Juice Thompson has accomplished a lot in his Northwestern career. Even before this season started his name was all over the NU record book during this year he’s simply added to it. Thanks to his 35 points today in round 1 of the Big Ten Tournament, Juice is now in the Big Ten record book as those 35 points bested the mark of 33 points set by Purdue’s Brian Cardinal in 1999 for the Big Ten Tournament’s single game scoring record. Juice and the ‘Cats now get to face #1 Ohio State tomorrow at 11 AM Central time for a shot at their first ever trip to the Big Ten semi-finals. Though winning that game is unlikely, one has to remember that in a similar game last year it took a 40-footer from OSU star Evan Turner to top Michigan. Also, given how well NU played OSU this season, I don’t think a win is impossible.
Certainly, an effort like Juice gave today would help as would some support from his teammates.
In today’s game Northwestern as team for the second game in a row played very good defense. Minnesota shot just 37.5% overall and just 33% from three. Also, NU did a very good job making it tough for Minnesota to get open looks for three. The ‘Cat defenders were in the face of Blake Hoffarber and the other Gopher guards for a good portion of the afternoon. Really, when Minnesota made open threes they were off of offensive rebounds. That’s something NU will need to prevent versus Ohio State, but Minnesota didn’t get many, so there is some model of how to do it. NU got outrebounded 40 to 30 by Minnesota, but with only five turnovers the ‘Cats were able to maximize each possession. Since NU will likely burn 30-plus seconds off the shot clock during each possession tomorrow, that ball control will remain critical.
Obviously, with 35 points, today was the Juice Thompson show, but you have to give some credit to Alex Marcotullio, Nick Fruendt, and Drew Crawford who helped Juice out on a day with John Shurna was held to just 2 points on 1-of-5 shooting. Marcotullio scored 13 points and made 5-of-8 shots overall and 2-of-5 from three. He once again played solid defense and tied Drew Crawford for the second highest Wildcat total with 6 rebounds. I think Marcotullio’s increased comfort in driving the ball has actually helped his shooting as teams are starting to notice he’ll finish at the rim and might have to give him a little space on the outside. Nick Fruendt played heavier minutes today than he had all year because of the injuries to Mike Capocci and JerShon Cobb. In those minutes he dropped in 7 points on 3-of-5 shooting and didn’t look tentative at all on the court. That’s huge for a guy who had only played in 16 games coming into today. Odds are Cobb and Capocci won’t be back tomorrow, so Nick is going to get a shot to really test his comfort and confidence when he lines up across from Buckeye swingman William Buford.
I also have to give credit to Drew Crawford who was second on the team with 15 points and did what I’ve been asking for a while and took the ball to basket. As a result, he scored 6 of his points from the free throw line and several of those came at key times. As was stated on the ESPN2 broadcast, Crawford looks good when he shoots threes. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised that if NU does upset Ohio State the reason is Crawford gets hot and knocks in eight or nine threes, but when the shots aren’t falling from deep for Drew, he can still make a difference with his athletic skill if he attacks the basket.
Inside, NU didn’t get a ton of points or rebounds from Luka Mirkovic or Davide Curletti, but both battled enough to keep the rebounding gap respectable. John Shurna helped out with 7 boards and I never truly thought Minnesota’s athlete advantage took over. While I’d of course like to see more points from the Wildcat front court, containing the opposing athletes is just as important tomorrow.
The other thing that is important tomorrow is more consistency from NU behind the arc. Sure, the ‘Cats made nine threes, but that was on 31 tries. That’s 29% three point shooting. That won’t get it done against Ohio State. If NU is going to beat OSU they need to have a hot shooting night (or midday). If you look at NU’s 58-57 loss to Ohio State earlier this year, while NU did play well in almost every phase of the game, they didn’t shoot the ball well that day either. Ohio State is a great basketball team and the odds of NU beating them aren’t good, but as I’ve said before, Northwestern is a team I’ve seen get white-hot from behind the arc, but I haven’t seen that in a while. If they are to advance in the Big Ten Tournament, that white-hot shooting NU team needs to reappear. That means John Shurna and Drew Crawford need to do much much more than make one total three and Juice needs to pretty much repeat his efforts as do Marcotullio and Fruendt. All that happening will be tough, but at least with NU now moving to 18-12, I think they’re surly in the NIT and have a case for a home date. Of course, that case and the dream of making the Big tournament would improve with a victory tomorrow.