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.

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