it looks like JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio might not see the court as they’re still hurt. Drew Crawford isn’t listed as a starter, but was reported to be closer to 100% than the other two. Even if all three sit, NU should score points, though, UTPA’s knowledge of NU’s system has kept this game close the last two years. UTPA guard Brandon Provost scored 16 points and grabbed 8 rebounds against DePaul on Friday. He didn’t miss a three in the game as well. He’ll be an interesting matchup for NU’s freshman guards Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps who will be in their first official college basketball game. With Marcotullio (who many expected to be a team leader) out, those two will need to step up. Another UTPA guard Jared Maree is also a capable outside shooter who the ‘Cats can’t lose sight of. Reggie Hearn played good defense against Robert Morris in NU’s exhibition win and may be a key factor in helping stop opponents’ top shooters this year. Hearn may be a former walk-on, but he’s a big guard with good length and decent athletic skill. Plus, he seems to have the level of “want to” which all great defenders have.

UTPA’s starting front court of Earl Jefferson and Josh Cleveland posted a total of 14 points and 6 rebounds versus DePaul. In addition, 6-7 sub Ruben Cabrera scored 12 points and grabbed 5 rebounds. These players don’t have the size of Big Ten front court players, but they’ll play hard. They might not offer a great simulation for 7-0 260-pound LSU center Justin Hamilton who NU will face Thursday, but I don’t they’ll be pushovers either and I’ll be looking to see how Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti respond to the challenge.

Looking at the overall matchup, NU’s missing starters might limit the game’s scoring a bit as all three of those guys can put the ball in the basket. However, NU’s still got more fire power than UTPA. I predict: Northwestern, 92 UTPA, 70

Monday, November 7, 2011

Wildcats Learn Something about Depth in Exhibition Win

My theme all off-season was on the importance of NU developing depth to compete in the rugged Big Ten. Tonight’s 99-47 exhibition win over Robert Morris probably doesn’t reveal a lot about Northwestern, but it does show the ‘Cats might have some quality depth on their bench which certainly didn’t exist the last several seasons.

Thanks to ankle injuries to Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb still slowed from his hip-injury, NU went pretty young and inexperienced in the starting lineup. Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewksi got the call at the guards and Reggie Hearn saw his first serious action as a starter at small forward. All three looked very good. I know it was action against an NAIA school, but Robert Morris is a very good NAIA school. An NAIA school that was good enough to beat a solid NU team a few years back. I liked how all three hung in with the level of athleticism that RMU but on the court and seemed to play with control for the most part. Demps may have fired up a few ill-advised shots, but I think he’s a good enough player that some of those are going to go in from time to time. Plus, Demps, who I thought was more of the pure-scorer of the two freshmen guards, showed a nice three point shot making 3-of-4. He also dished out 3 assists to only 1 turnover. Sobolewski, who I thought was the more of the pure-shooter, didn’t disappoint as a shooter as he made both his three point shots and looked solid from the free-throw line sinking 7-of-9 charity strip shots. He also had 2 assists to 0 turnovers. Hearn got in on the action from three making 1-of-2 and in passing handing out 4 assists to 1 turnover. I also just felt like he showed great understanding of the offense. He seemed to find himself in position to make or pass to teammates for easy shots. I don’t know if we’ll see much Reggie Hearn in regular season games, but I think he’s clearly a valuable player to have on the team.

Nick Fruendt came off the bench in NU’s guard/small forward rotation and led the ‘Cats in scoring with 17 points. Fruendt is a good shooter and he showed it by going 4-for-4 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line. With that type of offensive ability you’d expect to see Fruendt finally become a consistent contributor, but I think it’ll be his defensive progress which we’ll have to keep an eye on to see if he can crack double-digit minutes when the Big Ten season starts.

The NU front court starters were mainstays John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic. Shurna looked solid in his 19 minutes and finished with 12 points. Luka only played 17 minutes, but he grabbed 5 rebounds, dished out 5 assists (a huge asset in a Princeton-style center) and hit a three. He’s a decent three point shooter and I think the center position needs to make at least 3 threes a game against NU’s tougher opponents for the ‘Cats to have the best chance to pull out W’s in those contests.

Off the bench in the front court I was really pleased with Davide Curletti who scored 16 points, notched 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. His only real failing was only hitting 3-of-6 free throws. I really like Davide’s shot and I think he shot make a much higher percentage. I’ve also got to give a big thumbs up to freshman Mike Turner who I think is a legit Big Ten athlete. He might need some work on his basketball skills, but I liked how he hit the glass (8 rebounds) and just his overall hustle approach. Will he play much this season? Maybe not. Still, he’s got a future that I see as pretty bright. Walk-on James Montgomery III seemed similar as well as he blocked 2 shots, scored 2 points, and had 2 assists. He looks quick as well and might take a Hearn like route to being a contributor someday.

Overall, every Wildcat who played looked as if they could play. Even with competition that wasn’t Big Ten caliber that’s saying something when compared with past NU teams. The ‘Cats start regular season play on Sunday. The big question is how healthy are Cobb, Marcotullio, and Crawford, but seeing the talent on the court with those guys out, I’m confident that ‘Cats have enough depth they’ll be able to compete in the Big Ten this season once their roster returns to full strength. As it stands, they should be able to compete with Texas-Pan American on Sunday as they are, but we’d like to see the full crew ready for LSU in a week and a half.