Sunday, December 23, 2012

Northwestern Closes Out Non-Conference Season Win Over Brown

Northwestern moved to 9-4 on the year with today's 63-42 win over the Brown. The key was a little sloppy at times but playing without not only JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford but also Reggie Hearn the 'Cats did play a game which they can feel good about going into a 10 day break before facing #2 ranked Michigan after the new year.

The biggest thing NU did well that gives fans hope for the rest of the season was their shooting. NU hadn't really shot well recently but today they finally seemed to find their outside shot as a team. That  is critical because NU won't pull off Big Ten upsets without shooting well. Kale Abrahamson made two threes early and I continue to believe that if he takes time to set his feet he could be about a 60% three point shooter. Somehow the NU staff needs to get him to relax and just play the game without rushing. Alex Marcotullio also hit a couple threes which was nice to see. He's a guy who has seemingly always had an impact on the game when he played but hasn't always been able to play thanks to health reasons. Now, he seems like he's back healthy and I expect he'll be able to make good things happen for NU.

They guy I really want to see more of is Tre Demps. He's a little out of control at times, but he looks like NU's best natural scorer. He can hit the three, he can hit the mid range shot, and he can score on a floater in the lane. NU's last guy with that much variety of a game was probably Juice Thompson. I really would like to see Demps on the court for 25-plus minutes as the season continues.

As we look at the Big Ten season I think the obvious question NU has to ask is about health. Nikola Cerina's size would help and he's probably a better shooter than Jared Swopshire (who did make a couple threes today) and NU needs Reggie Hearn's leadership and scoring ability as well as his aggressive rebounding. These ten days off are huge for NU and we can all hope that when NU plays again on Jan. 3 they are healthier than they are now and are ready to compete with Michigan.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Northwestern Basketball: That’s Not the Sky Falling…It’s Pieces of the Scoreboard

NU fans might want to bring their hard hats to Welsh-Ryan on Sunday

Yes, pieces of Northwestern’s ancient scoreboard fell on to the court before Friday night’s game nearly hitting Dave Sobolewksi, Nikola Cerina, and an NU trainer in the head. If that doesn’t just about sum up Northwestern basketball then I don’t know what can. I’ve had my moments of criticism for head coach Bill Carmody, but the fact the guy chooses to stick it out at Northwestern in spite of everything he has working against him (which is pretty much everything) is really pretty impressive. I still think he made a mistake in not sticking with the 1-3-1 after it worked for a possession early in the game, but he’s not the first coach or person to make a mistake (I’ve made mistakes and actually one might be believing anyone else would have more success as NU’s coach) and at least he was smart enough to eventually go to it instead of being so stubborn that he wouldn’t admit his mistake. I also want to point out that this isn’t second guessing. I stated in my preview that NU should play 1-3-1 and I tweeted great excitement at seeing it early and then great dismay when the ‘Cats went away from it and Stanford went on a 12-2 run. Not that I feel like I need to prove it to the 25 people who still read this blog regularly, but here’s my tweet after NU first played 1-3-1 when the score was 10-10:

And here’s my depression after NU went back to man-to-man and Stanford went on a run:

Regardless, the law of Northwestern basketball (which is apparently Murphy’s) has once again hit as NU not only lost last night’s game, but also saw leading scorer Reggie Hearn go down with an ankle injury. Hearn may or may not return for tomorrow’s game vs Brown. Overall, Northwestern now has had injuries to seven key players during this season. Two of them (JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford) won’t be back the rest of the season and a third (Nikola Cerina) hasn’t come back yet. My guess is that two more (Sanjay Lumpkin and Alex Marcotullio) aren’t playing at 100% despite playing well last night.

All those injuries would be hard enough to deal with for any coach, but at Northwestern Bill Carmody also has to face playing in an out of date gym that has a scoreboard that’s falling apart and various clocks with light blubs burnt out and practice facilities which are worse than those at some division three schools. There is also the issue of NU’s academic restrictions limiting the recruiting pool and the fact the Big Ten is probably the NCAA’s best conference. This isn’t meant to be an excuse for Carmody, but at this point I feel like I’m about ready to throw up my hands and declare “I’m done!” with Northwestern basketball and all I do is watch so I’m pretty impressed that despite having to actually work with all those issues that he sticks around. I can guarantee any Patriot League or Ivy League school would hire Carmody if he asked for a job and he’d probably get better facilities at a good percentage of them.

So what’s left to look forward to this season? I’d like to think NU can compete with a number of Big Ten teams if they can compete with Stanford who will finish in the top half of the PAC-12, but if injuries keep mounting that could be a problem. The bad luck surrounding NU basketball has just become ridiculous at this point and I think the only way to reverse that bad luck for Northwestern is to buy themselves some good luck. That starts with upgrading Welsh-Ryan Arena. I know it’s going to happen tomorrow (though the falling pieces of the scoreboard should be addressed rather quickly) but at some point NU needs to get serious about investing in basketball or we’re all just wasting our time and energy in hoping for an NCAA bid. It doesn’t matter if it’s Carmody or a resurrected John Wooden the Wildcats coaching staff cannot be seriously expected to compete for a Big Ten Title and an NCAA Tournament bid while playing in a 1980s relic while other traditional non-basketball powers like Nebraska and Penn State invest hugely in their programs. At some point that investment is going to payoff and if Northwestern hasn’t made at least some similar invest they’re going to be even farther behind the times and the task of making the NCAA Tournament at NU which is already nearly impossible will truly become impossible.

By the way, Northwestern plays another game tomorrow against Brown. Brown should have a fairly big crowd at Welsh-Ryan since they have three players from the Chicago-area. However, the Bears are just 3-5 and shouldn’t be all that much of a challenge for NU. I predict: Northwestern, 78 Brown, 64

Friday, December 21, 2012

Stanford edges NU

Ladies and gentlemen I give you every NU game of any importance ever: Kind of fun to watch, some hope,  ends in depression, and a key player gets hurt. I don't know what else to say. I said NU should play 1-3-1 in this game. They had a great 1-3-1 possession early then went away from it and Stanford went on 12-0 run. Then they go back to it and it gets them back into the game. That's just terribly disappointing from a coaching staff I'm trying to stay positive with. Honestly, though, does anyone think that I should have a better idea how to game plan for NU's opponents than our coaches? I don't. But apparently today I did. What exactly did they do over the last three days. When Jim Philips finally does what he's wanted to do since he got to Northwestern and fires Bill Carmody and saddles us all with Chris Collins I hope Bill Carmody remembers this game is a major reason why. That's a 15-point NU win if the 'Cata play 1-3-1 all night which was obvious to anyone who watched Stanford play except for NU's coaching staff. That s awful. I doubt 2,000 people will show up for the Brown game now and you can count on Welsh-Ryan being 60-70% Michigan fans for the Big Ten opener. 

Some other thoughts: I loved Reggie Hearn's guts as he battled on an injured ankle to keep NU in the game. Overall Hearn was great with 18 points and 9 rebounds. Tre Demps, despite some tough misses including the last shot, was also excellent playing limited minutes due to injury. The kid is a great athlete who will do big things in his career, I also expect big things from Alex Olah. Olah had a career game vs really good opposition. In fact, Olah has played very well vs talented bigs from both Baylor and 
Stanford. His backup Mike Turner made a nice three, but did have one of the worst sequences of basketball ever in the first half. 

Also, lack of production from Dave Sobolewski and Jared Swopshire hurt NU tonight as well. Swop has to make threes at some point or he's not nearly as useful as we'd like to think in the lineup. Sobo saw more defensive attention tonight, but that's going to become the norm. He needs to adjust. It was good that Alex Marcotullio got back from injury to pick up some of the slack, but Sobo has got to be the main guy for NU at this point. 

The other positive I can find is that Stanford is an upper level PAC-12 team and NU should and could have won this game, but isn't that where we started tonight. Every 
significant game for NU seems to end with coulda, shoulda, or woulda but that will never get it done and maybe that's the sad truth. Maybe that day where NU makes the tournament just isn't going to happen. Who knows. NU plays Brown in two days. All we can do is watch.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Short Handed ‘Cats Face Key Test vs Stanford

Tre Demps may not play on Friday night as a result Northwestern is now missing four players out of my projected nine man preseason rotation. Say what you want, but I’m not sure any team would be expected to win under those circumstances. Especially when those four missing players include three of your most athletic players and a 6-8 guy who can hit outside shots in an offense that is built around 6-8 guys who can hit outside shots.

Simply stated, Northwestern is in a tough spot as they face the Stanford Cardinal. The 7-4 Stanford squad features some similarities to NU, but have an obvious advantage of having their top scorers able to play in the contest. The best player on the Cardinal roster is 6-10 forward Dwight Powell who will provide another challenge for NU’s young center Alex Olah. Say what you want about Olah, but he’s faced good competition in virtually every game and that has to have a payoff over the long haul of the season. Plus, while he’s had some struggles, I feel he’s done reasonably well overall. I’d give him a sold “B” grade to this point. Powell is a guy who gets 15.5ppg and 7.0rpg. He’s also a very good free throw shooter and on a team that doesn’t shoot three pointers well his 5-of-14 35.7% mark ties him for the highest percentage on the Cardinal roster.

The Cardinal’s other top player is an Illinois native in Chasson Randle. Randle is a sophomore and Illinois high school fans will no doubt remember him leading the Rock Island Rocks to a double overtime win the state title game in 2011. He was recruited by virtually the entire Big Ten, but ended up at Stanford where he has become their starting point guard. He averages 14.1ppg and leads the team in assists. However, he makes only 19% of his three point looks therefore his scoring is almost all going to the basket looking to get fouled where he also is an outstanding foul shooter (which is true of most of Stanford’s team in contrast to NU). He’ll be a tough matchup for Dave Sobolewski who just barely missed out on facing Randle in high school when his Benet Academy team suffered a tough loss that denied them the chance to go to Peoria for March Madness.

NU fans should also watch for 6-7 forward Josh Huestis who leads the Cardinal in blocked shots and is a very strong defensive presence. The ‘Cats will have to put their shoulder to the rim when going up for shots if Huestis occupies the lane. Finally, also watch Aaron Bright who is a 5-11 guard that is supposed to be able to shoot, but like the rest of his team he’s struggled for the most part his year. The major exception was Stanford’s last game at N.C. State when he hit four three pointers.

Prediction: I think for NU to win the Wildcats need to make sure they’re defending with far more intensity than they did vs Texas State. Maybe use the 1-3-1 more unless Bright gets going early. Also, NU needs to get some production from Sanjay Lumpkin who will get a lot of minutes if Demps can’t play. Lumpkin looks athletic to me, but I’m not yet sure about his shot. Hopefully, he can show some touch which will allow him to use his quickness to go backdoor. This is as winnable a game for NU as virtually any game left on the schedule with the possible exceptions of Brown and Purdue at Welsh-Ryan. However, the Wildcats are just too much of a MASH unit right now to expect them to pull out this one. Stanford, 60 Northwestern, 57

Monday, December 17, 2012

Northwestern Survives Sloppy Play to Post W in First Post-Crawford Game

I'm not 100% sure that having Drew Crawford would have made that much of a difference in this game. He might have made a few more shots, but the problems we saw tonight were the same problems we saw when Drew Crawford was on the floor. The most critical of which is free throw shooting. I'm tempted to say that all NU should do at practice tomorrow is shoot free throws. That's an area that has to improve for Northwestern to have any chance of being competitive the rest of the season.

Turnovers were also a problem for some of NU's better players. NU only turned the ball over 12 times, but the two primary ball handlers Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn had two-thirds of those and that's a potential problem. Without Crawford those two guys are going to have the ball in their hands most of the time. Sobolewski shouldn't turn the ball over that much. He's coming off a season where he was one of the best in the B1G at taking care of the ball and he only turned the ball over 10 times in NU's first 9 games. What's gone wrong over the past two games is honestly something of a mystery, but I suspect it's more mental than physical for Sobo and he needs to get through that sooner rather than later. Hearn probably has the ball in his hands more often which might account for more turnovers, but I think he still needs to take care of the ball better if he's going to be NU's top scoring threat which he probably is at this point. Even today, he was one of NU's leading scorers with 15 points (right behind Sobo's 18) and showed some nice moves around the hoop, but he's got to take care of the ball.

Aside from Sobo and Hearn NU got double figure efforts from Tre Demps and Jared Swopshire. Demps did a great job coming off the bench and sparking NU. However, Demps went down with an ankle injury early in the second half. Swopshire scored 10 points and got 5 rebounds and 3 assists. His solid all-around effort is something that needs to be duplicated regularly.

NU also got a decent scoring game from Kale Abrahamson who hit three threes. When Kale sets his feet he's probably a 60% shooter but far too often he just launches shots without getting his feet set. I don't know if he just feels rushed in a college game compared to a high school game, but I have no doubt he can score. He just needs to understand how.

This obviously was kind of an ugly game, but the post-final hangover is something many teams deal with. I think Friday's game will tell us more. I see Stanford as very similar to Iowa and Iowa's probably about the eighth best B1G team. If NU wants to make a postseason tournament of some sort then they have to beat that type of team at home. I do hold out some hope that Nikola Cerina will be something of a difference maker when he gets healthy as I really like his game, but NU also needs Sanjay Lumpkin to contribute and if Tre Demps is now out, well, that would be bad. Somehow NU needs to show some perseverance and get through some very tough times but if they can improve day by day they can make a postseason tournament, but to circle around back to where we started the most important improvement has to be at the free throw line.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Looking Ahead for NU Hoops Without Drew Crawford

On Monday Northwestern takes on Texas State. It’s a game Northwestern should win, but if that was a certain result a few hours ago, it’s less certain now. Continuing a long line of major injuries, and one that’s been especially notable in recent years, Drew Crawford will miss the rest of this season with a shoulder injury. Crawford hadn’t played well for the majority of this season and I’d say we at least now know why, but his injury is still something that makes me refer back to the idea that Northwestern basketball seems to have unbelievably bad karma. I don’t know who in NU hoops history walked under far too many ladders or blew up a mirror factory, but someone has to take blame for this program’s incredible bad luck. It could even be a something. I mean the Cubs blame a goat.

Without Crawford I’d look for Kale Abrahamson and Tre Demps to see more playing time. It would also help if Sanjay Lumpkin and Alex Marcotullio could get back to 100%. Lumpkin was said to be the best of NU’s freshmen, but his case of mono has kept him off the court for all but two minutes this season. Marcotullio would probably step into Crawford’s starting spot if he were 100%, but based on his lack of playing time part of me wonders if he’ll be inquiring about a medical hardship year in the same letter to the NCAA as Drew Crawford. As far as filling the spot, Demps has a little more experience than Lumpkin or Abrahamson and looked good late in the Butler game. Still, I like Abrahamson’s size at 6-7 and his willingness to shoot the ball. It hasn’t always gone in, but I think if he gets his feet set when he shoots he’ll make more shots than he’ll miss. Of course, now that NU has to play slow maybe we don’t want Abrahamson and his hot potato style of play on the court.

The fact is NU’s strategy has to change without Crawford and I think it needs to change right away. Texas State is only 4-5, but NU’s mindset needs to alter regardless of the opponent. NU needs to go all slow down on offense. If they shoot before 10 seconds are left on the shot clock that’s got to be a problem for the coaches. Every game NU plays needs to be in the 50s (or even the 40s) for the ‘Cats to have a chance to win. The defense needs to be super-intense and physical and other teams need to feel frustrated when facing the ‘Cats on both ends of the court. If the rest of the team plays like Dave Sobolewski NU still has a shot. The ideal of model would be the late 1990s Wisconsin teams which won with defense and long possessions on offense and seemed filled with Sobo like players in guys like Kirk Penny and Mike Kelley. Can NU be that type of team? It’s possible, but such a style of play means you also need to shoot a very high percentage from three because you won’t be getting that many shots and need to maximize the ones you get. The good news is that Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn who are NU’s best shooters thus far should be getting more shots with Crawford out. NU also really needs Nikola Cerina to take some of Jared Swopshire’s minutes or for Swopshire to regain his early season form and hit some outside shots. That outside shooting ability is why I expect you’ll see more Kale Abrahamson as the rest of this year goes along.

I know people will say this is a blessing in disguise as NU will potentially be able to play Crawford along with JerShon Cobb and incoming top-100 (by some services at least) recruit Jaren Sina together next year, but right now I think we should focus on this season because NU’s athletic department won’t cancel the rest of it and there are still at least 22 games left to play.

Prediction for Texas State: Texas State has two key players in Matt Staff (16.2ppg and 6rpg) and Joel Wright (15.2ppg and 6.2 rpg). They’ve both got nice size as well with Staff being 6-10 and Wring 6-7. It’ll be another good challenge inside for Alex Olah who while he’s had some tough games has to be learning a lot because he hasn’t faced many teams that haven’t at least had one 6-10 player. I think Northwestern does the classic rally together during the first game the star is out and wins this game by about seven points, say 64-57. However, I worry that after this game we could see some real struggles. Next week will be a good week to learn as not only does NU have Texas State on Monday, but they’ll face a Stanford team on Friday that is probably equivalent to some of the middle tier Big Ten schools (say Iowa and Nebraska) if they can beat Stanford there might still be hope for NU to at least keep their streak of postseason births alive (even if it’s the NIT or CBI). If not watch out. I’m going to try to stay away (at least for awhile) from discussing how this impacts the future of NU’s coaching staff, but to be frank, if NU has a terrible record Drew Crawford being injured shouldn’t be enough to save their jobs. If NU ends up 10-22 then if Jim Phillips wants to make a change he should feel free to do so. I hope, though, that the staff pulls things together and makes a great statement about their ability to coach because if they end up 17-15 with what they’ll be running out there each night that’s coach of the year level stuff for Bill Carmody.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Northwestern's Inconsistency Stays Consistent

If Northwestern could be consistent in shooting and ball handling they might become a pretty good team. However, at this point the only thing consistent about them is that they aren't. Put this game on the list of frustrating games you've seen as a Northwestern fan because Butler did nothing that really impressed me in this game but they came away with a win because they were more consistent team than Northwestern. They took care of the ball and didn't miss opportunities to take advantage of Northwestern mistakes whereas Northwestern turned the ball over too often and couldn't take advantage when Butler made mistakes.

I'm almost at a loss about what to say at this point. I feel NU has made some strides as a free throw shooting team and I like that Dave Sobolewski impacted the game on offense. We could talk a bunch about how Drew Crawford once again disappeared, but I blame coach Carmody for that. No reason existed sit Crawford the majority of the first half just because he had two fouls. Butler coach Brad Stevens had multiple players with two fouls on the court and since those guys were better than NU's subs it helped Butler build a lead. I would Stevens totally out coached Carmody in this matchup.

I'm still very worried about Northwestern in the Big Ten. If they don't hit threes they will lose. That means Jared Swopshire needs to start hitting some shots. Reggie Hearn and Drew Crawford need to get consistent and I really think NU's centers need to be allowed to shoot. I'm hopeful that when Nikola Cerina comes back from injury he will be at center because he has an outside shot which NU really needs the guy at that spot to have. I obviously want Northwestern to be good, but while the Baylor win was great we've seen more bad than good from NU at this point. I'd say at this point unless major improvements happen that NU will pull off some other big upsets, but they won't be consistent enough to win half their Big Ten games or even 7 or 8. Now, they'll take a long break before finishing their non conference season with three home games, two they should win and one vs Stanford which is a toss up. A 3-0 finish would be great, but it'll still be a disappointment considering how NU couldn't finish the UIC game and just disappeared at times tonight.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Northwestern Continues the Search for Consistency vs Butler

On Friday night I’ll be at the Potterdome in Morton, Illinois to watch future Wildcat Nathan Taphorn and the Pekin Dragons battle the Morton Potters. Despite living in Morton I suspect I’ll be rooting for Taphorn and the Dragons. I’m sure people who are used to seeing me support the local kids are going to be confused, but I can’t help it, when it comes to sports loyalty I’m a Wildcat above all else. That loyalty has resulted in a lot of pain many times since I first entered Welsh-Ryan Arena in 1993, but I know all the pain will be worth it when the Wildcats, my Wildcats, our Wildcats, make the NCAA Tournament for the first the time. All of you who regularly read this blog, all the fans who regularly attend games or rearrange their nights to watch on TV, and myself will share a level of joy which will probably be unparalleled in fandom given what we’ve suffered through. Even Cubs fans have at least seen their team post the best regular season record in the National League before imploding in the playoffs. The point of this preamble is to say that Saturday night’s tilt between the Wildcats and the Butler Bulldogs is potentially a major way station on the road to that first NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten is good enough this season that Northwestern’s win total of eight conference games in recent years might be enough to push the ‘Cats into the dance if they have a decent Big Ten Tournament (which I’m well-aware is non sure bet) and if they don’t drop anymore non-conference contests and in the process pick up some nice wins over Butler and Stanford. This Butler team isn’t the strong group that made back to back final fours, but they’ve got talent and will be a challenge for the young Wildcats.

The player who will be the most significant challenge is potential All-American Rotnei Clarke. He’s by far the best player the Bulldogs have. He averages 18 points per game and is the only player on the Butler roster to make more than 40% of his three point shots (Does this mean 1-3-1 zone from NU? Maybe.). He’s the type of guy who can singlehandedly beat a team and NU better keep sight of him or that could happen. His supporting cast is led by forward Khyle Marshall who scores about 13 points per game, but is probably more of a factor as someone who has 22 offensive rebounds already this season. NU has to contain him and Butler big man Andrew Smith the same way they kept the bigs from Baylor away from the glass. My final concern is Kellen Dunham. He’s supposed to be a great shooter, but hasn’t really had a lot of success thus far this season coming into the game at just 31.7% from behind the arc this season. I worry that Dunham will get hot because, well, as we know Northwestern tends to be the type of unlucky team against who some guy that hasn’t done anything all year catches fire. If Dunham continues to stay cold and Clarke doesn’t go crazy hitting everything he throws at the hoop, I like NU’s chances.

Prediction: I’ve been bad at predicting games this season and I think that’s due to NU’s lack of consistency. Someone recently asked for an overall season prediction. At this point I don’t think I could even hazard a guess except to say this game is a big one for where the season goes. Basically, I think it is a game Northwestern should win. I’ve looked at the stats for both teams and my evaluation of personnel is while Butler has the best player between the two teams, I think NU has the deeper team. If Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire can keep Clarke contained and NU plays with the same aggressiveness we saw for 30 minutes against Baylor then I think NU should come away on top. Northwestern, 60 Butler, 58

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Northwestern Survives Pressure at Baylor

Coming down the stretch of tonight’s game Northwestern resembled a man hanging onto a cliff screaming, “aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and hoping someone will come and save him.

Overall, I thought Northwestern played 30 good minutes and 10 poor minutes of basketball. The 10 poor minutes almost cost Northwestern the game, but they survived to hold on for the win and that’s what’s important.

I was really impressed with the attitude and focus Northwestern started the game with. They had a plan to attack Baylor’s zone and executed it with ease. Multiple NU players got easy looks against the zone and helped NU build a halftime lead. I liked that Alex Olah found a couple open looks for points and looked comfortable passing the ball to cutters including one really nice dish to Jared Swopshire. Olah totaled 6 assists in the game and 10 points (all the other NU starters joined him in double figures). Mike Turner played, at least to me, his best game of the year backing up Olah, but I do think Olah ought to record the majority of the minutes. Turner really isn’t a threat on offense, but he also looked comfortable passing the ball and played his first game without turning the ball over in his 13 minutes of action. Obviously, both of those players need to make free throws better, but at least we saw some solid progress.

The other thing I liked in the first 30 minutes of the game was Northwestern clearly had an aggressive mindset. Not only in the game plan to attack the basket with cutters, but I loved the fact that Dave Sobolewski was intense enough to get a warning for taunting. Baylor sure wasn’t backing down as Rico Gathers seemed to be in the game just to hammer NU’s players. I don’t really even mind Drew Crawford getting called for hanging on the rim. It was stupid, but it was the most intense act I’ve ever seen from Drew Crawford and he needs to be more intense as a senior leader. Reggie Hearn is always intense and I was impressed he put his poor performance from Saturday behind him to play perhaps the best game of his career in posting 17 points and 10 rebounds. If Northwestern wants to win Big Ten games they need that aggressiveness mindset and intense effort.

Perhaps Hearn’s effort is a microcosm of this team as a whole. NU did virtually everything wrong for the majority of the UIC and Maryland games, but tonight for ¾ of the game they did nearly everything right. Maybe the team’s youth explains the inconsistency, but I just like the fact they didn’t stay stuck in the rut of failure. They did what the needed to in order to comeback and pick up a win which gives them hope for a making a postseason tournament which looked all but impossible on Saturday. In the end, I hope the coaching staff truly does emphasize the one game at a time mentality with this group. I know people will look at the end of the season and a possible NCAA bid, but this is a team which has clearly shown they can play great or terrible on any given day. If they’re focused simply on what they have to do in order to win every single game maybe the terrible games will be kept to a minimum.

NU’s coaching staff also will need to be as effective as they were in developing a game plan for attacking Baylor’s zone consistenly because NU will be overmatched physically (as they were tonight) more often than not. Also, I would strongly suggest a review of how to handle pressure defense and a little more work on free throw shooting. Although, I think a lot of the free throw shooting was mental, though, I can’t understand how Sobo went from being so intense that he was warned for taunting to looking like he was choking with the pressure on. In order to sleep tonight I’m going to assume he was just gassed from having to handle Baylor’s press. NU really needs a real backup point guard (Tre Demps needs to get it together quickly), but I will also say that while I thought NU got some calls early that during the period of time where Baylor cut the lead from 18 points to 9 points I thought NU got as homered as any team I’ve ever seen. Baylor defenders were basically pushing Hearn and Sobolewski to the ground and fouls weren’t called. Oh well, bottom line, Northwestern won the game and while we saw major areas where improvement is needed we also saw a stretch of how good this team can be and it looked good.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Northwestern Has to Handle Pressure vs Baylor

Northwestern isn’t handling pressure well. I’m not just talking about tight intense defense which makes it hard the Wildcats to get open shots. However, that is something which Northwestern clearly needs to handle better. We saw examples of NU rushing shots and struggling to get good looks against ISU, Maryland, and UIC. What I’m more worried about NU handling, though, is the pressure of expectations. This Northwestern team came into the season with high expectations and those can often be very dangerous because they place pressure on a team. Some teams will thrive under such pressure, but others will not. Right now, Northwestern doesn’t look like the type of team that will thrive. Part of the problem may be the youth of the squad. Several freshmen and sophomores are key contributors and another two transfers are expected to play heavy minutes. In addition, the fact is the team really is leaderless. Reggie Hearn seems like a potentially good leader, but pretty much ate the big one against UIC when he missed five consecutive free throws and a point-blank layup which could have given NU the lead. Drew Crawford might be NU’s best player, but he’s always been inconsistent and every NU fan knew that counting on him to lead wasn’t a smart bet. Finally, Coach Carmody doesn’t seem to be handling the pressure very well either. I don’t think his strategy on the court is bad, but he’s pulling guys after one mistake which I really don’t like and don’t think he’s ever really done before (with the possible exception of Luka Mirkovic). That type of one mistake and you’re gone to the pine coaching puts even more pressure on players and I don’t think that is what this team needs. Is Carmody worried if he doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament he’s going to be let go at the end of this year? Maybe, but let’s not start that discussion yet. Let’s just hope both he and his team relax and just play basketball like they can against Baylor on Tuesday night.

Baylor’s 5-2 and has one really good win over Kentucky. They also have a pretty bad loss at home to the College of Charleston and a loss to Colorado that looked bad at the time, but now looks okay if not great. I would consider their other wins on par with what Northwestern has done this year or slightly worse. What I expect from Baylor is they’ll use point guard Pierre Jackson to attack the NU defense. He scores nearly 20 points a game and dishes out more than 6 assists per contest. If NU plays man-to-man it might be a situation in which Reggie Hearn or even 6-8 Jared Swopshire plays Jackson to try and make the 5-10 guard uncomfortable. Baylor also two solid big guys inside in Cory Jefferson who has turned in a couple double-doubles this year and freshman center Isaiah Austin who is another 7-footer with a solid all-around game. Alex Olah will be a good player for NU, but seeing more fully developed big men like Austin and Maryland’s Alex Len shows how far NU has to go in recruiting to make it to the next level.

Prediction: Unless Northwestern’s shooting touch which has been absent almost all season suddenly shows up NU has no chance to win this year. Even if they do shoot well I expect Baylor to be able to score on NU thanks to Jackson’s savvy. Baylor, 75 Northwestern, 60

Saturday, December 1, 2012

UIC Defense and Free Thrown Shooting Edge Northwestern

Northwestern simply didn't do what they needed to in order to win Saturday afternoon. UIC on the other hand did. While Northwestern made only 10-of-19 free throws (and missed the front end of several bonus chances) UIC made all but one of their free throws. Also, Northwestern seemed unable to handle UIC's defense and their lack of a go to guy was once again exposed.

UIC had a go to player inside in Josh Crittle whereas Northwestern lacked production from Drew Crawford and Reggie Hearn, especially late in the game. Hearn played terrible missing five free throws and a point blank layup that would have given NU a late lead. Crawford simply tends to disappear at times during the game and he's been doing that for years.

Northwestern being unable to make free throws is where I'm going to place the blame for this loss. NU would have lost to ISU if they hasn't made free throws so we know NU is capable of shooting well from the line, but they didn't show that today. ISU by the way was good enough to play #5 Louisville very close today, but of course that means very little for Northwestern.

Northwestern really isn't very good right now. If they make more shots and get some leadership they might get better. It'll also help if the young big men improve or if Nikola Cerina can come back healthy and take some minutes from Olah and Turner. Turner right now is, in my opinion, frankly, terrible. He's a nice athlete, but he can't play basketball at all. Olah at least clearly has potential, but he's several years away from really being good.

It's hard expect anything less than a disaster on Tuesday night when NU travels to Baylor to face a
team that just upset Kentucky. Still, Baylor is a young team and might be beatable coming off such a big win. The positive is this team can still get better, but right now this looks like a team which will struggle in Big Ten play.