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.