Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Juice Finishes Off Senior Night with Strong Second Half

On a night when Northwestern got some great contributions from underclass bench players Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti, it was still the senior Michael “Juice” Thompson who ended up leading NU to victory. Thompson scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half and really took over in the game’s final moments with a couple big threes and some big free throws to push NU to victory. He also led NU in rebounds with a career high 7 boards which helped NU stay nearly even with Minnesota on the glass.

The 11 point win essentially serves as game two of a three game NIT-seeding series with Minnesota for Northwestern. With tonight’s win, I believe NU ensures they’ll get a bid to the NIT (they have the same league record as last year, no bad losses, and overall the college basketball world isn’t as strong). However, at this point Minnesota would probably get a higher seed and a home game while NU would be a bottom half of the bracket seed and play on the road for the third straight year. That’s legitimate as Minnesota has more quality wins than NU. However, if NU can beat Minnesota in game three of the series in Indianapolis on March 10th that’ll likely move NU ahead of the Gophers on the NIT Selection Committee’s big board. Of course, if NU does beat the Gophers in round 1 of the Big Ten Tournament, then perhaps they should focus on beating Ohio State in round 2 and trying to somehow get themselves into the NCAA Tournament for the first time. After all, that is still the goal for every NCAA team until they are officially eliminating and NU isn’t out yet.

If NU is going to beat the Gophers again in Indy, playing defense like they did tonight will certainly help. Alex Marcotullio played a career-best game on offense, but it was his defense which really helped NU. He frustrated Minnesota’s guards (especially Blake Hoffarber) all night by not allowing them clean looks from three and staying physical with them when they tried to drive. It was exactly the type of effort which NU needs more consistently if they ever want to seriously compete in the Big Ten. Marcotullio’s 5-of-9 shooting and 18 points, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 rebounds were also all great for NU on a night when NU didn’t shoot all that well (just 37.3%) and needed somebody they could count on to make big plays.

Marcotullio’s former AAU teammates Davide Curletti also helped NU to victory. Curletti had a significantly stronger game than Luka Mirkovic for the second game in a row and probably deserves a start in Indy. He helped keep NU in the game in the first half and for the game scored 12 points, got 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, and didn’t miss a free throw going 6-for-6 including a couple in the clutch.

The fact NU gets a week off before playing Minnesota again also may help the Wildcats. John Shurna scored 15 points today and although he didn’t shoot all that well (5-of-14 overall and 3-of-10 from three) he did show moments of explosiveness with a couple dunks, blocks, and rebounds. With another week of rest, perhaps the non-conference season John Shurna will show up for NU. If that happens, I think Northwestern has chance to beat any team they face the rest of the season.

As the Wildcats leave Welsh-Ryan for the 2010-11 regular season, they obviously would like to make the NCAA Tournament, but you have to be pleased that even if they don’t, they still have chance at the postseason for the third year in a row. While NU hasn’t won a postseason game since March of 1994, that fact that NU has a real shot of being in the NIT three seasons in a row is unprecedented success for the Wildcats in the post World War II era. A ton of credit for that success goes to the senior class honored tonight before the game so I want to give credit once again to Juice Thompson and his classmates Mike Capocci, Ivan Peljusic, and Jeff Ryan. All four contributed at different levels on the court during games, but each gave of themselves four or five years of heavy commitment to Northwestern basketball and as turned out their four or five years included some of the program’s most successful seasons. Let’s hope more success is in their future.

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