Monday, March 28, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Season as a Whole and Next Year as Well

It’s been a little less than a week since Northwestern finished off their season with a 69-66 loss at Washington State. A few breaks and NU could have been the last Big Ten team standing in postseason play, but I guess it just wasn’t to be. The good news is that NU’s last five games of the year (despite just a 3-2 record) were some of the best basketball I’ve ever seen Northwestern play. The bad news is that one of the key cogs in that great basketball, Michael “Juice” Thompson, won’t be back next year. Still, I’d like to think those games are something NU can build on as they move forward to next season.

Next season is a critical one. With everybody returning hopefully healthy by the time the season starts and a decent class of freshman Northwestern could make another run at the NCAA Tournament. It seems for the last few years it’s been legitimate to believe Northwestern might make their first NCAA tournament and next year shouldn’t be an exception. It certainly isn’t going to come easy, but the NCAAs don’t generally come easy for any team in the Big Ten.

John Shurna is the biggest reason to believe in NU next year. Shurna’s year took a major hit on December 23, 2010 when he went down with an ankle injury vs Mount St. Mary’s and never recovered. But Shurna was dynamic before the injury and finished last season as one of the top scorers in the Big Ten. No reason exists to think he can’t return to form if his ankle returns to form. Shurna will need to take on more of leadership role without Juice, but I think he certainly can do so without a problem.

I thought one of the best moments of this past season was NU’s home win against Illinois with a great crowd and a national TV audience. In that game, Juice Thompson was huge, but freshman JerShon Cobb stepped up significantly as well. Cobb than went down with an injury shortly afterwards. Cobb’s health probably impacted NU as much as Shurna’s down the stretch as he was a key figure on defense and on the glass for NU with his athletic skill. I also really liked Cobb’s mid-range game which he showed at its best vs Illinois. JerShon’s continued development will be important next year as well. He needs to get double-figures every game to take pressure off of Shurna and Drew Crawford.

NU’s sophomores this year were inconsistent, but both give NU fans hope for their junior season. Alex Marcotulllio was great at the end of the year and has to be considered a likely starter next year for the ‘Cats. I loved the intensity that Alex played with and I look forward him logging heavy minutes next year. Drew Crawford showed some of the most athletic moves I’ve seen from an NU player this past season, but struggled with his consistency. I think a lot of that has to do with confidence. If Drew Crawford can trust his abilities, I think he’ll be dangerous next season.

In the front court at the center spot NU also saw inconsistent play. Both Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic had great moments, but neither regularly impressed. NU needs to recruit big men hard to give these two support and so someone is ready to play upon their graduation.

The coaching situation at NU is a subject which I and others had a lot to say about this year as well. In the end, though, Bill Carmody earned the last year of his contract which is next season. I do think Carmody will need to show real progress over this year to keep his job next year, but after NU’s final five games it is hard to object to his return.

We’ll get into the spring recruiting period soon and really get a view on NU’s future then. If the ‘Cats do get a couple big men signed I think next year and the year after will look more promising. That’s worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Season’s Over, But Not Without a Fight

Sometimes you don’t win in sports. It’s as simple as that. Even if you play well the other team comes out on top. What’s kind of depressing about Northwestern’s season end loss to Washington State is that while NU played well, they could have played better and with such a narrow margin of defeat you can’t help thinking about what went wrong. Still, the fact of the matter is the game was close and well-played on both sides so it really isn’t productive to focus on NU’s poor start, some odd officiating, poor shooting all night from three (especially from John Shurna), or the fact that WSU’s Casto had himself magically unsuspended to play in this game. Northwestern lost because they couldn’t score more than two points in overtime. That’s the fact of the matter and I’m not going to put the loss on anything else.

I’m sorry to see Juice Thompson go and so much wish he would have made just one more shot, but again he played a great game making multiple big shots and hustling from the opening jump to the last buzzer. I sincerely hope Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb learned something from him about competitiveness because he was teaching a great lesson about how competing all out for 40 minutes makes you a better player every time he stepped on the floor.

I did think Alex continued to show his growth versus Washington State. He does play hard and has gotten way more comfortable on offense. I so wished he would have made one of his two final shots, but obviously the first one was something of a panicked shot because he wanted to give NU a chance for a rebound and the second was totally rushed with less than two seconds left. I think as he gets into his junior and senior year when he gets his feet set Alex will be one of the best shooters the Big Ten has to offer.

Marcotullio and the ‘Cats also played very good defense in the second half. Unfortunately, their first half defense reverted to the defense NU played for the majority of the season as WSU got whatever shot they wanted. Some of that I think was because Northwestern early on looked unprepared for Washington State’s trapping defense and that got WSU easy shots, but regardless the truth of the matter is that even though NU got the lead briefly and got the game tied at the end of regulation, in a lot of ways Washington State won the game when they built up a 14 point first half margin and forced NU to virtually always play from behind.

That playing from behind is part of the reason NU shot so many threes, but that’s also part of NU’s game. I just wish John Shurna could have made closer to his average. Instead, he hit just 2-of-10. That’s too bad because I think he’s almost over his injury, he just missed. Of course, some credit for that has to go Washington State’s physical defense. I think one of the offseason goals for NU has to be for Shurna to get into the weight room so physical defenders can’t wear him down as much.

So, the season is over. This is a tough end, but if I had to pick anything other than a championship to end my year, I’d pick finishing my year with a close loss to a higher ranked team every time. Sure, you’re stuck wondering “what it?” but the close loss also proves you belonged in the game with that opponent. It wasn’t a lucky break you were there and it wasn’t the fault of the teams you beat. You deserved your opportunity to play for something special and though it didn’t work out, you still have reason to be proud of your effort.

One Shot Away

I’ll have more on this loss tomorrow. It was a good game and really both teams played well. Northwestern had their chances in the overtime period and didn’t capitalize and still got two final chances which came up just short. It’s obviously disappointing, but really NU played well. They simply didn’t get the same good shooting they got at Boston College and since they don’t have any serious inside presence the sub 30% three point night pretty much sealed the Washington State victory and even then NU was just one shot away from sending the game to a second overtime. The loss stinks and I'm sorry to see Juice Thompson end his career. I do kind of wish he could have gotten one of those two last shots, but WSU wasn't going to let that happen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No More Suspension for Casto

Washington State lifted Casto’s suspension. That kind of negates the idea that NU will catch the breaks tonight, but you never know. At least now if NU wins WSU won’t have any excuses about not playing at full-strength.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wildcats go to West Coast for NIT Quarterfinal Matchup with Washington State

Northwestern went to the east coast for their second round NIT game with Boston College and we can only hope that a trip to the opposite side of the country produces similar results. If the ‘Cats can beat the Cougars on Wednesday night in Pullman, Washington, it’ll mean NU will be back on the east coast for the NIT semifinals next week. Bottom line, the NIT might help Head Coach Bill Carmody and his team rack up a ton of frequent flyer miles.

Of course, to get to that semifinal game the ‘Cats have to get past a tough Washington State team in their own building on Wednesday night. NU caught something of a break when WSU suspended their third leading scorer DeAngelo Casto on Tuesday. Of course, WSU will still have Klay Thompson and he’s one of the best scorers in the nation. Thompson scores 22.2 points per game, but put up over 30 several times this season, including 43 in a Pac-10 Tournament loss to Washington. He does it in part from three point range where he makes 41.5% and the free throw line where he makes 83.4%, but really he can score from anywhere. Northwestern’s defense has been significantly better their last five games and it will take another solid effort to contain Thompson. Despite Thompson’s 6-6 size, I still think you’ll Alex Marcotullio as the primary Wildcat defender simply based on Marcotullio’s ability to fight through screens away from the ball. His primary goal has to be to stop Thompson from catching the ball in position to score.

After Thompson the next best Cougar scorer is Faisal Aden. He averages 12.9 points per game and is a decent three point shooter at around 33%. He’s another player NU has to be alert to defend as with Casto out one might think Aden’s role in Washington State’s offense will get even more significant. Another player the Cougars will need to step up is 6-10 Brock Motum. Obviously, losing Casto’s scoring and 255-pound frame hurts Washington State. However, at 6-10 Motum will negate what was going to be a size advantage for Luka Mirkovic inside. Hopefully, Luka will still be able to make an impact based on his superior strength.

Overall, Washington State like Northwestern and Boston College and UW-Milwaukee is a team that will shoot a lot of threes. The Cougars have attempted 655 threes this year and made 36%. Abe Lodwick is a forward who makes about 32% of his three point shots and who will likely get a start versus Northwestern. Guard Reggie Moore is also an excellent three point shooter, but he scored only two points in Washington State’s win over Oklahoma State.

On defense I think Washington State will likely play zone. Washington State has seen Princeton Offense-like teams in Arizona State and Oregon State. They also watched NU’s game against BC on tape (and maybe live) and even as well as Northwestern shot in that game, I think watching NU carve up Boston College with backdoor dunks will make zone a more logical way for Head Coach Ken Bone to defend NU. That means all of NU’s shooters must be on their game. John Shurna needs to make better than 1-of-8 threes and Juice Thompson, Drew Crawford, and Alex Marcotullio must continue to shoot well.

This is something of a tough game to predict. Washington State has the advantage of a home game, but NU has the advantage of rest. Washington loses a solid player in Casto, but gains size in their lineup which works against Northwestern. The crowd for WSU will probably be much better than the crowd NU saw at BC, but I’ve heard stories of several NU fans that are making major personal efforts to arrive in Pullman by 8PM local time Wednesday night. This game is important to both teams I’m sure, but I’m hoping that the dedication of such NU fans somehow carries over to our players and the ‘Cats play as hard as they’ve ever played before from the tip till the last horn whatever the result. I think Klay Thompson will score a lot of points, but I think John Shurna will have a big day as well. In my ideal scenario I’d love to see Thompson score about 42 and Shurna score about 39, but get his final three at the buzzer to propel NU to a win. Bottom line, I think Washington State’s biggest advantage is they are the home team, but I think NU is the better team, especially now that WSU doesn’t have Casto’s bulk to push around Luka. Hopefully, some of the intangibles will break in NU’s favor as well and it’ll be enough. It is about time that they do (though, actually, it’s well past time they do, so take that for what it’s worth). I predict: Northwestern, 69 Washington State, 68

Monday, March 21, 2011

Don't Forget Wash. State -- Ok. State is Tonight

It's a little late. Okay, a lot late for those of us not on the west coast, but if you can't sleep you can catch the matchup between Washington State and Oklahoma State tonight and get the first look at who will be NU's matchup in the NIT's round of 8. I guess I'm kind of rooting for OSU because of the shorter travel, but both teams will be tough. OSU has size and WSU has Klay Thompson who is just a total stud. I guess we will see what happens, but I will say I'm happy to be deep into March and posting about games which will impact NU this season.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wildcats Top Top-Seeded Boston College to Advance to NIT Quarterfinals

That was awesome! This morning’s dismantling of Boston College was probably the best game Northwestern played since they dismantled BC’s fellow ACC team Georgia Tech. Making this win even better, I actually think as well as Northwestern played, they could still play even better. And they get a chance to do so against the winner of the Washington State-Oklahoma State game which will be played in Pullman, Washington on Monday night.

Today’s brilliant performance started about five minutes into the game and continued until the final horn sounded. All five NU starters scored in double figures and all five contributed to NU winning the rebounding battle 29-20 (and 10-3 in offensive caroms) and holding BC’s All-ACC guard Reggie Jackson to just 8 points, the Los Angles Dodgers wish they could have contained Reggie that well (yes, that was another baseball joke, sorry).

It’s hard when watching a game on TV to really say a team “wanted” to win more, but it sure looked like Northwestern did. As pointed out on the broadcast, the ‘Cats seemed to get to almost every 50/50. The last time NU played with such aggressiveness was when they lost to top-ranked Ohio State by just one point late January. If NU plays with that type of intensity they are tough to beat because since they are such good shooters they can turn an offensive rebound into three points with ease.

That intensity also carried over on defense. BC only turned the ball over 11 times, but 6 of those were off NU steals and the ‘Cats made life tough for BC on a number of other offensive possessions. NU played their man-to-man almost the entire game. One possession of 1-3-1 was played, but Coach Carmody called it off after BC hit a three. Actually, the 1-3-1 possession did force BC to burn a ton of clock and NU almost got a TO, but with as well as NU was playing in the man, it was probably the right move to stick with it. I also liked how NU didn’t switch as much in the man-to-man as they have in the past. They pretty much tried to fight through screens with the exception of guarding Jackson. In order to ensure Jackson also had a guy in his face, the ‘Cats would switch when BC set ball screens for their star. Alex Marcotullio and Drew Crawford statistically led the ‘Cat defense with two steals each, but the whole team was involved. I’ve been critical of how well Bill Carmody motivates his players to hustle and play defense, but I have to say NU looked well motivated to do those things today. Actually, I think the last two (maybe even three) games have been amongst the best of Carmody’s career in terms of having the team motivated to play and in terms of handling the in game coaching situations.

On offense NU shot 54.8% overall and 41.7% from three. The ‘Cats knocked down 15 threes which was huge in extending and then holding the lead. Every time BC looked like the might come back it seemed NU found an open man who canned a three. Juice Thompson led NU with 6 made threes and 22 overall points along with 6 assists. Drew Crawford showed up and as I anticipated his reemergence was part of what sparked NU’s success. For the game Crawford connected on 3-of-5 threes, scored 13 points, and dished out four assists. Alex Marcotullio also made three three-point shots. Alex finished with 12 total points and three assists.

Though they weren’t big three point shooters today (only one each) NU’s staring bigs, John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic, also played great games. Shurna scored 20 points to along with 9 rebounds and 4 assists. He also had three dunks which had both him and every Wildcat fan nationwide grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Luka Mirkovic scored 13 points, 5 rebounds and dished out 7 assists. Most impressively for Luka, he didn’t miss a shot. Every time Luka had the chance to finish at the hoop he did so and some of the shots weren’t easy finishes. If Luka plays like that in NU’s next game I think the ‘Cats might be in Madison Square Garden for the NIT’s final four.

Without knowing who NU will play it’s a little tough to look ahead. I’ll simply say that continued hustle on defense and the glass and John Shurna adding a couple three pointers to his inside scoring could, and maybe even should, be a recipe for NU continuing this postseason run. It also might be nice to see NU add a little more scoring punch off the bench, but when the starters play as well as they did today that becomes less critical. Perhaps, JerShon Cobb getting back into form will make a difference in that area. Regardless, NU has now achieved milestones in tying the programs highest win total and advancing further than ever before in the postseason, even better, NU is now one win away from a couple more major program milestones. I look forward to seeing the next game which will likely be Wednesday with a location and time to be determined Monday evening after the Washington State-Oklahoma State game. Wildcat Nation will be waiting to see that result.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wildcats go on the road in NIT Round 2

Northwestern will play at Boston College on Saturday. It’s an early tip at 11AM Eastern and 10AM Central time. Traditionally, such early tips result in low scoring games because teams don’t conduct a pregame shoot-around. Both NU and BC have some offensive firepower, though, so it’ll be interesting to see exactly what happens.

If Northwestern is to stop BC the first guy they have to contain is Reggie Jackson. Mr. October (okay, it’s not the same guy) averages more than eighteen points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. He’s a guy that’s really athletic and can score with jump shots as well as he knocks down about 42% of his threes. As a team BC makes 38% of their threes. Some would assume that means NU can’t play the 1-3-1, but NU sprang the 1-3-1 on UW-Milwaukee even though they were good shooters and it worked because the Panthers hadn’t seen anything like it all year. BC is probably a little more athletic and able to get into the teeth of the zone, but if Alex Marcotullio continues to be disruptive at the top of that 1-3-1, it’s possible BC could fall victim to NU’s pressure just as Milwaukee did.

Along with Reggie Jackson, BC has two other very good shooters in Biko Paris and Danny Rubin. Both make more than 40% of their threes, though, in Rubin’s case that’s pretty much all he does. Paris, on the other hand, is another well rounded guard who can do a lot of things well.

The size for BC comes in the form of 6-8 Joe Trapani. He scores more than 14 points per game and grabs more than 7 rebounds. Also, like the rest of his teammates he can knock down a three as he hits better than 35% of the ones he takes. Look for 6-6 Corey Raji to attack the glass for BC as well. He’s athletic and long and can get to the glass off of those long three point misses that occur for a distance shooting team.

In this contest, I expect a ton of threes to be launched. NU and UW-Milwaukee fired up 67 total threes and NU and BC may best that mark. BC’s inside guys might be a little more athletic and physical than Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti, but they’re also better shooters and might play on the outside even more. For Northwestern, a hot shooting John Shurna can get up more than 10 three point attempts and make nearly as many as can Juice Thompson and Alex Marcotullio if they’re feeling it from the outside.

The key player for NU, though, has to be Drew Crawford. Crawford can match the athletic skill of several of BC’s guards better than anyone else on NU’s roster other than, perhaps, injured guard JerShon Cobb. That means Crawford will be a key on both defense and on the glass. In addition, I truly believe NU is a hot shooting night for Drew Crawford away from another breakout performance similar to what we saw versus Georgia Tech and at Iowa. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait till next year to see it.

This is a tough game to call, but I see BC’s 12-4 home mark and I see NU’s road struggles and I worry. On paper these teams are pretty even, but if NU starts slow on the road BC could build an early edge. The ‘Cats must hit some threes early and let BC know that they have come to Chestnut Hill ready to play. If that happens NU could sneak away with a win. However, I’m not sure that’s where the smart money should go. I predict: Boston College, 68 Northwestern, 59

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Postseason Win! Northwestern Tops UW-Milwaukee for First Postseason Win in 17 Years

It wasn’t perfect, but the result was. Northwestern used just enough three point shooting and the surprise springing of the 1-3-1 defense (nice move by Coach Carmody to see that Anthony Hill would do more damage to NU than the Panther three point shooters) to help hold off a Wisconsin-Milwaukee comeback effort in the second half to capture the program’s first postseason win in 17 years. Northwestern will now face Boston College in Chestnut Hill on Saturday morning at 11AM Eastern Time. That to me isn’t an ideal start time, but I suspect the NIT wants to try to avoid too much overlap with NCAA games. And considering that we could be Wisconsin-Milwaukee and not play till November, I’m not going to complain.

Tonight’s Wildcat win featured solid play from John Shurna, Juice Thompson, and Alex Marcotullio. It was good to see Marcotullio step up with the injury to JerShon Cobb keeping the talented freshman on the bench and Mike Capocci and Drew Crawford both struggling. I think Capocci probably still isn’t a 100% after his own injury and Drew Crawford simply isn’t shooting well right now. Personally, I think it’s all psychological with Crawford and probably instead of practice would sit him in the video room and have him watch one of the games were in exploded for 25 points plus because it’s pretty clear right now the kid needs a confidence boost.

Speaking of confidence, Shurna seemed to have plenty off it coming off his tremendous performance in the Big Ten Tournament near upset of Ohio State. Tonight, John scored 25 points, connected on half his threes, and pulled down eight rebounds. He was also part of very a strong middle 3 in NU’s 1-3-1 which helped keep Panther star Anthony Hill from getting many good looks at the basket.

Juice Thompson was good as well in what is probably his last game at Welsh-Ryan Arena unless Long Beach State pulls enough upsets for NU to make it back home in the NIT’s quarterfinals. Juice made seven field goals and assisted on six more. He totaled 20 points and 4 rebounds. He made 4 threes, but seemed to have a number of others which nearly went as well. As NU heads on the road, the continued desire of Juice to will his team to victory and extend his college career will be critical to future Wildcat success.

Alex Marcotullio continues to develop thanks to Cobb’s injury. He stared again tonight and scored 13 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and got 3 steals. His constant hustle had him in the middle of a number of other plays for near steals as well. Alex sometimes still makes mistakes, but it is important to remember he’s still young and is just now cracking the starting lineup. Overall, his energy always seems to help NU and I think he’ll be a big help when NU tried to defend a fairly athletic BC team.

I mentioned Drew Crawford earlier. Somehow, someway, NU needs him to step up when they play Boston College. Crawford worked his way to 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists today, but his scoring punch is missed by the ‘Cats. I think he’ll be the key guy in the BC game so I hope he gets with Coach Henderson and they work on brining back the hot-shooting Drew Crawford we know exists.

Credit also goes to Luka Mirkovic who helped NU win the rebounding battle with 8 boards of his own (including four on the offensive end) and by holding position against Anthony Hill and allowing his teammates to get rebounds. Luka also did a good job in his role as a passer in NU’s offense and got four assists to his name.

NU only got two bench points today (Mike Capocci free throws) and I think both Capocci and Davide Curletti will need to do more for NU to upset BC. Hopefully, another couple days will help heal Capocci.

So, it’s on to Boston College. It’ll be a tough game, but it is way better to move on than go home and I’m glad that once again NU has a postseason win on the resume. It’s a good feeling and one that’ll potentially get even better on Saturday. I can’t wait!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Postseason Play Back in Evanston for First Time in 17 Years as Wildcats Host Panthers

I remember as a young impressionable child having my parents take me to Northwestern’s NIT game against DePaul in 1994. I think that day even more than the football team’s run to the Rose Bowl a year later is what cemented me as a Northwestern fan. Welsh-Ryan was rocking that night and when Kevin Rankin put in a dunk off the opening tip the roof almost came off the place. The atmosphere might not be as great Wednesday night when the Wildcats host the UW-Milwaukee Panthers, but I know hosting a postseason game is a special thing for Northwestern and I suspect NU fans will turn out to support the Wildcats.

Ideally, Northwestern wouldn’t host postseason games because they’d play at a neutral site in the NCAA Tournament. However, with the clear death of the NCAA Tournament dream, I can’t complain about hosting a game in the NIT. The NIT is still a chance to win a championship and hosting this game gives NU at least a slightly better shot at picking up a title than they had the last two years when the opened NIT play on the road and lost both games.

The Panthers are coached by Rob Jeter a former assistant at Wisconsin-Madison so NU should more or less know what to expect. UW-Milwaukee will use the swing offense and be aggressive in man-to-man defense. That swing offense creates open shots for a number of Panther including 6-8 Tony Meier who despite his size prefers to play on the outside. Meier is third on his team in scoring with 11.8 ppg, but makes 43% of his threes and is one of four Panthers starters who will shoot from the outside. I suspect that Northwestern will stay away from their 1-3-1 zone given Milwaukee’s ability to knock down treys. Another high scoring Panther is Tone Boyle. Boyle makes 38.3% of his threes and scores 13.1 ppg. He’s a 6-4 guard that NU will likely need to stop from getting open looks. The one Panther starter who doesn’t shoot threes is actually their leading scorer. Anthony Hill scores 15.5ppg working on the inside. At 6-7 he’s also the team’s leading rebounder with over 6 boards a game. He converts more than 50% of his looks so NU needs to keep away from the basket and off the glass.

One area where UW-Milwaukee has trouble is ball security. Point guard Kaylon Williams is the only Panther in the regular rotation who has more assists than turnovers. That means NU needs to play the same type of pressure defense they played in the Big Ten Tournament. If NU does so I suspect they’ll get some easy baskets and have more total shots than the Panthers.

The Panthers regular rotation tops out at 6-9 height wise. That means NU could win the rebounding battle if they go aggressively to the glass and Luka Mirkovic stays under control. If Luka does stay under control he could get some easy baskets like he got versus Indiana. Also, John Shurna’s resurgence in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Ohio State is a major plus for NU and I know Juice Thompson will have a big game. The question as far as NU’s advancement in the NIT is Drew Crawford. Will he have a jump shot? And if he doesn’t have a jump shot will he try to finish aggressively if he takes the ball to the hoop? If Crawford can’t shoot and needs to drive, he needs to try to finish strong and dunk the ball instead of putting up wussy finger role layups.

At home and with more size I think NU has a great chance to win this game. I hope the fans sure up, though, because I’m sure UW-Milwaukee will have their supporters as well. It should be a lot of fun and if NU does win they might have a chance at a home game in round two as Boston College passed on hosting a first round game. Of course, we need to make we take care of round 1 first. I predict: Northwestern, 77 UW-Milwaukee, 70

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The NIT: A chance to win a ring.

I’ll have a preview for NU’s game with Milwaukee up tomorrow night, but I just want to say that I think the best thing to about this (aside from NU’s first postseason home game in 17 years) is the fact that this is a chance for NU’s players to win rings. You can, as was said on the Big Ten Tournament broadcast, win rings in four ways: win the regular season league title, win the league’s tournament title, win the NCAA tournament, or win the NIT (maybe they give CBI or CIT rings too, but you get the point). That means the Wildcats have a legit chance to win a ring and that’s something they should take pride in trying to do because a lot of teams don’t have the same chance. It’s something that I know Juice Thompson will take pride in trying to accomplish and I hope the underclassmen try to play as hard as Juice does in order to give him a shot at ring. I also hope NU fans show up in good numbers to support the Wildcats. To host a postseason game is a rare opportunity for Northwestern and it should be something fans enjoy. There isn’t much time, but I hope the ticket office gets the word out to those NU fans that are football season ticket holders, but not basketball season ticket holders. Attacking that market strongly could help fill Welsh-Ryan up with purple and that’ll hopefully help push NU to an opening round win over the Panthers in what should be a good game. I’m excited and I hope others in Wildcat Nation are as well. This wasn’t what we wanted when the season started, but it’s also better than I thought things might be in the middle of the year. Therefore, I’m looking at this is a positive step for NU basketball right now.

NU Hosts the NIT vs UW-Milwaukee

Northwestern will host UW-Milwaukee on Wednesday at 7PM in Welsh-Ryan. The game is on, which is probably about right for this matchup, but it's NIT home game which is a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Let’s Give Out Some Awards…

The Big Ten gave out their postseason awards earlier this week so I’m going to do the same today. Somehow I hope this eases the pain of yesterday’s loss. By the way, did Penn State win? I like those guys, but I’m refusing to watch any basketball related stuff till 8PM tomorrow’s NIT selection show and I encourage everyone to do the same. It keeps the pain and anger down.

Anyway, some awards. I’ve got an MVP for this season (two actually), a defensive player of the year, and a newcomer of the year (can you guess who wins this?). So let’s get started…

MVP (x2) Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna….I know it’s kind of a cheat to chose two guys for an award which ends in “player” not “players” but I just couldn’t pick. I liked the fact that Juice willed the team to victory a number of times and kept the ‘Cats close in a number of games they lost, but I also couldn’t ignore the fact that John Shurna’s injury pretty much cost Northwestern the NCAA Tournament. So I guess I’m giving Juice the MVP based on what he did and Shurna the MVP based on what he could have done if healthy the whole season. That might not make sense to everyone, but it does to me and these are my awards.

Previous Winners
2009….Craig Moore
2010….Juice Thompson

Defensive Player of the Year Alex Marcotullio…..I really considered not choosing a winner for this award, but Marcotullio always tried on defense even if his physical skills put him at a disadvantage compared to the guy he was guarding. I don’t think the same can be said for many of his teammates (I’m looking at you especially Drew Crawford) therefore Marcotullio gets this award, but as bad as the Wildcats were on defense I don’t think he should be that proud.

Previous Winners
2009….Jeremy Nash
2010….Jeremy Nash

Newcomer of the Year JerShon Cobb….NU’s only newcomer wins the newcomer award. A big shock, I know. But the truth is Cobb had a very nice freshman season. It just was sidetracked due to injury three separate times. Still, when he played he showed nice consistency for a young guy and a court presence which reminded me of a more veteran player. I honestly believe he has a chance to very a good player for NU. He showed his potential best in the game against Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena when he routinely schooled Demetri McCamey who some said before the year was a future NBA guard.

Previous Winners
2009…John Shurna
2010…Drew Crawford

Friday, March 11, 2011

Close Again, but Still Nothing

I don’t really know what to say right now. Another good effort, but the bottom line is Northwestern just can’t reach the summit when it comes to postseason sports in both men’s basketball and football. I know people will talk about how this was a great effort, and it was, but it means nothing and I can’t pretend like it does. The loss is a loss. No such thing as a good loss exists which means the NIT selection committee is just going to see Northwestern as an 18-13 team with really no good wins. That means the odds are NU is going to play a road game in the NIT now, and because they stink outside of Evanston they’ll likely lose it. So while a 67-61 loss to the #1 team in the country (especially playing short handed) is a nice accomplishment, it’s not an accomplishment that’s really worth anything other than another number of the record’s right hand side. It’s like the Outback Bowl two years ago, everybody was so proud of that game, but the bottom line is it was a loss. I don’t care how great the game was; we’ve mastered losing close games. Let’s work on winning them.

What went well today? John Shurna was great. He scored 23 points and really came back from a major sub-par effort against Minnesota. I wish he would have tried score in the post late in regulation instead of passing to ice cold Drew Crawford and I think he forced a few shots in OT, but overall I’d say Shurna was NU’s best player today. Crawford did alright as well, but the fact his jump shot has totally deserted him makes him a less effective player. He did do a decent job of taking the ball to the hoop, but his preference for finger rolls and fade-a-aways made him miss a number of looks I thought he could/should have finished. In the end, those might have been the difference in the game. He did hit all his free throws and actually NU’s free throw shooting today was fantastic. If NU had won in regulation it would have been the reason. I thought NU also did play decent defense, but the fact is Jared Sullinger is just a monster compared to anybody NU has. No matter how well Luka Mirkovic, Davide Curletti, or John Shurna played him, the odds were they were going to foul him at some point. In overtime, the refs seemed to become more willing to call those fouls and that hurt the ‘Cats as well.

Juice Thompson wasn’t as good today as yesterday, but OSU’s Aaron Craft is a great defender and he made Thompson have to really work for shots that yesterday he could have got with ease. NU also didn’t really get the same bench contribution today as yesterday, but I think we all knew that Ohio State was a tough game for Nick Fruendt. Maybe having JerShon Cobb and Mike Capocci might have pushed NU over the top in this one, but that’s worthless speculation.

In the end, NU played well, but the better team won and the game’s best player made the biggest difference. It was simply a surprise that most of that difference came at the free throw line and not in the post where NU actually did okay on Sullinger. If Northwestern ever wants to truly compete with good teams, they will have to improve their post players. Like I said, Mirkovic and Curletti did okay, but Sullinger still got way more rebounds and scored way more points. Also, Mirkovic almost cost NU a chance to win even earlier in OT with a silly technical foul because he couldn’t control his emotions. Thankfully, the OSU player missed both shots the so the foul didn’t really matter in terms of points, but it did send Mirkovic to the bench which might have made a difference since then the smaller Shurna had to guard Sullinger.

The bottom line is this is another terribly disappointing loss for Northwestern basketball. It’s the kind of loss that makes you wonder if making the tournament will ever be possible. NU actually caught a few breaks today such as an Alex Marcotullio three counting when it shouldn’t have and OSU shooting sub-par, but is wasn’t enough. Seemingly, nothing ever is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Juice =’s Record Setter and Second Chance at OSU

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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Win or Go, Well, Not Home, but Away in the NIT

What’s at stake for Northwestern on Thursday? Well, I’m guessing an NIT home game. NU’s 17-12 record combined with a strong Big Ten puts them probably right at the borderline on the middle of the NIT. Right now, NU is probably a 5-seed or a 6-seed, but I think with a win over a Minnesota team that is also likely destined to play in the NIT would give NU a strong case for a home game. The game would give NU a two out of three advantage over Minnesota for the year and place the Wildcats at a respectable 5-4 in their last nine games. If they drop a game on Friday to Ohio State, NU will still be 5-5 in their last ten, which while not an official criteria, is still something committees look at when judging teams.

NU just beat Minnesota in the season’s last game, but of course that game was in Evanston at Welsh-Ryan Arena where NU is much better than anywhere else (with the exception of Iowa City, Iowa). Now, NU has to go into Conseco Fieldhouse to try to top the Gophers. Conseco will be pretty empty when these two teams play so the crowd won’t be a factor, but for NU, which is a shooting team, playing in a new environment means adjusting to shooting in that new environment quickly.

Once again, Minnesota’s advantage is the fact they have three monsters inside. Trevor Mbawke at 13.7ppg and 10.5rpg is the headliner, but Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson both have size and the ability to rebound and score as well. Sampson even has displayed a nice touch on mid-range jump shots which sometimes presents a matchup problem. NU’s Luka Mirkovic was terrible against Minnesota last week, but thankfully Davide Curletti made up for Luka’s poor play. I think for NU to win on Thursday, though, both will need to play well. Sure, Curletti has been great of late, but Minnesota might shoot better than they have been of late and if that happens, NU can’t give up any easy baskets to along with made Gopher threes. Therefore, both Curletti and Mirkovic need to be tough on the defensive glass.

Minnesota’s Blake Hoffarber is one of the Big Ten’s best shooters, but he was pretty much locked down by Alex Marcotullio and Juice Thompson when the teams met in Evanston. If that happens again I think NU will win the game for sure, but you can bet Tubby Smith will be trying to find ways to get his senior guard open looks. I expect Hoffarber to run off a lot of screens and given NU’s trouble with fighting through screens that does scare me. It is critical that the Wildcat defense be aggressive and active and that they communicate with each other at all times. Whoever has Hoffarber can’t let him go, because if they do it’ll be Gopher threes all over the place.

On offense for Northwestern everyone is pretty much hoping the eight days off since the last game continues John Shurna’s recovery. Shurna is so good when 100% that early in the year one would have said he had an outside shot at Big Ten Player of the Year. He might still have a shot next year if he’s healthy, but he probably isn’t 100% yet. Still, if Shurna is closer to 100% his ability to not only shoot, but to drive on a bigger player and get fouled could allow for NU to get some easy points. I also expect to see a good game from Drew Crawford. Crawford struggled towards the end of the regular season, but he rarely has extended slumps and I would be shocked if he didn’t post a decent game Thursday. I just hope that he doesn’t settle too much for jump shots and that he tries to make things happen at the hoop (and that he converts free throws if fouled).

Overall, NU is in a much better spot than Minnesota for this game. Therefore, I think a quick start for NU would be fantastic. If NU gets off to a hot shooting start I suspect the Gophers will fade away as many of them are likely less than thrilled with the way their year has ended. With Drew Crawford due, I think NU can get that quick start. In the end the game will probably be close, though. I predict: Northwestern, 67 Minnesota, 64

Monday, March 7, 2011

Don’t Give Up Till It’s Over: The Big Ten Tournament Four Days From an NCAA Bid

Let’s be honest, this season was disappointing from a Northwestern fan’s perspective. From the moment this summer when Kevin Coble decided he didn’t want to play basketball for Bill Carmody anymore NU’s NCAA dreams were pretty much put on life support. Then in December when John Shurna went down with his ankle injury the life support machine got turned off. Instead of a healthy Shurna who probably could have led NU to a 9-9 Big Ten record even without Coble’s backing, the ‘Cats and the less than 100% Shurna struggled to finish 7-11 in the league with their only real quality win coming over a mediocre Illinois team. NU’s perceived underachievement has led some to label the ‘Cats the nation’s most disappointing team. I don’t know enough to argue one or another on that, but I do know this was in many ways the most disappointing year for me as a Northwestern fan. Many of the bad NU teams I’ve seen have simply been bad. There weren’t any expectations of success. This year the team had realistic hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, but once again fate seemed to throw every bit of hard luck possible at NU’s men’s basketball program. Does that constitute a cruse? Who knows? But let’s remember before we write this year off, it’s not over yet. Four wins in four days in Indianapolis and the entire history of the 2010-11 season will have to be rewritten.

To be honest, from the moment the Big Ten created their conference tournament I always kind of figured that would be how NU first made the Big Dance. In a way, that’s kind of crazy because winning four games in four days is really much harder than going 9-9 over 18 league games as tournament contenders Illinois and Michigan did. However, I think I’ve be skewed by looking at so many bad Northwestern teams that I figured getting hot over four days was more likely than any sort of consistent performance in the league. Consistency certainly wasn’t NU’s strong suit this season as not only was the team remarkably inconsistent, but many of NU’s players swing on the continuum from spectacular to terrible at remarkable rates. Drew Crawford and Luka Mirkovic stand out the most, but they aren’t the only Wildcats who lack any sort of consistent game.

Those inconsistencies, though, are part of why I can’t give up on this season just yet. Sure, the ‘Cats could lose to Minnesota on Thursday, but Northwestern is a streak-shooting team and they haven’t really had a hot streak since January. I saw them light up Georgia Tech for 55 points in a half and torch Iowa for the best 15 minutes probably ever played by a Northwestern basketball team. I’ve seen Crawford, Juice, and John Shurna get into stretches where they don’t miss. That hasn’t really been the case recently, but I know it could happen. If the ‘Cats catch fire in Conseco Fieldhouse they’ll have a shot at knocking off #1 ranked Ohio State in the second round of the tournament. If they do that, it’ll blow the door wide open for any would-be title contenders to claim a title which many assume will another Buckeye coronation.

The odds are against NU pulling off such an upset or perhaps even beating Minnesota on Thursday, but if ‘Cats play loose and confident no matter the situation they have a shot. And as someone once said…well, I guess that’s something.

It’s enough at least that I’m not giving up hope for another few days or to put in another way, as an upstart baseball team from the middle of the past decade once asked, "Why Not Us?"

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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wildcats Host Gophers on Senior Day

On Wednesday night Northwestern hosts Minnesota in what will probably be the final home game for four seniors. Jeff Ryan, Mike Capocci, Ivan Peljusic, and Michael “Juice” Thompson have some chance of playing a home game at Welsh-Ryan in the NIT, but the odds are this is the last time those four will play a home game for Northwestern. Obviously, Juice is the headliner, but all four of those players have been part of two (and potentially three) postseason teams for Northwestern which is unique accomplishment in the history of Northwestern basketball. Perhaps what is even more remarkable is that this class which has a great chance to make three postseasons started their careers with very poor seasons. Fifth year seniors Jeff Ryan and Ivan Peljusic saw NU go 2-16 and 1-17 in conference play during their first two years in the program and Juice and Mike Capocci were around for that 1-17 season. Despite such poor starts, all four played roles in helping NU move their record to 17-14 and 20-14 the past two seasons and in helping NU to a sure winning season this year. They were also all part of an NU team in 2008-09 which was probably the best Northwestern basketball team in the last 40 or 50 years and the team which has come the closest to taking NU to the NCAA Tournament.

I’m sure the lack of an NCAA invite is frustrating to these four seniors as it has been to many seniors in the past history of NU hoops, but the door isn’t truly closed for these four just yet. They have a home game Wednesday and then a rematch with Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. If the ‘Cats win that first tournament game and three more they still have a chance and that would be a remarkable legacy for the seniors to leave. Regardless, though, I’ll have positive memories of all four. Juice has of course made countless big plays, but I’ll never forget Ivan Peljusic’s great game against Indiana in NU’s near upset of the Hoosiers his freshman season or Mike Capocci’s big dunks along the way like the one his freshman year vs Michigan, or the great defense Jeff Ryan played on Robbie Hummel when NU upset Purdue at Purdue during that 08-09 season.

As to if NU can actually beat Minnesota on Wednesday and send the four seniors out winners, I don’t know. This Northwestern team is unpredictable and the current state of NU’s program isn’t great. They’ve suffered many more embarrassing losses than expected this year, a poor close to the season has put Coach Bill Carmody on the hot seat, and the team hasn’t been fully healthy since December. Now, they face a Minnesota team who is also struggling, but who probably has a significant advantage over NU in one key area—inside play.

NU’s starting center Luka Mirkovic got benched in the ‘Cats last game against Wisconsin due to his poor play and NU turned to Davide Curletti. Curletti played great, but he’s only 6-9 and Minnesota has great size in Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson, and the super-athletic Trevor Mbawke who is walking double-double at 13.9ppg and 10.4rpg. Those are impressive totals and I know Curletti can’t stop all three and he might not be able to stop any of the three. For Northwestern to win, Luka needs to comeback and have a good game. The positive is Luka is generally better at home, so that has to help. But you can’t count on Luka showing up to rescue NU’s season.

I’ll also be interested to see how (or if) NU plays defense on the Gophers. NU has struggled on defense all year and often tries to their 1-3-1 zone to get them out of trouble. However, Minnesota has shown the ability to knock down threes which will probably force NU to go man-to-man. If that happens, NU has to pressure the ball better than before in order to keep the Gophers from easy entry passes and short looks inside. NU also has to keep Minnesota off the glass. I fear Minnesota might employ an offensive approach which encourages three point shooting just because they believe their big three big men will dominate NU on the glass. If that happens NU doesn’t have a great chance for success. I predict: Minnesota, 78 Northwestern, 70