Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wisconsin Continues Home Dominance in Win Over Northwestern

Nothing all that unexpected happened in Wisconsin’s 78-63 win over Northwestern and from NU point of view the loss itself isn’t that depressing. After all, everybody losses at Wisconsin. What is depressing is that you could probably have predicted how the game would go without having to see it and that shows NU’s total lack of progress. Once again the Wildcats got buried in a huge hole, played awful defense (especially to start the game), stayed close with threes, had a chance to swing momentum, but in the end lost because the other team made more clutch shots. It was much like the game Thursday vs Penn State or any number of other NU games this season.

It’s this holding pattern of the same mistakes over and over again that has me so frustrated with this team and coaching. Once again, NU started the game with some of the most fundamentally unsound defense you can play in Division 1 basketball. They tried to bail themselves out with the 1-3-1, but the Big Ten has adjusted to that gimmick in the last two years it seems. Plus, with as good as Wisconsin shoots and passes the ball, the 1-3-1 isn’t going to beat this Badger team. It is the total lack of defense that has me most upset and I’m really getting sick of zones all the time. In basketball I believe you should play man-to-man defense most of the time and have a zone to use against poor shooting teams and as a key change up. Honestly, man-to-man defense doesn’t take that much talent. It takes wanting to make an effort to play hard ALL OF THE TIME Wisconsin had a bunch of guys on the floor who wouldn’t beat many NU guys in a foot race or jumping contest, but who play 100 time better defense than NU and actually do a far better job of moving their feet to contest drives because it is important to them and doesn’t seem to be to NU’s players or coaches. Sorry folks, but no team can be fundamentally as bad on defense consistently as NU and have the coach not deserve some blame. In the second half, NU played much better defense after going away from the 1-3-1 for the most part and actually made a game of the contest. Unfortunately, they missed a couple key shots whereas Wisconsin made some and that was enough to push the Badgers over the top.

I was happy to see Drew Crawford get more assertive on both offense and defense in the second half (he does need to make free throws) and David Curletti played a career game. Crawford to me is far too bothered, though, by not scoring. When he didn’t score in the first half he played crap defense, when he got aggressive on offense and saw the ball go in the hoop in the second half he played hard defense. Curletti saved NU from getting blown out a couple times with some nice baskets and some decent defense as well. Luka Mirkovic was terrible tonight against Jon Leuer’s superior athletic skill. Perhaps the whole night was summed up in a sequence were Luka had a point blank layup and threw it basically from one side of the glass to the other almost as if he were trying to use the glass to pass the ball (but, sadly, he was trying to score) and then on the other end of the floor Leuer made an inside bucket as he was falling out of bounds and got fouled. And, yes, Luka got fouled on his miss too, but the point is Leuer converted a much tougher shot and took contact and Luka missed a 1-footer by 3-feet.

Northwestern is now 6-11 in the Big Ten and plays 6-10 Minnesota on Wednesday. Those teams will likely also play in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. I don’t really know what to expect, but I hope a good crowd comes out to honor Juice Thompson on his senior day. This team has massively underachieved and they’ve caught some bad luck (the latest another injury to JerShon Cobb) but Juice has fought through all of it and deserves respect for that.

I am tremendously sick of the DVR stuck on reply collection of mistakes NU makes game after game and desperately want someone to make those stop, but I’m willing to sit through them to say thanks to Juice and the other seniors. After that, unless NU learns to play defense and rebound they’ll only have one more game anyway because a 6-12 Big Ten team that hasn’t won in three weeks is not getting an NIT invite.

Friday, February 25, 2011

151-12…Say You Can, Know You Will!

When Kevin O’Neill was hired as Northwestern’s head coach someone asked him what the difference was between him and then football coach Gary Barnett. O’Neill replied that Barnett was more of a “slogan and song coach” while O’Neill himself was more of a “play your butt off or I’ll kill you coach” (of course it was KO so he didn’t say butt). Bill Carmody has never to me fit into either category. He’s certainly not a slogan and a song guy, but if he were one to kill guys who didn’t play hard, NU would have run out of players the last few years. So, what is Bill Carmody? I don’t know, but if wants to lead NU to victory over a Wisconsin team that is 151-11 in home games under Bo Ryan and beat Northwestern like the proverbial drum at Welsh-Ryan he needs to be Gary Barnett.

People don’t realize that what Gary Barnett did in taking Northwestern to the Rose Bowl in 1995 (okay the game as Jan 1, '96) was probably the greatest coaching job ever in NCAA history. It’s marred now by his unceremonious departure from NU which pissed the NU community and the disastrous conclusion to his tenure at Colorado which made him something of a coaching pariah. The truth is, though, what Barnett did was amazing. He sold his players on belief without evidence and they chose to believe. When he took them to South Bend, Indiana as 27-point underdogs and told them not to dump Gatorade on him or carry him off the field after they won the game, the players took that as a natural instruction because he’d been training them to expect to beat Norte Dame from the time they started spring and with those final instructions he reminded them he KNEW it would happen. Yes, part of the reason Northwestern won that game was a great defense and some major clutch offense from Darnell Autry, Steve Schnur, and D’Wayne Bates, but you can’t underestimate the psychological advantage Barnett gave his players leading up to that September 2, 1995 day.

I think for NU’s men’s hoops team to beat Wisconsin on Sunday it is critical to gain a similar psychological edge. That’s why if I were Bill Carmody I’d paste 151-12 all over the place. I’d put it in the locker room, I’d put on the road trip agenda, I’d even top on the marquee on the team bus. I’d want our guys to be focused on the idea that it is possible to beat Wisconsin at the Khol Center and that there should be a belief inside the program that such a thing is possible.

I really do believe confidence and comfort is a major factor in basketball success because shooting is such a precise motion. Confident and relaxed a good shooter is going to make the majority of his shots, but part of the game is getting him out his rhythm. The defense tries to do this as does the home crowd. Between Bo Ryan’s tough man-to-man and the Wisconsin home crowd it’s pretty easy for even the best shooters to get a little tense and rush their shots in Madtown. But it doesn’t have to happen. Northwestern has a group of great shooters that when they feel good can put up points as well as team in the NCAA. They have an offense that when run correctly can get them open shots against any team in the NCAA. The problem is when panic sets in and they start to miss shots and stop running their offense. We’ve seen that happen several times this year, including the first game against Wisconsin. But, again, it doesn’t have to happen.

I honestly believe that an athlete can think themselves into success long before a game is played. Does it guarantee victory? No. But it does give that athlete the best chance at victory because confidence increases one’s chance at successes. That’s what I want from the Wildcats on Sunday. I want them to give themselves the chance to win they didn’t give themselves in the past. I want them to look at 151-12 and say to themselves, “We can make that happen.” And inside KNOW they will make it happen.

I actually really do think NU will win this game. The sad part is thanks to the loss Thursday vs Penn State the win will really be meaningless (unless you’re really hyped about the difference between being a 5-seed instead of a 6-seed in the NIT).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Northwestern’s Tournament Hopes Vanish, Does Bill Carmody Need to Vanish With Them?

I’ve kind of been regarded as the positive Northwestern basketball blog. Obviously, Fire Bill Carmody has been geared towards, well, having Northwestern fire Bill Carmody and Lake the Posts has made it clear he is not fan of Bill Carmody either. I’ve been frustrated at times with Carmody, but I’ve been more supportive than not because I really thought he was making steady gains. Some frustrated NU fans might have called that being content with being mediocre, but I was willing to take steady progress. After all, I’ve seen teams fail to even ever be competitive. Bill Carmody has made NU more competitive overall, but you can’t be a head coach in the Big Ten and beat Penn State less than 10% of the time over a five year span. This 15-12 team might be the best they’ve ever had! Let me make this clear, Northwestern has now beat Penn State just once in their last eleven meetings (and that was because Craig Moore threw in a miracle shot from about 40-feet) and the vast majority of the losses have been in embarrassing fashion. Penn State’s seniors have NEVER lost to Northwestern and they haven’t really ever been all that challenged by NU. NU also hasn’t won at Penn State in almost a decade, but why add to our collective misery by bringing that up.

Let me make it clear here, I’m not saying it’s time for a change just because NU lost to Penn State, and I never thought I’d say this at all, but it’s time for NU to make a change in their head men’s basketball coaching position. It’s time for a change because this latest loss to Penn State convinces me that we’ve maxed out on progress. Remember, I’m content with steady progress and small gains. One major goal I had for progress this year was to beat Penn State. As stupid as that sounds, I really thought it would be a clear piece of evidence that NU was moving forward. Beating them tonight would have been huge because it not only would have been that clear evidence of progress, but it would have knocked PSU off the tourney bubble and pretty much evened them with NU in terms of where they sat postseason wise. Mostly, though, it would have shown that Northwestern had overcome another hurdle in their quest to make the NCAA Tournament. Instead, we got more of the same.

If NU gets one more Big Ten win they will have the same total as they got last season (7), but 4 of NU’s 6 current Big Ten wins are over Indiana and Iowa who are the only two teams below NU standings-wise. A potential 7th would probably have to come over Minnesota who has lost 6 of their last 7 (but did beat NU) because the ‘Cats probably aren’t winning at Wisconsin who is 151-11 at the Khol Center under Bo Ryan. As much as I say I’m all for simple progress, I’m not sure that is steady progress because last year’s 7 wins featured victories over better teams.

Let me also answer the questions, would I change my tune on Bill Carmody if NU upset Wisconsin? As someone who up until today was pretty content with Carmody as the coach, I guess I might swing back the other way, but NU almost upset Ohio State this year and even if NU had beat the Buckeyes getting our butts kicked by Penn State twice again this year might have still sent me over the edge. Seriously, beating Penn State less than 10% of the time! How is that possible? Well, let’s look at tonight…

Northwestern scored just four point in the game’s first eight minutes and basically came out looking as if they had no interest in playing. Penn State on the other hand looked like they were playing their most important game of the season—which they were—but so was Northwestern and by watching NU you couldn’t tell. Instead, it looked more like they were a 1-14 team playing out the end of the season. To say NU was as flat as a pancake would be inaccurate because pancakes have some height. NU was flat as the flattest tabletop you’ve ever seen. Early in the game it was turnovers that really hurt NU. Yes, they missed a lot of shots, but not even getting shots hurt NU even more. The game started with Juice Thompson getting Luka a great shot and Luka let the ball go through his hands. It pretty much set the tone for the day. Now, let’s be clear, the fact Luka has no hands and Drew Crawford once again pulled Harry Houdini and disappeared isn’t really all the fault of their coach, but clearly they aren’t responding to whatever methods of motivation they’re getting to try and make them successful and, sadly, if at some point the players don’t come around the coach gets held responsible.

Another problem was it took until a JerShon Cobb three late in the second half for someone other than Juice Thompson, John Shurna, Luka Mirkovic, or Drew Crawford to score for NU. Crawford only had two points at half and despite the fact he seemed to be able to get to the basket whenever he wanted, he seemed to be content to miss threes for far too long. Of course, everyone except Juice Thompson decided to miss threes tonight. Alex Marcotullio scored 0 and NU’s bench overall had zero. Davide Curletti hasn’t scored in almost two weeks.

NU’s defense again was pretty bad as Penn State’s guards made a number of way-to-easy entry passes which resulted in layups. NU did an okay job on the glass, but it wasn’t enough to keep Penn State from the some critical offensive rebounds.

I don’t know what else to say. This sucked. It was just like twice last year where NU played big games vs Penn State and Penn State looked like the only Division 1 team on the floor. It was just like two weeks ago when the same thing happened.

This whole situation sucks because I really don’t want to see Bill Carmody get fired, but seriously, how can Jim Phillips think it’s a good idea to retain him? Anybody with basic logic and a seat at or television tuned to tonight’s game would have to tell you it’s time to make a change. NU has had a shot to make a move towards the tournament four times this season. When they hosted Wisconsin (result: NU gets creamed), when they traveled to Michigan and Penn State (result: bad start resulted in loss, Penn State hammered NU), and tonight (result: bad start results in Penn State hammering NU). This failure to show up in big games isn’t new to this year either. It’s happened in other huge games like the 2009 game at Ohio State where NU was truly playing for an NCAA-berth. They day NU started poorly, came back, but the poor start put NU in the hole that prevented the ‘Cats from getting the win. Maybe these slow starts are simply because NU’s players are no good, but I see evidence that tells me that’s not the case.

Northwestern will probably beat Wisconsin on Sunday (let’s remember I said this) and that win will probably save Bill Carmody’s job. That’ll be good for Carmody and his family and in the real world that’s good because I don’t want to root for anybody to lose their source of income, but the sad part is that even as momentous as that will be, it won’t get NU into the Big Dance because they lost every other showcase game they had this season and that's not good. Not good at all.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Thursday NU Looks to Finally Beat Talor Battle

Somehow when no one was looking Northwestern’s matchup with Penn State Thursday on ESPN2 at 8PM turned back into a big game for NU’s tournament hopes. Yes, the Penn State game’s magnitude is based somewhat on an expectation of NU doing something unexpected (I get a just used the phrase expectation of the unexpected, but I think as NU fan that’s something you have to develop otherwise you have no hope in your life) either at Wisconsin or in the Big Ten Tournament, but without a win over Penn State inside Welsh-Ryan even a win at Wisconsin or a run to the BTT’s final game might not be impressive enough to get NU into the Big Dance.

It’s still amazing, and more than a little depressing, to me that Penn State’s senior class has never lost to Northwestern. Of course, one look at Talor Battle’s career stats against NU and you don’t have trouble believing PSU might be the dominate team in the series. What’s really amazing is that with the exception of the 2008-09 game at Penn State in which NU held a large lead before Battle caught fire and lit the Wildcats up in the second half, the games haven’t even been close. We all remember a couple weeks back very well, but if we think back to last season it was the same story twice. NU doesn’t even seem to play Penn State well inside Welsh-Ryan, where they play everybody well!

At times people have focused on matchups and Penn State does have some big athletic guys in Jeff Brooks, Andrew Jones, and David Jackson. All three are about 6-8/9 and can score the basketball in a number of ways as well as rebound. I’ll be the first to admit that those types of players can give NU trouble, but Penn State isn’t the only team in the Big Ten with such guys. There is also Battle, who does seem to catch fire vs NU, but he’s not the only good shooter Northwestern faces during the course of the year. He might be the only one with 2,000-career points (a record he not surprisingly set vs NU), but if NU can contain Demetri McCamey who is bigger and probably a better pure shooter, shouldn’t they be able to contain Battle? For some reason Penn State seems to scare NU.

I actually think some of NU’s game plan vs Illinois is what they need to bring out in order to beat Penn State. Like PSU, Illinois destroyed Northwestern the first times the teams played, when NU was the road team. However, in the ‘Cat home game NU got the better of the Illini. How did they do it? I think one major aspect to NU’s upset of Illinois was letting go of the loss. This might be tougher vs Penn State because it’s not just the loss two weeks ago that they need to let go, but a whole career of failure. However, it’s not worth worrying about. Those games are in the past. They won’t give Penn State any extra points on Thursday nor will they cost NU any.

If NU can’t let go of those past games than anything else I write is worthless, but let’s assume they do and talk a little more specific basketball strategy. First off, I think NU needs to pick up Battle at 90 feet. NU hasn’t done much pressing, but I’m not saying press. Tim Frazier will probably bring the ball up the court for Penn State most of the time, I just want Talor Battle to have a shadow the whole day for tip to the final buzzer. I’d even try to follow him into the locker room at halftime, but that’s probably not allowed. I’d also say that I’d personally choose Alex Marcotullio to be that guy. I know that’d probably mean starting him over JerShon Cobb or Drew Crawford, but the truth is I think Marcotullio is the only guy Northwestern has who consistently fights on defense and I truthfully trust him more than anyone else. If Northwestern ends up with Cobb or Crawford switching all the time and Battle runs a pick-and-roll with a big guy and gets himself isolated on Luka Mirkovic as he did at PSU it’s over for Northwestern. That CAN’T happen, but I’m sure Battle will try to make it occur. Versus Illinois NU did a much better job of not letting guards attack big men and doing so again will be critical.

On offense, I think NU needs to try to play fast again. The slower offense worked a couple times, but Penn State wants to play slow. All their big wins have been low-scoring. I think NU needs to go back to the “see an open shot, pull the trigger” system for this game. They’ll be at home where they shoot better and maybe being given the green light will relax some of the guys who have slumped of late. Sure, if NU employs that game plan and the shots don’t go in then they’re screwed, but they’ve been pretty well screwed with every other game plan they’ve tried versus Penn State, so I’m advocating a different one. Remember, NU’s fearless approach on offense resulted in 55 points in the first half against Georgia Tech, so it does have a track record.

I’d also like to see NU hit the glass hard. Look back at the Ohio State game. OSU is big and quick, but NU hung with them on the glass because they sent four or five guys to the offensive glass every time. That’ll be critical as well because with Jones, Jackson, and Brooks PSU will probably get some offensive rebounds of their own.

In the end, I think this game comes down to how well Northwestern shoots the ball. Northwestern defended Penn State okay (but not great) in Happy Valley and I’m confident the Nits won’t explode on NU in Welsh-Ryan. However, NU’s 2-of-21 three point shooting pretty much cashed any chance NU had of getting a win in the Bryce Jordan Center. Inside Welsh-Ryan NU does shoot much better and I think the freedom to fire will make a difference. The last two wins have silenced a lot of Bill Carmody’s critics, but I really think the great coaches are the ones who you hate to play twice because even if you roll them the first time, you know they’ll have a plan to make life tough for you the second time around. Bill Carmody found a way to do that vs Illinois and I’m thinking (and hoping) this game goes down much the same way. I predict: Northwestern, 71 Penn State, 70

Monday, February 21, 2011

How Should Fans Feel About Luka Mirkovic’s Post-Basket Celebrations?

One of the most recent debates on the Northwestern message boards has been about Luka Mirkovic. Not whether or not Luka should start (we seem to have gotten past that), but about whether Luka’s histrionics after he makes a three or gets an and-1 are appropriate. To be honest, I never gave much thought to the idea until this Saturday at Indiana. Before Saturday, I’d generally see Luka get excited, kind of laugh because most the time Luka is probably the Big Ten’s most unaggressive big man, and then forget about his actions until he did something similar. At Indiana, though, when Tom Pritchard mimicked Luka after making a basket shortly after Luka gestured “three” after he hit a three, I thought it might be worth discussing this issue.

I don’t generally have a problem with a player who shows emotion and wants to celebrate a big shot. John Shurna has been known to get hyped after he or a teammate hit a big bucket and no one in the Northwestern community seems to have a problem with what Shurna does, but a lot of people seem to think Luka should try to contain himself. I think the reason is twofold. One is that Shurna (when not hurt) is consistently good. He makes impossible shots look easy and hits threes with more ease than some people (like Luka) hit layups. The other reason is that Shurna appears to be acting spontaneously when his joy appears. I’m not saying Luka isn’t, but yelling with joy sure appears a lot more spontaneous than some type of gesture which one probably has to consciously decide to make.

From my point of view, I think the second point is the critical one. Sure, some people will say Luka needs to “earn” the right to celebrate, but if some third-string walk-on comes off the bench to hit a buzzer beater in the NCAA Tournament would people say he can’t celebrate because he doesn’t have a double-figure scoring average? I don’t think so. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but my point is that I don’t think the right to be proud of oneself should be restricted. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea that a player is spending any amount of time thinking about something other than actually playing basketball when the game clock is moving. That’s why I’m not in love with the idea of Luka making his “three” gesture or blowing kisses to the crowd on the way down the court after a made hoop. I don’t care if he wants to thump his chest after an and-1 (at the rate Luka makes layups maybe he should celebrate that) because it’s a dead ball and his focus doesn’t need to be on anything else. On the other hand, if he needs to take even one tenth of a second to think, “I want to make a ‘three’ signal” or “I want to blow kisses to the crowd” when he should be focused on where he needs to get in NU’s defense that is disappointing because it isn’t the smart basketball that NU needs to play in order to win.

If I were Bill Carmody my message to Luka would be to contain himself while the game is going on. I didn’t care that Luka’s “three” gesture fired up the IU crowd, but I did care that he let IU get an easy basket on him after he did it. Maybe the two weren’t connected at all, but maybe they were and I don’t want to take the chance.

On the other hand, if Luka wants to thump his chest after making and-1s that’s fine. The game is stopped. Sure, it looks a little ridiculous when a guy who can’t even shoot 50% from two feet gets all excited, but maybe it makes more sense, and if Luka himself doesn’t care how the move makes people perceive him, then I don’t care. I just don’t want him losing focus when a guy is going to be coming right at him trying to score. He isn’t prolific enough on offense that he’ll be able to make those points up.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wildcats Sweep Hoosiers, Get Road Win, Get Fans Back to Talking About Postseason

In this year’s Big Ten no team is bad and really only the top two or three teams are very good. That makes for a lot of exciting basketball and a number of unexpected results. Northwestern has to some extent actually had the most expected results as they still don’t have a loss to a team that is worse than them thanks to their 70-64 victory over Indiana today. With the win Northwestern moves to 16-10 overall and 6-9 in the Big Ten this year. The Wildcats next game is at home against their arch nemesis Penn State. If Northwestern beats Penn State and moves to 7-9 in the league I’d say they’ve clearly shown improvement over last season and I think that’s the most important thing at this juncture for the NU program (though I still really want to make the Big Dance).

Realistically NU improves their NIT position with this win and if they can beat Penn State they greatly increase the odds of playing a home game in the NIT as Penn State is a borderline NCAA/NIT team that NU may compete with for a position.

Today’s win also marks NU’s second sweep of Indiana in the last three seasons, their second Big Ten road win of the year, and their second win in IU’s Assembly Hall ever. Those are some good twos and it was NU’s number 22 who led the ‘Cats to victory. Michael “Juice” Thompson scored 22 points while playing all 40 minutes. In the first half he got NU going with three big three point buckets then in the second half he iced the win by making clutch free throw after clutch free throw. For the day Juice made 11-of-11 from the line to lead an NU team that shot 21-of-25 from the free throw line. I think it is very important in the future for NU to start trying to get to the foul line more by driving the ball instead of settling for jump shots. Yes, NU made 11 threes tonight, but most of the game’s key plays that kept the ‘Cats with the lead were layups or pull-ups on drives or foul shots thanks to an aggressive approach.

Juice was supported today by great play from Alex Marcotullio and John Shurna. Marcotullio came off the bench when JerShon Cobb went to the bench early with fouls and responded well. Marcotullio scored 11 points on the day and supported NU’s effort with 4 assists and 4 rebounds as well. He also hustled on defense and did as well as anyone else in trying to defend the Hoosier’s attacks of the basket. John Shurna basically split the first half minutes with Mike Capocci because Coach Carmody wanted Capocci’s superior defense in the game, but when NU needed someone besides Juice to assert themselves on offense in the second half NU stuck with Shurna and he delivered 19 points on the night including three three pointers and also five rebounds. Shurna still doesn’t look 100%, but he is clearly getting better and I like the fact that he didn’t just shoot threes to score. I think NU’s three point shooting opens up after they attack the basket and I’d like to see Shurna, Cobb, and Crawford not settle for bad jump shots as much.

Drew Crawford did score 9 points tonight and made a couple big threes. Luka Mirkovic also hit a timely three (which set off an amusing little interaction between him, the IU fans, and IU forward Tom Pritchard) and finished with 6 rebounds, though, Luka was typical of himself and struggled to convert on a couple other chances. He was 1-of-4 in two point shots and the one he made was a jump shot. Even more worrisome than his inability to make layup was that at times Luka provided no defensive support inside and IU got some easy baskets. Overall, IU actually shot better than Northwestern from the field, but the ‘Cats work from three and free made the difference.

If Northwestern wants to beat Penn State, the whole team will need to play better defense and the shooting we saw tonight his to continue. The ‘Cats are now on something of a winning streak and to finish the year strong would a huge plus on their pursuit of any postseason bid.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Short Turnaround Means NU has to be Ready for Indiana Fast

Bill Carmody made it clear he doesn’t like the fact Northwestern will go to Indiana with less than 48 hours of rest on Saturday, but the game is happening so both he and his players better be ready. I’m personally not so sure they will be, but it is not because of Carmody’s apparent dislike of the way the Big Ten arranged their schedule. My fear comes from the fact that Northwestern would double their Big Ten road win total of last year if they won this game and that would still only give them two Big Ten road wins. Basically, Northwestern has been a poor road team (never more obvious than last Sunday’s game at Penn State) for the last two seasons and now the future of Carmody and his team may rest on winning in two of the Big Ten’s most difficult environments. Certainly Indiana’s Assembly Hall isn’t the dominate force it once was in Big Ten circles, but Tom Crean’s Hoosiers are improving and for Northwestern to win there (and also double their all time Assembly Hall win total from 1 to 2) it’ll take a well rounded effort and those have been rare for the ‘Cats.

With John Shurna on the mend, Northwestern has to be feeling good, but Indiana got a good game from the recently injured Christian Watford when they played Michigan. Overall Watford’s at 16.8ppg and hits almost 40% of his threes. IU has a 12-3 record at Assembly Hall this year and lot of that has to do with how they shoot in their own building. Much like NU at Welsh-Ryan, the Hoosiers make shots at home and that makes them tougher to beat. NU must defend Jordan Hulls who hits 43.6% of his threes and scores just over 11 points a game along with backup guards Matt Roth and Victor Oladipo who also can hit deep shots. NU also needs to keep guard Verdall Jones III on the perimeter because Jones is the type of player who could terrorize NU getting to the hoop, but who can also be forced into turnovers and isn’t a great outside shooter. Inside, NU had an advantage when these teams first met and Luka Mirkovic had a career game with 20 points and 13 rebounds. It’ll be interesting to see if Indiana does anything differently with big guys Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston to try and contain Luka.

Northwestern wins this game if they to shoot well from three. NU struck early from three vs Iowa, but hasn’t had a real good shooting game in a while. With the short rest NU might be a little tired and not ready to hustle after loose balls and for some reason they only rebound well against Ohio State. Therefore, they’ll need to counter those liabilities (and extra IU possessions) with lots of threes. Juice Thompson needs to have a good full game, Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb need to hit treys and somehow John Shurna needs to get over his conditioning issues and stay on the floor. If all that happens I think Northwestern will win in a high scoring game. The problem is I don’t think it’ll all happen. I predict: Indiana, 84 Northwester, 72

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Northwestern Snaps Losing Streak; Sweeps Hawkeyes for First Time Since 2004

As expected this was a close game between two teams who were seeking to break losing streaks. Iowa is certainly improved from the team NU beat in January and while beating them isn’t a major accomplishment, this is a good win to get as NU moves to 5-9 in the Big Ten and knocks Iowa back to 3-11.

With the victory Northwestern HAS won their last two games and home and HAS played really well in their last three home contests. However, NU’s inability to win on the road has really been their problem the last two seasons. Last year NU only won on the road at Michigan in Big Ten play and this year they’ve only won on the road at Iowa. While the odds are this game won’t silence Bill Carmody’s critics (and really should it? Probably not yet.) and certainly won’t get Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT, the fact is Northwestern has a real good chance to make the NIT if they can continue to win at home. However, NU’s remaining home slate includes Penn State, who dominates NU’s men’s hoops squad with the same ease the NU football team dominates Iowa (and their aren’t many teams that dominate another team like NU does the Hawks in football), and Minnesota, a possible tournament team. In their other remaining games NU is at Indiana on short rest (Bill Carmody ripped the Big Ten office’s scheduling for this short rest road trip on WGN after the game) this Saturday and has to go to Madison, Wisconsin where they’ll try to be just the 13th opponent in the last decade to beat the Badgers on their home court. NU may very well be underdogs in every remaining game and that means that the ‘Cats will need an even better effort than their uneven effort tonight to get themselves in the NIT.

The best part of tonight was NU’s return to a pretty smooth offensive system (other than missed layups). The ‘Cats came out hot early and did job of moving the ball and shooting early in the shot clock if the opportunity presented itself. NU finished with 17 assists on their 27 made fields. They also made 12 threes which were, of course, ten more than Sunday at Penn State. No doubt exists that NU shoots better at home which is probably why they are 11-3 at home and 4-7 in locations that aren’t Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Four of NU’s five starters scored in double-figures and JerShon Cobb posted 8 points and 6 rebounds while only hitting 3-of-9 field goals and 1-of-4 free throws (after coming into the game as NU’s top free throw shooter) which means he could have scored more. Juice Thompson led NU with 16 points and 9 assists. Although he only hit 1-of-4 threes, he made a number of huge shots which once NU regained the lead early in the second half kept Iowa from making any sort of run to get the advantage back. Drew Crawford scored 15 points of his own and had an awesome tip on an Alex Marcotullio miss which turned out to be a big play as well. He also had 4 assists and 4 steals. Also, I take some comfort in the fact that 1/3 of NU’s made threes came from John Shurna who hit 4 treys and scored 15 points. However, Shurna still looked a little off at times. He’s missed way more free throws than before his injury and only got two rebounds, but he did show some ability to elevate on a give-and-go dunk.

NU’s final doube figure starter was Luka Mirkovic. Let me say that Luka hitting 2-of-2 threes is huge. I think NU becomes a remarkably better team if Luka is freed to take threes and knocks them done. Also, the fact is that Luka was pretty bad playing on the inside hitting only 3-of-8 two point shots, which means he might be better off shooting the wide open threes he gets anyway. I don’t understand how a guy who is almost seven feet tall can’t convert from two feet away, but Luka often can’t. Yet, somehow he finished today with 13 points and was really the guy who wont he game for Northwestern. He also got seven rebounds, though, if he could jump at all he’d probably have doubled that total. Still, he was better than Davide Curletti who played one of his weakest games of the season posting just a rebound and 3 fouls in 12 minutes. Both need to be much better against Indiana on Saturday.

Indiana, like Iowa, has gotten better since NU played them last and Coach Carmody clearly thinks NU is at a disadvantage based on his short rest rant to WGN, but the bottom line is that Northwestern needs to beat IU just as badly as they needed to beat UI tonight if they want to secure a postseason bid (and really get the heat off their coach) before the regular season’s final days.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Iowa and Northwestern Both Trying to Snap Losing Streaks

Northwestern and Iowa are 4-9 and 3-10 respectively in the Big Ten and both have lost their last two games. Only Indiana has been worse than these two squads, but Northwestern still has something to play for in this game as they could still qualify for the NIT with a nice end to the season. I think if NU wins their three remaining home games and matches last year’s 7-11 Big Ten record they likely will make the NIT. If they lose this contest or any of the others they’ll very likely drop out of the NIT and maybe to 10th or 11th place in the Big Ten. That’s why this game is so important and why some might argue that Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is facing down unemployment as much as the Hawkeyes.

When these two teams last met Northwestern pounded Iowa in one of the best Big Ten games NU has played in recent memory. Since then things have gone more south for NU and north for Iowa. Iowa pulled off a couple nice upset wins against Michigan State and at Indiana while Northwestern has managed to embarrass themselves against Wisconsin and Penn State.

Iowa’s step forward has been led by point guard Bryce Cartwright who has mastered the ability to get his own shot against teams which lack a guard quick enough to defend him. His shot to beat Indiana has to be a high point in what has been a tough year for the Hawkeyes. Against NU, I expect Iowa to try and run pick and rolls as Penn State and Michigan did in order to isolate Cartwright on a big such as Luka Mirkovic. If that happens and NU switches, Cartwright will score with ease and I think I’ll encourage a walk out at Welsh-Ryan. NU has constantly been burned because they don’t fight through screens. It’s terribly fundamentally unsound basketball and needs to change, but NU hasn’t made such a change yet.

At 12.5ppg Matt Gatens is Iowa’s top scorer and is a three point threat to be contended with if NU tries to go 1-3-1, however, I’m really worried about 6-5 forward Eric May. May is kind of Iowa’s Drew Crawford. He can go off and score 25 points, but he might also post five. If he has a good night Iowa is much much more likely to win just as NU is when Crawford plays well. NU has to defend May’s three and keep him from getting easy drives as well. In the front court with May, Iowa has Jarryd Cole and Melshan Basabe. Basabe scores 10.5ppg and gets 7.0rpg and is a decent shot blocker, but at only 6-7 he is a little smaller than the guys NU will play up front. With Cole being just 6-7 as well, NU could get a number of baskets from Luka Mirkovic.

As has been the case a number of times this year, I have no idea what to expect from Northwestern. Will they pack it in and wait for the season to end or do they still want to keep competing for a postseason bid. I think by playing at home NU should be more motivated and I think Iowa’s lack of size really works to NU’s advantage. Hopefully, NU will play quick and be confident and hit some threes as they did at Iowa. That would be huge because other than a few nice games by Juice Thompson NU hasn’t shot well in a long time. A stretch of hot shooting to end the year is really what NU needs. I predict: Northwestern, 81 Iowa, 80

Monday, February 14, 2011

If NU were to make I change I'd want...

Is Bobby Knight on the list of guys I'd like to see coach NU? If he were NU's coach would he bring the students candy as he did in a 2000 game in Evanston?

This post doesn’t isn’t meant to imply I’m writing off this season or Bill Carmody’s tenure as head coach just yet, but if I were Northwestern’s athletic director, I would make list of potential head coaching candidates and keep it in my desk drawer in case I needed it at the end of the year (or next year which is more likely because next year HAS to be NCAAs or bust for Carmody with no excuses about injuries or Kevin Coble caring more about himself than his team or whatever). Some have suggested NU make an in-season change now, but I’m not a fan of those moves because I think they put the interim coach and potentially the school in a no win situation. Plus, I could still see Carmody getting this mess back on track for an 8-10 finish and I'd give him a big thumbs up for that. But the fact is that Northwestern has only one game left on their schedule I’d say they should win. That’s Thursday at home against Iowa. After Sunday’s game at Penn State, I’m not even confident in winning that contest. It would take multiple upsets for NU to match last year’s 7-11 Big Ten record and most likely NU will be 5-13 or 6-12. Those records likely put NU in 10th place. If that happens it'll be a tough sell to keep Carmody around.

Here’s what I would consider a somewhat realistic list of potential candidates. Some of these are reaches, but others are not. My number one criterion is previous heading coaching experience. I’d also prefer someone people have heard of before because at this point I think interest in NU basketball is so low that if Bill Carmody were replaced by some faceless assistant it would be a stretch to expect more than 2,000 at Welsh-Ryan next year for non-conferences games. I guess I should also mention that these are, obviously, guys that I like and aren’t necessarily going to be huge names or names that most people would want.

1) Kevin Stallings – Current Head Coach at Vanderbilt – It would take a huge investment of money to get Stallings to leave Vandy. I’d guess in the neighborhood of $2 million a year. Realistically, that’s probably not money Northwestern would be willing to spend on men’s basketball, but if NU wants to win basketball games I think Stallings is the first (and maybe last) name that should be on the list. He’s won at Vandy by recruiting not only all over the U.S., but all over the world (he’s current best player is English and one past star was Australian) and he’s got Big Ten roots with Gene Keady at Purdue as well as in-state experience as the head coach at Illinois State.

2) Brad Soderberg – Former Wisconsin and St. Louis U. Head Coach – Soderberg is currently coaching at the NAIA level after the odd end to his career to SLU. He has posted 20 win seasons at the NAIA, Division III, Division II, and Division I levels. His career record coming into this year was 234-157. I like him not only because he’s always won and he’d be a cheap hire (still working on the NU budget), but because he was taught by one of my coaching heroes, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. If I thought Bennett would come out of retirement he’d top this list, but right now I’d settle for a guy who played for him and coached under him. Bennett (with Soderberg) took a team with Kirk Penny, Mark Vershaw, and Mike Kelly as his best players to the Final Four. That’s amazing, but he did it be stressing defense, rebounding, and hustle plays. After what we’ve seen of Northwestern this past year, wouldn’t seeing that be refreshing. Plus, I’m pretty sure next year’s Northwestern team isn’t that much less talented than that 2000 Wisconsin team.

3) Ben Jacobson – Current Head Coach Northern Iowa – NIU got Jacobson to stick around after their great run in the NCAAs last season and now that NIU has stepped back a bit he’s no longer a “hot” name in coaching. However, he’s still a darn good coach and might be an easier hire now that he isn’t coming off a remarkable run. He’s known as an “offensive genius” which might not thrill some people who have heard this one too many times about Carmody, but the difference is with Jacobson it’s because of the fact his teams have an insane number of plays they can call at any time instead of an offense which forces decisions to be made on the fly based on reads and such. That might help a young point guard

4) Lon Kruger – Current Head Coach UNLV – This's another one that might take some money, especially because Kruger said he wanted to end his career at UNLV a couple year back. Now, though, some of the heavy Rebel donors are upset at the team’s recent struggles and Kruger’s rugged style of play. In other words, Kruger still has his teams playing Big Ten type basketball in a city that wants the Runnin’ Rebs of old to show up. At Illinois Kruger won with less talent than Bill Self or Bruce Weber and that speaks well of him.

5) Jeff Jones – Current Head Coach American U. – We saw Coach Jones in Evanston earlier this year with his American Eagles team. Jones was also once the head coaching at the University of Virginia for eight years. That means he’s got high level experience and while UVA isn’t Northwestern, it’s not exactly Memphis when it comes to admission standards. I also like the fact that Jones is 306-245 as a head coach with seven league regular season or tournament titles.

6) Bobby Knight – Former Indiana and Texas Tech Head Coach – Okay, this name is on the list mostly because I found the picture at the top of this post and wanted an excuse to use it, but I have to admit I’d probably not get upset if NU hired Coach Knight. Truthfully, I think Bobby Knight is enjoying retirement and his work at ESPN and doubt he’d want to coach again at 70 years old. It might be interesting though for him to come in and mentor a young coach such as Tavaras Hardy for a couple years. I mean Coach Knight did win more than 800 games and virtually all of his assistants who became head coaches have been successful which means he knows how to mentor young guys. I guess that means more realistically, I wouldn’t mind someone from the Bob Knight coaching tree such as his son Pat Knight or former Indiana Interim Head Coach Dan Dakich.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Groundhog Day Performance: Northwestern Repeats Their Regular Effort vs Penn St.

At the half I really thought Northwestern still a chance in this game. Yes, they’d only scored 15 points, but they’d played enough defense to make me believe that if they came out like they in the second half against Michigan on offense, but played defense they would win. However, NU continued to struggle on offense and while they still played good defense (how many other games would NU have won if they just gave up 61?!), scoring just 44 points isn’t going to get you many wins.

I know a lot of people will put this on the coaching staff (and I’ll have some general thoughts on them later), but I don’t think the game plan NU used toady was that bad—in fact it was really pretty good. They got a lot of open shots they simply missed (missing 15 threes in a row is nearly impossible for a D1 team, but NU managed to do it today) and defensively I have to believe credit for that improved effort goes to an increased emphasis on defense in practice since the loss at Michigan.

The bottom line today is Northwestern simply didn’t take advantage of a myriad of chances they did have. NU missed not only a number of open threes, but they also missed a number of layups of mid-range shots. Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti are much too weak in how they attempt shots. I’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve had shots blocked at point blank range because they try to flip in a layup form their hip instead of powering up a shot with their shoulder to the rim. I have to say I really struggle with the idea that Ivan Peljusic could be any worse.

Northwestern also has a number of players who are steak shooters and they were all on bad streaks today. Drew Crawford, Juice Thompson, and John Shurna can all get hot at times, but they were all ice cold today even when open. Shurna (though he has moments) still looks very hurt. I don’t think it is worth sitting him at this point because that ship has probably sailed. Now if you tried to sit Shurna for three weeks he wouldn’t be back until the Big Ten Tournament and having missed that much practice would probably leave him just as off with his shot as he is now. In retrospect I wonder if NU wishes Shurna would have just sat the first three weeks of the Big Ten season. I don’t know, but it’s hard to believe NU could be any worse off than they are now whether Shurna played or not.

Northwestern now sits at 4-9 in the Big Ten and has a real good chance to finish 10th or 11th in the Big Ten this year. I don’t think this loss is on the coaching staff because the players missed so many good looks and the defense was good, but I’m starting to think Jim Phillips needs to consider making a coaching change if Bill Carmody really has only two more years on his contract. I’m not saying Carmody should go at this point (and I’ve never been a fan of in-season changes anyway), but if Carmody’s contract really is up after next year Phillips is in tough spot. He (and Northwestern as whole) would look idiotic to even give Carmody a one year extension if he finishes in the bottom two in the Big Ten, especially if NU continues to look bad in games which are allegedly big games (if NU rallies it’s obviously a different story). It’s a tough position to be in because Carmody has done a lot for NU and isn’t a bad coach, but the problem is you also have a small fan base that rapidly losing interest. Look at NU’s message boards or the number of comments on this blog recently, with each loss less and less people care about NU hoops. The only place people seem to talk about NU hoops a lot is in the comments section of Lake the Posts and that’s been more negative banter than positive.

Honestly, I’m glad I’m not Jim Phillips because I don’t know what I’d do. I will say that if things don't get better vs Iowa and Indiana and it looks like the team quit then I'd probably make a change. So is Carmody coaching for his job vs Indiana and Iowa? Maybe. I guess good news for him is that if he is it's Indiana and Iowa he's playing, though, I'm sure people in Bloomington and Iowa City are thinking the good news in those games is that they're playing Northwestern.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thoughts on NU @ Penn State, My of Handling Losses, and Bill Carmody as Harry Truman (not all in that order)

Despite my frustrations with this year’s edition of Northwestern’s men’s basketball team I still intend to watch them play Penn State on Sunday at 2:30 and you should as well. Look, I’m about the worst loser in the world. I mean I’ll be respectful of my opponent and everything, but when teams I’m on or that I coach or that I really passionately root for lose, I’m almost physically ill at the thought. I can’t stand the emotion of failure or the empty feeling you get walking out an arena as the loser. Often times that emotional combo translates into anger—especially in regards to teams I cheer for because the total lack of control over the result also factors into my frustration. I think I have from time to time demonstrated that frustration here on this blog. At times it gets directed at the coaching staff and at other times various players. In regards to the coaching staff, I’m not going to try not to make any major judgments on them till the season ends, but I do have a couple general thoughts.

I think the posters over at Wildcat Report who blindly praise Bill Carmody and would even find an excuse for him if he committed a major felony and the people who rip him for everything up to and including his choice of beverage are both wrong. Carmody is fine basketball coach, but honestly he isn’t going on the Mount Rushmore of hoops coaches anytime soon, however, his administration at NU isn’t exactly the basketball version of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency either. Truth be told, if you want to use a presidential analogy, Carmody will probably be like Harry Truman. He might leave with more negative than positive feelings amongst his constituents (aka the NU fans), but history will prove he had a strong positive impact on the course of Wildcat Nation.

In regards to Sunday’s game, this is the type of situation which the Wildcat football team addresses with the moniker W.I.N at the top of their values pyramid. That stands for “What’s Important Now” and it stresses one’s lack of control over the past and the importance of focusing on what you can control in the present. Northwestern lost to Michigan. I now don’t really care if the cause was poor coaching, poor playing, poor officiating, or the rising national debt. What matters now is that Northwestern is about to play Penn State—a team they CAN beat. I don’t know if PSU is a team NU will beat, but the Lions aren’t exactly the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers either.

Whether or not Jeff Brooks plays (or plays well--he might still be hurt due to his shoulder) for PSU will be a factor. If Brooks plays PSU has three guys who are tall, very athletic, and call all run picks and rolls even better than Michigan’s Jordan Morgan. Brooks is also PSU’s best rebounder and NU’s been prone to allowing extra points on the glass. If Brooks doesn’t play, the front court duo of Andrew Jones and David Jackson is still good, but Brooks brings another dimension, especially on defense where he is an excellent shot blocker.

Penn State’s best player is Talor Battle. The do everything guard is one of a handful of Penn State players who has the ability to get hot from long range and carry his team to big wins. He did so vs Wisconsin earlier in the year and has done so vs NU in the best. Jackson is also a good shooter and since NU tends to make average at best guys look like All-Americans, I’d worry about jump shooting forward Billy Oliver. He could be the next Josh Gasser or Jordan Morgan vs NU’s defense optional style of play.

I liked when Northwestern went back to their quick pace in the second half vs Michigan, but I think they have to slow it down vs Penn State. Penn State can be explosive and slowing down the game should reduce their explosiveness. However, if NU slows down the game they have to hit the glass. In a low possession game second chances count for a lot. NU was in the game vs Ohio State and Illinois because the game was slow AND they got second chances. Versus Michigan, NU gave away a ton of second looks to Michigan when playing slow and that was what got them in such a hole early.

I really do think NU has a shot in this game, but Penn State is at home and after suffering two losses really needs a win. Maybe NU is getting them while they’re vulnerable, but history doesn’t really make it look that way. NU hasn’t won at Penn State in almost ten years and while I hope the streak ends on Sunday, I don’t think that’s where the smart money goes. I predict: Penn State, 77 Northwestern, 67

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Poor Overall First Half and Terrible Defense in the Second Half Doom Northwestern

Once again Northwestern looked unprepared to play in a game that really mattered. I know Northwestern’s players and coaches want to make the NCAA Tournament, but they don’t seem to play like it or coach like it when the NCAA Tournament is actually on the line. I can make a huge list of key games where NU came out flat with the dance on the line in recent years, but off the top of my head I have Ohio State 2009, Wisconsin 2010, and tonight.

In the first half Michigan took a 15-point lead thanks to some bad NU shooting (32%) and terrible defense which allowed Jordan Morgan to get basically any shot he wanted from about two feet and in. Actually, I think a good number of Morgan’s points came on dunks. NU also allowed too many easy breakaway baskets which mostly occurred due to their missed long distance shots.

In the second half NU’s terrible defense continued which allowed Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway, Jr to continue to get the ball inside to Morgan or take the ball to the hoop for easy dunks. I put a lot of the issues with Morris and Hardaway getting to the hoop on NU’s switching man-to-man which resulted in Michigan’s guards often being defended by Luka Mirkovic or Davide Curletti. I thought Mirkovic and Curletti actually did as well as they could in that matchup, but they aren’t going to win it more than about ten percent of the time. NU’s guards need to get over screens and not put their centers on an island against a much more athletic player. What really upsets me about this is the fact this has been a problem all season long and its clearly not sound basketball yet it continues. At some point this needs to change.

Northwestern’s offensive strategy changed for the better in the second half when they went away from the slowdown and started shooting any good shot they had. In the second half NU made 18-of-29 shots and that includes the slew of missed shots they threw up at the end. I’m all for the slowdown offense vs teams NU isn’t much better than, but tonight I think the ‘Cats should have been aggressive from the start. Certainly, their six point advantage in the second half seems to show that.

The second half was a good showcase for Juice Thompson who scored 17 points and made it look like at least he wanted to win, but at the same time I have to say Juice was just as ineffective on both offense and defense as everybody in the first half so I can’t praise him too much. Drew Crawford also made some good shots in the second half and did a nice job on the glass, but he missed three big free throws and still seems often times to be the guy who is most impacted by not playing well. Drew really needs to learn to “flush” his negative plays and not let them stay with him for extended periods. JerShon Cobb made some nice plays, but took a bad shot late with the score 69-66. I know Cobb’s a freshman, but we can’t have dumb shots under pressure in big games. Crawford took one on the next possession which was even worse. Also, Bill Carmody basically said after the game on WGN that John Shurna isn’t ready to play and he looked like it today in scoring just four points. I don’t want to place NU’s recent tailspin all on Shurna’s injury because that’s not the only cause (see: defense), but the fact is that if Shurna were at 100% NU wouldn’t need to play as much defense because he’d score 22 points each night.

The bottom line is NU lost a big game—again. Bill Carmody sounded really upset after the game on WGN. I think some of that was due to his team’s poor ability to execute on defense, but I have to wonder if some relates to wondering about his job status. Several commentaries have pointed out that Carmody is only under contract through next season and lame duck seasons are pretty rare in college athletics. Next year would be one of NU’s most experienced teams in recent memory which might make NU say, “Sure, we’ll keep the guy as a lame duck for one more year.” Doing that, though, would probably harm recruiting because Carmody won’t be able to prove he’ll be able to coach those recruits. It’s a tough conundrum for Jim Phillips and his staff to try and resolve.

Northwestern’s obviously now probably totally on the outside of the NCAA Tournament and I’m not loving the NIT scenarios either. They play at Penn State on Sunday and watching NU play Penn State the last few years has been about as comfortable as watching your dog get hit by an eighteen-wheeler, so I’m not optimistic about that contest.

I don’t know about others, but I feel this season ceased to fun along time ago. Now, it’s like watching an in progress car accident. It might be exciting for an instant, but you know it won’t end well, yet you can’t turn your head away even though you really, really want to turn your head away.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Improving Wolverines Host Wildcats in Ann Arbor

Northwestern has shown improvement in their last two games, but Michigan is one of the teams in the Big Ten that seems to have made the biggest jump of late. A Michigan team that at one point looked like one of the league’s weakest squads has recently posted wins over tournament bubble teams Michigan State and Penn State. As a result, there is still a chance for Michigan to make the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern, considering they have the same Big Ten record as Michigan and the same number of overall wins, has to be considered a team in the same boat. After Wednesday night, though, one of the two teams is going to get tossed out of that boat. It’s a like a reality show, but the game is actually real and not scripted.

Northwestern has won the last three meetings between these teams and in the last two the Wildcats have been fairly dominate. However, both those last two meetings were in Evanston and I see Michigan as a much more challenging team now than they were in January. A big part of Michigan’s improvement is the better play from Tim Hardaway, Jr. In Michigan’s recent wins, Hardaway has added a more consistent three point shot to his to his excellent ability to get shots going to the basket. He’s still only a 32.6% three point shooter overall, but I became much more worried about Michigan as I watched Hardaway knock down clutch threes against Penn State. Northwestern’s improved defensive ability to keep opposing guards on the perimeter and not let them get up open shots will be important in how they defend not just Hardaway, but the entire Michigan lineup. Michigan starts three guards, but even forward Evan Smotrycz is really mostly a three point shooter. In fact at 37.2% from three he is one of the Michigan guys NU must be sure to not allow a clear look. At times, Michigan will even go with a four guard lineup and use Stu Douglass (38.6% from three) off the bench along with Zack Novack (40% from three), Hardaway, and point guard Darius Morris. Morris isn’t much of a three point shooter, but his ability to drive allows him to make over 50% of his field goals and he’s got a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. I worry about him because at times in Evanston he seemed to get whatever shot he wanted. Northwestern must take the approach they took against Ohio State and Illinois and attempt to deny the hot-shooting Michigan team open threes. In addition, though, they also need to fight through screens in order not to have mismatches were Morris and Hardaway are being guarded by slower defenders. I’d still rather see Morris shoot a three than drive and probably on percentage it’s the same for Hardaway, but Novack, Douglass, Smotrycz and backup point guard Matt Vogrich are another story. They all make at least 37% of their threes. If they get going as a group, Michigan has a chance to win a lot of games.

The same can be said for Northwestern’s shooters. It’s what happened versus Michigan last time. When John Shurna, Juice Thompson, and Drew Crawford all show up early, NU tends to get out to leads which are very tough for an opponent to overcome. However, this hasn’t happened in sometime. As a result of Shurna’s latest injury and some inconsistent play from Thompson and Crawford, NU hasn’t had a real strong shooting night in a while. In fact, NU was a better game from Crawford away from knocking off top ranked Ohio State in Evanston.

In order to knock off Michigan for the forth consecutive time, I really believe NU needs to have all three of their top shooters contribute. Contributions from multiple spots is what it takes to win on the road in the Big Ten. Now, it is possible some role players could step up for NU as they did Saturday versus Illinois. JerShon Cobb should be very confident after a game in which he posted 13 points against in a ranked squad and the fact Michigan’s front line is relatively small should increase the odds of a big game from Luka Mirkovic which in turn increases the odds of an NU win. Still, I’d really like to see big games from Crawford and Shurna because long term it’ll be those guys along with Thompson who need to step up for Northwestern to make a serious run at the postseason. If everyone steps up, which we have seen is possible, this could be another fairly easy win for NU, but it’s been an awfully long time since we’ve seen that. I think it is more likely that Northwestern will get decent games from maybe two of three big names (maybe Crawford finally plays a full game because he loved playing at Michigan last year) and then bolstered by a good game from Mirkovic who is more confident without having to worry about 7-1 Mike Tisdale blocking his shots, the ‘Cats will win a close game. I also think that while NU showed they can run vs Michigan the first time these teams met, that won’t be the game plan on the road unless things really open up. After all, it seems like NU is really more comfortable playing at slower pace and they certainly will need to bring that slower pace to State College, PA on Saturday so I see no reason not use it in Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I predict: Northwestern, 66 Michigan, 61

Monday, February 7, 2011

Help Keep Welsh-Ryan Purple and White

“I think he’s upset at all the orange that got in the building.” – Bill Raftery when Luka Mirkovic urged the crowd to make noise as he went to the bench Saturday.

I don’t know if Luka was really upset about the orange on Saturday, but I was. That’s the point of this rant or, I suppose, ramble.

Let me start this commentary by saying that I get that technically people are free to do whatever they want with tickets they purchase. However, after my experience at Welsh-Ryan on Saturday, I think something needs to be done with the way Northwestern and NU fans handle the distribution of their season tickets. I’m very fortunate I get to sit where I do at Welsh-Ryan. It comes from thirty years of family season tickets, but nonetheless, I do appreciate how lucky I am to watch games from just a few rows behind the scorer’s table. I realized how lucky I was when I made my road trip to Champaign when we sat in about row 20 and one my friends was thrilled because according to him it was the best seat he ever sat in at a basketball game while I was thinking, “this is worst seat I’ve ever sat in at a basketball game by far.”

The point is that my seat at NU is one of the best in the arena and I know a number of loyal NU fans that would love to have the seats in front of or behind me. However, on Saturday in the four seats behind me were three Illinois fans and a lone NU fan, in front of me were four Illinois fans, and to my right were one Illinois fan and one NU fan. The aisle was to my left. When two of the Illinois fans behind me arrived, they were a little lost and showed me their tickets because they needed a little help finding their seats. Because I’m a good guy I showed them were to sit, but I noticed their tickets looked just like mine—in other words a season ticket holder gave their tickets away and not for the first time.

The fact that we have NU season ticket holders with great seats giving away there tickets upsets me. I’ve talked about this before, but I have to talk about this again. I know Northwestern wants the money season tickets holders generate, but if somebody never comes to a game and gives their tickets away to visiting fans I have to wonder if their tickets are worth the money it generates. After all, what those people are essentially doing is making the fan experience for loyal fans worse. Now, I’m not going to stop attending games because I was surrounded by Illinois fans, but that’s me. I know people who in similar circumstances have considered dropping their tickets because they and their children are constantly made to feel uncomfortable in their season tickets because of obnoxious visiting fans surrounding them. I personally feel that Northwestern should do what I did after the game and turn on the CBS broadcast and look at just how much orange was clearly visible in sections 110-113. It was an embarrassment for NU’s first ever CBS game and it really ticks me off. NU should then try and assess just how that much orange got into some of the best seats in Welsh-Ryan. It might not be realistic to pull season tickets at this point, but I think it would be worth spending the rest of this season and next season gathering data as to what seats are filled by Northwestern fans. If season tickets are never filled by NU fans then its time to go to those people and tell them they are free to keep their tickets, but they will no longer be in TV camera range and let people who are in the upper reaches of the arena in purple every game come and sit down in the lower level.

Related somewhat to this are the NU fans who bring fans from other teams. The point of view I advocate here will probably be met with some hostility, but I stand by it. I say to all NU fans, please don’t bring fans of other teams to our games unless you’re married to one of them. Not to say how great I am, just prove I practice what I preach; I did chose not to bring my Illinois friends who took me to Champaign for their home game to Evanston for this game. You might say that just proves I’m a bad friend, but I didn’t bring them because I can’t stand it when people bring orange, red, or green-clad people and sit them around me. Therefore, I wasn’t going to be a hypocrite and subject anyone else to that. My friends are my friends, they know me and understand me so they weren’t surprised that I didn’t want them going crazy for the Illini in great Welsh-Ryan seats. Now, let’s be honest, people are free to disagree with me, but again, personally, unless you’re married to someone who went to another Big Ten school, it would please me a lot if you wouldn’t bring your Illinois/Wisconsin/Ohio State/Iowa/Michigan State fan friends to Welsh-Ryan and then have sit behind me and cheer their obnoxiously for their school. You might say, “What does it matter if I bring my best friend to this game? He/She is one person.” The problem is that a quick look around shows you aren’t the only person to use that logic and we’ve ended up with 50% visiting fans in an NU season ticket section. The same thing happened for the Wrigley Field disaster even though Northwestern’s ticket office tried to limit ticket sales to just NU people. Then they seemed confused what happened. Let me tell you what happened NUDAR, NU fans bought tickets for Illinois people!

So call me a jerk or someone who values their basketball team over their friends, but I as NU fan am making a solemn request to all NU fans that from this point on until NU makes the Final Four in basketball or wins the Rose Bowl in football and we develop our own powerful fan base that no NU fan buy tickets and give them away to fans of other schools unless the person you bring is more than a friend (e.g. your spouse). It’s a sad fact, but our fan base isn’t that great and is easily overwhelmed with visitors and if we help them get in (e.g. buy/give away to them tickets) then we create a hostile environment for our own team which lowers their odds of winning. NU was very lucky on Saturday that Illinois never got ahead, because if they had chants of I-L-L-I-N-I would have rained down on the court, momentum would have totally swung, and Illinois would have used it to cost to about an eight point win. I’ve seen it happen before; you can help stop it from happening again.

End of rant/ramble. Now feel free to rant/ramble back.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wildcats need to Show Survival Skills

Northwestern beat Illinois 71-70 yesterday and Michigan beat Penn State today 65-62. Its hard to see either team in the NCAA Tournament at this point, but with their identical 4-7 Big Ten records and their 14 wins overall an outside chance still exists for both squads to make the NCAA Tournament. In order to do so, though, both squads will need to pull out long win streaks starting Wednesday night and continuing the rest of the year. What I saw from both teams makes me believe it is possible, but it’ll be a major test of survival skills for both squads.

The team I look for what the Wildcats (or the Wolverines) to emulate is the 2007 Colorado Rockies. Obviously, it’s a different sport, but the Rockies were dead and buried with no chance to make the playoffs with 22 games left in the 2007 season. They then won 21 of 22 to close out the regular season, won a one game playoff to make the postseason, and then won seven straight postseason games before losing the World Series to the Boston Red Sox. That’s the kind of run I think NU needs to go on to make the NCAA Tournament and I’ll go on the record now and say based on what I saw yesterday it is possible. Of course, what I saw the first time NU played Illinois would tell me NU has no chance. Let’s be honest, though, NU is an erratic team and that’s the scary part. However, I want to look at the positives I saw yesterday and the relatively favorable schedule that might allow the Wildcats to channel their inner Rockies.

First off all, one major item that I noticed yesterday and vs Ohio State is that NU is playing better defense. They’re doing a much better job playing their switching man-to-man by helping when they should inside, not giving wide open looks to jump shooters, pressuring the ball on the perimeter, and hustling to balls on the glass in order to limit teams to one possession. If they continue to play like this, especially given the fact they’ll have an athletic advantage against a number of future opponents. I really like the way that Alex Marcotullio defended yesterday and the hustle of JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford to the glass has made NU more even athletically when playing seemingly superior teams.

NU’s more well rounded scoring yesterday is something that if it continues I could see NU posting a number of consecutive wins. Yesterday, JerShon Cobb scored 13 points and showed the ability to get shots virtually whenever he wanted even when defended by All-Big Ten guard Demetri McCamey. Luka Mirkovic scored 9 points and had chances for several more. When he faces smaller defenders (as he will vs Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State) Luka will convert a number of the looks he missed on Saturday. Drew Crawford will eventually play a full game and John Shurna is still struggling with his many injuries, but I think part of the probably yesterday was conditioning due to sitting out 10 days. He’ll have very valuable practice time over the next couple days.

Consistent play for Juice Thompson is also something we say yesterday that’ll need to continue. Thompson is such a critical player because he can make shots late in the shot clock if NU wants to go slow down, but can also hit threes at any time. His 38.9% three point percentage is a little lower than some past seasons, but Juice has the ability to get on a hot steak from three and we saw some of that late in the OSU game and all day vs Illinois. Juice also is clearly a leader and the team seems to relax when he plays well.

NU’s chances for a run are also aided by a favorable schedule. NU will take on a number of teams they beat earlier in the year and will see a Penn State team that while talented, isn’t a team NU can’t beat. To do that, though, NU needs to continue their smart play on offense. Against Illinois NU wasn’t as slow as they were in pace vs OSU, but they were smart about when to run down the shot clock and when not to do so. It’ll be good to continue that smart play because NU has shown they run teams out of the gym if they get hot, but they haven’t really had a great shooting game for some time now. I think especially against athletically talented Penn State and when they go to Wisconsin playing at a slow pace will help. It’ll be interesting to see if teams try to force NU to speed up like Illinois did if they try the burn offense.

The best thing, though, is that Northwestern’s win over Illinois (and maybe even the close loss to Ohio State) has at least shown that the end of this season will be worth watching closely. I think before yesterday the interest level of some fans was dipping. It will hopefully be back to a higher level now.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Wildcats Edge Illini 71-70

I’ll have even more thoughts later on today’s win, but I have to say this it was great fun game at Welsh-Ryan Arena today for CBS sports and the NU fans. The wasn't always played cleanly, but both teams played hard and the contest came right down to the end with a number of players having key roles in the outcome on both sides.

Juice Thompson was great with 22 points and a ton of clutch three point shots for NU and Brandon Paul stepped up in big way for Illinois whenever it looked as if the Wildcats would run away. The Wildcats also got outstanding efforts for JerShon and their post players. Cobb at times showed why I think he'll be a great weapon for NU in the future as he created his own shot at will even when being defended by All-Big Ten guard Demtri McCamey. NU's post guys, Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti had some bad moments, but both did another good job in a battle with bigger and stronger players. Illinois was only a couple times able to totally force their will on NU down low and that was in large part due to Luka and Davide, though, they also got help defending the post from Drew Crawford, Mike Capocci, and Cobb. Luka still drives me nuts at times, but I think he's getting a little better in terms of defense and being more consistent on offense. He missed some shots today, but seemed for the most part to shoot at the right time and not force moves when they had no chance of being finished. I still wish he'd being a little more aggressive overall, but he is getting closer to the potential fans know he has. I’m also really glad he made at least one free throw at the end as NU’s free throw shooting wasn’t all spectacular today. I was really worried when Drew Crawford missed two in a row at what I thought was a key situation.

Actually, other than letting Brandon Paul go nuts from three all of NU’s defense was very solid. The ‘Cats put pressure on the ball and forced Illinois into a number of turnovers. A couple times Thompson and Cobb just picked the pocket of various Illini guards. This was huge for me to see because it shows that the flashes of solid defense we saw vs Ohio State weren’t just aberrations. NU might be making a change in how they play defense overall.

I wasn’t totally thrilled with how NU handled the end of the game. I personally feel that you don’t want to foul so early. I’d wait until about 5 seconds or less remained. Especially if you aren’t a great free throw shooting team. If Luka missed his first free throw at the end we might still be playing.

I think the clutch play of Juice Thompson has to be the major takeaway from this game. Juice has been clutch in the past, but the last two games he mostly lighted it up in the second half. Juice showed up for all 40 minutes today and he’s why NU won. John Shurna was clearly still hurt and Drew Crawford disappeared in the second half, but Juice was always ready for a big shot. If NU is to pull more upsets along the way, it’ll take the same effort from Juice, but he’s going to need to get some more support as well. I liked seeing Cobb step up, but I hope really hope Shurna improves in the next couple days and Crawford goes to Michigan and remembers what it’s like to play a full game. Still, a great win for NU and a great game by Juice.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

State Rivalry Ready for Showcase Saturday at Welsh-Ryan and on National TV

NU's Nick Fruendt and U of I's Bill Cole last year at Welsh-Ryan

The state of college basketball in the state of Illinois is so-so at best this year. The University of Illinois is 15-7 and ranked #24 in the nation, but the rest of the state’s teams have been very disappointing. Northwestern’s 13-8 record features no victories of substance and their failure to execute in crunch time against Michigan State (X2) and Ohio State have a number of fans already conceding that this will not be the ‘Cats year to make tournament history. The state’s non-Big Ten teams aren’t much better. The third best team in the state based on RPI is Southern Illinois who is just about .500 overall, but who would be in the play-in game of the MVC tournament. Basically, 2010-11 hasn’t been a great year in Illinois hoops, but the game Saturday between Northwestern and Illinois still has major significance for both teams.

For the Wildcats the game is yet another chance to post a win against a team that is better than bad to average. For U of I, it is a chance to win on the road against a conference foe, something critical to tournament seeding, but something the Fighting Illini haven’t done anywhere except last place Iowa (though Michigan State says that’s still impressive). Which event would mean more? Well, at this point Illinois, despite causing their fans some undo frustration at times, is still in the NCAA Tournament as probably a mid-tier seed. Northwestern has also caused fans some frustration, but unlike U of I, isn’t in the NCAA Tournament at this point. In fact, they probably aren’t even in the top half of the NIT. Therefore, I think this game is more critical for Northwestern. Ideally, that would translate to a strongly pro-NU crowd in Welsh-Ryan, but I doubt that will be the case. NU tried to limit ticket sales to pro-NU fans for this CBS telecast by attaching tickets to this contest to other games, but they tried the same for the Wrigley Field disaster and plenty of Illini fans made it inside the Friendly Confines. Part of that is because of the ticket brokers and scalpers and part of that is because NU fans bring their Illini friends/family members/co-workers to games with them. Regardless, I’d expect a neutral site environment on Saturday. Hopefully, NU’s student sections will be fairly full and will help drown out any rowdy I-L-L-I-N-I chants.

As far as the game itself, Illinois won handily in Champaign about a month ago. During that contest John Shurna labored due to his injured ankle and the Illini’s guards didn’t miss. Now, Shurna’s status for the contest is uncertain due to a concussion just over a week ago at Minnesota, but Illinois’s guards had hit something of a shooting slump until Tuesday at home against Penn State. In that contest, U of I found early three point baskets against Penn State’s 1-3-1 zone, much like they did NU’s on Jan. 6th and used those early makes to open passing lanes inside to Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. Given that Illinois is a 40% three point shooting team with 40%-plus guys in Demetri McCamey, D.J. Richardson, and Bill Cole, I seriously doubt that NU will even attempt to play their own 1-3-1 again. Instead, you’ll likely see the Wildcats go switching man-to-man and much like the game plan vs Ohio State, keep their guards on the perimeter for the most part. That’ll mean Illinois will have to either attempt contested threes or will have to put the game into the hands of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Against the Ohio State duo of Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale the Wildcats inside defenders Luke Mirkovic, Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci did a good job being physical. The Buckeye duo got points, but they had to work for them. NU also did a good job of being judicious with the double team action and therefore not letting Ohio State’s John Diebler and William Buford get open threes. I expect to see the same Saturday. Davis and Tisdale are going to get points, but if McCamey, Richardson, and Cole don’t, I think NU will consider it a victory defensively.

On the other side of the court, I think NU will slow the game down of offense as they did versus Ohio State. Some fans are worried about NU playing this type of game because they remember old Wildcats teams doing this and playing close, but struggling to post wins. Things are different with this group, though. In, say, 2006-07 the Wildcats would play slow and with shot clock running down the ball had to go to Kevin Coble. If anybody else took that late shot, even if it was a wide open look, it was really a victory for the defense. Now, though, when NU runs the clock down it really doesn’t matter who gets the open look—and in NU’s offense an open look will exist. That makes this team much tougher to defend and though it’s hard to argue with playing quick when you look at huge wins over Georgia Tech, Iowa, and Indiana, it seems to make sense when Juice Thompson says NU is better when they slow it down because anybody on NU’s roster can make a jumper and most teams hate to play 30 seconds of defense. Plus, if NU continues to go to the class with all five players they might make teams play close to 60 seconds of consecutive defense.

This year has been a tough one to pick games, but it really shouldn’t be. NU has basically followed the script as they are still 13-0 against teams who have RPIs worse than their own and 0-8 against teams with better RPIs. Therefore, the script for this game says Illini victory, but a couple things might through the script off. One reason is because of how poorly Illinois has played in road Big Ten games. Not only are they just 1-3 overall, they haven’t really played well in their three losses. That could through the script away and make one lean towards NU, especially after Northwestern used the raucous home environment to take Ohio State to wire. Of course, there is also the issue with John Shurna. Will Shurna play? Does it even help NU if he does? After all, Mike Capocci’s physical defense would seem a better option against Mike Davis than Shurna’s questionable health. Of course, Capocci’s 11 points vs OSU were a season high and Shurna can go for 30 in the blink of an eye if he’s healthy. My guess is that Shurna plays, but gets less minutes because of Capocci’s much needed defense. Still, some productive minutes by Shurna will be critical because NU has been in a shooting slump and he can lift the team out of that. If Shurna plays I think that takes pressure off of Drew Crawford and production from Crawford generally equals wins for NU. I predict: Northwestern, 55 Illinois, 51

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What About Next Year?

It’s national signing day for football and that gives me a reason to look to the future of the basketball program as well. I know this season is far form over and it is even possible that Northwestern could post a four game winning streak and be back at .500 in the Big Ten and ready for late February/early March push towards the NCAA tournament if they learn from their near upset of Ohio State as they face a favorable portion of the schedule. However, I think in this lag between games thinking about next year isn’t unreasonable.

One of the popular frustrations I hear from NU fans is that if this year isn’t “the year” then we’re in big trouble because next year is going to be terrible without Juice Thompson. Let me say I’m a big fan of Juice and I very much wish NU would have put the ball in his hands with 40 some seconds left in the Ohio State game, but I also don’t think losing him instantly means NU is going to revert to the bottom of the Big Ten. Sure, the point guard is a key position in college basketball, but a close look at the Princeton Offense reveals it isn’t as dependent on a point guard as other offensive systems. NU won six Big Ten games with former walk-on Michael Jenkins as the starting point guard in the 2005-06 season. The reason the PO can work without a great point guard is because every player on the court in the PO must be a good passer/distributor and be able to set up teammates for baskets. In other systems, the point guard is the only the player who does this. Certainly, Juice is valuable when teams press NU, but the Big Ten doesn’t have a ton of teams who press and I don’t think that’ll change next year. In fact, if you look closely, Juice has at times this season handed off point duties against non-pressure teams to JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio. This has probably allowed Juice to get more shots, but it has also given JerShon and Alex good experience which they might need next season. Both of those players have shown a good understanding of how the Princeton Offense works and both will no doubt improve from the heavy minutes they have played this year. Also, both have shown the ability to get to the hoop which is the major aspect of Juice’s game that I’d be worried about losing. What will need to happen for next year is that Alex and JerShon will need to learn from Juice’s aggressiveness when an opening presents itself or the shot clocking is running down. Actually, with his quickness, I’d like to see JerShon Cobb starting to get more aggressive to the hoop right now.

Another reason why I think NU will be just as good next year is that I’m banking on John Shurna staying healthy. Last year, Juice was my MVP for NU because he really made NU function. This year, John Shurna will most likely get the nod for that award because it was clear how NU’s entire season changed when he got hurt. Shurna has become one of the best all around scorers in the Big Ten and one of the deadliest shooters in the nation when he’s 100%. If he’s 100% next year, I think NU will work to get him 15 shots a game or more. That means that the team’s point guard will likely have to take less of a scoring role and therefore someone like Marcotullio or one of NU’s two guard recruits Tre Demps or David Sobolewski can likely handle that responsibility.

I also have to say I have a lot of confidence in Demps and Sobolewski. Yes, NU’s big man recruiting has been hit or miss under Bill Carmody, but NU’s consistently brought in solid guards. T.J. Parker, Craig Moore, and Juice all played well as freshmen. No reason exits to think either Demps or Sobolewski won’t be able to do the same.
Plus, those two will benefit from not only having Shurna on the court, but Drew Crawford who is a multi-year starter and Cobb who has started every game he has been physically able to play and Luka Mirkovic who will also have years of starting experience under his belt. Basically, next year’s team will be one of NU’s most experienced. In college basketball experience isn’t an automatic ticket to success, but for a team like Northwestern where talent has to be developed over time, experience generally does help.

Simply stated, I think this year’s Northwestern team and next year’s Northwestern teams are going to be very similar. I’d logically expect about five more Big Ten wins and an NIT bid from this year’s group and I think an 8-10 Big Ten record next year with Shurna and Mirkovic as seniors is logical expectation as well. Now, will four years of the NIT and no NCAA tournament be acceptable to the NU fan base at large—maybe not. But I think to assume NU is going to go back to winning just a handful of Big Ten games next year isn’t correct either.

What does everybody else think? Do you see progress next year or will NU drop back to the bottom of the Big 1o (12)?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Five Ways for NU to Start Making Progress This Year

A giant snowstorm is in the process of stopping the progress of almost a third of the county today and somehow that seems to connect at little bit to the current status of NU’s men’s basketball team. I think we all came into this season with a lot of very high expectations for the season and a good feeling about the progress which had been made in the program over the past couple years. Now, however, with a 13-8, 3-7 record it seems like that progress has been halted. That’s part of the frustration for many unhappy NU fans. A win against Ohio State would have obviously proved progress was being made in the midst of this underachieving year, but that didn’t happen. Still, the game might have provided some hope, or at least an idea of how this season can be saved and forward restored. Here’s five items I picked up:

1) The most important thing I think Northwestern learned in the Ohio State game was they are capable of rebounding with other Big Ten teams. However, it takes a five man effort. This means that NU can’t shoot a shot and sprint back on defense or try to get out super fast on offense. All five players need to go to the offensive and defensive glass. If this happens NU will get more shots than their opponents and that’s critical because even in NU’s good effort versus Ohio State, the Buckeyes shot 57% from the field.

2) Item two relates to that last number. I think we can note the Northwestern still needs a lot of work defensively and probably isn’t going to get their failings corrected before the end of this season. That means NU’s game plan needs to start to take the Wildcats defensive liabilities into account.

3) Therefore, that game plan must be the slow paced game we saw versus Ohio State. If a team is going to shoot over 50% against you, you don’t want to give them very many shots. NU’s slow paced game limited Ohio State to just 37 shots. It also means that NU can’t give up on the five man rebounding game plan because if teams get more than one shot per possession vs NU it is almost automatic they will convert the second chance.

4) Mike Capocci actually might be NU’s most competent post defender. It seems odd considering he’s only 6-6, but he was able to use his strength to make life tough for Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale. Even if John Shurna is okay, I think Capocci still needs to find heavy minutes against the Illinois duo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. That might mean sacrificing some minutes from Shurna, Drew Crawford, and JerShon Cobb, but all three could benefit from increased rests as well.

5) Cobb and Crawford are as good of athletes as NU has had. Cobb’s first step on his dribble drive in the first half vs OSU was the quickest I’ve seen from an NU player in fifteen years. I’d like to see him attack the basket more regularly. Drew Crawford will be a key player in NU’s efforts to rebound if they stick with the five man approach, but he needs to get more consistent on offense. I think having him attack the hoop more might help. Crawford is such a streaky jump shooter, that I wonder if getting into the game with some more easy shots and free throws might relax him and let his jump shot start to fall.