Saturday, January 28, 2012

Northwestern Basketball: It’s Like Groundhog Day

Hmmm. This looked a lot like the Illinois game. Northwestern played hard and even outrebounded their opponent, but lack of offensive punch outside of Drew Crawford and John Shurna ended up costing the ‘Cats the game.

The positive today really was the hustle and rebounding that Northwestern showed. The negative was the fact that the center position with Davide Curletti was a non-factor and the ‘Cats really didn’t get much offense from Reggie Hearn or Dave Sobolewski either. Also, Northwestern missed some free throws early in the game and those misses are an issue in a two point game as they were in one point games vs Illinois and Michigan. The free throws and the number of silly turnovers were perhaps my biggest issue today as I thought that this wasn’t a very fundamentally sound game for NU. Sadly, that seems to have been the case since the loss to Illinois which was also the result of missing chances due to stupid turnovers and missed free throws.

Also like the Illinois game I’m shocked at NU’s last play. What the hell was that? Once it was clear that it was going nowhere with one timeout remaining I’m not sure why NU didn’t call one. It was pretty clear after Purdue switched when Sobolewski drove past a Crawford screen that whatever was planned wasn’t going to work. At that point a timeout needed to be called.

The lack of fundamental play from this team really has me frustrated and that last play looked so freaking stupid that I just want to throw things. Northwestern is now going to play Nebraska on Thursday to see who isn’t the worst team in the Big Ten. In a year when some people thought Northwestern was an NCAA Tournament team. That’s really bad.

Whether you agree or not it seems pretty clear that Bill Carmody will be fired at the end of this season. Personally, if I were Jim Phillips and I knew I was going to make that decision, I would seriously consider firing Carmody now. You’d get a look at what Tavaras Hardy, who by all reports is NU’s main recruiter as a coach, can do as a game coach and you’d also be able to start making subtle inquires for a national coaching search. At this point to sit through 11 more games where Bill Carmody is a lame duck in every way except an official announcement is just stupid. Let’s do something that actually makes it look like we want to move the program forward.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wildcats Back at Home to Host Purdue

I went back and forth trying to decide on a headline for this entry. In the end I decided the simplest headline was the best. I’d considered headlines related to this game being kind of a “last stand” or “line in the sand” for the Northwestern basketball program’s 2012 NCAA Tournament hopes and potentially Bill Carmody’s job, but I’d rather step back from that talk for awhile and just watch the next three games Northwestern plays. On February 5, 2012 somewhere around 4PM Central Time we can get back into those questions, but I’m going to let these next three games play out without any big picture discussion. I’m just going to watch basketball. After watching that basketball I feel as though I’ll be able to give an accurate assessment of where this season is going.

Purdue and Northwestern are somewhat similar teams. However, NU’s health status has made NU play with a short hand these past few weeks. Nearly a full week off may help NU in that area. It is important NU have Alex Marcotullio able to go because I could see the 1-3-1 zone being useful at times vs Purdue and Marcotullio is the best Wildcat defender at the top of that zone. Purdue’s got some good shooters in Ryne Smith and DJ Byrd who both make over 40% of their threes and Robbie Hummel who makes 35%, but all three have had slumps at times and Hummel has really struggled of late. Now that probably means he’ll make something like 8-10 vs NU, but it seems like the ‘Cats might be catching Purdue at the right time. Also, Purdue is only 2-3 away from home and while the Illinois loss may haunt NU and Coach Carmody, the ‘Cats have been really good at home other than that game and the loss to powerhouse Baylor during this year (and really going back the last 2-3 years).

I think one of the major keys to the game is how NU handles Purdue’s pressure defense. The Boilermakers known for good defense with guards Kelsey Barlow and Jackson doing a great job other team’s perimeter players. However, NU should actually be able to out-athlete Smith, Byrd, and Hummel. If NU will get anything from its center position is always a question mark, but if it does, Purdue hasn’t lit the world on five with Travis Carroll or Sadi Marcius at the five spot. Maybe Davide Curletti can have another good game or maybe Luka Mirkovic can finally get his head removed from his ass, though, that seems like an operation which would be major surgery at this point.

At times I’ve written on here that I had no idea what to expect from a game. This is one of those. Northwestern and Purdue are both more than capable of winning this and many other games, however, both have failed to win games they should have and haven’t really played well of late. I’d like to think in such a game being at home and getting a crowd behind you helps. I predict: Northwestern, 68 Purdue, 65

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It’s Still the Defense, Stupid.

There is a lot of blame to go around on this one, but as much as NU was just awful on offense to start this game the real facts are that this game was lost on defense. Minnesota was able to get whatever shots they wanted driving to the basket or passing the ball without much pressure from Northwestern and the result was a lot of Gopher points.

Northwestern still lacks the intensity needed on defense to be truly competitive in the Big Ten long term and they still don’t respond well when things go wrong. The most obvious example of this is Drew Crawford. Crawford has the ability to be a good player, but he tends to sulk around when things go bad and forces shots because he wants to score. Then on defense since he’s so upset he didn’t make a basket his athletic ability is negated as he’s too busy worrying about himself to actually guard anybody. I’d say Crawford and Luka Mirkovic are great examples of how lacking in mental toughness Northwestern’s basketball program is, but I don’t want anybody to think they’re the only examples. They just are the ones who show it the most with their body language as it changes 180 degrees based on if they’re playing well or not.

The other major issue is that it seems that for the most part NU is at a point where the only people who really want to shot the ball are Crawford, Shurna, and Marcotullio (who doesn’t even start). This makes defending NU very easy. At some point the rest of NU’s players need to be given the okay to take a shot. After all, as frustrated as Crawford’s out of control drives make me, I understand that he has not choice when three of his teammates pass up wide open looks.

The only good news about this loss is it’ll probably put a stop to any NCAA Tournament talk for Northwestern and it’s about time. This team is about as from being an NCAA Tournament team as five kids playing pick-up at the park. Actually, if those kids play defense and rebound they’re probably closer.

I expect Northwestern will win their next two games which are both at home brining their record to 4-5 in the Big Ten, but the fact is that along with not playing defense; not winning on the road also finishes NU off as far as NCAA Tournament hopes. I’m not going to get into what this means for the program’s coaching situation at this point, but obviously some people will say this game is evidence Bill Carmody needs to be let go. That’s all well and good, but the fact is we’ve seen this game probably at least 25 times before during Carmody’s tenure. Therefore, I find it hard to say this single game is reason enough to let him go. It certainly doesn’t help, though.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Wildcats Still Trying to Prove They Can Win on the Road

It’s another road test for Northwestern on Sunday and this one might prove an even bigger task to the depth-challenged Wildcats than their last contest in Madison. Minnesota enters the game with an identical 2-4 Big Ten mark as NU, but the Gophers have won two games in a row and feature a team which goes at least nine deep. For an NU team that is playing with basically seven healthy players that could be a major issue.

The Wildcats would probably be advised to slow this game down and play at a pace which forces Minnesota to guard them for the entire shot clock. If that happens, it would be prefect if the Gophers would overextend their defense and allow NU backdoor cuts with the shot clock running down.

The other advantage NU would have in slowing the game down is it might force them to work all the way through their offense instead of forcing shots as I thought they did vs Wisconsin.
Minnesota has to want to speed NU up and use their superior depth as an advantage. I’ve been really impressed with how Minnesota has fought through injuries and an extended losing streak at the start of conference play to reach the point they are at now. I don’t actually see either NU or Minnesota as an NCAA Tournament team right now, but the winner of this game is probably one at the moment the contest ends. They might not be one at the end of the season, but at least for the winner they enter the realistic discussion.

Look for Minnesota to try and use the athletic front line of Ralph Sampson III(8.2ppg) and Rodney Williams (10.6ppg) not only to score in the post but also to crash the glass. I really think one of the reasons teams shoot so well vs NU is because shooters aren’t worried about missing because they know their teammates have a great chance at an offensive rebound versus NU’s rebound-phobic front line. With that in mind, look for Julian Welch (10.4ppg) to potentially have a career game because he impresses me as the Gophers top shooter. I also wouldn’t sleep on guard Joe Coleman who is coming off a career game.

At this point Northwestern really needs to show me something to prove they are anything more than what they were at the end of last year—a middle of the pack NIT team. One of the ways to show this is to pick up a road win over a team that is at least as good as they are if not better. This really hasn’t been done by NU since the current seniors were freshmen, but it’s not impossible. The trouble to me is that NU just doesn’t seem to have the depth to deal with Minnesota’s constant pressure defense. At 100% NU would have probably beat Michigan at Michigan and maybe even Wisconsin at Wisconsin, but NU wasn’t then and isn’t now anywhere near 100%. I predict: Minnesota, 70 Northwestern, 58

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It’s the Defense, Stupid.

*I've put all the key points of this post in bold so you don't have to read the whole thing if you don't want. Actually, just skip to the last line that’s all you need to read.

Until Northwestern learns to actually play consistent hard man-to-man defense they will never make the NCAA Tournament. Sadly, it doesn’t look like they’ll learn that lesson this year. This game was lost because Northwestern couldn’t stop Wisconsin. The game started with the Badgers making uncontested threes and the game was won when the Badgers made 7-of-8 shots, including several threes, at the start of the second half.

I can’t tell you how upset I am at the fact Northwestern can’t play defense. As many good things as we’ve seen from Northwestern in the last 4 years, the lack of the ability to play defense is a major problem. You can’t only focus on offense which is what it seems that not only Northwestern’s team does, but the media as well. If I have to hear one more time about how great a scoring duo John Shurna and Drew Crawford are while NU is getting craved up for easy basket after easy basket I’m going to vomit. The only thing worse is hearing about how this might be the year for NU to make the Big Dance. Guess what? IT"S NOT!!!!!!!!!!

Admittedly, there were some good things that happened in this game early such as seeing NU attack the basket and seeing a seemingly gaining confidence Dave Sobolewski who showed some nice assertiveness. I still think NU needs some special plays for John Shurna, say run him off some screens, when teams start focus on him, because I can’t stand the way Drew Crawford forces shots. Those shots are fine when 3 seconds are left on the shot clock, but not when 23 second are left and Crawford seems clueless to that fact.

Some other random thoughts on the game include that Luka Mirkovic was terrible and at this point NU is better with a small lineup than with him on the floor. Other people, Luka included if he’s going to play, need to start to look to score because teams are guarding Shurna and Crawford and if NU won’t run any special plays than they just won’t score. I don’t want to hear about how tough it is to win in Wisconsin because this Wisconsin team is not all that great other than Jordan Taylor and he played one of his best games of the year today.

Overall, I’m really just sick and tired of the inconsistency of Northwestern. They can’t handle success so they don’t really have that much. Looking ahead, the truth is thanks to the blown games vs Illinois and Michigan this is right now a team which is a lot closer to a bottom half NIT-seed than an NCAA Tournament bid. It’s sad, but it’s true and I’ll say that until NU wins a road Big Ten game then anybody who talks about this team as an NCAA Tournament team ought to have their head examined. The only place Northwestern is an NCAA Tournament team is Fantasy Island.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Can the ‘Cats Keep Wildcat Nation Smiling with a Win at Wisconsin?

As the Northwestern students rushed onto the court Saturday afternoon and Gus Johnson in his typical enthusiastic manner said, “Chicago’s…Big…Ten…Team!” (BTW, I’d have Johnson’s call on that in every NU promo from now until the Sun burns out). Wildcat Nation had to break out into a collective grin. The two losses the Wildcats suffered to Illinois and Michigan had left me (and I assume most of you) just sad. Not even upset. Just so sad. On Thursday after the Michigan loss I had people ask if I felt sick and I really think it was because I was just so depressed after seeing the Wildcats fail in what seemed like a defining game for this season that I simply didn’t look well. I know I’m way too invested in what happens with the ‘Cats and sincerely wish I had something else in my life with which to replace them as a priority, but I don’t and so I’m hoping that my depression from the Michigan loss can be totally replaced after a win Wednesday in Madison. Sure, the Michigan State win was great, but the losses to Illinois and Michigan right now are still haunting defeats. However, that can change. NU has a great chance to beat Wisconsin at the Kohl Center for the first time ever this week. In addition, Minnesota is an inconsistent team that I could see the Wildcats being able to play with when they travel up to the Twin Cities on Sunday.

For now though let’s keep focused on what’s going on in Madison. This is a talented Wisconsin team, but they’re underachieving right now. Especially on offense. Rumors are even circulating that star guard Jordan Taylor is playing hurt and that’s the reason for his only shooting 39% overall and only 31% from three point range. Whatever the case, Taylor has looked far more mortal this season than in the last two and his struggles have turned into team struggles as the Badgers have failed to score. When the Badgers have scored they’ve done so by supporting Taylor’s 13.8ppg with Jared Breggren (10.9ppg) inside and two recruits who chose Wisconsin over Northwestern Josh Gasser (48.9% 3PT) and Ben Brust (40.2% 3PT) from the outside. Gasser’s probably been the most consistent of the guards as Brust has had some big games such as seven threes versus UNLV and had some days where he seriously struggled. Honestly, though, I think NU can out shoot Wisconsin if it comes down to that. My bigger concern is on the offensive glass. Davide Curletti played the game his life on Saturday getting NU some second chance points and helping contain Michigan State’s front court from getting easy putbacks. However, I question the reality of getting the same game out of Curletti again. I think NU will need something good out of Luka Mirkovic and Davide as they battle the rebounding of Breggren, Ryan Evans, and the aptly named Mike Bruesewitz who pull down five-plus boards. Also, don’t discount Gasser as a rebounder. He’s very active around the glass. I have to say that although Josh Gasser obviously isn’t the dominate player that Andrew Luck is that as much as the Wildcats might lament losing out on Luck to Stanford in football, losing Gasser was just as bad for basketball. Based on who the ‘Cats had on the team these last two years and Gasser’s shooting and active play I truly think he might have been the missing piece to NU making the tournament. Of course, he’s a Badger there is nothing that can be done about it. I can tell you, though, I’m going to be really really pissed if he’s the difference in this game.

Looking at the game, NU used the 1-3-1 all game vs MSU, but Wisconsin is a different type of team. They’re a little better at taking care of the ball and have the potential to shoot better. However, if the Badgers continue to slump shooting then perhaps the 1-3-1 could be the key to a win. One thing we know for sure is that taking care of the ball will be key as this should be a low scoring game. I know Northwestern can win this game. However, with Bill Carmody’s 0-12 record in Madison and the way NU get hammered by Wisconsin last year I can’t really honestly predict an NU victory. Plus, Wisconsin is by far the most physical team in the Big Ten and NU seems to basically have six players right now with Alex Marcotullio likely out, JerShon Cobb at something like 70%, and Nick Fruendt as the primary sub at guard and Luka Mirkovic as the primary sub in the front court. That’s tough. I think this is a close game and I think NU can win, but they’ll need a lot of breaks which might not happen in Mad Town. I Predict: Wisconsin, 55 Northwestern, 50

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rebound. Yes!

They finally did it. The Wildcats rebounded both in basketball terms and mentally to get their second quality win of the year. It’s easy to look at today’s game and then look back and really be frustrated by the losses NU suffered to Illinois and Michigan, but you can’t do that. You need to focus on today’s success and use that as a potential jumping off point for a sustained run of success.

The Wildcats still ran into some old problems such as their continued struggles at the free throw line and they seem to have issues at times recognizing that they are being doubled teamed and as a result miss getting the ball to open shooters. However, some of the other major issues the Wildcats have had such as turnover trouble and rebounding were taken care of today. The ‘Cats turned the ball over just seven times compared to MSU’s 14 and while Michigan State did outrebound NU by 12, the Spartans didn’t have many three or four shot possessions which just cut the heart out of NU’s effort to sustain momentum. I truly believe if NU plays as well on the glass as they did today and shoots free throws as well as they can that Northwestern will have a chance in virtually any game they play.

Part of Northwestern’s success on the glass today came as a result of finally getting production from the center spot. Davide Curletti ended the day with a team high six rebounds but it wasn’t just the number. It was that twice he turned offensive rebounds into points. It was that his hustle keep the ball alive and seemed to inspire NU’s other guys to hit the glass.

Thanks to Curletti getting 17 points and finally giving NU a center who was willing to take and make an outside shot, the game seemed to open up for NU’s other players to drive the lane. Dave Sobolewski found his way to the hoop several time as did John Shurna, Drew Crawford, and Reggie Hearn. While Shurna and Crawford were, as one would expect, the big scorers in the game, you can’t discount the performance from the other guys on NU’s team. Especially when you consider that Shurna, Crawford, Curletti, Hearn, and Sobolewski basically played the entire second half thanks to Luka Mirkovic’s ineffectiveness and JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio’s injuries. Those issues also caused Nick Fruendt to get off the bench for seven minutes today and while he really didn’t go anything on offense or get a rebound, he wasn’t abused by superior athletes as so many people have feared he would end up being if he played.

I mentioned NU still struggled from the free throw line, but John Shurna did make 10-of-11 which was huge because he wasn’t hitting a ton from the field. This once again brings up the question why he wasn’t allowed to shoot the technical against Michigan, but I’ll try my best not to dwell on that fact. The guy who did shoot that technical was Drew Crawford and he had a nice day today as well (though only made 1-of-2 free throws) making some nice drives to the basket, mid-range shots, and hitting three threes. Dave Sobolewski took care of the ball with seven assists and only one turnover.

I’m not sure NU can go a real long winning streak without getting healthier, but it was good to see that even without Marcotullio to sub for him in the second half that Reggie Hearn kept making plays. He pulled down some key rebounds and made a couple nice baskets around the hoop which were in key in NU’s ability to hold the lead.

Overall this was a great and much needed win for the mental state of not only this team but the NU fans as well.

If the 'Cats can win at Wisconsin next week then I'll be willing to get back to talking tournament.

Oh yeah, and if the Big Ten is willing to let us wear those black jerseys at home I say we wear them every game until we lose. They've got to be okay on the road becasue they're a dark color and I guess based on the fact we wore them, that we're allowed to wear them at home too.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wildcats Looking to Rebound (in many ways) versus Michigan State

Rebound. In basketball it’s what you get when a missed shot occurs. In life it’s what you do when something goes wrong. Northwestern’s men’s basketball team and Wildcat Nation as a whole need to do both Saturday afternoon. The last two losses the team has suffered have been by a total of three points and in both cases the ‘Cats failed to pull in the critical rebound which would have perhaps allowed them to win that game. As a result, the team and its fans find themselves extremely frustrated, but plenty of basketball is left to play.

Interestingly enough the Wildcats opponent, Michigan State, excels at rebounding in both on both the basketball court and in the mental aspect of life. The Spartans are monsters on the glass pulling in more than 10 more rebounds a game than their opponents. Mentally, the Spartans rebounded to win 15 games in a row after losing their first two contests of the season. As a result of the winning streak the Spartans record stands at 15-2 and their national ranking stands at #6. If Northwestern were to win this game it would be a significant victory in the quest to see NU rebound from defeat and they won’t be able to do so without rebounding in the game.
MSU’s top player Draymond Green gets 9.8 rebounds per game and seems to always find the ball in the key situations. He’s also a multi-talented scorer who can beat you both around the hoop and from outside. In addition, the Spartans also feature the super-athletic Adreian Payne and the greatly improved Derrick Nix down in the post. That’s not to mention MSU’s athletic guards such as freshman Branden Dawson and transfer Brandon Wood. Both players have shown the ability to step up in key situations. Along with those two players in the back court is MSU’s point guard Keith Appling. The 6-1 Appling is a good shooter and scorer, though, he is still learning to play point guard.

For Northwestern to beat this team will be a tough task. It’ll be even tougher if NU continues to play 4-on-5 while on offense which is what happens when NU’s center refuse to even consider shooting the ball. With MSU’s size the ‘Cats will most likely have to use Luka Mirkovic a lot in this game. If he still handles the ball like it’s a ticking time bomb that he desperately wants out of his hands it’ll be a long afternoon. Somehow, someway Luka needs to hit a couple shots. If that happens the entire NU offense will come alive. When that happens I think the ‘Cats actually become a team which could beat MSU, but I don’t see that happening at this point. I predict: Michigan State, 74 Northwestern, 66

Also of note, NU is once again with JerShon Cobb who has reinjured his hip. With Cobb out NU’s rotation is severely limited. Not a good thing vs a deep and athletic team like Michigan State. I’d also guess based on the end of Wednesday’s game that Alex Marcotullio isn’t 100% either so NU really is suffering health wise.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Well, that’s all folks.

Northwestern isn’t going to the NCAA Tournament, Bill Carmody very likely will not be retained as head coach because of his failure to qualify for that event (he should be fired just for sending the erratic Drew Crawford to the line to shoot tonight’s key technical instead of John Shurna, though, I kind of liked the small lineup). Honestly, Carmody makes odd choices at times, but he's been an okay coach. It's just probably time for someone else to get a shot. What upsets me the most is the next 14 games are going to be an agonizing death march. Good thing we’re wearing the funeral ready black uniforms on Saturday.

Northwestern hasn't played badly the last two games, but they haven't played well enough. Excuses exist such as the new rims vs Illinois and an obvious missed foul call on Drew Crawford's final drive in regulation, but excuses aren’t what good teams live by.

I don’t actually think God gives a crap about who wins athletic events and nobody is going to convince me he does no matter how many games Tim Tebow wins. Real suffering exists in the world and if God exists he better be focusing on trying to fix that and not making the Broncos get to the Super Bowl. That said, Northwestern must have really pissed some deity off.

The end.

Though sadly I have nothing better to do with me life so I'll still be writing here. Just don't expect happy things.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Northwestern Looks to Pickup Key Victory in Ann Arbor

Northwestern plays both of the Big Ten’s Michigan schools this week. The Wildcats travel to the University of Michigan on Wednesday night and host Michigan State on Saturday. With both teams ranked it is clear NU will be facing two tough tests, but essentially winning either game would be enough to place NU back into realistic discussion for the NCAA Tournament. Generally speaking road games are tougher, but it is possible that Northwestern matches up better with Michigan’s perimeter oriented style of play than Michigan State’s inside bruisers.

When one starts to talk about Michigan they have to begin with Tim Hardaway Jr. the talented sophomore forward. Hardaway scores 15.9ppg and has shown the ability to be explosive. In many ways he is similar to NU’s Drew Crawford. However, Hardaway is weaker three point shooter who makes less than 30% of his three point shots. Where Hardaway seems to have be able to outshine Crawford is he is a little bigger which helps him finish and he seems less impacted when things don’t go right. I’ve seen Hardaway hit big shots on nights when he’s struggled from the floor, but Crawford seems to need things to right early in order to have a big game.

Michigan’s next top scorer is freshman guard Trey Burke. Burke scores 13.8ppg and makes 36.2% of his threes. He’s also a very talented ball handler with about a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. In addition, like Hardaway, he’s got an explosiveness to him when he takes the ball to the hoop. I’ve been really impressed with Burke to this point as I thought Michigan would struggle in the backcourt without Darius Morris. I’m hopeful NU’s unique 1-3-1 zone and extended pressure will cause trouble for the freshman, but his quickness may counter some of NU’s tricks.

Once you get past Hardaway and Burke, Michigan actually looks a lot like Northwestern, but the difference is while NU is an okay shooting team, Michigan is a great shooting team. Evan Smotrycz, Zack Novack, and Stu Douglass are all excellent shooters who could cause NU trouble. The good new is that none of three are going to get open on their own. As a result, if NU plays pressure defense they can probably force Burke and Hardaway to beat them. That might happen, but I’d rather give up twos than threes. Especially early on the road.

For Northwestern to win they need to play that great defense, rebound, but most importantly make shots. NU’s shooting was what cost them the Illinois game. I still think the new rims at Welsh-Ryan impacted that result, but I don’t want to worry too much about events which I don’t have control over. Still, it was a tough loss that really didn’t need to happen. If NU ends up one game short of the tournament, I’m not going to let that result go. For now, though, I’ll focus on the Michigan game. The problem is I don’t think NU can win it. I predict: Michigan, 77 Northwestern, 65

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Wildcat Centers Need to Take and Make Shots

Okay, I’m not ready to write off this season yet, but I think a change needs to be made if Northwestern wants to seriously compete for that elusive NCAA berth (which after the loss to Illinois looks once again like it’s slipping away). In that contest against Illinois the Illini defense forced the Wildcats to shoot outside jump shots which weren’t falling because they kept 7-1 Myers Leonard in the paint instead of brining him out on the perimeter to guard NU centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti when they had the ball 15 feet or farther from the basket. The reason Illinois was able to do this was because after one miss from each player it seemed they both decided (or were told) not to shoot anymore. The fact is that the best Princeton Offense teams had centers who could hit jump shots because it opened up more of the offense. Right now Northwestern doesn’t have that and as a result the backdoor cuts and drives to the hoop aren’t there.

In the past Luka and Davide have hit such shots. Davide has even made a few this season, however, Luka has really struggled shooting. Overall, though, neither has shot well recently. Given that, I can somewhat understand the reluctance to have them shoot, but I think they’re almost hurting the team more by not shooting than they would be missing. The shots Illinois was allowing Luka to take and that he was passing were wide open 15-foot shots. Instead, he’d give up the ball and NU would settle for a poor three point shot that would rim out of the new exceedingly unkind Welsh-Ryan rims. If Luka had taken and even made 33% of the shots Illinois allowed him NU probably would have won the game. Instead, he passed and the result was an Illini triumph.

If Luka and Davide aren’t going to take such shots my proposal is that NU switch to the small lineup they used briefly vs Illinois. Playing John Shurna at center might create issues on defense at times, but probably not against every Big Ten team as there are some undersized teams in the league. Plus, I’m not saying Shurna play 40 minutes at center. I’m saying get him 8-10 minutes there to help open up driving lanes and backdoor cuts. Plus, moving him to center might get him some more easy shots because it’ll create mismatches with larger defenders. Bottom line, NU needs a center that can shoot and the 6-9 Shurna is an undersized, but reasonable option for a team that needs a spark.

Let me shift gears slightly here. I was pretty upset at the loss to Illinois. I’m pretty upset after every loss now that we have expectations for Northwestern hoops. I think you could all probably tell that from reading my unedited frustration on Wednesday night. However, I can’t give up on this team (even if I may want to at times). They’re my team. I’m a Northwestern fan. I have been since I was 10 years old. I don’t cheer for an NFL team or an NBA team or really care that much about the White Sox or Cubs. It’s my dream to see Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament and to paraphrase a line from this song by musician Will Hoge, I’m going to keep on believing in that dream no matter how many times it breaks my heart.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Cold Shooting Second Half Dooms Wildcats

First of all let’s start and the end. Drew Crawford was simply far too soft when taking the last shot. Tossing up a fadeaway lob isn’t going to work when a 7-1 shot blocker is in the middle of the court.

The game really was lost though when NU went through a 3-for-20 shooting stretch in the second half. Illinois played somewhat better defense than they did in the first half, but really I thought Northwestern just missed a lot of shots they were capable of making. At times a few of the shots might have been somewhat forced from Crawford or Shurna, but they were trying to make plays at a time when NU needed baskets. In hindsight maybe they shouldn’t have forced as many shots, but you can’t know it’s going end up a one point game when you’re trailing by five or seven in the middle of the contest.

On the positive side Northwestern played really good defense all night. They had a few lapses on ball pressure, but overall I was impressed. I actually might say it was one of the best defensive games I’ve seen from a Bill Carmody team at Northwestern. It’s a shame it all went for nothing tonight, but let’s not forget that NU can’t shoot as badly as they did this evening all year. If the defense stays intense the ‘Cats will pull a couple upsets this season.

Another negative was the end of the first half. Not so much the fact that Illinois closed on a 5-0 run, though, that seemed to get them some momentum. But the real issue I have is that NU on its last possession just looked lost yet Bill Carmody didn’t call his timeout that doesn’t carry over. NU had all five TOs left, they were going to lose one going to half two anyway, they were lost on offense, but Carmody simply let John Shurna turn the ball over. Again, Carmody couldn’t have known it would be a one point game, but why not use the timeout? You lose it anyway.

That doesn’t seem like much, but I’m not sure what else to say. Oh year, free throw shooting was awful and that’s another area where one point might have been made up, but alas was not. A solid first half, a terrible second half, some poor decisions at really bad times in both and the result is a tough loss. Obviously, you have these games at times and you can overcome them if you hand someone else a tough loss along the way. The problem is that Northwestern hasn’t really shown the ability to hand those tough losses out over their history, but they sure can sustain them.

I guess one thought which should also be mentioned, though, I hate the idea it can be used as an excuse is that new rims went into Welsh-Ryan yesterday that many reported were unkind to shooters. I do think we saw a lot of shots go in and rim out today and it looked like Bill Carmody had something say on that matter a few times and even after the game when talking with AD Jim Phillips (okay, I don't what Carmody was saying, but he seemed upset). This can't be an excuse, but doesn't it seem odd to anyone else to make such a change in the middle of the year? I'd love to hear thoughts on this.

I’m hoping we’ll see NU come back in a big way a week from tonight at Michigan. If not NU still has 14 games in the Big Ten after that so all isn’t totally lost. Still, you can’t help but feel like it is after tonight and I can’t help but think the frustration level for NU fans after a loss to Michigan will be sky high. That’s understandable because at a certain point the years upon years of tough losses result take a toll. I thought it was a good NU crowd tonight even with the Illini fans inside Welsh-Ryan. I expect a very green Welsh-Ryan when Michigan State arrives on Jan. 14 and I can’t blame people. At some point we all just need to say enough is enough. Personally, I’m getting very close to saying that myself.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Game vs Illinois Might Answer Some Questions For NU

I have no idea what to make of this Northwestern team and based on the various comments I’ve read from fans and the media neither does anyone else. Right now Northwestern is 11-3 through 14 games. They’ve played 10 teams they were almost certainly better than and won those 10 games. They’ve played two teams (Ohio State and Baylor) who they were almost certainly worse than and lost those games. And they’ve played two teams (Creighton and Seton Hall) who they were probably about even with and split those two games. Being able to consistently beat teams they are better than is a good step in the right direction for NU and losing to teams that are better is no shame, but the key to making the NCAA Tournament is going to be posting a better than .500 record against teams who NU matches up with evenly. The best way to that better than .500 mark is to win the contests at Welsh-Ryan and steal a couple on the road. In the end that would probably give NU 9 or 10 Big Ten wins and the result would be the NCAA Tournament.

The above paragraph becomes important because Illinois is one of those teams that NU is pretty even with. Sure, Illinois might have more flat out talent, but when the teams hit the court (especially in Evanston) the combination of a home court advantage and a more fine-tuned offensive system should even it out for NU. That means as Glenn said in the comment to the picture below, this really is a must-win game for NU!

The 12-3 Illini enter this contest coming off a road loss to Purdue and holding just a 3-3 record away from home. In other words, the Illini have been strong at Assembly Hall, but average away. NU holds that strong 46-3 record versus unranked opponents at home since 2008.
This is a pressure game for Illinois as well with them losing to Purdue and barely beating Minnesota at home. Their once promising could slip away if they drop this contest to the ‘Cats. It’s also a big game for Bruce Weber who despite his 205-89 career record is taking a lot of heat from Illinois fans for the team’s lack of postseason success and inability to compete for the league title in recent years. If Illinois is going to compete for anything this year they need to focus on getting 7-1 center Myers Leonard the ball. Leonard puts up 13.4ppg and 8.3rpg, but he shoots 61% from the floor. If he got the ball more he could average 20ppg with ease. The problem is it seems at times Illinois isn’t sure what type of team they are. Are they inside team with Leonard scoring in the post and Brandon Paul (12.3ppg) driving the lane or are they a jump shooting team with D.J. Richardson (40.6% 3PT) and Paul taking outside jump shots? What they should probably be is an inside-outside team that gets Leonard going early and then kicks to ball outside for open looks because aside from Richardson nobody on the Illini has much success shooting from the arc. The numbers look like this for the rest of Illinois’s projected starters:
Sam Maniscalco…30.4%
Tyler Griffey…28.6%

To me that means NU should start in the 1-3-1 until Illinois proves they’re going to have an above average shooting game. The ‘Cats need to pressure the ball in that 1-3-1 and clog driving lanes, but a solid 1-3-1 that forces outside shots from people not named D.J. Richardson could be a recipe for success.

On offense I think we can probably assume Luka Mirkovic isn’t going to have a ton of success scoring on the block versus Leonard. That’s fine. Move Luka to the high post and let him distribute the ball to Shurna and Crawford who can attack the basket matched up on Griffey and Richardson respectively. If that works Illinois will have to sag into the lane and then the Wildcats can look again to Dave Sobolewski and Alex Marcotullio to boost the scoring from behind the arc.

Finally, I’ll say that the last key to this game for NU is intensity. That’s why Alex Marcotullio has to be a big factor. Without referees Big Ten basketball would basically be a street fight (it almost is anyway) and Alex is the only NU player who when you look at him has a facial expression that looks as if he just stepped off the set of Rocky V. If Alex can get the rest of the ‘Cats to have the same intensity on defense and the glass that he has I expect to see a Northwestern win. I predict: Northwestern, 70 Illinois, 65

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Wildcats Pickup First Win Over Penn State in Five Years

A solid second half which saw Northwestern shoot 71.4% and outscore Penn State by 15 was enough for NU to beat Penn State 68-56 for their first Big Ten win of the season. The win was the Wildcats first over Penn State in their last seven tries and moved the Wildcats record in their last 46-3 in their last 49 games against unranked opponents. The game didn’t start great as Penn State led 26-23 at the half and NU got outrebounded by 11 in the first half and looked sluggish. Thankfully, the ‘Cats rebounded in the second half thanks to some hot shooting and a stronger defensive effort keyed by Alex Marcotullio’s effort off the bench.

Aside from Marcotullio who I will talk about more a little later, I think Drew Crawford stood out above the rest of the Wildcats tonight. Drew played very strong defense on Tim Frazier helping hold the Penn State star to 16 points and forcing 4 turnovers. In addition, Crawford led the Wildcats in scoring 21 points and being assertive towards the hoop, but within the offense. The result was him taking just two threes, but making both and converting going towards the hoop on several occasions early in the second half. When Drew plays within the offense and plays with confidence he can be a special player.

I was also once again impressed with Dave Sobolewski. He played hard and early on seemed to be the only Wildcat who was focused on the game. For the day Sobolewski scored a career high 20 points and I was pleased he did so in a variety of ways. Yes, he was notable as a three point shooter, but he also found several routes towards the hoop to drive and score. Adding that skill to his game will make Sobo a better threat throughout the Big Ten season.

John Shurna was the third Wildcat in double figures with 17 points. It was a solid game. However, it was clear Penn State was very focused on stopping him. As a result, I’m starting to think Coach Carmody needs to go into his files and find some of his set plays which are geared towards getting one guy a shot. The Princeton Offense is great, but it is truly an offense which is set to get an open shot for whoever is open. At times you need to get your best player a shot and those special plays can make that happen when the defense is overly focused on him.

As promised earlier I want to talk about Alex Marcotullio. I thought it was notable that Northwestern played harder when Marcotullio was on the floor. His hustle on defense and his effort to fight for rebounding despite his small size seemed to motivate Luka Mirkovic and some of the bigger Wildcats to fight on the boards as well. I’m leaning towards starting Marcotullio if I’m Bill Carmody, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The major areas of concern for Northwestern continue to be free throw shooting and rebounding. Luka Mirkovic did grab 11 rebounds for NU, but Penn State still outrebounded the Wildcats by nine. Free throw shooting was simply bad with the center position going 2-for-9. I know Luka and Davide can play better and I hope we see that at the free throw line and all over on offense on Wednesday.