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.