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.