Thursday, March 22, 2012

Quick Thoughts on Bill Carmody’s Return

Frustrating as Bill Carmody’s team are to watch at times I have no problem with him coming back to coach Northwestern next year. The odds are that NU wasn’t going to hire a game changing type of coach, especially if the University of Illinois couldn’t land one. Therefore, it’s better off with Carmody who knows the massive restrictions which NU has and is willing to work under them and make NU competitive. The key now is if Carmody can find a way to improve his own weaknesses.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Just Down Right Bad

Northwestern was just flat out bad in this game. They couldn’t hit enough shots to stay in the game and they turned the ball over so much they missed chances to get more shots. I’m sure a lot of people will blame Bill Carmody for this loss because that’s just what is done at Northwestern, but it’s not his fault that his players just seemed completely overwhelmed tonight. I’m sure he prepared them for the fact that Washington was going to play pressure defense. They just clearly didn’t get the message.

I think the key to Northwestern’s failure to win in the Big Ten Tournament and in this game was the fact that point guard Dave Sobolewksi was overmatched against very athletic teams. It’s also possible he just burnt out at the end of season after playing nearly every minute of every game, but the fact of the matter is his production when the season was on the line was less than impressive. It’ll be interesting to see if Tre Demps helps put NU on more even footing athletically at the point guard spot when NU faces very athletic competition.

The loss isn’t all on Sobolewksi, though, the fact is believe it or not Northwestern had chances to make a run in the second half, but just missed far too many open looks. Yes, Sobo had some of those, but he wasn’t the only one. Reggie Hearn was so cold I thought on saw icicles on his nose.

To be honest, other than John Shurna I’m not sure Northwestern had a player who looked to have any idea how to put the ball in the basket tonight. Making matters worse, Northwestern actually got some steals and made probably more stops against Washington than I thought they would, but it didn’t matter because they couldn’t even finish on fast breaks. Washington sure could, though.

Washington was far more athletic overall and really just made Northwestern look bad. I still think Northwestern could have hung around if they’d made more shots, but Washington was the better team. They handled Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone really well and NU couldn’t play man-to-man because Washington would have scored at will.

This is disappointing because it ends a season which while tough at moments, was mostly filled with good competitive basketball with a game which was anything but competitive.

As I said above, this game was lost due to turnovers and missed shots. That’s not the fault of the coach, but this might still be Bill Carmody’s last game at Northwestern. This major laying of an egg type performance is the type of game that gets a coach fired. Whatever the case, Jim Phillips needs to make some decision on Carmody’s future because his contract runs out after next season and he can’t coach 2012-13 as a lame duck. That’s not a productive way to run a program. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I suspect we will hear something on that issue very soon.

I really am sorry the season ended this way for John Shurna, but let's remember his great record setting career and hope that he makes an NBA roster as that would help build the NU basketball brand for young people out there as much as anything besides making the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wildcats in Washington for NIT Round Two Matchup

Turn on your favorite episode of Frasier, get your umbrella, order some Starbucks, and grab your favorite grunge mix tape, because the Wildcats are going to Seattle.

The NIT seeding document (which is clearly just for show) says that geography is included in placing teams in regions. Therefore, based on the last two years we can only conclude that the geniuses at NIT HQ believe that Washington is right next to Illinois. Clearly, the need to take a geography class. Either that or they’ve discovered wormhole travel and haven’t let anyone else in on the secret. Whatever the case, like last year’s quarterfinal game, Northwestern must travel west to play a team in Washington. On the positive side, UW is located in the easy access city of Seattle while the trip to Washington State forced the ‘Cats to travel to difficult to reach Pullman. With that in mind, I’m hoping NU gets off to a better start in this contest and I’m hoping that we’ll see a good NU turnout as even in Pullman the west coast Wildcat alums represented NU well.

Washington won the Pac-12 regular season title, but was upset by Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament. Thanks to that loss and overall weakness of the Pac-12, the Huskies are in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament making them the first major conference team to win their league regular season title and not play in the NCAAs. Washington is a young team with only one senior who sees significant time. That senior is Darnell Grant one of two big front court players for UW. Grant has posted 10+ rebounds three games in a row and when teamed with 7-0 center Aziz N’Diaye the two certainly seem a formidable presence inside the paint. Of course, Northwestern isn’t know for getting rebounds, but they’ll have to do a better job on the glass against Washington than they did vs Akron or Minnesota if they want to get out of Seattle with a win.

In the back court Washington has one of the nation’s best freshman guards in Tony Wroten. He’s the team’s leading scorer and posts almost five rebounds and four assists a game. He’s 6-5 and should be an interesting matchup if NU goes man-to-man. I wouldn’t be shocked to see JerShon Cobb or Drew Crawford draw that defensive assignment. Another tough guard for Washington is Terrence Ross who scores more than 15 points per game. He’s 6-6 so he’s another guy that one of NU’s bigger guards (maybe Reggie Hearn) needs to defend. The only small Washignton guard is 6-3 Abdul Gaddy and 6-3 isn’t that small. He’s the point guard who will try to distribute the ball around for the Huskies.

I’m sometimes off on predicting how NU will defend a team, but considering that C.J. Wilcox off the bench and Ross are the only Washington players who make more than 35% of their threes and that Washington is barely better than 1-to-1 in assist-to-turnover ration I’m betting we see a lot of 1-3-1 from Northwestern.

On offense, the Oregon State version of the Princeton Offense was good enough to upset Washington recently, so we have to hope NU’s version (which is reportedly a little more creative) can do the same. It’ll probably come down to three point shooting and minimizing Washington’s rebound advantage for NU. The other intangible is the road environment. Washington had just under 3,000 people for their first round game and I can’t think this game will bring that many more to Alaska Airlines Arena. I do know that NU will have a nice crowd so that ought to help somewhat. Also while it probably means nothing Northwestern is 7-0 this season on ESPNU and is 5-0 on ESPNU away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. Also, the ‘Cats will likely wear their black jerseys which they’re 4-1 in this season. I know none of that really impacts the outcomes, but I’m liking the omens I see. I also like the fact that I think Washington will turn the ball over. If NU gets production from players other than Shuna, Crawford, and Cobb they can win this game. Of course, they haven’t gotten that production in the last two contests. Still, I feel this game is a lot like the game at Illinois which NU pulled out thanks to Reggie Hearn’s huge afternoon. I predict: Northwestern, 69 Washington, 67

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Wildcats Finally Survive a Close one at Home: Advance to Round Two of the NIT

Amazingly Northwestern had actually pulled off more close wins on the road than at home this season (see: Penn State, Iowa, and Illinois) tonight though the Wildcats managed to pull off a 76-74 victory over Akron and now move on to play in the second round of the NIT for the second straight year. This win also gives the Wildcats 19 total wins on the season which leaves them one win away from a school record three straight 20 win seasons. At this point it’s unclear when NU will be playing again, but I’ll post that as soon as I learn.

As far as tonight’s game goes, this was really all about the Wildcats two stars John Shurna and Drew Crawford winning the game for the their team with some solid support from JerShon Cobb who provided 19 points, but the rest of the ‘Cats pretty much just seemed to stand around and watch those guys play offense. I will give point guard Dave Sobolewski credit for a game with 5 assists and only 1 turnover in 32 minutes, but after a terrible shooting day against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament it now looks like Sobo is reluctant to shoot the ball. No matter who NU plays in the next round of the NIT, I think Sobo will need to step up as will Reggie Hearn, Alex Marcotullio, and Davide Curletti. The ‘Cats won’t be able to pull off another game with just Shurna, Crawford, and Cobb scoring.

For what it’s worth, though, I thought it was a great game by Drew Crawford who pulled his typical Houdini magic and reappeared after disappearing in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota. It would be amazing if Crawford were consistent at all or even if his bad games just weren’t so bad. An average game from Drew would be fine, but being so erratic won’t help if he’s expected to be the star next season. Still, today he was very good with 27 points and 7 rebounds and was really the guy who got the ‘Cats going in this game.

Equally good was John Shurna who posted a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds, also added seven assists and hit the 2,000 point mark for his career. His work was even more impressive in considering that he was facing 7-0 Zeke Marshall who at one point was a top-50 recruit. I’ll be honest while Marshall had a nice game with 17 and 7, I thought he’d be much more of a factor which is why I thought the ‘Cats were in trouble in this contest. I’m glad I was off on that prediction. NU will also face size from whatever team they play next so it’s a good sign they didn’t let Marshall totally have his way and Shurna deserves credit for that. If this was John’s last home game (and I hope it’s not) it was a great way for the Wildcats all-time leading scorer and shot blocker to go out. But I hope NU’s fans get to see him in Welsh-Ryan again.

As noted above the only Wildcat who really provided a supporting role today was JerShon Cobb. I’m convinced that if Cobb had been healthy this NU team was NCAA Tournament material. But that’s just more bad NU luck. On the positive side, Cobb made some shots today that I can’t remember another NU player making. The most impressive was a step-back jump shot when the ‘Cats had fallen behind which gave NU back the lead. Also, fantastic was a drive were he reversed in a layup. Cobb’s got big time potential and him being hurt really did limit NU for the season’s first 2/3s.

I’ll look forward to seeing what happens in the second round of the NIT to NU. Last year’s second round game vs Boston College was one of the best games the ‘Cats played all year. Hopefully we’ll see a similar result this season.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Difficult NIT Draw Puts Wildcats and Coach Carmody in Tough Spot

Somehow Northwestern went from being an NCAA bubble team to being a #4-seed in the NIT. That means in the eyes of the NIT Northwestern hasn’t improved at all from last season where they were in as #4-seed. Even worse perhaps is the fact that Akron is probably a tougher draw than last year’s opponent Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I’m disappointed by what happened today on a lot of levels. I think in all honesty that Northwestern not making the NCAA Tournament was the right thing. However, I think NU got screwed big time by the NIT committee. All the other so-called NCAA bubble teams were #1 or #2 seeds in the NIT. Northwestern was a #4. Also of note is the fact that NU at a #4 seed was the highest seed out of the Big Ten. Essentially, it seems despite the Big Ten’s great reputation all season that the NIT didn’t think much of the Big Ten. Even the NCAA Tournament didn’t seem as high on the Big Ten as some might have though with only six teams in the tournament and Purdue in as only a #10-seed.

I could complain more about where NU is, but I feel like anybody with a brain knows that having three teams from a very (maybe below) average Pac-12 ahead of three teams from the best conference in the country doesn’t make sense. The NIT claims they aren’t in it for money any more, but it sure looks like the higher seeds are those places where they’ll be more likely to sell tickets. Basically, the same thing happened to Northwestern last year and in the 2008-09 season when a team that was a borderline NCAA team was sent to play on the road at Tulsa in the NIT. I know a lot of Northwestern fans don’t like Bill Carmody and I’m starting think some of them might be on the NIT selection committee.

Since I brought up the topic let’s address the Carmody situation. The Chicago Tribune did a point-counterpoint as keep-fire recently which I thought was very fair. Personally, I’ve been more impressed by Carmody and how he held this year’s team together despite its major low points than I was in the past. However, I think this game is the one which could really determine his fate. NU’s players are going to be disappointed. If Carmody can rally them and have them come out and play well Northwestern should be able to squeak by a solid Akron team. Is winning one game enough for him to keep his job? Well, considering how totally hosed he was by the NIT committee I’m going to say yes. It’s not Carmody’s fault the garbage Pac-12 is apparently better than the Big Ten in the eyes of the people seeding the NIT. However, if Carmody drops this game to Akron he might as well pack his bags.

So what will happen in this game? I don’t exactly know, but I’m really worried from NU’s point of view. I just don’t see NU’s players having any enthusiasm for this game. I sure don’t. I’ll watch, but today has just crushed me. I was disappointed NU didn’t make the Big Dance, but I kind of assumed that was going to happen and I figured the silver lining was two or three NIT home games where John Shurna could shine and help lead the ‘Cats to New York. Instead, NU has one home game against a very good team with a talented 7-0 center in Zeke Marshall and six guys who make more than 34% of their three pointers. So basically NU doesn’t have a player who can defend Marshall in the post and the 1-3-1 is almost unplayable because Akron will hit open threes all day. The only hope NU has is that Akron won’t be able to defend the Princeton Offense given limited prep time. I’m worried though because I thought NU would be able to at least play free and loose as a high seed, but now they’re stuck in a dog fight which could go down to the wire and that hasn’t been good of late in Evanston.

Like I said above, I feel terrible because I feel like the NIT selection committee just screwed Northwestern and Bill Carmody personally because I don’t think Northwestern wins this game and I don’t see how Carmody keeps his job after that. I predict: Akron, 70 Northwestern, 65.

NU is #4 Seed in the NIT

This doesn't make a lot of sense, but NU is a #4-seed in the NIT. I don't know what to say about this, but I'll do my best.

Oh, Well. NIT Show is on at 8CT on ESPNU

I don't want to say much now so I'll wait and be positive about where we are in the NIT after we learn that in just over two hours. Northwestern was soooo close, but really probably didn't deserve the NCAA-bid. I am suprised that Iona and South Florida got in instead of Northwestern, but I'd bet Miami fans think they were the last team out and they were the ones who got robbed. I guess we'll see who has the #1 overall NIT seed and find out just who that group thought should have been in the NCAAs.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Same Old Story

This game played out like seemingly countless games during the regular season. It’s a sad story, but it’s the true story of this team. They’re close, but it doesn’t seem like they’re close enough. Maybe being in seventh place in the Big Ten will count for something when Selection Sunday rolls around, but the official rule is the committee can’t consider conference affiliation. Still, I tend to think the seventh place Big Ten is a lot better than some second place team in a lot of mid-majors.

Honestly, Northwestern probably isn’t an NCAA Tournament and I’ve said that before, but they’re about as a good as a team can be without being an NCAA Tournament team and that hurts a lot. I mean they’re basically two plays away. If the proper call is made when Drew Crawford was fouled at Michigan or if Dave Sobolewski hits his runner at the end of this game then the Wildcats are in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, those events didn’t go NU’s way and now things look pretty bleak.

A lot of people will want to blame Bill Carmody for this loss because that’s just what Northwestern fans do, but the fact is the two guys who deserve blame today are John Shurna and Dave Sobolewski. Shurna missed two front ends of 1-and-1 foul shots when the ‘Cats could have extended three point leads to five point leads and Sobolewski looked scared all day leaving shots short against the Gopher pressure all night. I’d also add that since he missed some early shots that Drew Crawford did nothing, but was anyone really surprised by that once his first shot didn’t go down?

Basically, Shurna, Crawford, and Sobolewski choked away this game. Some will say that’s too mean, but it’s a fact. When you front rim as many shots at they did that’s the sign of a choke. That right there tells you they don’t deserve to be an NCAA team. Also, I can’t say Bill Carmody is really blameless because the only player on the NU roster who has proven to actually have some guts is Alex Marcotullio and Carmody sat him for the game’s key moments.

JerShon Cobb did step up and basically he’s now NU’s only NCAA hope. Somehow, NU needs to hope that the committee decides that Cobb would have made a difference in enough losses that NU is better than their record, but the truth is NU is what their record says. After all, Cobb played great today and NU still couldn’t win.

I don’t know what to think right now in terms of looking at a possible NIT berth. I mean odds are NU will be one of the top-4 NIT seeds. That’s huge because the odds are that the first game will be one which NU isn’t actually jacked up for because of the disappointment of not making the NCAAs. At least if in round 1 NU can get an easy win maybe by round two they’ll realize that basketball is basketball and at least they’re playing for something. The Big Ten should get at least three teams in the NIT and so I expect that NIT to be pretty competitive, but if NU focuses they’ll have a great shot because they’ll have home court advantage all the way to NYC.

As for the NCAA Tournament, I’d say NU still has a 10% chance of making it, but I hope that’s not enough for people to actually want to have cameras in Evanston on Sunday. All that’s going to do is make the team more depressed and that’s not what we want right now. We need to get focused on the NIT and a chance to actually win a championship. It’s not the title people want to play for, but for Northwestern it would mean something.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Big Ten Tournament or Two Wins From The Big Dance

Here we are on March 7th and Northwestern is on the precipice of the NCAA Tournament. I’ll admit I had my doubts about this team and coaching staff, but they’ve overcome so much that you can’t help but admire what they’ve accomplished. This has been one of the most impressive displays of perseverance I’ve seen and I’ve heard that perseverance is the main ingredient to make fantasy into reality. I think most assumed that if Northwestern were ever to make the NCAA Tournament it would be with some type of magical nearly perfect season where everything went right. Instead, it seems nearly everything has gone wrong at times this year and the ‘Cats are still on the verge of the Big Dance. I break down the odds this way:

Loss to Minnesota…10% chance of making the Dance
Win vs Minnesota…60% chance of the making the Dance
Win vs Minnesota and Michigan…We’re In!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now how likely is that third outcome? Well, it’s probably something of a 50/50 proposition. I think Northwestern will beat Michigan if they get a third chance at the Maize and Blue. My biggest fear is a let down in the Minnesota game. It just seems like one of those games where the Gophers could out-athlete NU and steal a victory. The good news is that the Gophers might not have 6-11 center Ralph Sampson III due to a knee injury and if he can’t go that takes at least one big guy off the court. The other major advantage NU has is that fact that Minnesota isn’t a great three point shooting team. Julian Welch is pretty good, but to me he looks like he’s got kind of a low/slow release if NU can get out on him maybe they force him to alter his shot or put the ball on the floor and try to shoot off the dribble. Other than Welch, the Gopher shooters aren’t scary. What is scary is their athletic skill. Everyone talks about Rodney Williams because he gets highlight film dunks, but Austin and Andre Hollins are good athletes as well. They’ll be very tough guards for NU in man-to-man which is why I’m hoping to see the ‘Cats not worry too much about just springing the 1-3-1 on the Gophers. Without great shooters and great ball handlers the Gophers are just the type of team that zone was created to beat (as long as Rodney Williams doesn’t come flying in from nowhere and grab every rebound).

On offense for NU look for the Wildcats to attack the Gophers with hopefully the same balance they’ve shown recently. John Shurna is the leader, but I’d love to see another big game from Drew Crawford and continued solid efforts by JerShon Cobb, Alex Marcotullio, and Reggie Hearn. Also, if Davide Curletti rebounds like he did vs Iowa then he’ll be great help vs the athletic Gophers.

For years I’ve joked that Northwestern basketball has been paying off karma at a vastly accelerated and/or inflated rate, but I’d like to think it’s finally been paid off. The ‘Cats enter the Big Ten Tournament as ready to go as they’ve been all season missing only Luka Mirkovic from the regular rotation. That’s big and those returning players might be just what NU needs to push them over the top. I predict: Northwestern, 65 Minnesota, 60

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Biggest Win in Program History (Until Thursday)

Northwestern started slow, exploded in the middle, and hung on late, but the end result was positive enough that the ‘Cats escaped with a 70-66 victory in Iowa City which puts NU at 8-10 in the Big Ten for the year and places the ‘Cats as the #7-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Today’s win combined with a win on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota will give NU a strong case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. A win on Thursday and Friday in the Big Ten Tournament will likely put NU into the 68-team field for certain.

Today’s win wasn’t easy. The ‘Cats were down 15 early and things looked kind of bleak. A switch to the 1-3-1 zone which continues to confound Iowa brought the ‘Cats back into the game and eventually allowed them to take a seven point halftime lead. That lead shrunk in the second half thanks to some good Iowa defense, but some clutch free throws by Dave Sobolewski and Alex Marcotullio allowed NU to get away with the win.

John Shurna was held in check by the Hawkeyes, but I was really impressed with the way the rest of NU’s team stepped up. Drew Crawford was the headliner as he scored 18 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. He also made 6-of-7 free throws after going 1-of-5 from the free throw line on Wednesday night. Crawford really does seem to determine his success based on his first shot and after his first free throw feel in today he had a great day at the line. He also had a career high 5 steals and was one of several Wildcats who was very active in the 1-3-1 zone.

Another Wildcat who was active in that zone was JerShon Cobb who scored 13 points and made several clutch shots. He might not be 100% yet, but his ability to be on the court and in the rotation has been huge as it allows NU to balance playing time a little more and be at least somewhat fresher in the game’s final moments than they were earlier this year.

Cobb combined with effective play from Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio make Northwestern a team which has options and support for Drew and John. That support was there today. It really wasn’t vs Ohio State. If the NU stars get support from the supporting cast, then NU has a great chance to win games. Even David Curletti stepped up today with 7 points his four offensive rebounds helped NU get 11 second chance points which is a stat the ‘Cats rarely are strong in.

So now it’s on to the Big Ten Tournament and Minnesota. It should be a good matchup for NU in the sense that they should be able to employ the 1-3-1 zone thanks to Minnesota’s lack of depth shooting. The Gophers have athletes on the glass, but if NU turns them over and shots decently from three it seems like NU’s got a chance to get another biggest win in program history.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Most Important Game in School History (Really, We Mean It This Time)

Northwestern has played a series of “most important” games over the past two weeks. In those two weeks we as fans have felt some major highs and some major lows, but to borrow from NU’s football program the only question that matters is what’s important now? And the answer is the game against Iowa on Saturday afternoon. If the Wildcats win that game and one Big Ten Tournament game I believe they’ve got a great shot at the NCAA Tournament as the bubble isn’t that strong. So, I guess NU is basically playing in the Big Ten Tournament already in the sense that a win makes a major difference in the team’s future compared to a loss.

The Hawkeyes have been playing very well of late and they’ve been a strong home team all during the Big Ten season. However, they’ve got some tough losses on their resume and Northwestern made them look terrible against the 1-3-1 zone when the two teams met in Evanston. You would think Iowa would have practiced against the 1-3-1 since then, but they looked bad enough I’m not sure there could be enough practice that could see the Hawkeyes solving the defense.

If Iowa were to solve the riddle of NU’s 1-3-1 zone, I think the guy who will be most responsible is Matt Gatens. A senior playing in his last home game (well, maybe not if Iowa hosts an NIT game) Gatens has shown the ability to knock down shots in bunches. Before an average game vs Nebraska, he was on a total tear as the Hawkeyes beat Indiana and Wisconsin.

Iowa’s other star to contain is Roy Devyn Marble. Marble’s size makes him a tough matchup and he’s taken on the role as one of Iowa’s primary ball handlers as Bryce Cartwright missed some time due to injury. I’m not sure who would guard Marble if NU played man-to-man so that might be another good reason to play the zone.

Height-wise Iowa’s front court isn’t one that dominates NU in terms of size or athletic skill. However, Aaron White concerns me as does an improving Melsahn Basabe. Both seem to have that desire to be aggressive and get rebounds that sometimes I think the NU front court lacks.

For Northwestern to win this game they need to successfully force turnovers and make three point shots. Northwestern has been able to cover a lot of mistakes with made threes this season. Hopefully, the ‘Cats remember their lights-out shooting performance against Iowa in Iowa City last year and play with confidence.

I think this is going to be a very close game (which is no shock the way the Big Ten’s gone this season). Northwestern hasn’t been great in close games this year, but for whatever reason I feel confident about this game. I think we’ll see a Northwestern team that plays with focus and for once isn’t overcome by the magnitude of the event. I predict: Northwestern, 71 Iowa, 67