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.