Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wildcats Host Penn State on New Year’s Day

Wildcat Nation might still be depressed that Coach Fitz’s football couldn’t get the monkey off their back and win a bowl game, but the basketball ‘Cats are focused on a monkey of their own. Northwestern has lost for consecutive games to Penn State by an average margin of 17 points. Many of Penn State’s players and coaches haven’t been a part of those games, but most of Northwestern’s have and they know those losses have been disappointing and critical to harming NU’s postseason dreams over the past three years. The last Northwestern win over Penn State was in 2007 in Evanston.

Coach Patrick Chambers brings in a Penn State team with an 8-6 record. The Lions are led by point guard Tim Frazier who took over the do everything role that used to belong to Talor Battle. Frazier leads the team with 17.4ppg, 5.6rpg, and 6.9apg. This will be another tough matchup for freshman guard Dave Sobolewski who faced off versus Ohio State’s Aaron Craft in NU’s first Big Ten game of the year. It’s tough to ask Sobolewski to battle these guys, but that’s the Big Ten. You don’t get any off nights as Wisconsin found out in going down to Ohio State.

The fact is that while the Frazier v. Sobolewski matchup might not be an advantage for Northwestern, I think the rest of the floor offers positives for NU. One of the key notes is that NU has size over Penn State at nearly every spot. Penn State’s biggest starter is 6-8 Billy Oliver. Off the bench they’ll bring in Sasa Borovnjak who is 6-9, but the fact is that Luka Mirkovic will have a significant size advantage over anybody Penn State plays. That means Luka needs to get involved in the game early. Luka’s inconsistency has been frustrating for NU fans over the years, but we all know that a strong game from Luka equals a Wildcat victory and this game presents the Wildcat center with the chance to have a big game.

Another Wildcat who has to be expected to have a big game is John Shurna. At 6-9 Shurna is also bigger than any Penn State starter. Sure, Penn State might play zone as opposed to let a 6-5 guy try to guard Shurna, but that means Shurna should have the advantage in getting off open shots and getting off shots with a size advantage. Personally, I called out Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb for what I thought was selfish play in the Ohio State game, but it seems to me that Coach Bill Carmody had more issues with Shurna based on what he said in the post game after Ohio State. Penn State isn’t one of the stronger teams NU will play this year, but it is probably important that Shurna respond to the adversity of the last game and show up focused from wire to wire on Sunday evening.

As for the rest of Wildcats Drew Crawford should have an advantage in terms of athletic skill which he didn’t have versus Ohio State, but I’d still like to see him take shots within the offense instead of freelancing. Reggie Hearn has been very quite since his big game versus Central Connecticut. I’d like to see either Hearn or Alex Marcotullio start to hit some three point shots and give the Wildcats another realistic scoring threat from behind the arc that teams need to respect. Will that happen on Sunday? It’s hard to say as the consistency hasn’t been there for those two guys yet this year. However, I do think NU will do enough to win this game. I predict: Northwestern, 77 Penn State, 70

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wildcats need to get more Physical and Less Selfish to Win in Big Ten

Northwestern lost to Ohio State and that’s fine. But what wasn’t fine was some of the play Northwestern put forward in that loss. The Big Ten is a physical league and to let a team just push you around is never a good idea. Sure, Ohio State is stronger than Northwestern, but the number of times Northwestern players just stood flat footed and thought they’d get a rebound just because they were on the weak side was pathetic. If Northwestern doesn’t get more aggressive going to the glass I don’t expect a lot of success for the Wildcats over the course of this season. Luka Mirkovic might not be a great athlete, but he’s 6-11 and that will make him the biggest player on the court more often than not. Even last night he was actually taller than the players Ohio State started on the front line. Yet, Luka doesn’t get aggressive enough to let his height work for him. He needs to play like he’s 6-11 and not 6-1. The rest of the Wildcats are equally as guilty of just going through the motions and not capitalizing on the skills they have when it comes to rebounding and defense.

Perhaps even worse than the rebounding issue was the selfish play some of NU’s players demonstrated last year. The Princeton Offense is a team concept which should allow players to get open shots by passing the ball well until the best shot opens up. However, last night a number of Wildcat players tried to go off on one on one moves and it simply didn’t work. The must guilty was Drew Crawford. Crawford has for 2.5 years looked to me like the type of player whose success if very much determined on what happens early in a game. If he hits his first couple shots he can be great, but if he does not he tends to start to force shots because he thinks he should score. Last night he seemed like he felt the need to score points and starting taking some of the dumbest shots I’ve ever seen from a Northwestern player.

Along the same lines, JerShon Cobb is starting to remind me of the guy you desperately want to avoid having on your team in a pickup game. It seems like as soon as Cobb gets into the game he’s going to try and make some type of move to score. Sadly, it seems like more often than not that shot ends up as a brick. That’s not a surprise when you consider he’s only shot over 50% in one game this season. Until he starts making shots more regularly Cobb needs to be more willing to be part of the offense and just try to make one on one moves.

I could go on with other examples of NU’s selfish play last night. For example, John Shurna needs to shoot, I think we all know that, but he too put up some really questionable shots last night. Anyhow, I think I’m done talking about this for now. Wildcat Nation should focus on Saturday’s bowl game at this point and worry about basketball after that. If the ‘Cats win in Texas at least one long and unfortunate streak will be put to rest this week.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ohio State Out Shoots and Out Efforts Northwestern

Let’s all remember before we panic that Ohio State is a very good team. They are a legitimate contender for the national title. That said Northwestern’s effort in this game was poor. It starts on defense were Ohio State was able to get clean open looks and go on a big run in the first half. Northwestern tried a 2-3 zone at the start of the game which was ineffective. They went then to the 1-3-1 which was also ineffective. In both cases Ohio State was able to pass and cut with ease and inevitably would find a player with their feet set waiting anxiously to shoot a wide open three. Making matters worse for Northwestern in the rare case that the Ohio State player missed that shot it seemed that a Buckeye player was there for an offensive rebound.

Ohio State’s shooting aside, perhaps the bigger issue was that Northwestern just seemed to get out efforted. Now maybe that was the a case of being out athleted, but I still think the effort could have been better. A number of times in the case of those offensive rebounds the NU player didn’t even jump and the Buckeye player pulled in the rebound over them. Also, while you have to give credit to Ohio State for making their three point shots and creating the three point shots they made in the game. However, more often than not the Wildcat defender seemed to be late getting out on the shooter and late getting his hands up and getting off the ground. Basically, it looked like the Ohio State defender always had enough space to shoot comfortably. That wasn’t the case when Northwestern shot.

The other place where the game seemed to turn for Northwestern was shot selection and offensive patience. Last year NU challenged Ohio State because they played with patience and burned time off the clock. This year Drew Crawford decided he was Kobe Bryant but instead looked more like William Cullen Bryant. Crawford’s missed wild shots lead to several secondary breaks for the Buckeyes which resulted in threes and simply sped up the game which was big no-no. Then once the Wildcats were down the rest of the Wildcats started to try and mount a comeback by forcing equally quick and ill advised shots. I am shocked that Bill Carmody allowed Crawford and the Wildcats to what they did. It almost looked like the ‘Cats just decided to see what would happen if they tried to play Ohio State straight up. The answer, not surprisingly, was nothing good.

I’ll conclude simply with the fact that while I’ve never been a believer in the concept of the must win game outside of tournament play the fact is that Northwestern must win the next two games at home against Penn State and Illinois if they want to continue to have hope of playing in the postseason. To do so they’ll need to put together a better effort than what we saw today. Also, making more shots and playing something that looks like defense would help a lot too.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wildcats Open Big Ten at Two Time Defending Champion Ohio State

This is a very tough game for Northwestern to have to open the Big Ten season with this year. However, it does also present a significant opportunity. If Northwestern were to win the game, and I know that’s a big if, they would basically have to play just average the rest of the season to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid. Obviously, pulling off an upset of the #2 team in the nation which features multiple preseason All-Big Ten and All-American picks isn’t the easy way into the NCAA Tournament, but its worth noting the possibility.

Ohio State’s roster is so full of talent that it is almost ridiculous to expect anybody in the Big Ten to beat them. Preseason National Player of the Year Jared Sullinger headlines the OSU front court which also features athletic forward Deshaun Thomas who has stepped up his game this season especially in the contests which Sullinger sat out with an injured back. The Ohio State backcourt features two players listed amongst the top-25 nationally in the preseason in guards Aaron Kraft and William Buford. Kraft is the defensive stopper who while not a great shooter (30% from three) does tend to impact the game on defense in getting steals and handling the ball very well with a nearly 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Buford is more of scoring threat at 15.8 ppg and making 37% of his threes. He’s also a nice athlete that can get to the hoop when he needs to do so. These two will present a major challenge for NU’s backcourt of Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn. If he’s closer to 100% look for more action from JerShon Cobb to at least try and even out the athletic skill battle.

NU’s front court seemingly is the their strong point with Drew Crawford and John Shurna, but when you stack it up against Sullinger and Thomas it looks more average. Obviously, neither Shurna nor Crawford will battle Sullinger one on one. That’ll be the job of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti who I actually think played Sullinger about as well as they could have last year, but the result was still 20 points and 18 rebounds for Sullinger when the teams met in the Big Ten Tournament. Those 20 points were mostly on free throws, though as Sullinger only made two field goals. Nevertheless, if NU can’t keep Sulinger and Thomas at least somewhat off the glass they can’t win unless they shoot a ridiculous percentage from three point range. To do that Shurna needs to have a big game and he also has to do a good job containing the athletic Thomas and not committing fouls.

Last year Northwestern used mostly a switching man to man defense versus Ohio State. However, I think last year’s Buckeyes were better shooters. I could see NU be successful with the 1-3-1 zone this year. It’ll clog the paint and may slow the game down. NU has to slow this game way down compared to the Creighton game which at times was a little too fast. I suspect NU will do this and that’ll help them for about 30 minutes before Ohio State pulls away. I predict: Ohio State, 63 Northwestern, 50

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Close Counts in Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, but Not Basketball

This wasn’t an awful game, but the fact is that playing the way they’d played tonight Northwestern is NOT an NCAA Tournament team. They’re a good team, they’re a 20-win team, but they aren’t an NCAA Tournament team. To be an NCAA Tournament team you need to beat other NCAA Tournament competition from leagues that aren’t one bid leagues. Thus far Northwestern hasn’t done so. Right now I think Northwestern will be back in the NIT to once again. To get beyond that point a couple things need to happen. The most obvious is Northwestern cannot be so dependent on Drew Crawford and John Shurna. If Crawford hadn’t had the game of his life tonight scoring 34 points (the most ever by a Creighton opponent) this would have been the Baylor game all over again. Shurna scored 18 points, but the fact is Creighton did an outstanding job defending him in NU’s offense. A good number of Shurna’s points came from scoring on out of bounds plays.

I think the key player for NU is JerShon Cobb. The natural talent is there for him to score points because while he’s not a great shooter he has the ability to get to the hoop and he’s a good enough free throw shooter to make shots if he gets fouled. The problem is that he doesn’t seem fully healthy from his injured hip and concussion and he still needs to find a way to get somewhat more consistent with his outside shooting in order to create a few more driving lanes. Reggie Hearn has been something of an option as an outside shooter, but I’m afraid his struggles tonight against Creighton might be a portent of the struggles he’ll have against the top-6 teams in the Big Ten.

The major overall issue for Northwestern is defense. The 1-3-1 was okay tonight, but he eventually Creighton started hitting shots against it. The man-to-man was flat out bad as the Blue Jays guards were able to enter the ball into the post and get Doug McDermott any shot he wanted from about a foot away from the basket. I’m very worried about how successful Northwestern will be against teams like Ohio State with Jared Sullinger or Illinois with Myers Leonard if they can’t deny those guys the ball in the post. Perhaps the saving grace is that Creighton is a better shooting team than Illinois or Ohio State, but I can’t be one hundred certain of that because teams have a history of going crazy versus NU from three.

Rebounding is also obviously and issue as NU got outrebounded by 10 tonight. Now, I don’t expect NU to outrebound everybody or really anybody, but I think NU needs to prevent teams for getting second chance shots. I lost count of the number of times that Creighton got a second or third look and cashed in often times for three.

It’s a little frustrating to be at this point right now because I know I started to buy into a lot of the tournament hype. The problem I think is that Northwestern isn’t getting any better. I actually think they played better defense at the start of the year in the Charleston Classic than they have in the last three games. Maybe that is simply because those teams were worse than the teams NU has played the last three games, but I have trouble believing Tulsa is worse than Eastern Illinois. Bottom line, work has to be done for NU to make the Big Dance. The good news is that the Big Ten is strong enough plenty of chances for quality wins exist, the bad news is the Big Ten is strong enough that if things don’t get better Northwestern will once again finish with 7 or 8 league wins and be right back where they ended last year. The NIT is better than nothing, but it’s tremendously frustrating to have the NCAA Tournament within sight, but constantly trip and fall before reaching the finish line.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Northwestern @ Creighton: My Prediction

I don’t know why this game gets an entirely separate post for a prediction, but it does. I suppose one could say it is due to the importance of this game, but I don’t want to start putting too much emphasis on any one contest as we saw the possible disappointment of that with the Baylor game. Still, this is an important game. A win tomorrow night will put Northwestern in a great position for a successful NCAA Tournament run. However, such a win will be tough to get. Not only does Creighton field a pretty good team, but they’ll have a Big Ten-like home court advantage with 17,000 people expected at the CenturyLink Center. The fact is that Northwestern didn’t excel on the road last season in Big Ten play has me a bit nervous. Still, if Northwestern is going to make the tournament they need to play well on the road in the Big Ten so why not establish that ability vs Creighton?

Looking at Creighton, they’re a fast paced, score a ton of points, play average defense type of team. That’s fairly similar to Northwestern, though, I’d say Northwestern can be better on defense just based on the unpredictability of using the 1-3-1 zone. Also, while we can’t say Luka Mirkovic is a superstar, he does give Northwestern the biggest player on the court. That counts for something on defense and on the glass if Luka brings an attitude of aggression to the court.

The numbers say Creighton is a better offensive team than Northwestern and Creighton forward Doug McDermott is playing out of his mind. He’s the nation’s second leading scorer and makes 57% of his threes! Basically, he’s John Shurna last year before Shurna’s ankle injury. I know Northwestern is going to present more of a challenge for McDermott than the Jays’ previous opponents, but I’m still worried about him and his offensively talented teammates.

I expect a fast paced up and down style game. I’m a little worried NU won’t have as much of an advantage as they might in some non-conference games because this is the second year in a row NU has played Creighton and it is the third year in a row Greg McDermott has coached against NU having guided an Iowa State team NU beat two years ago. Without a doubt this game will be high scoring. The team that shoots better will probably win it and though I totally hope I’m wrong, Creighton does average more made threes than NU and I think Creighton has the advantage playing in Omaha. I predict: Creighton, 87 Northwestern, 82*

*I predicted NU to beat Baylor so clearly I can be wrong.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wildcats NCAA Tournament Hopes Can Get Serious with Wins in Next Eight Days

I know various projections have Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament right now, but at this point I don’t see Northwestern as an NCAA Tournament team. So far Northwestern has lost to the only sure BCS-conference NCAA Tournament team they faced in Baylor and that loss wasn’t even close. Yes, the ‘Cats have nice wins over some mid-major tournament teams and a win over possible bubble team Seton Hall, but that’s not enough yet for me to put them in the Big Dance. There was a time when I would have been more optimistic, but perhaps I’ve been beaten down by getting my hopes up so much over the past few years only to see them crushed. Sometimes I honestly wonder if Northwestern has a basketball program just to make their fans’ lives miserable. Of course, that misery would turn to total joy if Northwestern were ever to make the NCAA Tournament because so many long suffering fans and former players would feel as if everything they hoped and worked for over many years finally paid off. So while NU isn’t an NCAA team as of this moment, we have to wonder if they can be one as of March. March might be several months away, but I actually think we’ll get a clue as to NU’s fate on Selection Sunday in the next eight days.

Northwestern will be on the road at ranked opponents Creighton and Ohio State before the New Year starts. While many will say NU has no chance to beat Ohio State and a limited to shot at Creighton, I think wins in both games are possible, though, winning one of two is more realistic. Even just getting one of the two wins, as long as the loss doesn’t look like the Baylor game, will make me shift my view about NU’s tourney chances. The reason is that to make the NCAA Tournament a team can’t just beat everyone they are supposed to beat. They need wins which boost their resume. Perhaps making Creighton even more important, it often helps if one of those resume boosting wins comes outside of conference play. Therefore, let’s look at what NU needs to do to beat the Blue Jays.

Creighton is led in scoring and rebounding by Doug McDermott. The Jays are 9-1 and McDermott has been their leading scorer in 9 of the 10 games and the leading rebounder in 8 of the 10 games. But don’t start to believe Creighton is a one man team. They squad also features point guard Antoine Young who is a double figure scorer and an excellent ball handler. He’s not a great shooter like McDermott who makes 57% of his three point shot is, but Young’s quickness could give NU’s guards some trouble.

Creighton also has a center in Gregory Echenique who scores almost double figures and who has collected 1/3 of his rebounds on the offensive end of the floor. Considering that the ‘Cats struggled at times to secure the glass against smaller teams this season this has to be a concern. NU needs to see Luka Mirkovic put together his second strong game in a row and really play with attitude and focus.
Stopping McDermott and Young is perhaps an even tougher task with Creighton as a team making 43% of their threes and having almost a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. The 1-3-1 zone seems a little risky to employ. The only thing that might make it worth considering is that Northwestern might be a stronger team than any of the squads Creighton posted those numbers against. Still, I’d like to see NU play man defense. I think the ‘Cats can handle the Blue Jays if they play with focus and intensity. They just can’t be lackadaisical. Also, I’d like to see Reggie Hearn guard Young as I think his 6-4 size and bulk will be tough for the 6-0 Young. I’d also like to see Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb rotate on McDermott as they are NU’s most athletic players and the best way to stop him is probably not to let him catch the ball in an area where he can make plays. Some might suggest John Shurna take that defensive assignment, but I don’t want Shurna so exhausted from chasing McDermott through screens that he doesn’t have the legs to hit shots. Realistically, this should be a high scoring game and NU needs at least 25 points for Shurna to win that type of game. If John has no legs to get into this shot we could see a Central Connecticut State type performance and nobody wants that. However, if Shurna knocks down 6-7 threes NU has a got a great chance. As a team, I’d say Northwestern needs to make at least 12 threes to win this contest. That’s possible as Creighton’s three point defense has been just average, but NU needs to make it look just bad. NU’s centers need to hit some shots and a healthy Alex Marcotullio would help a lot too (though I don’t want to assume he’ll play). Also, NU cannot just expect to hit threes and win. The threes are a key factor, but the basket must be attacked as well. With that in mind, I’m really hoping we’ll see JerShon Cobb step up and have a big game. He’s got the talent and he seems to be getting more into the flow these last few games. This would be a big game for him to up his game and make some big plays. Obviously, Drew Crawford is also a factor whenever NU wants to attack the hoop, when he does so he must make his free throws. It’ll take a great effort, but NU can beat Creighton. They can beat Ohio State too, but that’ll take an even greater effort, but beating Creighton could be a great springboard. I’ll have an official prediction up in the next day or so. I want to believe NU can win this, but I know it’ll be a tough task.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wildcats Finish 3 Games in 4 Days Stretch at 3-0

Okay, everyone can relax now. John Shurna still knows how to make three pointers. After an abysmal performance against Central Connecticut State, Shurna rebounded just over 24 hours later today to score 32 points total and make 9-of-12 threes. The performance left him one made three short of the Big Ten record for made threes in a game and officially tied for the NU record (NU did have Kenneth “Dion” Lee hit 10 threes in a game but NU voided Lee’s record when he was involved with a gambling scandal). Perhaps the most impressive thing about Shurna’s day was he clearly came into the game still confident even after his poor game yesterday. Shurna took shots early and although he missed his first, once he caught fire he seemed unstoppable. I feel like the only reason he didn’t hit a 10th three was that he didn’t get another shot. He also dished out 5 assists and found a number of teammates for open looks which helped the Wildcats make 54.2% of their shots.

Really, it seems like NU has a number of players who can step up and make big shots. Yesterday’s hero Reggie Hearn only attempted one shot (and missed) but Shurna got scoring support from Luka Mirkovic, Drew Crawford, and Dave Sobolewski who all scored in double figures.

Mirkovic is a player who we all agree can be frustrating, but he’s also critically important to Northwestern’s success. Today, Luka played one of his best games scoring 18 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and dishing out 7 assists. Yes, the competition from Eastern Illinois wasn’t spectacular, but Luka has the potential to play at a high level. He just somehow needs to find consistency. Can he do that in next 20-some games of his career when he hasn’t in three-plus years? I don’t know, but I’m holding out hope he can. You never really know what is going to cause someone to change their outlook and approach and I think we all agree Luka’s biggest issues are in his head. Yes, he’s not Jared Sullinger, but he’s still a Big Ten center. Somewhere along the way between now and the final game of his career in purple maybe he’ll realize that.

Drew Crawford is another player who NU needs to get consistent and unlike Mirkovic it seems Crawford has made it to a point in his career where he can be a consistent threat to score the basketball and help run offense even if his three point shot isn’t falling. Today despite making just one three, he scored 14 points and provide 6 assists against 0 turnovers. He also stuffed the stat sheet with 3 steals, 3 blocks, and 7 rebounds.

Another NU player who consistently plays well is guard Dave Sobolewski. Taking over for Juice Thompson is not an easy task, but so far Sobolewski has been up to the task. Today he scored 12 points and tabulated 3 assists while only turning the ball over once.

The biggest issues I leave this game with are related to defense and free throw shooting. With all the shooters Northwestern has they should be a good free throw shooting team. Therefore, I’m hoping they’ll step up that aspect of their game very soon. The bigger concern has to be defense. Northwestern has success with using the 1-3-1, but they can’t become overly reliant on that defense. Early in the year NU’s man-to-man was somewhat better, but it seemed to slack at bit recently. Against Baylor it was talent issue and perhaps the last couple days it was simply exhaustion. Nonetheless, the way NU plays man-to-man needs to be better quickly because the ‘Cats have two tough road games in the next 10 days, but those tough games also make for great opportunities. As I wrote a couple days ago, change may be a process and not an event, but at some point in that process one needs to take advantage of the chances the events along that process present.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reggie Hearn’s Big Game Helps Northwestern Escape from Central Connecticut

Central Connecticut gave Northwestern a great challenge and while some fans will be frustrated Northwestern didn’t beat this mid-major opponent by more points, Central Connecticut State has some very good players. Kyle Vinales scored 27 for the Blue Devils and Kyle Horton scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Devils tried to upset the Wildcats. I really believe that while Central Connecticut State and Stony Brook aren’t big name mid-major teams these are decent wins for Northwestern because both have a shot to make the NCAA Tournament. Getting wins over NCAA teams, even mid/low-major NCAA teams, isn’t a bad thing. Does Northwestern have to play better if they want to make the NCAA Tournament? For sure, but at least winning games builds a winning attitude.

Probably the biggest concern for Northwestern is that John Shurna has struggled with his shot in two of the last three games NU has played. Shurna scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds which looks on the face of it like an okay game, but the fact was he struggled on offense. He made only 3-of-14 shots and only hit one three pointer. I will say that I thought he played hard on defense and while Central Connecticut State did have some players put up decent numbers, I think Northwestern defended them better than some of their previous opponents. The bottom line, though, is that for Northwestern to really be a strong team John Shurna needs to score and needs to be effective from three point range. Whatever he has to do to get himself focused it is critical he do so soon.

A major positive for Northwestern today was the play of Reggie Hearn. Hearn scored a career high 17 points, made all four of his three point attempts, and just overall was fantastic as far as his effort on the court. Plus, he took a nice pass from Luka Mirkovic and made an and-1 layup which sealed the game for NU. At the start of the season nobody probably envisioned Reggie Hearn as the go to clutch player for Northwestern, but he excelled in that role today.

Drew Crawford also made a clutch shot late and made several other tough shots in the lane during the game. Crawford didn’t shoot great from three point range today, but I liked the fact he didn’t seem to let that get him down and made an effort to make things happen by driving the ball at the basket. He’s developed a nice assortment of shots and I think he’ll be a key player in Big Ten play because he’s better than most of NU’s guys at getting his own shot.

Another Wildcat player who can get his own shot is JerShon Cobb. Still recovering from injury, Cobb played 16 minutes and scored 9 points. He made two nice pull-up jump shots and hit a three. The biggest key to Cobb becoming a great player is that he develops a consistent three point shot. If that happens, he might become NU’s best player.

Northwestern plays tomorrow against Eastern Illinois who enters the game at 6-3. The Panthers just lost to fellow instate rival Western Illinois to snap a three game win streak. EIU has some talent including Jeremy Granger who scored 18 in the loss to WIU. NU needs to refocus quickly and hopefully give a full 40 minute effort tomorrow.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Northwestern Starts Busy Stretch With Easy “W”

This game was pretty much what we expected. Texas Southern struggled on offense and NU used a balanced attack which put four players into double figures to cruise to an 81-51 win. I think NU fans had to be impressed with the athletic skill shown by NU tonight as Drew Crawford had two dunks (one off an ally-op pass from John Shurna), Shurna put down a dunk, and Reggie Hearn slammed one home as well. Those dunks came off of fast breaks which NU created due to getting some steals using their athletic skill. Overall, it was a good day for the ‘Cats and while I won’t say this erases the Baylor loss, at least that’s not the last thing that happened for NU.

One of the guys who certainly needed to rebound from the Baylor game was Luka Mirkovic. Luka’s play tonight still won’t get him listed amongst college basketball’s elite centers, but he was far more solid than he was versus Baylor. Was Baylor much better than Texas Southern? For sure. But getting good play from Luka is so key for NU that I’m thankful whenever he plays well. Tonight, I was thankful to see Luka demonstrate skill as a passer with five assists, though, I wish he’d have scored a bit more.

NU’s leading scorer was John Shurna who certainly stepped up his game in the second half as did JerShon Cobb. Shurna’s 20 points and 5-of-7 made threes were a nice bounce back from the Baylor disaster. Cobb finished with 10 points and looked really rusty early on in the first game back from a concussion. In the second half, though, he seemed to relax and let the game come to him a bit more. As a result, he ended up hitting some open shots and looking more comfortable on the floor. He’s a big player for NU especially while Alex Marcotullio battles a foot injury. At some point I’d like to see Marcotullio and Cobb both healthy at the same time for NU, but it seems as though that hasn’t happened at all in the last year and a half.

I think when people talk about this game and look at the stats they’ll wonder how NU could hit 13 threes in this game and not even make five versus Baylor. Obviously part of the answer is who the ‘Cats were playing, but it’s still good to see NU once again show the three point touch. I really liked seeing Dave Sobolewski hit the high-point of his young career with five made three pointers. Sobolewski was 5-of-8 shooting for the night with all the attempts from three point range.

NU’s other double figure scorer was Drew Crawford with 17 points. Perhaps even more impressive than his points, Drew had 5 assists and 0 turnovers and recorded two steals.

NU only gets one day off now before playing a decent Central Connecticut State team. I’m excited to see NU play that game because it should provide an increased competition level from tonight and will give us a little more insight into what this NU team really has. Of course, we might have to wait until the tough road tests in late December against Creighton and Ohio State to really know.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Northwestern is Back in Action Versus Texas Southern

I fully intended to post more thoughts between the end of the Baylor game and now, but I just never found the time. I was, as we all were, upset with the way the ‘Cats played versus Baylor, but I haven’t given up hope for the NCAA Tournament just yet. Still, I do think NU needs to improve from where they are now if they want to make the Big Dance. Especially as the rest of Big Ten looks strong with the possible exception of Penn State and Iowa.

1-6 Texas Southern shouldn’t present much of a challenge to NU and that’s probably a good thing after the loss to Baylor. The Tigers are a team that lost 62-46 to Denver in their last game so they clearly are not an offensive powerhouse. In fact, they’re pretty much the antithesis of that. They rank second to last in the NCAA in points per-game as a team with only 50.9 on average. Omar Strong is their leading scorer with 13 points per which does mean he averages more points per-game than anyone on the roster of the Stony Brook team NU almost lost to earlier this season, but I’m not worried about the Wildcats in this contest.

NU will be without guard Tre Demps who elected to have his season ending surgery and redshirt this year. He’ll most likely join fellow freshman Mike Turner as a guy who will watch all this season and then have the opportunity to step into a larger role next season. I think this is the right move as Demps was never 100% and guards Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski have handled things just fine as NU’s starting backcourt. The concussion injury to JerShon Cobb has been an issue for NU, but he should return to action in the future much closer to 100% than Demps would ever have been this year. Hopefully, we’ll see Cobb on the court if not tomorrow at least at some point over this weekend stretch of three games in four days.

It really is important for NU to get off on the right foot in this game and get their confidence back. The effort against Baylor was so poor that even those who have been so beaten down by watching Northwestern basketball over the years had to leave Welsh-Ryan feeling like they’d been somehow wronged by the cosmos. Personally, I think my mistake was I confused my understanding of the concept of change. I’ve waited for years to be able to see NU get a big upset win and then say, “That’s it! That’s the win that’ll change what Northwestern basketball is.” It’s a nice dream and I’d convinced myself the Baylor game would see that dream given form. The problem is that in fact change isn’t an event it is actually a process. What we all need to believe as NU fans is that the process of change for Northwestern basketball is ongoing. It’s hard to believe when watching a game like NU played versus Baylor that such an event could in anyway be part of that process, but in fact it can be. In the end that process has to take Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament sometime in the future (preferably before my death). Will that happen this season? Honestly, I have no idea and beating on Texas Southern isn’t in anyway going to answer that question. Nonetheless, winning big ought to feel pretty good. I predict: Northwestern, 88 Texas Southern, 47

Sunday, December 4, 2011

NU Embarrassed in High-Profile Loss to Baylor

I don’t know what to say. I really thought the wheel had turned enough that this Northwestern team would be able to handle the pressure of a big game and compete and win. They couldn’t. This team in fact really looked worse than last year’s squad in big games. Dave Sobolewski was outmatched by Baylor’s quick guards and Luka Mirkovic was as clueless as he’s ever been and that’s really saying something. Luka’s had some nice games, but when he plays his last game for NU in March I seriously doubt NU will have a major drop off at center next year no matter who plays it.

I’d also say that this game pretty much shows John Shurna isn’t an NBA player, though, I’m not sure anyone ever thought he was. Shurna will probably still get drafted in round two and play in the preseason, but if he wants to make money in basketball long term it’ll be overseas against players who play a game that isn’t as based on athletic skill and that feature more finesse.

I was also really disappointed in Drew Crawford and his lack of assertiveness, but I think some of that was simply proving the concept that while Drew Crawford is “Northwestern-athletic” he’s not really athletic.

The worst part, though, was every player on the court for NU looked intimidated by Baylor. That’s awful and something that needs to change if Northwestern ever wants to be anything. Other teams will be better, but at some point NU needs to be mentally ready to play a big game. Aside from seeing Juice Thompson do that last year, I can’t think of another NU player who clearly showed mental toughness.

At least the crowd was good, though, too bad they didn’t see anything from Northwestern which will make them want to come back.

NU now takes time off for finals and that’s maybe not a bad thing. They still have a shot at a big win when they play at Creighton, but that’ll be a tough game as well.

FOOTBALL NEWS: NU to play Texas A&M in Houston

At least something good came from Northwestern today.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wildcats Welcome #7 Baylor for Non-Conference Showdown

Northwestern has passed every major non-conference test thus far this year to move to 7-0. Tomorrow, they’ll face what is likely going to be the toughest game between them and an unbeaten non-conference season when 6-0 and top-10 ranked Baylor comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena. The big advantage for Northwestern is that this game is at home and it is Baylor’s first road game of the season. Northwestern is also the best team Baylor has faced and while the same can be said of Bears for NU, Northwestern has probably faced a more challenging slate of games to this point in the season.

When talking about Baylor you have to start with Perry Jones III who is likely top-5 NBA draft pick. He’ll be playing just his second game of the season on Sunday after being suspended early in the year, but he scored 27 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in his first game back so it doesn’t seem he has any rust. Jones is 6-11 and along with 6-10 Anthony Jones and 6-9 Quincy Miller gives the Bears some major size in the front court. It’s hard to envision who on NU’s team would play Jones III in man-to-man based on size I’d guess it would be Luka Mirkovic, but I wasn’t thrilled with Luka’s defense on 6-9 Herb Pope of Seton Hall who is the best front court scorer the ‘Cats have played to this point so I’m not really sure what to think. I know John Shurna played 6-11 Daniel Miller of Georgia Tech well, but he’s a different of player from Jones III. I wouldn’t be surprised to see NU in more zone on Sunday whether that be the 1-3-1 or even a 2-3.

The problem with a zone is Baylor has a number of players who can knock down threes and many of those players have size. 6-10 Anthony Jones is really more of wing player and he shoots 44% from three. 6-9 Quincy Miller makes 50% of his threes. Guards Pierre Jackson at 56% and Brady Heslip at 42% are also excellent three point shooters. To be honest, as much as it seems like a potential mismatch, I hope NU at least tries man-to-man because I’d almost be happier to see Baylor making twos early than just pouring in three pointers to start they game which might happen against a zone. Still, at some point in the game NU is going to go to the 1-3-1 and when they do, the must be active and hustle out on shooters because they probably can get turnovers out of the 1-3-1, but those won’t be enough if the Bears are canning threes at will.

Baylor like Northwestern has scored a lot of points this year and the Bears average right around 80. Miller leads the way amongst the guys who have played every game with 15.2, but six Baylor players average more than nine points a game. 6-7 senior Quincy Acy hasn’t gotten the same amount of message board and media hype as Perry Jones III leading up to this game, but I’m also worried about his size and ability to hit the glass at 235 pounds and his average of eight rebounds a game.

For Northwestern to win this game they need to take advantage of a Baylor defense which hasn’t been great in terms of allowing the three point shot. Hopefully, the Wildcats will continue their hot streak from Friday night. I also think NU needs to slow this game down in a way similar to what they did versus Ohio State least season. I just can’t see NU winning a shootout against Baylor since the Bears have athletes at virtually every position. Hopefully, a slow pace, changing defenses, and a solid home crowd will be enough to make Baylor uncomfortable as they face a team unlike any they’ve seen so far this year. The key player if NU does slow the game down is Dave Sobolewski because it’ll be up to him to trigger the offense when the shot clock gets to 15 and make something happen if called sets aren’t available. That’s a lot of reasonability on a young player, but I think he can handle it. I really think this Northwestern team is better prepared to handle this type of game than any previous incarnation of the Wildcats. I predict: Northwestern, 55 Baylor, 54

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wildcats Follow Ideal Script vs Mississippi Valley State

This game couldn’t have gone better for Northwestern. Not only did the Wildcats post an easy victory, they managed to rest all the key players with former walk-on Reggie Hearn being the only starter to play more than 20 minutes and they still scored 92 points thanks to some production from the bench. Perhaps the only depressing result to this game is that John Shurna only scored 9 points which will lower his scoring average, but he hit three of four three pointers on the way to helping the ‘Cats make a total of 20 three point field goals.

Four of those 20 three point field goals came from Nick Fruendt who saw his first extended action of the year. Fruendt has the ability to make shots and actually led NU with 21 points tonight. Obviously the feeling in the Wildcat coaching staff is that his defense isn’t up to par for most games, but his ability to hit shots makes me wonder if he can still find a role before the end of the year.

Freshman point guard Tre Demps also saw a lot of action tonight and scored eight points. He also dished out four assists and when combined with Dave Sobolewski the Wildcats two freshman guards combined for 8 assists and 1 turnover. NU did a great job with handling the ball tonight. The starters combined with 14 assists and only four turnovers. Overall, I know that this wasn’t a great opponent, but I thought NU’s effort was solid.

The guy who always puts in great effort, Reggie Hearn, led NU with seven rebounds and continued to show a nice shooting touch with three of five three pointers. He finished with 15 points and played his usual solid defense.

I also think it’s important to note that Luka Mirkovic played his second consecutive solid game. He went 5-of-5 from the field dished out three assists. Hopefully his confidence is high going into Sunday. Another guy who should have good confidence going into Sunday is Drew Crawford. Crawford looked great shooting ball today making 4-of-5 three pointers and scoring 14 points. He also grabbed 5 rebounds and had two steals.

Bottom line, this game was the game it was supposed to be. Now, Northwestern gets ready to play #7 Baylor on Sunday. The Wildcats will go into that game unbeaten and with a chance to make a huge statement to both the Big Ten and the entire college basketball world.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wildcats Look to Avoid Trap Versus Mississippi Valley State

Based on every objective measure (and probably most subjective ones) 6-0 Northwestern is much better than 1-6 Mississippi Valley State and will most likely win this game easily. However, I can’t help but be a little worried. I remember a 47-45 loss to Mississippi Valley State in 2003 that was one of the games that cost Northwestern an NIT bid that season and I know that every person involved with Northwestern basketball (whether they admit it or not) has Sunday’s massively important game versus Baylor in the back of their minds. Therefore, this is a trap game and one that Northwestern needs to stay focused in on or a disaster could occur.

As noted above, Mississippi Valley State isn’t great record wise, but they have played some good teams. They’ve faced Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, and South Carolina already this season. While only the South Carolina game was really close (a 61-57 S.C. win) only the North Carolina game saw Mississippi Valley State get totally blown off the court. What does that mean? To me it means that Northwestern has to be ready for some of the better players in the Mississippi Valley State lineup and has to maintain their defensive intensity in this contest.

Defense to me is the key. Mississippi Valley State hasn’t played much of it this season as they allow on average more than 82 points per game and let their opponents make 40% of their three point shots. That’s really bad defense and with NU’s multiple talents on offense the Wildcats should be excited to play this game because it could be one where everybody gets into the scorebook.

On offense, Mississippi Valley State is average. They scored 90 points in their lone win (but that was an OT game) and for the year score about 65 points per game. Their best player is Terrence Joyner who averages about 11 points per game and joins Brent Arrington as solid three point shooters. Still, if Northwestern maintains the defensive intensity they have in their previous games then it is realistic to believe that the ‘Cats should win this game fairly easily.

Given the magnitude of Sunday’s contest, it would be ideal if NU got some rest for the frontline players and gave Nick Fruendt and Tre Demps a little action off the bench. Will that happen? I’m exactly sure. I’m hoping so, but I also know that Bill Carmody knows this game is one which he needs to put extra emphasis on to make sure his players don’t lose focus and start to look too far forward. With Mississippi Valley State’s defensive issues, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I predict: Northwestern, 88 Mississippi Valley State, 63