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.