Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Will Take for This to be THE Year??????

Until Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament fans will always come into the season wondering if this is going be the year the ‘Cats finally break into the NCAA Tournament field. Just two weeks from the opening tip of the season versus Texas-Pan American, I can’t help but wonder what it’ll take for this to be the year the ‘Cats make that breakthrough. They’ve been close each of the last three years. Three years ago a couple late season losses to Illinois and Ohio State doomed them, two years ago an inability to beat the bottom of the Big Ten doomed them, and last year a weak non-conference schedule combined with the inability to beat a “marquee” opponent ruined the ‘Cats shot at being named on Selection Sunday. On paper the teams of the last three years might be stronger than this year’s squad, but I find myself hoping that this version of the Wildcats led by a group of seniors who have seen the mistakes of the past three seasons will finally breakthrough. Let’s take a look at what they need to do.

1) Take advantage of non-conference opportunities. – Last year the Wildcats didn’t get many chances in the non-conference schedule to get big wins and they lost in one of their best chances when they played at St. John’s. This year NU gets a decent field at the Charleston Classic and huge home tilt vs Baylor. If NU can win the Charleston Classic and beat Baylor they’ll have several RPI boosting wins that were missing in previous years. Road contests at Georgia Tech and Creighton also potentially offer a greater challenge than games of the past two years.

2) Get consistent production for the center position. – Looking at history the best Princeton Offense teams have always had centers who stuffed the stat sheet consistently. Over the past three years Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti have had some big games in some of NU’s biggest wins (see Luka’s double-double in an upset of #6 Purdue) but they haven’t been consistent. If these two demonstrate a level of consistency I expect this could be THE year. They’ll get a good challenge early in 7-0 260-pound LSU center Justin Hamilton (an Iowa St. transfer) who will be eligible to play when NU takes on the Tigers.

3) Get production from unlikely sources. – When teams have breakout years they usually have a player nobody has expectations for who steps up. For NU that might be Nick Fruendt who is a senior that has shown flashes of ability, but who never consistently got into Bill Carmody’s rotation. Also, Carmody mentioned walk-on Reggie Hearn as somebody who might crack the rotation when interviewed at Big Ten media day.

4) Start fast in the conference season. – The last couple years NU hasn’t started great in conference play. Yes, the schedule has been tough, but that’s not an excuse that NCAA Tournament teams make. To make the Big Dance NU needs at least a .500 conference record and they won’t get it if they again start the Big Ten 0-4. The good news is that while the opener at Ohio State is going to be very tough, home games vs Penn State and Illinois offer NU the chance to get at least two Big Ten wins in the first week and a half of conference play.

5) Play defense – Northwestern has been inconsistent on defense over the past few seasons. They’ve had their moments, but haven’t really played that well. A strong defensive finish to last season gives me hope, so we’ll see how it goes in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Facilities News – NU Should Keep Its Promise to Fitz

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that Northwestern’s facilities initiative is receiving some resistance from the NU Board of Trustees. I think it is important to note here that it really doesn’t seem like the Board is opposed to an NU facilities upgrade. However, it seems the issue is the location of some of these new facilities. Most notably it is the issue of where to put a new football practice facility. According to all reports (and it was mentioned again yesterday by Teddy G. in the Trib) Pat Fitzgerald was pretty much set to take the Michigan job until Northwestern promised him better resources which could make his teams at Northwestern competitive with traditional powers like, say, Michigan. I have to assume this was done because it was clear NU wasn’t going to match Michigan’s salary offer. Now, maybe Coach Fitz may just have used Michigan to leverage NU into boosting his salary and promising these resource upgrades (i.e. a new practice facility by the lake to help recruiting) but, that’s just smart and it does help his team. Now, though, it seems like NU isn’t totally meeting what they promised Fitz. This to me is wrong and it hurts other sports such as men’s and women’s basketball as well.

I know a 2-5 season has some people ticked off at Fitzgerald and upset at the state of NU athletics in general. Maybe, this is even true of some of the Board of Trustee members, I don’t know. But, isn’t a deal a deal? I suppose not if it isn’t in writing, but I’d bet Jim Phillips is sitting somewhere in a white shirt and purple tie right now upset at the way things are going in this area. After all, he had to be the primary individual in convincing Coach Fitz that if he stayed that decision would prove worthwhile. Now, he’s being made to look like a lair or maybe more precisely an exaggerator. Odds are NU gets some sort of new football facility in the near future, but if it isn’t on lake where it can “WOW” potential recruits is it really what Phillips promised Fitzgerald? I’d say no. Even worse for NU’s other sports, it might mean that some of the things which were planned to happen around the current football facility such as a new basketball area or a new basketball practice facility might get crossed out of the plan if the football facility has to occupy the same ground as the current setup.

The bottom line is I understand the lakefill land is extremely valuable property and some might not want to put a facility on it which is really only going to be used by 100 of NU’s 8,000 students and only about 50 employees at most when you factor in trainers, equipment staff, etc. But I’m still bothered by the fact that the Board of Trustees is preventing Jim Phillips from following through on the promise he made to his football coach and via extension the other coaches at Northwestern. If I’m Pat Fitzgerald I’m ticked off at this point and if I’d didn’t get the new facility I was promised in the place it was promised I wouldn’t be so willing to give Northwestern a hometown discount next time a major football power came kocking at my door. Now, you might say who is going to visit Pat with his team at 2-5, but let’s remember Gary Barnett got another job after a 3-9 season. The perception outside of Northwestern is generally that winning six or more games at Northwestern consistently makes you the reincarnation of Vince Lombardi. I don’t know if I agree, but when the ‘Cats rally to a 4-1 finish and win a bowl game this season some university president is going to think so. Therefore, I’d ask the Board of Trustees to step up and help Jim Phillips keep his promise or get ready for a potential embarrassment as the face of the NU program exits stage left because while NU talked a good game they didn’t truly commit to his program as promised.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pooley's Preseason B1G Rankings

Three weeks away. Getting pumped.

1. Ohio State – Another Big Ten title for the Buckeyes. They have everything on their side, but the downside to high expectations is that anything but a Big Ten championship and a Final Four run will be seen as a letdown.

2. Michigan State – I’m ranking Michigan State this high mostly out of respect for Draymond Green. I don’t think he (or Izzo, for that matter) will let last year’s disappointing season happen again this year. They’ve got good recruits, good returners, and I’m predicting they’ll bounce back.

3. Wisconsin -- I still remember that 38-33 loss to Penn State last year in the Big Ten Tournament. It took 35 minutes in that game for a player other than Taylor or Leuer to score. Of course they’ll be good, but I’m not confident enough in their ability to find points this year to rank them #2.

4. Michigan – John Belein is my favorite Big Ten coach other than Carmody. He’s a positive guy who supports his players, has a good system set up, and gets the best out of them. Even so, I have a feeling that the loss of Darius Morris will be felt pretty hard and the offense won’t flow as smoothly as it did a year ago, when absolutely everything ran through him. Even so, the team is due for a strong Big Ten season, if only because they’re on a roll and there aren’t a lot of teams that are both strong and experienced this year.

5. Northwestern – Sure, this is a homer pick, but that’s fine. This is the year we put it all together, avoid injury, and get a winning Big Ten record. Someone (Marcotullio?) steps up to replace Juice’s stats and leadership, and Shurna has a huge season and becomes our all-time leading scorer. Knock on wood.

6. Purdue –My biggest doubt about this team is the hole at the center position. They’ll probably be starting sophomore Travis Carroll, who Purdue fans don’t seem to have much confidence in. They also don’t have a lot of depth and have multiple players still recovering from injuries and surgeries, including Lewis Jackson and of course Robbie Hummell. They’ll play good D and have good nights, but I don’t see them being the team they have been the last few years.

7. Illinois -- 2011-2012 Illinois will be totally different than the Illini of the last few years, and that’s probably a good thing for them. They got rid of a lot of bad attitudes and distractions and Bruce Weber now has a huge pool of talented young players to choose from. Now they’ve got to put it all together. It won’t all happen this year but I think low-ish expectations will play into their hand and allow them to put together strong season for a team that lost so many minutes.

8. Indiana – Ah, this team. If the video of Hoosier Hysteria doesn’t make you dislike these people, well then I bet you haven’t yet seen the video of Derek Elston tripping Alex Marcotullio (or Crean’s subsequent defense of/unwillingness to discipline Elston.) Indiana has upgraded its talent over the last couple of seasons and will surely have a better year than last year’s bad 3-15. Cody Zeller does seem to be the real deal, and I think we’ll see some impressive Hulls-Zeller plays this year. Sheehey and Oladipo are improved, and they’ve got some other players who are pretty talented, but with this team I won’t believe it until I see it.

9. Minnesota -- Trevor Mbakwe should average a (high) double-double, but their success is contingent on how they deal with last year’s backcourt problems. It could go either way for Minnesota, but I’m skeptical for now.

10. Nebraska – They could surprise, but for now I don’t have much of a reason to pick them to do any better than 10th. Their strengths should be their frontcourt and their relative experience, but unfortunately for them they will have to adjust to 11 new teams. I guess the other teams have to adjust to them too, but well, I’m still predicting a low finish this year.

11. Iowa – Basabe will have a great year, but they don’t have enough talent or enough depth for me to see them jumping the teams ahead of them.

12. Penn State – This won’t be a fun year for Penn State – new coach, four new starters. Expectations are as low as they get though, so anything better than lots of blowouts should give the fans hope for the future. If Northwestern doesn’t finally beat Penn State this year (twice), I will eat Willie the Wildcat.

Go Cats!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Does Northwestern Have Depth?

I know there are exceptions to any rule and some experts would disagree with me, but I believe the teams which compete consistently over the long-haul of the Big Ten season are the teams which have some depth on the bench. As I had this thought today, I started to wonder if Northwestern had much depth. Last year the ‘Cats displayed signs of having a good bench as they nearly upset Ohio State without John Shurna and got some solid Big Ten Tournament contributions from Nick Fruendt when JerShon Cobb was out of action. Does that apparent depth translate into 2011-12?

The good news is that NU seems to have five fairly clear starters. Shurna, Luka Mirkovic, Drew Crawford, Cobb, and Alex Marcotullio seem like the logical starting five. At some point Cobb or Marcotullio might end up getting flipped into the sixth man role to bring energy off the bench, but that’s a good sign because it would be an indicator that somebody on NU’s bench stepped up at the guard spot.

Guard is my biggest worry when it comes to depth for NU. After Alex and Drew the ‘Cats are basically looking at freshmen Tre Demps and David Sobolewski both of who suffered injuries within the last calendar year. Are they really going to be ready for the physical grind of college basketball? They better be or else Nick Fruendt is going to get a lot more minutes than he did last year. Could Fruendt handle that responsibility? It’s really hard to say. Based on his BTT play I’d like to say yes. He’d certainly have to be a player that teams needed to account for when the ‘Cats were on offense because he has a confident shot that I think he’ll make a high percentage of if he gets the chance to unload. The bigger issue would be defense and rebounding. Northwestern started a mini-defensive turnaround late last year by playing more man-to-man, but Fruendt’s reputation isn’t great on the defensive end. Could he handle play man or would the ‘Cats be forced back into the 1-3-1 zone if Fruendt were on the court more? In that scenario the good news is Fruendt does offer some size.

Northwestern has a somewhat deeper front court in the sense that both Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti have played a lot of minutes at the center position. Curletti also offers enough versatility that he could backup John Shurna at power forward, but I personally don’t really want Shurna on the bench unless it’s a 20-point game one way of another (Note: he should be on the bench if it’s a 20-point game one way or another as last year proved). Drew Crawford arguably doesn’t have a clear cut backup, but in the rotation Coach Carmody uses I think Marcotullio, Cobb, Fruendt, or one of the freshman could get some action. Northwestern’s small forward spot might as well be a third guard position so it wouldn’t really be a concern to see one of those players there. Once again, though, the freshman and Fruendt become critical. NU’s third freshman is Mike Turner. The local product is regarded as something of a project, but is said to have a high athletic upside. My thought here is that if he can rebound at all he should be in the rotation. If he can sub at one of the front court spots and pull down three or four rebounds in ten minutes of action he potentially becomes a key player.

So does Northwestern have depth? Well, maybe. They’ve got a collection of players on the bench with skill, but three are young and another is fairly untested. Bill Carmody has no fear of using a short bench, but I hope the young guys are good enough he doesn’t have to do so this season.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Who is Northwestern's Most Important Player?

For the record this post is based entirely on my observations and not any statistical measurements. If someone wants to make a stats based post on the same topic I would very much encourage that.

Northwestern has two “name” players they’re John Shurna and Drew Crawford. Shurna has built up his reputation through three solid seasons and playing with USA Basketball over the summer. Crawford built his reputation on being one of the best athletes Northwestern basketball has every recruited and showing the ability to take over games. They both are critically important to any success Northwestern will have in basketball this season, but I don’t think either is NU’s most important player. I believe that is Alex Marcotullio.

The most obvious reason that Marcotullio is critical is because along with JerShon Cobb he probably has to at least start the season as one of the primary replacements for Juice Thompson. Yes, eventually one of NU’s two freshman point guards might take over that position, but I think all indications are that Marcotullio and Cobb will get the first crack at the starting lineup together in the backcourt. With as solid as Thompson was in running the offense and taking care of the ball that responsibility is critical.

The next reason I think Marcotullio is critical is because NU needs someone besides Shurna to go to for a late three point shot. As last year progressed, Alex became a more consistent shooter. In addition, he has proven over the course of his career that he isn’t afraid to take big shots hitting big shots even during his freshman year in wins over N.C. State and Notre Dame. That type of reliable shooter is critical because again that’s a role which Juice filled and needs to be replaced on this year’s team.

Northwestern also needs to rely on Marcotullio because he’s probably the team’s best defender in the 1-3-1 and in man-to-man. He might not be super-athletic, but he does have quick feet and some very active hands. In addition, he seems to be very instinctive about getting his hands on the ball. Northwestern hasn’t exactly struck fear into people’s hearts with their intense defense, but Alex did lead a mini-turnaround late last season.

Finally, I’d say Marcotullio might bring some needed intangibles to this year’s team. Juice was last year’s vocal leader. Looking at the current roster the only player who has stood out as being real vocal is Luka and I don’t see him taking a Juice-like leadership role. However, Marcotullio brings a toughness that might fit a vocal leader so I’ll be looking at the early timeouts this year to see if he is taking charge of the huddle.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reasons for Optimism for Basketball Season

After watching Northwestern attempt to play football the last few weeks I think all NU fans could use some positive thoughts. Now, to be honest I’m probably less optimistic about the upcoming men’s basketball season at Northwestern than I was the past two years, but even so I still think the ‘Cats post another 20-win season. The difference is that I’m less of a believer that this is THE YEAR for NU hoops without a clear starter at point guard. Nevertheless, several strong reasons do exist to believe the ‘Cats will be actually be better this year than last year.

1) The team is actually healthy. Everyone remembers that John Shurna played hurt most of last season, but many forget JerShon Cobb did as well. I think based on simply talent that Cobb is probably NU’s second best player (behind Shurna) which means that last year NU was playing with a serious handicap when both were hurt. With both healthy one can look at the world from a more optimistic point of view.

2) Freshman Impact. Bill Carmody hasn’t been afraid to use freshman over his time in Evanston and he’ll need production this year from Tre Demps and David Sobolewski. The good news is both should be able to help as either a starter at guard or off the bench. Both players are regarded as good scores who can hit an outside shot and both offer some size which could help in rebounding.

3) Defense. Yes, defense. Northwestern played much better defense at the end of last season when they started to trust the ability to play some man-to-man along with the 1-3-1. With Cobb and Shurna at 100% and Alex Marcotullio being one of the peskier defenders in the Big Ten, it’s actually reasonable to believe the ‘Cats should be able to win any game that they score more than 65 points in this year.

4) An experienced front court. Obviously, John Shurna has seen the court a ton over the past three years, but so have Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti. Drew Crawford has been a starter for two full seasons. That means everyone the ‘Cats put out at positions 3/4/5 will have at least two (if not three) years as a starter under their belt.

5) Shooting. Northwestern wins when they shoot well and they still have solid outside shooters in Shurna, Crawford, and Marcotullio. If Luka or Davide gets more involved from the top of the key and one of the freshman makes an impact as a scorer the ‘Cats should put up some big point totals.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Time to Post Again…Let’s Start with Some Personal Introspection on My Fandom

I haven’t posted in a while, but a recent post on rivals asking about this site caught my attention. The exciting news there is rivals poster ACPooley will be authoring some articles and commentaries when the season starts. That’s great news for the site because it’ll give you as readers more content read. It also might be great content because after you read the next paragraphs you might not want to read my posts any longer, but we shall see.

Obviously, I haven’t posted for a while. That’s not because interesting stuff didn’t happen with NU basketball and NU sports in general, but obviously other sites existed to cover that information and aside from my daily job, I was also pretty busy with my own area of athletic responsibilities, which when I considered that brought some thoughts to mind I want to share.

Let’s be honest, one of the things I’ve done on this blog from time to time is criticize coaching decisions. Odds are I might still do that in the heat of the moment, but at the same time as I’ve watched Northwestern football’s last three games and seen coaching decisions I didn’t understand, I decided to evaluate my emotional investment in NU athletics. I’m a big fan. I’m I too big a fan? I’ve spent three basketball seasons writing about every game of the only major conference basketball team NOT to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s an odd choice for a hobby. Now, it’s great to be an NU because NU represents everything right and I kind of take pride in actively supporting a group that doesn’t have a lot of active support. I also enjoy sharing my thoughts with other big fans that are readers of this blog and make up that small, but active support group for NU hoops.

That said, in this introspection I realized that I’m fortunate that as a component of my job (a secondary component, but one nonetheless) I get to be involved in sporting events in which I have at least some measure of control. More credit goes to the players than to me for our 22-5 record last spring (had to get the record in there, though as it never hurts to boost the ego) but nonetheless I have to say I must have done something right. I also made one major mistake that prevented that record from being 23-4. That mistake kept me up at night. I still get pissed off when I think about it, but I think that’s okay because it makes it less likely I’ll make the same mistake again AND I made the decision so I have to learn to live with it. What’s the point of this ramble as it relates to NU? I guess to say that while I’m back and with ACPooley’s help I hope to provide great coverage of what we hope is a history making season for NU basketball in 2011-12, I hope that I’m at a bit where I’m not going to lose sleep over NU basketball because I’ve realized I have no control. That’s Bill Carmody’s job and good luck to him. Hopefully, I can contain my emotional investment from tipoff to the last whistle and not make it such a big part of my life. I think that’ll actually make for a better more reasoned blog that doesn’t include as much nonsense, though, that might mean less rambles. I don’t know if that means I have to change the site’s name.

It’s the same with Northwestern football. I’ve seen friends and family make the same mistake and I understand. To be honest, I can’t stand Iowa. I want to win this weekend badly, but unless you happen to be Pat Fitzgerald or Mike Hankwitz and you’re going to e-mail this blog for suggestions (BLITZ! And NEVER rush three men!) it really isn’t our problem what NU’s staff is doing right now. So let’s get pumped to support our teams, but let’s also at least try to remember that the expert coaches who know more than us are going to be spending a lot of time trying to find answers and we should make sure we show up at game time ready to support them and then trust them the rest of the time.