Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wildcats Effort is Commendable…Result is Once Again Frustrating

Northwestern’s players and coaches did so much well Saturday night in their one point loss to Ohio State that part of me is still confused by the fact NU didn’t win the game. Obviously, in the end it came down NU’s Alex Marcotullio waiting too long to make a backdoor pass to JerShon Cobb and then NU fouling Jared Sullinger who made 1-of-2 free throws. He really is an excellent player and it was long odds that he’d miss both foul shots with the game on the line. Drew Crawford’s 2-of-12 overall and 1-of-8 from three shooting day didn’t help NU’s upset bid as we all know Crawford is capable of much more and for Marcotullio who is one of NU’s best passers to throw the ball away is frustrating as well. I actually think Cobb was opened on the backdoor about a second and half before Marcotullio released the ball. In regards to Crawford, I once asked a former player if they thought any part of shooting was luck. I wanted to know why someone like Crawford could have everything go in one night and nothing on a night like tonight. I was told shooting has basically nothing to do with luck. When someone like Crawford makes his shots it’s because he is in rhythm with no nerves and is taking the time he needs to get off a shot, but when he is off like tonight he is likely somewhat nervous and is rushing his shot. Playing the number one team in the nation might be a reason to be nervous, but Crawford showed he was clearly the equal to many of the Buckeyes athletic players as he led NU’s rebounding effort which actually bested the Buckeyes 31-20. Truthfully, I think Drew might be the most frustrating player I’ve ever cheered for. He is more than capable of being an All-Big Ten type guy, but he has nights he looks like a walk-on could contribute the same numbers. Tonight he was somewhere in between, but somewhere between isn’t going to be good enough to beat #1.

I also feel like NU could have handled the end of the game better, but that’s now just dumb and fruitless second guessing. Still, what about a timeout after Sullinger missed the first free throw to make him think about it? Or, before that, what about with 46.2 seconds left when you’re inbounding trying to go with a quick three with a screen the screener play in order to get a two-for-one chance because you don’t want OSU with the last possession. Again, this is second guessing, but I want to offer these thoughts just to allow people to think about them. I mean obviously, NU’s game plan was solid tonight and as they always do they did a pretty good job on out of bounds plays, but it amazes me how Bill Carmody still seems struggle with end of game situations given how well he handles play calling at other points in the game.

I have to hand it to Juice Thompson who started slow, but had a big second half and clearly wasn’t afraid to hit the big shot. His 16 points and 8 assists are solid numbers, but just from watching the game you could tell how valuable Juice was to NU’s effort. This was a great example of leadership. While I think NU’s possession where Marcotullio turned the ball over might have resulted in a layup if Alex released his pass an instant sooner, I also don’t know why Juice didn’t get the ball.

I also have to give a big thumbs up to JerShon Cobb. He scored just 8 points, but like Drew Crawford showed he was as good an athlete as OSU’s guys as he pulled down 6 rebounds and played very nice defense in his 36 minutes. He also didn’t turn the ball over and to be honest seemed like one of NU’s most confident players.

Mike Capocci also played a very nice game before leaving with an injury. His 11 points actually led NU at the time he left. Considering NU was without their leading scorer and had the guy who was effectively replacing him on the bench for the game’s final 10 minutes makes the one point margin of loss even more remarkable. Still, the fact that Capocci got hurt in what was probably has best career game has to add to the feeling that NU hoops just can’t catch a break.

I also have to say that I thought NU’s team defense on Jared Sullinger wasn’t really all that bad. Luka Mirkovic, Davide Curletti and company battled him all night. Even the last play actually looked like it could have been considered a block if not for the body contact from the second defender. Luka and Davide combined didn’t have great night statically and looking back Davide’s missed free throw and Luka’s missed point blank layup on a great set play want to make you tear you hair out, but they gave commendable efforts.

At the end of the day, though, Ohio State is 22-0 and continues to survive close games. Northwestern is 13-8 and with eight games plus the Big Ten Tournament left it doesn’t look like they’ll be making the NCAA Tournament. I’m not even sure I see them in the NIT at this point. I know they made the NIT last year, but remember they were the last team in at 20-13 and I’m not sure I see NU getting a great many more wins this season. I sure am not counting either Penn State game as a win. Certainly, NU could run off eight straight wins and everything would change, but that isn’t a likely scenario. I do wonder if playing a slow paced game like tonight might be a better choice for NU when they play better teams in the future. They certainly didn’t look like they could run with Illinois and Wisconsin the first time and slow paced teams like Indiana and Penn State have beaten those squads.

I think what’s most disappointing about this loss is that it had the potential to be a unifying moment for the NU fan base. I think it is pretty clear that a lot of people want Bill Carmody fired. You don’t need to look to far on NU message boards, fan sites, or Welsh-Ryan Arena in order to see/hear examples of that feeling. If NU won this game I’m not sure how anyone could do anything other than support the coach. It would have been one of the biggest upsets in the history of college basketball (especially after Capocci joined Shurna on the DL) It seems ridiculous that Luka Mirkovic missing a point blank layup on what was actually a great play call by Carmody might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back as far as the coach goes, but I suspect the outcry from the people who want Carmody gone is going to start to grow now and if NU only wins two or three more games (which is very possible) I think Jim Phillips might have to listen. Whether you like Carmody or not you have to feel for the guy now, because basically, though parts of his coaching tonight weren’t great, essentially he stands a real chance of losing his job despite one of his best efforts as a coach. NU’s game plan tonight was spectacular and it wasn’t just Luka’s miss, NU ran a number of plays which got open shots which Crawford, Marcotullio, and Thompson missed. I guess you can say Carmody still deserves the blame because he recruited those guys, but when they’re on their game Crawford, Marcotullio, and Thompson are really as good of shooters as you’re going to get from guys who aren’t future NBAers and NU isn’t getting any future NBAers anytime soon. It really is too bad because this game could have been one of the best events ever for the Northwestern community and for our players and coaches who work so hard. Instead, it’s just another loss and it may in the end have an even higher cost than that for some of those involved.

Ohio State beats NU 58-57

So my prediction that Northwestern basketball exits just to torture its fans proved truer than my prediction of a Buckeye blowout. I’ll have more in a bit, but I have to think this one over.

Shurna Out for OSU

NU's odds of an upset just got longer as John Shurna is out with his concussion. That said, concussions are serious things and he shouldn't play if symptoms are still lingering. To be honest, I wish he hadn’t played the second half vs Minnesota with a concussion. I know it was said he didn’t have symptoms, but I don’t know how one could watch that play and not think a concussion likely.

With Shurna out NU’s chances of winning are slim to none and I think slim is standing by the door waiting for his wife to finish chatting with neighbors so he can walk out. With that in mind, what I want to see from Northwestern tonight most is, obviously, still a win. But in the world realistic expectations what I want to see is maximum effort. At times Northwestern doesn’t play hard. They don’t. And that’s been the case for a couple years now and it’s my biggest frustration with this team and coaching staff. How you lack intensity in some of your only 18 Big Ten games a season is beyond me, but NU mangers it regularly. So, again, what I want to see tonight is NU fight until they absolutely cannot fight anymore. They need to hustle on defense, dive for loose balls, get bodies on rebounders, and never stop moving on offense. Doing all those things might still result in a loss. It probably will, but it’ll least give them an outside outside chance and give the fans reason to cheer their efforts.

Just to offer one other thought, with Shurna gone I’d probably revise my prediction and say OSU, 69 NU, 43 because I think the odds of NU getting points are significantly reduced. But this is Northwestern basketball and it exists to rip out your heart and then kick it around in a really intense game of soccer. Therefore, part of me would have not be surprised whatsoever if Northwestern plays this game close and loses like 50 to 48.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Long Odds for NU on Saturday

Northwestern plays Ohio State on Saturday at 5PM in Evanston in front of a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena and a national television audience on ESPN2. It is arguably the best chance in the history of Northwestern basketball (major sports?) for the Wildcats to get a win which will define their program and gain them respect nationally, locally, and within their own fan base and community. It is also a game which features some of the longest odds against NU in a very long time. Not only are the Wildcats massive underdogs to the #1 ranked and undefeated Buckeyes, but their best player is hurt and many in their fan base are actively speculating about a future for the team which doesn’t include Head Coach Bill Carmody, despite the fact the coach just recently inked a contract extension. The reason for such speculation is that NU has struggled in recent big games and while their 13-7 record is eye test worthy from the outside, those of us inside NU fandom know that this team’s failure to meet high expectations for the second straight season has become frustrating beyond belief. Now, though, the schedule makers have given NU and their coach a chance at redemption. Sure, the odds of a win seem astronomical, but this is the chance that the Wildcats have been given so they might as well embrace the opportunity and give the most effort they ever have.

Looking at the numbers this isn’t a matchup which offers much hope for NU. Yes, Ohio State has had several close calls, but they just annihilated a Purdue team which handed NU a double-digit defeat. Making matters worse, Ohio State’s strengths are Northwestern’s weaknesses and NU’s limited strengths don’t seem enough to counter. For example, Ohio State’s inside game led by possible Big Ten Player of the Year Jared Sullinger (17.8ppg, 10.0rpg, 57.6%fg) and Dallas Lauderdale (4.6ppg. 4.0rpg, 18.4 minutes a game) give the Buckeyes two big bodies that can rebound, play defense, and score inside. How NU will stop these two with Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti is anybody’s guess. Some might suggest NU play 1-3-1 to try and deny those guys the ball, but if they get the ball they’ll score with ridiculous ease over Juice Thompson. Plus, Ohio State rarely turns the ball over and as a team makes 41% of their threes. NU also may be at a disadvantage because leading scorer John Shurna might be out with a concussion. Not only does that take one of NU’s best weapons off the court, but at least at 6-8 Shurna could possibly get in the way of OSU’s big guys inside. If NU has to go with 6-6 Mike Capocci against Lauderdale, Sullinger, or DeShaun Thomas the game could become a layup drill for Ohio State. Obviously, NU’s perimeter players need to pressure the ball with intensity to prevent easy post feeds. This will take a major concentrated effort from a number of players who are much too often extremely passive on defense.

On offense Northwestern will need to revert a more traditional Princeton style of play. NU can’t try to score 90 points in this game. They never will. They need to try to score 50 and somehow try to hold Ohio State in the 40s. That seems very difficult, but NU has in the past shown the ability to pass the ball around without turning in over for most of the shot clock and still get a decent shot. That needs to be the plan on Saturday. If NU shoots the ball with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock every time, Ohio State will also have less offensive possessions and each mistake will become more critical. Of course, NU needs every close shot to fall in that scenario in comparison to what happened Wednesday at Minnesota. That’s important because if NU wins this game it’ll be more because of a psychological advantage than a physical advantage. NU’s players need to believe they have a chance and somehow NU needs to get Ohio State to start to panic and being to think, “Oh crap! We’re the number 1 team in America and we might lose to Northwestern.” If NU gets the Buckeyes thinking that way in raises the odds of Buckeye mistakes. That’s how lesser teams in the NCAA tournament pull upsets. They start to get the big guys thinking the wrong way and an athlete who is worried about failure is usually better terrible.

A sold out Welsh-Ryan should provide a great atmosphere as long as NU doesn’t get blown away early. I look forward to seeing the crowd. Obviously, if this game were played 100 times Ohio State would probably win more than 90 of those matchups. Maybe 99 of them. But the fact is this game is only going to be played once and all Northwestern has to do is have enough confidence, hustle, fearlessness, and luck to win that one. Is it likely? Not at all. Is it impossible? No. Do I think it will happen? Well, no, but I believe it could happen and that’s why I’ll be as hyped as ever come Saturday at 5PM. I predict: Ohio State, 69 Northwestern, 51

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Yeah, about that one good thing I was hoping we’d get…

The Chicago Tribune says John Shurna has a concussion. It doesn’t say that he won’t play Saturday, but if he’s concussed that’s usually something that keeps people out for at least a week. I’m not suspired Shurna has a concussion. When I watched the many many replays the Big Ten Network showed last night I kind of figured that was the case and was shocked when Shurna repapered in the second half. I mean they guy hit a metal basket support and whiplashed on to a hardwood floor. It would have been darn near worthy of a write-up in the New England Journal of Medicine if he didn’t get a concussion. So we’ll see what happens with John this weekend. If he can’t play it probably isn’t the worst thing. The odds are long anyway and it would give his ankle more time to heal.

On another note, people are getting more and more into discussing NU coaching situation. A few people over on Lake the Posts and even threw out names. Why do I mention this, well, this might be something of a defeatist attitude, but I’ve decided the odds are long that any coach will win at Northwestern until some larger institutional changes are made. The fact is basketball is more than football is a game where your talent can win out without great coaching and good coaching will lose to more talented teams. If you have a team with great lights-out shooters who can hit from anywhere and big physical guys who can grab their rebounds when they miss and get put backs and other easy scores, you’re very hard to beat even if you don’t have a genius game plan and while a creative game plan from the other side (a la the Princeton Offense) might upset you from time to time, you’re going to be the team that’s at the top of the standings at the end of the year. On the other hand, in football a lesser talented team can create a game plan with misdirection and a quick pace that actually uses the other team’s better athletic skill against them. In basketball, no way really exists to do this. When big 6-9 250-pounds of solid muscle Trevor Mbakwe decides he wants an offensive rebound over 5-10 Juice Thompson he’s going to get it. There isn’t spread offense of basketball that is going to get Mbakwe exhausted so Juice can grab his rebounds. Basically, I think Bill Carmody’s Northwestern teams will continue from this point forward to be .500 or better overall, but until Northwestern has the facilities and resources that top-50 players see at Duke, Vanderbilt or Georgetown you aren’t going to see NU make a serious run in men’s hoops because the smart kids who can counter the Mbakwe’s of the world won’t be in Evanston. It won’t matter who the coach is and in fact Carmody running the Princeton Offense will give Northwestern a better chance than bringing in someone who thinks he can play teams with Mbakwe’s and Sullinger’s heads-up athletically. The one option that I think would be superior to Carmody’s style would be to play like Dick Bennett’s 2000 Wisconsin team that just plays super physical (basically fouling) defense all night, takes care of the ball, and scores just enough points in their boxing matches, wait, I meant basketball games, to win 52-45 every night.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Northwestern Once Again Fails to Meet Challenge

Sports generally aren’t easy to predict. That’s what is supposed to make them fun to watch, the fact that anything can happen on any given night is why we tune into sporting events on our TV instead of watching a movie or a television show. However, Northwestern’s 2010-11 men’s basketball team is performing only according to the script. If one didn’t actually try to predict the outcome based on instinct and intuition, but instead made predictions based on only the facts, they would never be wrong in predicting a Northwestern game. Northwestern has still beaten every bad team they played, but failed to rise to the challenge and beat anybody any good.

NU’s loss tonignt against Minnesota wasn’t an embarrassment like the loss to Wisconsin; it was just a typical Big Ten road loss. The lower ranked, lesser talented ‘Cats tried their best against a highly ranked, more physically gifted Minnesota team, but despite some high points (and even a halftime lead) in the end Minnesota’s talent won out.

I think what’s becoming clear is that although this may be NU’s most talented team, they still aren’t talented enough to seriously expect to compete in the Big Ten. NU has a lot of nice players who can have good games, but nobody good enough that their physical skills ensure they are a factor every night. For example, tonight Drew Crawford returned from his trip to the never-never to hit five threes. However, Juice Thompson went on extended vacation until the final moments of the game leaving NU once again without an essential contributor. Both guys are fine players, but they’re basically dependent on hitting shots to be a factor and some nights you miss more than you hit. NU also doesn’t have a player on the roster who could match Minnesota’s inside players for strength and it doesn’t look like NU is very well schooled at making up for lack of weakness or jumps with proper rebounding form.

At its core though basketball is called basketball because you have to put the ball in the basket and that was NU’s biggest failing tonight. Thanks to a Gopher zone which extended far out on the perimeter and Northwestern’s unaggressive second half play (they didn’t even shoot a free throw till 30 seconds were left) NU took 39 three pointers. NU is a three point shooting team, but that’s far too many. NU needed to try to get the ball inside. Probably not to the post, because NU’s centers were clearly outmanned, but by driving the lane and then passing to cutters and shooters. That was the plan when NU staged a first half comeback, but it wasn’t the case in the second half when NU’s narrow lead disappeared.

Not that this will shock anyone either, but NU played poor defense in the second half tonight. I know you’re all surprise by it, but NU let Minnesota get the ball inside with so much ease in the second half that the Gophers were in the bonus almost before the first TV timeout because once they ball got inside the 1-3-1 NU had no choice but to foul. The 1-3-1 got NU back in the game in the first half, but I figured Tubby Smith would adjust for the second half and he did. I think NU really needs a third defense because right now both of NU’s primary options can and have been shredded on a regular basis. I’m guessing man-to-man is out, but with NU’s talent they seem like a team who is perfect for playing a triangle and two or box and one.

NU’s lack of production from the center position has been mentioned, but it’s worth restating because it was another obvious problem tonight and it shows were NU stands. Sampson, Iverson, and Mbakwe made NU’s centers look pretty bad and that’s bad because NU faces the nation’s best big man on Saturday in OSU’s Jared Sullinger. Also, NU can’t win without production from Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti. I don’t how, but someway needs to be devised to get those two to be a factor in every game NU plays.

John Shurna had a good game despite a scary injury as he scored 16 points and pulled down a number of rebounds as well. It’s good to see John getting clearly closer to one hundred percent. A more fully recovered Shurna has to give NU some hope that they might be able to buck the odds and pull an upset before the end of the season. At this point, though, one has to start to wonder what will be the final fate of this team. Is an NIT bid even likely if they don’t win a couple big games? I’d say no. Would NU accept a big to the CBI? Probably, but would it generate any buzz on campus? Who knows? For us in the core base on NU fandom there are clearly some key issues for debate, but I also see casual NU fans losing interest with NU basketball with each passing day. With as frustrating as this team has become to watch, I don’t really blame them. Still, I’m betting hosting Ohio State does generate a pretty good crowd. I just wouldn’t count on everybody coming back unless NU has saved all their cards to throw on the table for Saturday’s game. Of course, maybe it’s not what NU has to throw at OSU. Maybe it’ll finally be time that god or fate or time or whatever you believe is the controlling factor in the universe looks down for his/her/its high perch and says, “Alright Northwestern basketball fans, you’ve had to endure so much crap and catch so many bad breaks for so long it’s time I give you one good thing.” Hey, it’s possible, right?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Northwestern travels to Minnesota Still Seeking First Upset Win

On the heels of a disappointing defeat on Sunday, Northwestern will take a trip out of state for a game Wednesday in Minnesota. The ‘Cats opponent, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers bring a 15-4 record and a #16 national ranking to the contest. This means that as bad as NU’s loss to Wisconsin might have been, NU can erase they defeat with an even more significant victory on Wednesday. The win would be especially big given that it would be a road win which is valued by the selection committee even more than home victories.

This might be stating the obvious, but this game won’t be easy. Teams that lose by 20-plus points at home don’t generally pull upsets on the road in their next game. However, Northwestern is a strange team. Sure, they pretty much beat who they should beat and lose to who they should lose to (that would mean a loss vs Minnesota) but the way they play from game to game is wildly unpredictable. NU’s lost some bad games besides Wisconsin, but several have been very close as well. On the other hand, most of NU’s wins have been easy, but their closest was to one of their weakest opponents. What’s all that mean? It’s anybody’s guess. I chose to believe that it means even though NU has yet to pull an upset this year that it still is possible.

If NU is going to pull the upset they must play defense. NU’s given up two historic offensive performances this year at Illinois and vs Wisconsin. Some credit those teams (and they deserve some credit), but the truth is that if you get beat so badly twice, it’s a pattern and some of the blame has to fall on you. I mean part of me has no trouble believing Northwestern is the team just unlucky enough to catch both teams on their best days ever, but in truth you don’t get as hot from deep as those teams without seeing some holes in the other guy’s defense. For NU to correct those holes they need to play with a little more effort on defense. In past years NU had guys who elevated the rest of the team’s defensive efforts, but we haven’t seen that this season. It would be a significant step if either JerShon Cobb or Drew Crawford used their athletic skill to really step to the forefront as NU’s top defender. One advantage NU might have in stopping Minnesota is the Gophers are without point guard Al Nolen who suffered a foot injury. With Devoe Joseph having transferred, Minnesota is short at guard. Maverick Ahanmisi will likely start on Wednesday and to this point he’s played just about nine minutes a game. If NU is going to try to use their active zone defenses to get turnovers this might be the night. The only problem with NU going 1-3-1 is the Gophers have Blake Hoffarber who is a 40% three point shooter to use in the holes of NU’s zone.

The other advantage the Gophers will have is size. NU had managed to avoid disaster on the boards in the Big Ten until Sunday when the Badgers dominated the ‘Cats. The Gophers have Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe who are both big and mobile and who score in double figures and get more than five boards a game. Mbakwe actually gets more than 10. Colton Iverson is also a big Gopher who can rebound. Between those three, NU is going to need Luka Mirkovic to get some major help from the athletic duo of Cobb and Crawford.

Drew Crawford might be the most significant player for NU in this game. Not only does he need to be a factor on defense and the glass, but he needs to wave his magician’s wand and make himself reappear on offense as well. Crawford averages about 13 points a game, but it seems like he scores either 26 or 0 in a contest. 26 from Crawford would sure help increase NU’s chances.

NU also needs Juice Thompson to stay out of foul trouble. Minnesota will try to apply pressure and NU needs Juice on the floor to break it.

With this game being the first for the Gopher without Nolen anything could happen. Sometimes teams rally especially in the first game without a star. However, sometimes the loss of a player as blessed as Nolen will make a team panic. I think this game will be close as Minnesota adjusts, what likely will win it for Minnesota is the way the Gophers can dominate inside. NU could have a hot shooting night as Williams Arena is known as a great shooing environment, but if they don’t, I doubt any of NU’s inside players will be able to pick up the slack. I predict: Minnesota, 78 Northwestern, 70

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Once Again NU Embarrassed in Key Game

Northwestern got creamed at home today by a team that should of lost to Indiana. Obviously NU didn’t shoot well overall and Drew Crawford was a non-factor, but the reason for the loss goes back to defense and rebounding. Good teams can make up for off shooting nights by playing defense and rebounding because those aren’t based on skill or luck. They’re just based on desire. Northwestern hasn’t been able to play very well on defense or rebound regularly for some time now. I like Bill Carmody as a person and think offensively he is a good coach, but something needs to be done about his teams’ defense (or lack of it) I don’t think the replacement of an assistant coach with someone with more of a background in teaching man-to-man defense would be unwarranted. Let’s face it no matter how many fans can’t deal with the fact the truth is Carmody himself is sticking around for two more years. No way exists that Northwestern is going to fork over the money to pay two men’s basketball head coaches at once (unless Pat Ryan or the professor who invented lyrica decides he wants Carmody canned and gives Jim Phillips the money to payoff Bill for two years), so it’s time to get over the desire to see Carmody axed and start functioning in reality when looking for ways to fix Northwestern’s basketball problems for the next two seasons. I see brining in someone who can coach defense as an option that fits both the realistic head coaching situation and NU’s desire to save cash.

This game was over from the moment Wisconsin got a 22-16 lead and NU couldn’t answer because they’re defense was poor that no doubt existed that Wisconsin was going to keep scoring the entire game. I personally would have liked to grab four friends and play against NU today. I think we could have at least put up 50. I don’t really have anything good to say about how Northwestern played or coached. They just seemed to melt under the pressure of the big game. That’s sadly become NU’s rep in football and men’s basketball and it sure as hell sucks as fan. And yes I know that’s a selfish statement because the players are doing their best, but it still is true. For whatever reason Northwestern isn’t a team that’s had a lot of mental toughness over the years and sadly if you aren’t very physically talented or tough you don’t win unless you’re mentally tough.

I don’t know why the players don’t take more offense at the fact everybody comments on their inability to win when it matters and then try to do something to prove the critics wrong, but every big game they wilt like flowers without water in the desert heat. The good news is this isn’t NU’s last chance to do something significant win wise, but it was actually (to me) their easiest. Winning on the road is tough and Illinois and Ohio State are better teams than Wisconsin.

I’ll let others blogs and media outlets breakdown the game more precisely from a basketball game plan point of view, but I’m really not sure what there is to breakdown other than to say NU played bad defense and didn’t shoot well enough to make up for that fact and once again Drew Crawford made Harry Houdini look like a light weight with his ability to disappear. I was impressed with Wisconsin on the glass, but they did have a rather significant height advantage so maybe that’s not as remarkable as one might think.

Bottom line, the win over Michigan this week was nice and NU still hasn’t lost to any bad teams and even if they lose their next three in a row that’ll remain true. However, as a fan I’m struggling a little bit because it seems like Northwestern basketball will always crush your positive expectations and I’m a bit of an optimist (as I think most NU fans are), so mine (ours) get crushed a lot. I know even if I realistically predict losses in game previews that I brainwash myself into thinking that NU will every game before it tips. I have to say, though, that at this point I’m a little more frustrated than after previous bad losses just based on NU’s total lack of positive effort today in what the whole world would agree was a big game played at home. It NU wasn’t ready to play. That’s been the case far too often over the past few years when things really mattered and it is starting ware thin on many Northwestern fans. You can only get yourself worked up and excited for something and that watch it fall flat so many times before you realize you’re doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, which just happens to be the definition of insanity (and you probably do need to be a little insane to cheer for Northwestern year after year in men’s hoops). How crazy am I? I actually still think NU will beat Illinois at home (though I’m not so sure about at Minnesota or Ohio State). Of course, home court advantage I’m afraid might not be a factor for the Ohio State and Illinois games which could really hurt NU. I suspect Welsh-Ryan will have many visitors and very few NU students for those contests after today and while I hate to excuse fair-weather fans, I’m not sure I can really blame them at this point. Hopefully, they’ll have reason to get excited after Wednesday and the OSU game (which is on ESPN2) will have a decent crowd of purple. That would be nice, of course it would also be nice if not only the fans but the team showed up as well.

We’re now almost half way through the Big Ten season, what does everyone else think about NU’s future prospects at this point?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Wisconsin Meets Northwestern in First of Two Wisconsin/Chicago Battles on Sunday

Your average Chicago sports fan will wake up on Sunday morning pumped up to see the Chicago Bears meet Wisconsin’s NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, in a battle for the right to advance to the Super Bowl. Personally, I’m going to be much more pumped for another battle between a Wisconsin institution and a Chicago-area team. The University of Wisconsin’s Badgers versus our Northwestern Wildcats at 11:30AM in Welsh-Ryan Arena.

While most people in Chicago won’t see NU/Wisky as all that significant a contest with the Bears/Packers game foremost on their minds, the truth is Chicago’s Big Ten Team needs this win as much as Chicago’s NFL Team needs their own. Northwestern hasn’t yet found a way to beat a team that is perceived and ranked as better than them this season. They’ve hammered a number of weaker squads, but that’s not enough to make a serious case for admission to the NCAA Tournament. Now, beating Wisconsin in Welsh-Ryan might not exactly qualify as a true signature win, it’ll be the first serious supporting detail in the thesis statement that Northwestern is an NCAA Tournament team.

Last year Wisconsin was to Northwestern what Michigan State was this season. NU should have won both games, but ended up losing both. What makes Wisconsin such a difficult matchup for NU is their size and the deliberate style of basketball they play. Wisconsin leads the nation in fewest turnovers and doesn’t rush to get shots. They score just about 70 points per game, but are very happy to play games in the 60s. They also shoot 44% overall and 37% from three as a team. That means that not only does Wisconsin get a shot up on the rim almost every possession, but they can make a pretty high percentage of those. If they miss, they have 191 offensive rebounds this season and forward Keaton Nankivil has 34 of those. Almost half of his about 5 rebounds per game come on the offensive end. Wisconsin’s overall rebound advantage is only about four boards a game more than their opponents, but Nankivil and Jon Leuer, who scores about 19 a game and rebounds more than seven, will give NU problems with their size and physical play. Plus, they aren’t the only big physical players Wisconsin has. It seems like Bo Ryan has some sort of cloning lab at the UW’s med school because he keeps trotting out big guys who appear similar and play a similarly physical style. Mike Brusesewitz is aptly named as he doesn’t shy away from contact nor does Jared Berggren. I think if John Shurna were totally healthy he’d be a big problem for these guys with his quickness and Wisconsin might have to put a smaller defender on him, but I worry that with his ankle Shurna will be defended by one of Wisconsins’s bigs and they’ll get a hand in his face and he won’t be able to get around them.

Wisconsin in the backcourt has Jordan Taylor at the point who is one of several great Big Ten points. He scores about 17 a game and isn’t a good a three point shooter as Nankivil or Leuer who are each over 45%, but he can knock down the open jumper as can swingman Tim Jarmusz. I think NU has to try to play matchup or man-to-man versus Wisconsin because the Badgers have too many weapons they could use against a 1-3-1.

I think NU also has to try to take Wisconsin out of their deliberate pace. NU needs to get some shots up and in early to try and force Wisconsin into a game in which they have move up and down the court and possibly make mistakes. That’s why this being a home game is such an advantage for Northwestern. The Wildcats clearly play better at home. The guards and forwards shoot better from three and the centers seem smarter with the ball and more willing to fight for rebounds. If NU comes out hot from three as they have often in Welsh-Ryan Arena and stays smart with the ball the while game, I think they’ll post a big win for them and the City of Chicago. I predict: Northwestern, 81 Wisconsin, 77

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wildcats Happy to Use Balanced Scoring and Minutes in Easy Win vs SIU-E

Bill Carmody found a way to use his entire roster on Thursday night.

Northwestern’s game Thursday evening over SIU-Edwardsville played out just as Head Coach Bill Carmody wanted. He stated before the game he wanted to rest some guys and get playing time for a number of players who don’t usually see a ton of action. The plan worked perfectly. Every NU player who dressed for the game played at least 10 minutes and made a positive statistical contribution. Eight NU players scored nine points or more and every NU player to play except for guard Austin Nichols (who only took two shots) scored in the game. Nichols, even though he didn’t score, was actively involved in two NU buckets with two assists.

NU’s top players didn’t see much action. John Shurna sat the entire game and Drew Crawford and Juice Thompson played less than 20 minutes each. Crawford scored 16 points in 16 minutes to lead NU’s balanced attack and Juice scored seven points in just the first half as he enjoyed a rest for the entire second stanza.

Obviously SIU-E doesn’t have Big Ten size, but with the importance of Luka Mirkovic to NU’s offense it was great to see him have a really fantastic game in preparation for Wisconsin on Sunday. Luka made all four of his field goal attempts (including a three pointer) and hit all six of his free throws. He also dished out four assists and didn’t turn the ball over. Luka’s matchup Sunday with Wisconsin’s large bodies inside will be one to watch.

Mike Capocci got the start for the resting John Shurna and also did a great job dishing the ball around. He score 9 points, but had 6 assists to go with those nine points. Capocci was also’s NU leading rebounder tonight with 5 boards. NU won the overall glass battle vs the smaller Cougars 38 to 22. Davide Curletti helped out with four rebounds for NU and four blocks.

It was also nice with Juice on the bench to see Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb (and eventually Nichols and Reggie Hearn) run the offense for NU and it still move smoothly. All four players had two assists each and Cobb led the group with 11 points, but Marcotullio added 10 as did Hearn for a career high.

I also have to say I thought NU did a nice thing not running up the score on SIU-E late in the game. Sure, it would have been nice to get 100 points, but that isn’t necessary for anything at this point. If this game had been earlier in the season things might have been different, but NU has nothing to prove to anyone about their offensive fire power at this point. I just hope that offensive fire power shows up Sunday in a huge matchup at 11:30.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Northwestern Steps Out of Conference to Host SIU-Edwardsville Thursday Night

In a tune up for a big game with Wisconsin on Sunday the Wildcats will battle SIU-Edwardsville on Thursday. The Badgers will take on Indiana the same evening. Northwestern is looking to post their second consecutive win in a stretch where they play four of five games at home. This is a game that Northwestern should win easily, though, last season’s step outside the Big Ten where the ‘Cats almost fell to Texas-Pan America does prove that no game is a total gimme. Still, SIU-E got demolished by both Indiana and Iowa who Northwestern shredded. The other item that certainly doesn’t work in SIU-E’s favor is that they just played on Tuesday. Yes, NU did the same, but teams that haven’t faced the Princeton Offense and who have limited prep time for it generally get picked apart and giving up 111 points to Iowa proves SIU-E isn’t a defensive powerhouse.

SIU-E also isn’t blessed with great size or shooting skill either—which is probably why they have a 5-15 overall record. Center Nikola Bundalo (9.5ppg 5.9rpg) stands 6-10, but he is the only front court player listed in an SIU-E lineup that features four guards. 6-5 freshman Michael Messer (8.8ppg 3.3rpg) is the second biggest player in the starting lineup and will probably have to content with NU’s John Shurna. As a team, SIU-E shoots 41.3% overall and 32.1% from three. SIU-E’s best offensive weapon is 5-10 guard Corey Wickware who scores about 12 points a game and will probably come off the bench vs the Wildcats. Northwestern isn’t a great defensive team, but if those are the numbers SIU-E has put up against some mediocre competition, I think NU can manage to defend them just as well if not better. SIU-E is also 0-11 on the road and NU tends to shoot lights out at home as long as Michigan State isn’t the opponent, so that doesn’t help the Cougars either.

The real worthwhile will discussion point for this game revolves around NU forward John Shurna. Fans are wondering if he will play and/or if he should play in what shouldn’t be a close game. At first, I thought he should probably rest, but as I think about it, I’m finding myself doubting one additional day of rest is going to do much for healing Shurna before Sunday. I now think it probably makes more sense to let Shurna play a little bit, feel good about himself for the second straight game, and get him to the bench early in the second half. Head Coach Bill Carmody has said Shurna’s injury has a psychological component to it and getting some easy baskets versus SIU-E can’t hurt Shurna there. I’d also say that I’d like to see NU get up early on SIU-E and truly finish the game before the second half starts, so letting Shurna start should help with that. When Shurna goes to the bench early in the second half I’d also like to see Juice Thompson go too. Juice deserves a break and this game seems like a good chance to let Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb get some work in at running the offense.

Even though I think Coach Carmody will rest NU’s starters for much of this game, I think NU can get a lot out of this contest. It’ll be a valuable game for guys like Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci who are coming along off the bench and are critical to NU’s future success. They aren’t probably going to post enough offensive numbers for NU to best Iowa’s 111 against SIU-E, but them getting work will make NU better in the long run. I predict: Northwestern, 89 SIU-E, 52

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Wildcats Use Fast Start and Decent Defense to Down Michigan 74-60

Northwestern continued their dominance at home and against teams ranked outside the top-35 in the RPI as they moved to 8-1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and 12-0 against teams who have an RPI between 36-345 (actually NU’s best win right now is over RPI #109 American U, the ‘Cats haven’t played anybody between 36-108). That means NU still doesn’t have a bad loss, but still haven’t posted a resume building win either. Nonetheless, the NU and Head Coach Bill Carmody have to feel good about getting a win following a disappointing loss at Michigan State on Saturday.

Coming back after that tough loss it was important NU get off to a good start and that came from Drew Crawford who his coach said, “jump started” the team with 8 early points including two threes off nice passes from his teammates, especially Luka Mirkovic. Mirkovic finished with 13 points and Carmody credited him with some “nice individual moves” which resulted in points, but I really like seeing Luka pass well. At times Luka can struggle with turnovers, but when he takes care of the ball he gives Northwestern a very strong option inside that creates some looks for himself and his teammates. Tonight Luka hit 5-of-9 shots, grabbed 8 rebounds, and finished with 2 assists and just 1 turnover. That was much better than his 6 turnovers against Michigan State on Saturday. Luka got some support for his teammate at center tonight as Davide Curletti played a second solid game in a row. Curletti sometimes seems to have issue with silly fouls, but he generally finds a way to be a factor when is on the court. Tonight he had 7 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes. Combined Mirkovic and Curletti posted a double-double of 20 points and 13 rebounds. Generally when NU gets that type of center production they win games.

If you watched the game you know that NU also got solid performances from Juice Thompson and John Shurna. I would personally still like to see Juice be a little more aggressive looking for his shot as he has only made 7 total field goals the last two games, but he was been fantastic taking care of the ball. Today he dished out 7 of NU’s 18 assists and didn’t turn the ball over. NU only turned the ball over 5 times as a team. That’ll be key on Sunday as the Wildcats face a Wisconsin team who leads the nation in fewest turnovers per contest. John Shurna was the beneficiary of several Thompson assists in the first half. Several times in transition Thompson set up Shurna for an open three and Shurna buried the shot. With his ankle as it is, it’s harder (though clearly not impossible) for Shurna to create his own shot, but he still is a frighteningly accurate shooter from three if he gets just enough time to get his feet set. In tonight’s contest Shurna caught fire in the middle of the first half and posted 22 points before intermission. He finished with 24 and came close to a double-double as he grabbed 8 rebounds. That’s not bad for a guy playing on a seriously sprained ankle. It’ll be interesting to see how Bill Carmody handles Shurna on Thursday versus SIU-Edwardsville. The odds are NU would be a double-digit favorite over SIU-E even without Shurna, but if playing on the ankle really doesn’t make Shurna feel worse I’d hate to have him out of rhythm before Wisconsin.

NU’s bench did a good job tonight with Alex Marcotullio and Mike Capocci combining for 7 points and 5 assists. Capocci handled himself well and was part of NU’s solid defensive effort and I’m liking the fact that while Marcotullio seems to be getting more comfortable with his shot, he’s not afraid to try and drive at the hoop for a shot or pass. JerShon Cobb also deserves some kudos because although he shot poorly he hustled all over the court getting a ton of minutes tonight and consistently made the right choice with the ball to end up with 3 assists and 0 turnovers in 35 minutes of PT.

I’ll close with a note that I thought NU’s defense game plan of trying to force Michigan to shoot the deep ball was right on because as noted in the game preview Michigan isn’t a great three point shooting team, but can be goaded into lofting shots. However, I do think NU caught a break due to Darius Morris being in foul trouble as he did manage to drive and score pretty much at will. I think it is imperative NU find a solid on ball defender that doesn’t have to switch on screens to defend opposition point guards. If you rewatch the game you will see that most of Morris’s easy drives come when Thompson/Cobb switch off him and Mirkovic/Curletti are trying to check him. Any decent Big Ten point guard will be able to get to the hoop against Luka and Davide and I’d don’t want NU’s lack of effort at fighting through screens to doom them. Someone must step up on defense for NU if they want to take the next step. Good as it feels to put some distance between the ‘Cats and bottom of the Big Ten, NU still needs that big win and defense will be the key.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Wildcats Looking to Rebound as They Host Michigan Team Trying to do the Same: Game Preview

I suspect players and coaches shrug off losses far easier than fans because they can get back to work immediately after crushing defeats and use that return to the court as a kind of therapy to get over the frustration of a bad loss. If that is the case, both Michigan and Northwestern must have been busting down the doors of their practice facilities in order to get to work Sunday morning. The Wildcats 71-67 OT loss to Michigan State on Saturday left them kicking themselves over the missed opportunity to pull a momentum gaining win. On the same day, Michigan got pummeled by a below-average Indiana team after losing two straight close games to #3 Kansas and #2 Ohio State. Simply put, it wasn’t a very legendary day for two of the teams who will be in the Big Ten’s legends division next fall.

Perhaps more frustrating than just losing those games is both teams are now sitting in the lower half of the Big Ten standings, but it could be legitimately argued they have upper division talent on their rosters. The Wildcats biggest problem is that their biggest talent, John Shurna, is still hurting with an ankle sustained December 23rd that allegedly isn’t supposed to get worse even as he plays on it, but doesn’t look like its getting much better either. Michigan is simply taking the lumps that a team that is primarily playing young guys will take. Michigan has found themselves in a position to pull a number of upsets this season, but has lost out to more experienced teams in the clutch.

The most impressive of Michigan’s young talents is point guard Darius Morris who has improved leaps and bounds over last year to become Michigan’s top scorer at 15.7ppg. He’s more aggressive than last year and isn’t settling for the three point shot. In fact, only 21.4% of his field goal attempts have been threes, that probably is good because he only makes 26.7% of his threes. He’s a scary matchup for Northwestern because aggressive points have had their way with breaking down the Wildcat defense and Morris isn’t just a scorer, he also dishes out more than seven (7!) assists a game. People around the Big Ten cite Demetri McCamey as the ideal point guard, but Morris is almost as good.

Michigan’s other top player is one of several on the roster with NBA-bloodlines, Tim Hardaway Jr. He should probably take a lesson from Morris and eschew the three a little more often as about half his shots come from three, but he doesn’t even make 30% of them. Still, he averages 11.2 ppg and his size and skill can cause defenders problems.

Northwestern’s best chance to win this game probably is to play zone. The Wildcats demonstrated Saturday that when they really work at it their zone is very effective. If they make a choice to play as hard on defense as they did in the first half against Michigan State all the time Northwestern will be a very good team. The problem is that they don’t always play that hard. To beat Michigan they will need to though because the fact is Michigan is a team you want to make shoot threes. I’ve already talked about the trouble Morris and Hardaway have from behind the arc, but as a team Michigan only makes 33.3% of their threes, but they shoot a lot. The only Michigan player at 40% in making threes is forward Evan Smotrycz. Zack Novack and Stu Douglass are decent shooters at about 37%, but I think if NU hustles in the zone the length of Crawford, Cobb, Marcotullio, Shurna, and Capocci will make it harder for those guys to get shots off.

On offense the Wildcats will have to contend the athletic skill of guys like Hardaway and Jordan Morgan, but the ‘Cats can still have some size advantages in the post. Also, I think part of the reason that John Shurna had such a poor game on Saturday wasn’t just his ankle, it was a combination of his ankle and Delvon Roe guarding him. Roe is such a great defender that you really need to work by running and cutting hard to get away from him. With Shurna’s injury that ability to accelerate and cut hard is more or less lost. We saw against Indiana and Iowa that he is still a dangerous player when he’s given a clean shot in the offense, but Roe is so tough and good at fighting through screens Shurna never got a clean look against Michigan State. Against U of M it seems more likely that Shurna will get some good looks. I’d also hope Drew Crawford continues to play well and we see the confidence of JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio behind the three point line continue to grow. Still, though, the position I honestly believe helps setup the NU offense is the post. Effective post play early (no necessarily even points, but good passing and no turnovers) is what has launched NU to success in most of their wins. Back at home I’d like think we’ll see that from Luka Mirkovic.

Because of the emotional swings of this season I’ve found many of the games this year hard to predict. Looking at this matchup it’s much of the same. Both teams come in off tough losses and the team that responds the best will likely get the victory. I think playing at home were the ‘Cats have shot well in every contest except when they hosted MSU will give NU an advantage and I expect to see not only better production from Shurna since he doesn’t have to deal with Delvon Roe, but continued good play from Crawford and Mirkovic who stepped up in the second half on Saturday. On the other side, I think NU’s defense’s odd desire to switch on high screens will create mismatches for Darius Morris against Luka and Davdie and he’ll score a lot of points going to the basket. If you like offense you’ll probably enjoy this game. I predict: Northwestern, 91 Michigan, 81

Note: If you're reading this blog you probably know this, but NU moved the start of Sunday's game vs Wisconsin to 11:30 because of the Bears and the Packers playing that afternoon. I like this move because it shows NU is thinking of Chicago fans and that helps promote us as Chicago's Big Ten team.

Second Note: I can't believe I predicted 90+ points for NU and it isn't a signal I've lost my mind. NU hoops has sure changed these past few years.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Revisiting an Old Issue: Northwestern’s Unrecognized 1931 Basketball National Title

Regular reader Mike D. brought to my attention a worthwhile issue I want to talk about today. I figure looking back a major positive is a probably a good idea in the wake of yesterday’s disappointment. Recently Northwestern’s athletic department added a number of banners recognizing the accomplishment of a number of teams to the Welsh-Ryan Arena rafters. Absent for those banners is the greatest accomplishment of a team that calls that building home. I’ve brought up this issue in the past, but for those that don’t know, NU was awarded the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Title for their 16-1 season in 1931. Admittedly the title was retroactively awarded when in 1939 a group of basketball experts at the Helms Foundation decided it was unjust that no titles were awarded for the first 38 years of the 20th century. But still the others schools who won titles through that manner celebrate their accomplishments. The list includes Big Ten member Purdue (who won the year after the ‘Cats in 1932), North Carolina, and as can be seen in the 1923 banner here the Kansas Jayhawks. When I think college basketball, I think Kansas and North Carolina. They are pretty much the bluest bloods of the sport. If a Helms Foundation National Title is good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.

I can’t understand why NU doesn’t want to acknowledge this great accomplishment and the great people who were part of it. Looking at the record of NU’s 1931 Head Coach Dutch Lonborg it quickly becomes clear he was one of the most respected basketball coaches of his era and his success at Northwestern was primarily the reason. Although he coached at three different schools (McPherson College, Washburn College, and NU), Lonborg recorded 73.3% of his career wins at NU. Aside from the National Title and Big Ten Title in 1931, Lonborg also led NU to the Big Ten Title in 1933 and second place finishes in 1932 and 1934. He is also Northwestern’s longest tenured head basketball coach coaching NU from the 1927-28 season until 1949-50.

NU’s 1931 Captain Joe Reiff was also a history making player. On a Wildcat team which featured a number of talented players, Reiff was the star. He picked up not only the MOP award from the Helms Foundation, but also was named a first team All-American. Reiff’s All-American award during that 1931 campaign was the first ever earned by a Wildcat. While earning that All-American award, Reiff led the Big Ten in scoring. Amazingly he was just a sophomore at the time.

In 1932 Reiff and the Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten to Helms Foundation National Champ Purdue. Reiff finished second in the league in scoring and was named a third-team All-American. That might have been something of a disappointment, as it was certainly a step back from that national title caliber team from the year before, but Reiff and Wildcats rebounded the next season to capture their second Big Ten Title. Again, Reiff led the Wildcats and the Big Ten in scoring. In fact, he set what was at the time a Big Ten record by scoring 168 points (14.0 PPG) in Big Ten play. Obviously, the offense flow of basketball was a little different in the early 1930s, but I say again that doesn’t change the significance of what was accomplishment. Reiff’s teammate Elmer Johnson finished second in the league in scoring. For his efforts, Reiff earned his second first team All-American honor in 1933 making him the first and second Wildcat All-American. Overall the Wildcats were 15-4 in that season. That Big Ten Title Reiff led the ‘Cats to in 1933 is also the last time Northwestern won a Big Ten Title in Basketball.

Why NU has chosen to ignore Lonborg and Reiff’s National Title is beyond me, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that given NU’s new emphasis on acknowledging history with the new Welsh-Ryan Arena banners, a great opportunity exists to finally acknowledge what those men and the best NU hoops squad ever accomplished.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Spartans Prevail in OT and Hand NU 4th Conference Loss: Hope Crushing Defeat Might Have Been The Result of Uncalled TOs

The biggest debate in NU fan circles in the last week surrounded Bill Carmody’s contract extension. True, the extension actually got signed in the fall, but its announcement midseason made Carmody’s future contract status a worthwhile discussion point. I wrote a long opus on Carmody earlier in the week and I stand by the positives I mentioned about him. However, he completely mishandled the end of both games vs Michigan State. I hope I’m wrong, but I see Carmody’s performance in the two games vs MSU this year as possibly costing Northwestern the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State isn’t a very good team. Sorry Spartan fans, but beating Wisconsin on a miracle finish and beating Northwestern because in Evanston Carmody forgot John Shurna was hurt and then today because he forgot he had multiple remaining timeouts isn’t anything to be proud of. If NU had beaten MSU twice (which they absolutely should have) then Michigan Stat would probably be ticketed for about eight Big Ten wins and NU might have got even many as 11 or 12. Now, MSU will sneak out 10 or so because they have some freakish athletes and Kalin Lucas at point guard and NU will be looking at another season with at best 10 Big Ten victories, but probably more like eight and, if lucky, a road game in the NIT.

Twice (and maybe three times, but I'm giving Izzo credit for getting his guys to foul on the last offesnsive possession) Bill Carmody, who is an excellent offensive coach, passed up the opportunity to call timeout and draw up a play and Northwestern looked like the Washington Generals trying to run offense. With ten seconds left in the game and TWO timeouts remaining Carmody let Juice Thompson dribble towards the corner (I have no idea what he planned to do once he got there) and Thompson traveled on the way there (see the comments section for my list of great Carmody play calls which he should have called a TO and gone back to). Then with about the same amount of time left in OT and THREE timeouts left Carmody let NU play on despite the Wildcats looking lost on offense and John Shurna, who was clearly hurting, was forced to throw up a 25-foooter which didn’t hit a thing. I honestly believe that Bill Carmody is offensive genius. In my heart and in my mind I KNOW if that he calls timeout when Thompson is brining the ball up the court in the game’s last ten seconds that NU gets a shot they can make and wins the game 62-60 preventing the contest from even going to overtime. For some reason, though, Carmody refused to do what he does the best. The worst part is this isn’t the first time. In 2006 Carmody’s mediocre Wildcats had a chance to pull off a major upset of Ohio State as Sterling Williams took the ball down the court with about ten seconds left. Instead of calling a timeout, Carmody let the freshman Williams try to drive, but Williams panicked and tried to pass to a well covered Bernard Cote and Ohio State got away with the win. I don’t know what Carmody’s problem was that day or what it was today. Did he think he’d need the timeout in OT? I think what makes that OSU loss and this loss even worse for me is I do think Carmody is a smart coach who if he’d done his job probably would have had his team pull off the upset. All the people who think Carmody is a clown probably just shrug their shoulders and move on after these defeats because they don’t think he’s capable, but the I know he is.

The failure of NU’s leadership today wasn’t just Carmody, though. Juice Thompson did some nice things and finished with 15 points, but his inexplicable drive to the corner at the end of the game didn’t help his coach.

NU obviously had some nice moments or they wouldn’t have been in the game. Drew Crawford had a big second half which kept NU battling the Spartans and finished with 16 points. It's just too bad that Crawford's errant pass in OT when NU was up three with the ball and chance to put serious distance between themselves and the Spartans was picked by Draymond Green (who was the game's MVP by far) started MSU's OT run. Even Luka Mirkovic stepped up and scored 10 second half points when he found himself one-on-one with MSU’s post defenders. I do wish Luka could have hit one more free throw or not had as many dumb travels, but he did play better than he looked like he would in the first half. JerShon Cobb played good defense and got several key rebounds and Alex Marcotullio played well on defense as well. In the first half all the Wildcats really played great defense, in the second half MSU was more aggressive and the ‘Cats defense kind of suffered, but I still liked the overall effort from NU. They played and coached well for most of the game, but not enough of it.

In the end, though, this game came down to poor choices from Carmody and Thompson. This is why sometimes I just hate being a Northwestern fan. It seems like whenever the game has nationally relevancy or the ‘Cats can seriously position themselves to do something special something goes wrong or somebody (usually the guy you’re the biggest fan of) does something stupid and the game is lost. I had a friend who said recently that he was going to change his NFL allegiance, he felt so much frustration with the Redskins that he threw out all his ‘Skins gear and bought Bears stuff. Unfortunately, I can’t do that for NU. My parents starting dragging me to NU contests before I even really understood what basketball was, I think I was mostly just excited to eat a soft pretzel. At some point, though, my joy at eating the soft pretzel gave way to my joy of cheering the efforts of guys like Kevin Rankin, Evan Eschmeyer, Jitim Young, and Vedran Vukusic. Even as they struggled and I found myself sitting in an increasingly empty or dominated by visiting fans Welsh-Ryan Arena, I always told people that I was sticking with the ‘Cats because suffering through all the painful losses would make the joyous occasion when NU made the NCAA Tournament all the more meaningful to me. Some part of me still believes, but another part of me is looking at Kevin Coble’s departure, John Shurna’s ankle, and now Bill Carmody and Michael Thompson’s brain cramps and I’m starting to doubt the NCAA Tournament is possible for Northwestern. Ever. Am I being too fatalistic? Perhaps. But it’s not just recent events. It’s everything from Rex Walters’s problems with geography, to Evan Eschmeyer’s foot, to Nick Knapp’s ailing heart that has left this broken hearted Wildcat still hoping to see NU in the Big Dance, but finding less and less reason to make an honest case that it’s possible.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Opportunity Presents Itself for Wildcats in East Lansing

Northwestern plays Michigan State tomorrow in East Lansing. For most of my life I would have written this game off as a loss and moved on to the Wildcats next contest. However in 2008-09 Kevin Coble, Juice Thompson, and a major clutch three by Craig Moore made me believe that beating Michigan State at home wasn’t a pipe dream for Northwestern hoops. Tomorrow, the Wildcats will have a legit chance to score a major significance victory. The Wildcats had a chance to beat Michigan State at home, but imploded in the game’s last 30 seconds. Along the same lines, Wisconsin had a chance to upset the Spartans in East Lansing, but imploded in the game’s final three minutes. To some extent those games prove Michigan State is good enough to eek out wins, but it also shows they aren’t the invulnerable Spartan teams of years past. That means the Wildcats have a chance, although it might be slim, to pull off an upset that will certainly look favorable to tournament selection committees.

In order to pull that upset Northwestern must play defense. The Wildcats have been mediocre on defense all year, but actually defended the Spartans well in Evanston. NU needs to be truly good on defense if they want to pull the upset in East Lansing. That’ll mean causing Spartan turnovers. In Evanston NU didn’t play much 1-3-1, but the fact is that although Kalin Lucas is a great point guard, MSU is turnover prone. If NU can pressure Lucas and force him to give up the ball they could create a number of turnovers. Korie Lucious is a decent ball handler as is Draymond Green, but still MSU has a number of players like Durrell Summers who are great overall players, but tend to turn the ball over. Summers is the Spartans leading scorer, but also has basically a 1-to-2 assist to turnover ratio. The other reason I think NU could benefit from more 1-3-1 or other pressure defense vs the Spartans is that MSU isn’t a great three point shooting team. Yes, they make about 38% overall, but if you can contain Lucas, Lucious, and Green you have a chance. I still would love to see Bill Carmody use a triangle and two defense as I think a number of Big Ten teams are basically two player shows and a good triangle and two would cause major trouble.

NU’s offensive game plan has to be a total team game plan. MSU has very athletic forwards in Green and Delvon Roe, but they are smaller than Luka Mirkovic and John Shurna. Shurna is getting healthier by the day and needs to get involved as both a shooter and driver. Luka had a number of good looks inside that he missed due to the more physical Spartans when the teams met at Welsh-Ryan. NU needs to get him those same looks on Saturday and Luka needs to toughen up and make them count. That’ll be the key to the game as far as I’m concerned. If Northwestern gets inside points from Luka it’ll open up three point looks for Thompson, Crawford, Marcotullio, Shurna (as shooter), and Cobb and then NU will have a chance. If the ‘Cats fail to make easy baskets inside the Spartans will dominate the glass, score easy baskets of their own, and it’ll be a rough day for NU.

I honestly think Northwestern can win this game. However, I think the key to that success is Luka Mirkovic playing a good road game. As these stats from Wildcat Report poster Dugan15 prove, that’s no bargain, therefore, I predict: Michigan State, 72 Northwestern, 65

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wildcats Notch Critical Conference Road Win With Blowout of Hawkeyes

Although Iowa isn’t the strongest opponent the Big Ten has to offer Northwestern’s 90-71 win over the Hawkeyes tonight is still significant. It gives Northwestern their first conference road win of the season and moves them to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten standings. In addition, NU maintains the strongest point of its potential tournament resume which is that the ‘Cats have no bad losses. At some point they need to post a signature win, but avoiding embarrassing defeats hasn’t always been an NU strong suit so a dominate win over a weaker Iowa team is a good feat. You also have to be both impressed, and kind of amazed, that a Northwestern team which was once lambasted from every corner of the Earth for its slow deliberate pace of play now has scored 90 points in consecutive Big Ten conference games and, to be frank, if Coach Carmody hadn’t tried to use the entire bench in the first half NU probably could have posted about 55 points in the 1st half and maybe gotten to 100 points in the game.

The great thing about this win was the multiple positive contributions from a number of players. It wasn’t just one or two guys doing one or two things that took NU to victory. It seemed everybody who played significant minutes tonight made significant contributions. The MVP of the contest, and a guy I was thrilled to see step up because I think he’s a huge key for NU, was Drew Crawford. Crawford got the ‘Cats going with four deep threes early in the game to begin the Wildcat three point assault (5-of-9 3PT over and 19 total points), but also ended up leading the team with 6 rebounds in the contest. The ‘Cats also got 3-of-6 three point shooting from Juice Thompson who had struggled a bit with his deep shot in recent games. In addition to scoring his 17 points, Juice also had 5 assists, 3 steals, and became NU’s all-time leader in minutes played. John Shurna is looking healthier and healthier each day and today totaled 16 points, 5 assists, and 3 steals. JerShon Cobb totaled 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. Luka Mirkovic had 8 points and 4 assists in a game where he probably could have scored more, but had to contend with foul trouble and the fact his teammates were drilling threes left and right so they didn’t feel much need to throw the ball inside. Alex Marcotullio made every shot he took for 8 points and 3 assists and even Davide Curletti got into the act with 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Basically, every Wildcat who saw more than a little time qualified as what CBS’s Clark Kellogg would call, “a stat sheet stuffer.”

NU even played decent defense for much of this game. The Wildcats did a great job in the first half in the switching man-to-man of denying passing lanes and making it very hard for Iowa to enter the ball. This forced a number of Hawkeye turnovers. The only real problem NU had was if Iowa’s Bryce Cartwright got the ball in a position to aggressively attack the basket. In the second half NU struggled a bit early, but was able to limit Cartwright and his teammates’ aggressiveness when they switched to the 1-3-1 zone which bogged down Iowa’s attack and resulted in a number of easy baskets (including a John Shurna dunk) for NU. If NU can continue to switch defenses appropriately and play with the necessary effort to prevent easy passes and looks at the hoop they have a chance to pull some upsets and get a signature win. No team is going to be perfect, but NU has enough offensive weapons that if they play enough defense to keep themselves in games they will give themselves a chance to win.

That’ll be put to the test on Saturday when NU travels to Michigan State. This year’s Michigan State is beatable (NU almost did so in Evanston), but it’ll still take a better than average defensive effort along with NU’s strong shooting and an effort like tonight where NU won the rebounding battle 36-25 to knock off the Spartans in their building.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wildcats Seek First Conference Road Win at Iowa

The post Bill Carmody extension era begins Wednesday night in Iowa City as Northwestern travels to play the Hawkeyes. While I can’t say an NU victory will justify Jim Phillip’s decision to extend Bill Carmody’s contract for what the Chicago Tribune reports is two more years, I do think a win would convey a positive message of progress for Northwestern this season. Last year NU was abysmal on the road they beat N.C. State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Michigan in Big Ten play, but other than that didn’t post a “true” road win. Two years ago NU briefly flashed road warrior status with wins at ranked Michigan State and ranked Purdue, but overall Bill Carmody hasn’t demonstrated great success away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. Therefore, getting a win at Iowa would at least show fans that NU has improved over last season as a victory would be NU’s third “true” road win of the year.

If NU is to make that happen they need to duplicate much of their offensive game plan from Sunday against Indiana. Iowa doesn’t start a player over 6-7. Therefore, NU should be able to feed the ball inside to Luka Mirkovic and get him on the scoreboard early. If Luka starts hot in a game he usually stays hot and it opens up passing lanes for NU to find space for jump shots. That’s particularly important right now because since his ankle injury John Shurna requires a little more space and time to get a shot off.

Iowa is in many ways a lot like Northwestern. They’re a team that is probably going to get most of their points from the guard and small forward positions, but if they get inside production their chances of winning jump significantly. Also like NU, the Hawkeyes prefer to play a relatively high scoring game. If both teams shoot well and refuse to play defense it wouldn’t surprise me to see the game played with the final score for both sides in the 90s. The Hawkeyes best statistical player is Matt Gatens who scores 12.7ppg and makes 34.2% of his threes, but the player I’m most worried about is forward Eric May. May is one of those guys who has the ability to do a number of things well. He makes 46% of his threes, gets four rebounds a game, and averages double figures. His big weakness is that he isn’t a great free throw shooter. The other Hawkeye who averages double figures is point guard Bryce Cartwright. Cartwright took over those duties when Cully Payne got hurt and has been solid if not spectacular in taking care of the basketball with 69 assists and 47 turnovers. He isn’t a great shooter however at just 26% from three and if you force him to give up the ball the rest of the Hawkeyes have more turnovers than assists. It’ll be interesting to see if NU tries to play some 1-3-1 and trap Cartwright. If they do so, they better not leave May open in the corner. In some ways this would be great game to play a triangle and two or a box and one and focus man defenders on May and/or Gatens and try and let the rest of the Hawkeyes do enough to win.

As good as the perimeter players for both sides are, I’m anxious to see how Luka Mirkovic deals with Iowa’s Jarryd Cole and Melsahn Basabe. Both are smaller than Luka at 6-7, but Cole has shown the ability to be very physical, which sometimes knocks Luka back, and Basabe has long arms and will block Luka if he goes to the hoop with his weak flipper layups. Luka needs to stay tough and his teammates need to get him the ball in good position to score as they did versus Indiana.

I’d love to say I think Northwestern’s defense will show up in this contest and NU will blow the Hawkeyes out, but I just can’t see that happening. I can, however, see a contest where the fact NU has just a few more guys who score than Iowa makes a difference and results in a close Northwestern win. I predict: Northwestern, 88 Iowa, 85

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bill Carmody Signs Contract Extension

Northwestern extended the contract of men’s basketball coach Bill Carmody today. It was reported in the fall that NU and Carmody were working towards an extension, but I think many thought Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips would wait until the end of the current season before letting Carmody sign on the dotted line for what many suspect is a multi-year extension that will keep Carmody at NU at least through the graduation of the current freshmen class.

While I don’t agree with the Trib’s assessment that most NU fans are less than thrilled to see Carmody stay, I will say that Bill Carmody seems to have become the most divisive NU athletic figure since Gary Barnett in the weeks after his departure for Colorado. That sounds impressive, but the truth is everyone could agree that Kevin O’Neill’s attitude and outlook wasn’t a good fit for NU and that as a great of people as Bill Foster and Ricky Byrdsong were they weren’t good enough coaches to win at NU at the time. On the other hand, Carmody has won just enough games to make a sound argument he’s best NU basketball coach since Pearl Harbor was bombed, but has lost just enough to make others see him as a one trick pony whose offensive genius is overshadowed by his inability to coach defense and recruit skilled big men. People also get on Carmody because he likes red wine and shows emotion on the sidelines. Personally, I prefer white wine, but I couldn’t care less that Carmody prefers red. Also, the most successful coach in the history of college basketball, Mr. Robert Montgomery Knight, was the king of sideline antics. Personally, I go to bed each night hoping that Carmody will be even half as entertaining as Knight. Honestly, if Bill Carmody picked up a chair and threw it when NU was getting homered at home by the Big Ten refs the media coverage it would generate would probably be the best thing ever to happen to Northwestern basketball. Heck, ESPN would probably even send Knight to Evanston to interview Carmody, but I digress. Let’s get back to the point.

The issue is whether or not Carmody’s extension was the right move. Carmody’s winning percentage of .472 at NU isn’t great, but it is .112 points higher than the highest percentage of the four coaches who preceded him. Carmody’s two postseason appearances in 10 years aren’t great, but it’s better than most of Northwestern basketball history. He has directed some the most successful seasons in NU basketball history. In addition, Carmody’s recruiting has picked up and he has constructed a nucleus of talent which looks to be NU’s strongest in some time. Even with the graduation of Juice Thompson at the end of this season, NU should be strong next year with John Shurna as a senior, Drew Crawford as a junior, and a very mature sophomore in JerShon Cobb. Add a decent point guard to those three and NU might even be better than this season.

On the other hand, Carmody’s winning percentage is still below .500. He’s also only gotten to the postseason twice in 10 years and while it is Northwestern, those numbers are certainly not numbers which meet the goals Dr. Phillips or most fans have for the program (at least I hope not). Also, though, NU’s recruiting has improved, I don’t see any players who are truly difference makers or program changing recruits. The players on the roster might come together to make the NCAA Tournament, but there is clearly a small margin for error with these guys and Shurna’s injury and Kevin Coble’s departure might have pushed NU outside of that margin for error. Speaking of Coble, it sounds in many ways like he and his family were pretty selfish and motivated more by their self interests than the NU basketball program’s but one has to wonder what exactly happened between Carmody and Coble family that both sides couldn’t stick it out for one more season with so much at stake (e.g. NU in the tourney, Kevin’s shot at pro ball, Carmody’s legacy as a coach). Also, even with some recruiting improvements this year’s NU roster (supposedly one of the best ever) has one point guard and one true center. That’s not good for a team that is supposed to compete in the Big Ten.

As I hope you can see from above, I see both sides on Bill Carmody. I honestly think he’s a pretty good coach, especially on offense. Any basketball coach/player with a good eye can see that NU’s offense is very complex and hard to guard when run with good players. That’s why Carmody’s mentor Pete Carill was able to get work as an NBA assistant, the Princeton offensive schemes are 100% solid. Unfortunately, Carmody has some limitations which can’t be corrected by even the most brilliant offense. Some aren’t his fault, for example I can’t think of another major college program that conveys more of a sense of “un-big timeness” than NU. That goes for game day (can we please cut out the audio only pregame highlights no one can hear and the improv stuff that just seems dumb?) and the program’s facilities both for game play and practice. I’m not sure any coach could overcome those and break through with top-50 recruits regularly at NU. Some of Carmody’s limitations are his own fault, though. For example, the fact NU has games they simply don’t show up for has to somewhat be traced back to the coach. I’m not saying Carmody isn’t trying to fire his teams up, but clearly the psychological side of coaching isn’t a Bill Carmody strength. Carmody’s teams’ refusal to play defense is also a problem that he has to take the blame for.

If you’ve read this far you probably expect me to give you a bottom line on Bill Carmody’s extension, but I’m finding it nearly impossible to do so. No matter how much people may want to do so, Bill Carmody can’t be evaluated on the same scale as other Big Ten coaches. I honestly believe if NU could play any defense at all and had a center with a more well-rounded game than Luka Mirkovic the Wildcats would probably be in the top-25 right now. But isn’t it Carmody’s fault they don’t? Well, not if you consider he didn’t build Welsh-Ryan Arena or refuse to spend money to upgrade it any time in the last 30 years. If it had been up to me I probably wouldn’t have extended Carmody’s contract until this season was over, but just because Carmody is back doesn’t mean all his assistants will be. Maybe this offseason is finally the year NU gets a defensive expert. If I were Phillips that would have been one of my criteria for Carmody’s retention if NU doesn’t make the Big Dance. The sad fact is NU basketball has problems that won’t be solved with a coaching change. If NU really wants to be serious about competing for Big Ten Titles in basketball they’ll make an effort to ensure Welsh-Ryan and the rest of the facilities and amenities for NU’s program and its fans are up to Big Ten standards. Maybe then we can truly evaluate Bill Carmody (or any coach) on the same scale as his counterparts.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wildcats Survive “Defenseless” Second Half to Halt Losing Skid

Luka Mirkovic posted a career high 20 points and added 12 rebounds Sunday night.

Northwestern’s now into the victory column in Big Ten play and John Shurna showed the ability to overcome his injury in posting 24 points and 5 assists to lead the Wildcats to victory. Those facts both have to bring a smile to the face of NU fans and Wildcat Head Coach Bill Carmody.

The biggest positive from this game from my point of view actually wasn’t Shurna. John was great, but the play of Luka Mirkovic really stood out for me as a key to NU’s success on the offensive end of the court. Luka finished the game with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 12 rebounds (5-offenseive 7-defensive). NU’s early efforts to get the ball inside to Luka against the smaller Indiana big men set a tone for the night which resulted in NU controlling the paint early (NU had 20 first half points in the paint) and getting a number of easy baskets so NU didn’t have to become overly dependent on threes. I’ve noticed now for a couple years that Luka actually has very good moves in the post. The problem has been his struggles in finishing at the hoop. Luka has probably led the Big Ten in missed point blank shots the last couple years. Tonight, though, when Luka got to the hoop he was able to use his size and finish. A couple times he not only finished, but finished and drew the foul as well. On Wednesday night Northwestern plays an Iowa team that like Indiana has big men who Luka is going to have a height advantage against. Luka hasn’t traditionally been a great road player, but if NU gets him involved early it could once again set the tone for the game.

A couple other Wildcats who stepped up in tonight’s win were Michael “Juice” Thompson and Mike Capocci. I thought Mike and Mike both in their own ways were key contributors to NU’s win. Juice scored 16 points and added a career high-tying 8 assists. Capocci came off the bench and along with Alex Marcotullio added some much needed energy for the Wildcats. In 14 minutes Capocci scored 8 points, grabbed 3 rebounds, blocked a shot and made 4-of-5 free throws. Marcotullio had 5 rebounds, 4 assists (only 1 TO) and scored 6 points. I would love to see Marcotullio get a little more consistent with his three point jump shot, but right now he is still a valuable player off the bench because he is a good defender and excellent passer who rarely puts the ball in the wrong place.

The Wildcats finished today 10-of-20 from three point range making the minimum 10 threes coach Bill Carmody says they need to hit in order to be successful. Shurna made 4-of-5, but credit also goes to freshman JerShon Cobb who made 3-of-4 and continues to look more and more comfortable as the season moves along. NU also got two huge threes from Drew Crawford when Indiana was making their comeback. Crawford still is struggling with inconsistency, but it was good to see him show up in the clutch.

As can be seen above most of NU’s positives were on offense. Defense is another matter. I will say that I was very impressed with the way Northwestern played defense in the first half. They hustled and tipped balls and did a great job fighting through screens. Then in the second half the regular Northwestern defense showed up. Indiana was able to get whatever shot they wanted in the paint and went from shooting 36% in the first half to 54.5% and 53 points in the second half. I think Northwestern simply needs to get more physical on defense, especially inside. NU has some strong athletic guys like Mike Capocci and Drew Crawford who I think could make life tough for the opposition in the switching man-to-man if they were a little more physical when guys try to drive on them. Improving the defense will be key as the season continues. Today the Wildcats were good enough (mostly in the first half) in the matchup/switching man-to-man that never resorted to the 1-3-1. That’s to me part of the reason why a good three point shooting Indiana team only hit six threes in the game.

I think if NU can duplicate their first half defense and play offense like they did for this entire game they still have a chance to win 10 conference games despite their poor start. The key will be beating weaker teams even on the road. That has to start Wednesday when the ‘Cats face the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Indiana @ Northwestern: Trying to Find Answers to a Myriad of Questions

Northwestern’s performance (or lack of performance) at Illinois on Thursday left fans shaking their heads and asking a number of questions. Where did that great three point shooting team go? Where did the disciplined offense disappear to? What happened to the turnover causing 1-3-1 zone? Why does Drew Crawford often disappear? Why can’t Luka Mirkovic make a layup? Why do the Wildcats constantly switch whenever the offense screens? What would have happened if Kevin Coble hadn’t quit and Kyle Rowley hadn’t transferred? Should John Shurna be playing with his injured ankle? Is this team still listening to Bill Carmody? Will Carmody keep his job if NU doesn’t post a few wins in the next two weeks? Those are just a few of the questions fans were asking. They aren’t the only ones. Sunday’s game against Indiana isn’t going to answer them all, but the game could answer a few or present more.

Having watched the Illinois game in person I think the questions foremost on my mind are about Shurna’s ankle and whether the team is still focused on implementing Carmody’s game plan. John at Chicago College Basketball offered his opinion that Shurna should sit and I’m leaning towards agreement. Northwestern’s offense is predicated on making hard cuts and making open shots. Shurna’s injury makes it difficult for him to cut and to push off on his shot. I also think because Shurna’s shot release is so strange he has a very small margin for error and his ability to push off is forcing misses because it has pushed Shurna’s release outside that margin for error. No question exists that Shurna is a great player, but he’s not a great player while hurt. Putting him on the bench will allow him time to heal and will hopefully force other players to step up because they will now know that Shurna isn’t going to be used in the game.

The bigger question, though, is the team’s focus on the game plan. Early in the year Carmody said his team didn’t have any knuckle heads, but against both Michigan State and Illinois the Wildcats disobeyed their coach’s game plan and sure looked like knuckle heads. For a long stretch against Michigan State NU stopped running their offense and instead forced bad shots. As it turned out that was a huge stretch because once NU returned to doing what they were coached to do they got a number of open shots and almost won the game. If they’d done so all night they would have beaten MSU as Penn State did today. Against Illinois, Bill Carmody specifically said he told his players not to help in the post, that allowing Mike Tisdale to score two points was worth it to not give up “Sunday shots” to McCamey and Richardson yet on the first two possessions of the game NU guards left McCamey and Richardson to help on Tisdale and the two Illini guards hit wide open threes. That’s bad because it means either NU’s players have horrible basketball IQs (which as I’ve said before is a must have when you’re less physically talented as a team) or the players are just blatantly ignoring their coach because they think they know better which is knuckle head behavior. Either way it looks bad.

The good news, though, is Indiana has their own struggles, especially away from home. The Hoosiers haven’t won a road game all year and like NU are 0-3 in the Big Ten. This is a big game in the sense that neither squad wants to go 0-4. Northwestern will probably try to play their matchup zone/switching man-to-man first because every IU regular with exception of Jeremiah Rivers shoots at least 32% from three point range. If point guard Jordan Hulls and his nearly 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio can find passing lanes the Hoosiers could pick the 1-3-1 apart. Therefore, I suspect NU will play the matchup, but they better listen to their coach and be willing to give up some inside points and not leave Hulls (51% 3PT), Christian Watford (39% 3PT), and the rest of the hot shooting Hoosiers open on the perimeter. NU also desperately needs to play some defense without switching. If they switch large athletic Hoosiers like Watford and Maurice Creek will be very poor matchups for a number of Wildcats. I’m also really worried about how easily Verdell Jones III will be able to get to the basket if Luka Mirkovic ends up guarding him on a switch.

I find it really hard to predict this game. In part because I don’t know Shurna’s status and in part because I think a large part of this game for Northwestern is going to be mental. How do Michael “Juice” Thompson and Drew Crawford respond to their poor play? Do they sulk and point fingers or do they respond with authority? Watch Crawford early. He usually reveals what type of game he is going to have fairly quickly. If NU can pull themselves together I think they win simply because Indiana is a pretty poor road team. If they can’t I think the book of questions people have about this program gets an extra chapter or two added. I look for Northwestern to actually slow down their offense a bit in order to resist the temptation to force shots and get solid looks for Crawford and to try and incorporate Mirkovic into the game more early which generally makes him play better. I predict: Northwestern, 71 Indiana, 68

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hammer Time! Illinois Lights up NU Defense with School Record Numbers

Let me start this post by saying I made a road trip to Champaign, Illinois for this contest. Even if I hadn’t, I’d consider NU’s play unacceptable for a team which wants to compete for the NCAA Tournament and a top-5 finish in the Big Ten, but having actually seen the game in person, I have to admit I feel an even deeper frustration with the current state of Northwestern basketball than I might have from merely viewing the contest on television. I think that’s the advantage of seeing games in person. When watching a contest on TV you’re stuck with what the director and producer of the broadcast show you and what the commentators choose to talk about. When you see a game in person you’re free to form your own opinions about what you see. After tonight, I’ve formed some new opinions on where Northwestern’s basketball program stands and I have to admit many of them aren’t all that positive.

The trip did have some positive so I’ll mention those first. I went to the game with some friends and we had good time. I especially enjoyed our pregame meal at La Bamba in Champaign. My chicken burrito was excellent and the medium Pepsi was just the right about of beverage. That pretty much covers the good elements of the night as far as I can recall. Also, JerShon Cobb played a decent game. He shows flashes of being a highly skilled player. Cobb’s inconsistency from three point range is a concern, but he’s hardly the only Wildcat with that problem.

Illinois played a good game tonight. They came out hot from three point range and thanks to some very good inside play (especially inside passing) from Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis they also found their way into the heart of NU’s zone for easy baskets. The game was essentially over after four possessions when Illinois made three consecutive threes and then Luka Mirkovic fouled Mike Tisdale to setup a three point play. To some extent I wasn’t surprised with Illinois scoring points as NU isn’t a strong defensive team, but the ease with which Illinois scored was ridiculous—Northwestern essentially looked like the JV team trying to scrimmage the Varsity squad. Every player on the Illinois roster seemed more skilled, physical and in possession of a better basketball IQ than Northwestern’s players. I can accept NU being out skilled. That’s the nature of where NU’s recruiting is right now, but if you’re going to be at a skill disadvantage you better be tougher and smarter—that’s how Wisconsin wins. Northwestern wasn’t and isn’t. The Wildcats let Illinois push them around all night. The best example was when Mike Tisdale backed down Davide Curletti with so much force I thought Tisdale might not knock the wind out of Curletti. Also, Northwestern never really seemed to make much effort on defense to really guard the Illini players closely. Richardson and McCamey had a number of wide open shots in the run to start the game while the majority of NU’s looks were contested. If nothing else I’d like to see demonstrate a little more toughness and intensity when they play.

Part of the reason for those shots was also the way Illinois passed the ball. It seemed the Ilini had an assist on nearly every shot and Bruce Weber had schooled his team on exactly how to attack Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone as Illinois scored on the first four possessions in which NU tried to play their standard comeback/turnover causing defense. No question exists that when players execute coaches look good, but you have to give some credit to Weber and his staff since they were clearly well prepared for this game. I thought it was telling on the postgame interview that Weber made the point of saying how now after having coached against Northwestern for the better part of a decade there aren’t a lot of surprises and it has become much easier to game plan for NU. Of course that’s true of any conference opponent, but given the fact much of the success of the Princeton Offense and 1-3-1 zone are predicated on their uniqueness it has to be a concern. Has Northwestern become to predictable to the rest of the Big Ten? In a post earlier fellow NU blog Lake the Posts the point was made that Bill Carmody has fattened his record against suspect non-conference foes. That may be true, but it’s true for all coaches. Every BCS school plays a number of cupcake teams. My fear isn’t that Carmody’s record looks good because he beats Mount St. Mary’s, my fear is that people look at Carmody’s teams winning in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge 4 of the last 5 years and use those wins as a measuring stick of NU’s competiveness against good teams. Sure, those also count as top-50/100 wins, but the important top-50/100 wins come in conference games and NU is now 0-3 in such contests versus Big Ten opponents and based on their effort tonight I’m not looking for a ton of success in the rematches down the road with Michigan State or Illinois unless the attitude NU takes drastically changes. Anybody who reads this blog regularly knows I’ve been more positive about Bill Carmody than many NU fans, but what I saw tonight was just so unacceptable for what was supposed to be an NCAA Tournament that I can say for sure this is without a doubt, for me at least, the worst I’ve felt about NU basketball since the end of the 1-17 last place in the Big Ten 07-08 season. The good news is I think even Carmody himself would admit that this team isn’t currently playing to their ability level and as head coach it’s his job to make them do so. He certainly doesn’t want to be embarrassed like he was tonight again, if it’s this frustrating for fans to watch such a game, it has to be many times more so for the coach because he knows fans, administrators, and media are looking to evaluate him based on each game.

Yes, John Shurna is hurt and I liked that Carmody sat him much of the second half, but NCAA teams aren’t one person teams. Purdue lost their best player for the season and they’re ranked #10 in the nation. Last year Wisconsin lost Jon Leuer for a portion of the Big Ten season and posted several big wins because Jordan Taylor stepped up to fill that void. Shurna’s injury is a great chance to see Drew Crawford and Juice Thompson step up in a big way, but that hasn’t really happed. Crawford had a decent game vs Michigan State and Juice played three good minutes vs the Spartans, but overall those two guys haven’t elevated their play. In fact, they’ve almost disappeared. Crawford was a non-factor tonight (as he was vs Purdue) and Thompson seemed clearly frustrated (one of the things that might not have been evident on TV). I don’t blame him really, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to show such frustration when your opponents can see it and then know they’ve got you on the ropes.

Speaking of on the ropes, that’s where NU’s season is right now. At 9-4 (0-3 Big Ten) NU desperately needs to post a win versus Indiana at home on Sunday. If they can’t it might not be healthy for any of us NU fanatics to venture back to Welsh-Ryan or turn on the Big Ten Network.