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