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?