Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Can’t Believe This Happened Again

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but once again Northwestern took a high-rated team to the wire, but couldn’t win. In a way this was the best of those efforts because Northwestern never led in the game and therefore they showed great effort in coming back to tie the game, but I just can’t get over the end result was again a loss in the final seconds. I will say that like Robbie Hummel of Purdue, I thought Jared Sullinger’s game winner was a very tough shot. I also thought that though it was obviously desperation that John Shurna got a better look with a chance to win than he did in the Purdue game.

In a way this game kind of sums of Northwestern to this point. John Shurna was great, Drew Crawford was really good (but is still way too much of a head case as once he missed his first free throw he couldn’t make any), but the rest of the team didn’t really produce enough to be serious threats and the defense and especially rebounding was subpar. If you consider the first part of the game where NU just couldn’t stop Ohio State while trying to play man-to-man defense or the number of rebound baskets the Buckeyes had during the course of the game you realize Northwestern was basically one play away from actually having the lead at the end of the game. Not to say Ohio State wouldn’t have won in overtime, but it was that close. When you factor in the missed free throws you then realize that Northwestern could have actually had a solid lead late.

I guess the end result has to be this, credit Northwestern for not giving up in this game or this season. Hopefully, they’ll be able to beat Iowa at Iowa on Saturday because I hardly think they can be penalized for this loss. If the ‘Cats win at Iowa I think they still have a very legitimate case for the NCAA Tournament. It might not happen, but at least they’ll have a reason to watch the show on Selection Sunday. We also can’t discount the Big Ten Tournament when we consider that Northwestern beat #1 seed Michigan State and had great chances to beat #2 Ohio State and #3 Michigan. I’d also say that though nobody wants to think this way, if Northwestern is relegated to the NIT, they’re probably the #1-seed in that tournament which does give them a great chance to win that event as long as the players refocus and realize that they’ve still got basketball to play.

Lastly, I'm not going to place this loss on the officals when we couldn't hit a free throw or rebound, but in the last few moments of the game I thought Aaron Craft travled before passing to Thomas for a three, I thought Shurna was fouled on a drive, and I can't believe they allowed Jared Sullinger to just toss the ball over his head to the fans without him getting a T.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Senior Night With A Lot To Play For

Northwestern’s roster features four seniors: Nick Fruendt, Davide Curletti, Luka Mirkovic and John Shurna. These four players are the winningest group in the history of Northwestern Men’s Basketball and will finish their careers having played in the post season every year and having never had a losing season. That’s remarkable in the history of Northwestern basketball and while Shurna is clearly the star in the group, the other three seniors deserve credit as well as each had huge games in their career.

Fruendt in the Big Ten Tournament last year vs Minnesota.

Curletti this year against Michigan State.

Luka with a double-double as a sophomore vs #6 Purdue.

There are players in the country who play all four years and don’t have those moments and when these seniors are honored on Wednesday night, I hope our fans can remember those moments and the many more positive moments this class had brought to NU hoops and cheer loudly.

I also hope more great moments arrive during the game.

In NU basketball history more often than not senior night has rolled around without a lot on the line. The notable NIT-clincher against Michigan in 1994 might have been the last time the ‘Cats seniors played their final home game with something to play for besides pride.

On Wednesday night everything is on the line for Northwestern. I’ll admit to being a doubter, but the NCAA Tournament is still out there for the taking. For Ohio State, the odds are against them, but a Big Ten Championship is out there for the taking. Is that enough motivation for these two teams? I’d think so.

If not? Well, there is always still pride. Northwestern hasn’t owned home court as well as they should have with four seniors. Ohio State hasn’t dominated the Big Ten they way they should have with a trio of stars in William Buford, Jared Sullinger, and Aaron Craft. Not to mention a supporting cast of Buckeyes with talent to spare. Can the ‘Cats make a final home statement that won’t be forgotten anytime soon? Can the Buckeyes make a statement that warns Michigan State they better be ready or the Big Ten Title they thought was theirs alone with slip from the their grasp? We’ll see starting at 7:30CT.

I’m looking for Ohio State to attempt to attack NU’s zone as they did earlier this year and for NU to move the game at a more consistent pace as opposed to some of the rushed shots they took in the first meeting between these teams. Nearly everything is on the line for both squads. With that in mind, I have to take the team that’s won everything before. I predict: Ohio State, 67 Northwester, 56

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Close Win Finally Arrives for Northwestern

Well, that was a lot like the Michigan games or the Illinois game or the Purdue game, but the difference was the end result was a Northwestern win. NU still struggled a bit down the stretch as they couldn’t hit a field goal in the final three minutes, but two clutch free throws by John Shurna were enough to allow NU to escape with a 67-66 victory and move to 7-9 in the Big Ten. The target for NU seems to in some ways be on the move based on a loss by N.C. State and a win by Purdue (and what happens in the Illinois-Iowa game tomorrow), but I think we all know that if NU didn’t win this game it would have presented a huge obstacle to seeing NU in the NCAA Tournament.

Really, I can’t say enough about how well John Shurna played in this game. Having been man handled by Penn State all night, he got smashed as soon as he caught the ball on NU’s final possession (the point where a foul should have been called), tried to turn around, was hit on the arm slightly (where the foul was called), walked to the line and sank two free throws with the game (and maybe NU’s postseason fate) on the line. That was to go along with 21 other points, 6 assists, and 5 blocks. If the rest of NU’s team would give the same effort Shurna did the ‘Cats would win games like this easily.

The fact is that while Penn State coach Patrick Chambers might not have liked the final call, Shurna was fouled so many times in this game without getting a whistle it was almost ridiculous. I don’t know what else the kid has to due to earn respect for the officials, but the result was the same against Michigan. Teams beat up Shurna and nothing gets called. You can bet that other Big Ten stars would get those calls.

As we’ve talked about before, Northwestern generally wins games when they shoot the ball well because they can’t play defense at all. Today was a great example of that as NU made 15 three points (including a 4-of-5 day from Drew Crawford and a 4-of-6 day from Alex Marcotullio). However, NU’s 1-3-1 was probably the worst it had been all season. Penn State got countless layups and dunks and just made the ‘Cats look like an embarrassment on defense. As bad as Northwestern is defensively, they can do better than what they did tonight. I still think more effort should be put into man-to-man defense, but I’m starting to see some defensive weaknesses there as Drew Crawford really doesn’t look like a great man-to-man defender when I watch closely despite the fact that his athletic skill would make one think he would be. Hopefully so improvement will happen so where between now and the Ohio State game or that could be a feast for the Buckeyes solid front court.

Regardless, I think we do need to feel could about NU’s first win at Penn State in about a decade because I’m sure there were some mental barriers in playing in the Jordan Center. It’s also a road win which is nice as NU plays another critical road game in a week at Iowa. Now, though, the ‘Cats will look forward to senior night in Evanston on Wednesday. Hopefully, winning a close game also helps get NU over a barrier as last year’s home game vs Ohio State was another contest in which NU couldn’t make the last clutch play. Maybe now that they have they will again.

Some Quick Thoughts on Today’s Game

-Northwestern should win this game. The Wildcats have so much more to play for and they’ve got the better talent on the floor.

-Penn State is a much better shooting team at home than on the road. This is something of a concern related to the 1-3-1 zone, but NU has some size over Penn State which might even up the rebounding end of things.

-Tim Frazier is a great player and has the advantage of getting the ball in his hands every play. It’ll be interesting to see what NU does defensively against him.

-John Shurna needs to find a way to demand the ball in the clutch if the game gets to that point.

-NU needs to find ways to rest players so they aren’t totally spent at the end of the game in the clutch.

-I think Northwestern wins 68-60.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Response to Some Comments Below

I’ll admit to the roller coaster ride (but anyone who has ever seen me play sports knows that’s just who I am. I’m honestly that crazy frustrated when I lose and if I feel that way when teams I root for lose you can imagine who I treat myself when I feel like I’m responsible for a loss). Look, I’ll even admit I think Bill Carmody is an overall good basketball coach with some flaws, but I think every coach has some flaws. However, look at the 2000 Wisconsin team that went to the Final Four playing man-to-man defense and tell me how that team is more athletic than this Northwestern team. I mean Mike Kelley was their top defender. You think he was a better athlete than Drew Crawford? Man-to-man defense is about as the late Randy Walker called it “want to” that means desire. That Wisconsin team played their rear ends off on defense in man-to-man because that’s what they were coached to do 100% of the time from day one of practice. From day one of practice at Northwestern I think our guys are coached on our offensive philosophy and we run really great offense. Remember I think NU should run the Princeton Offense regardless of who the coach actually is. Maybe it’s just a matter of coaching philosophy and I’ve started to think defense first is the right way to go. But I guess that doesn’t mean I’m right.

At this point I still think Northwestern can make the tournament, but it’ll take either an upset win or a couple breaks where other bubble teams stumble. When they do Carmody deserves the praise, but I still wish he’d get his team to rebound better and be so dependent on the 1-3-1 because then the team wouldn’t have to sweat it out on the bubble.

I do have to admit I think Carmody is to some extent a victim of his own success. He created the expectation that it was realistic for Northwestern to make the tournament. He also brought Northwestern to within points of beating top-ranked teams on several occasions. If he’s hearing critics because he hasn’t made the tournament or beaten those teams it’s the result of the positives he’s done. That’s something he deserves respect for. However, and don’t take this as my saying he should be fired, to say that Carmody should be retained because firing him might make the team worse isn’t the best argument from those who want Carmody to remain in the job. After all, a new coach might make things better. We really don’t know. Any, yes, if Carmody is fired and the new coach takes Northwestern to the tournament Carmody deserves a great deal of credit and respect for setting the table. If and when Bill Carmody leaves Northwestern I’ll be the first to thank him for what he did for this program because he did more than anybody else. The question is has he achieved as much as he’s going to achieve? That’s the question the rest of this season will answer. Either way, I’ll admit the guy deserves some credit and I honestly hope everyone else will too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The N in NIT Stands for Northwestern

I was right the first time. This isn’t an NCAA team. They can’t rebound and their gimmick 1-3-1 defense finally blew up in their face in overtime the way I thought it would. Honestly, this is ridiculous. I know people out their love Bill Carmody and I’ll admit in many ways what Carmody has done this year has been amazing in the way he’s gotten the team to compete versus superior talent with no center and a former walk-on as a starter, however, at this point, I’m so sick of the way Northwestern approaches rebounding and defense I’m ready for another coach because after 12 years we know we’re still going to have to sit through these types of losses unless somebody shows up and teaches our players to rebound and play man-to-man defense because Bill Carmody sure won’t and I defy anybody to state otherwise. The worst part of this whole thing is I’m starting to think in some ways making the tournament would be the worst case scenario because we still won’t rebound or play defense and then people will start to think that’s okay. Guess what in the game of basketball not rebounding or playing man-to-man defense is NOT OKAY! Just please don’t let Phillips hire Bruce Weber who has managed to supervise one of the biggest collapses in Big Ten history (you know Illinois was in first place at 5-1 in early February) or Chris Collins whose never been a head coach and who hasn’t been anywhere except Duke and who people only like because he played for Duke. Bill Foster coached Duke to the Final Four. How’d that hire work out for Northwestern? I thought so. Hell, if you want a guy from the state of Illinois who hasn’t been a head coach hire Jerrance Howard at least he’s been in the state of Illinois to recruit more than one player in the last 15 years. Plus, it would drive all the U of I fans nuts to see Jerrance running the show in Evanston.

I guess the only positive here is that Northwestern should get a really high NIT seed. Of course, I’m not sure after all the NCAA hype that it’ll matter to NU’s players, but at least I hope they’ll take some pride in their efforts and play hard. I’m let’s been honest, they’re still the Northwestern basketball team. They aren’t too good for the NIT.

This game was the most physical game I’ve seen this year in the Big Ten and I just don’t think Northwestern responded to Michigan’s physical effort other than a really nice game by Davide Curletti. John Shurna clearly looked like he didn’t have anything left late for the second time in three games and JerShon Cobb left his shots short all night looking like he simply isn’t in basketball shape yet. Perhaps, with Cobb getting in better shape Northwestern might have a shot at Michigan if the play in the Big Ten Tournament, after all, they lost in overtime twice to the Wolverines who are ranked in the top-15 in the nation. The problem is that at this point the Big Ten Tournament might be the best hope Northwestern has for an NCAA bid.

The fact is that this game was won by Michigan in a lot of ways and their physical presence is one of the biggest reasons, but I still place this on defense and rebounding. Statistically it looks like Northwestern wasn’t terrible in those areas, but Michigan made huge plays on offensive rebounds which turned the game on several occasions. Even worse, Northwestern still can’t play man-to-man defense for any length of time. That’s a problem and I it doesn’t seem any chance exists to correct it.

I guess my problem with Bill Carmody is that he doesn’t seem to be able to self-evaluate. If your team hasn’t played man-to-man defense or rebounded for 12 years don’t you think you’d try to something about that? Those are major areas of basketball! I know I would. Carmody apparently is too stubborn to do so and his team might luck out and make the tournament if they shoot well down the stretch, but if they shoot like they shot tonight making only three three point shots for less than 20% for the game that isn’t going to happen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wildcat Fans…Get Loud

Wildcat fans, it’s time to be loud and obnoxious Tuesday night just like you were on Saturday night. Michigan senior Stu Douglass told Ann the following, "When we go to Chicago and New York, there's always a bunch of Michigan alums," Douglass said. "It helps a little bit, that gym's pretty small and it doesn't get too loud.”

Make sure Stu knows you're there tomorrow.

Resume Game

If I were to honestly self-evaluate I’d probably have to admit that my constant harping on the fact that Northwestern isn’t an NCAA Tournament team has been a defense mechanism to prevent myself from once again being disappointed when Selection Sunday arrives. But for better or worse seeing the Wildcats play a fantastic start to finish game in front of a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday night has started to cause me to crack. I’m looking at the schedule from now until the Big Ten Tournament and I’ve come to the conclusion that with a win Tuesday night against Michigan the Wildcats will have the inside track at being the seventh Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament field. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but the facts support that belief. The Northwestern Wildcats are on the threshold of history.

A little history was made on Saturday night when John Shurna set the NU record for career points. Shurna’s a great player and a great representative of Northwestern University. He’s a humble star who genuinely seems to simply appreciate the chance he’s been given by Bill Carmody and the NU staff to play college basketball. Perhaps it’s because Shurna wasn’t some type of basketball prodigy. He wasn’t a star as a freshman or sophomore in high school, didn’t even become a starter until his junior year, and wasn’t highly recruited by big conference schools other than Northwestern. That’s not the typical track for a guy who might be the Big Ten Player of the Year. The typical track is the one taken by many of the guys Shurna and his teammates face on most nights in the Big Ten.

Tuesday’s opponent, the Michigan Wolverines, bring some of those highly touted recruits to Evanston, but the fact is this is a team Northwestern can match up. The Wildcats lost to UM in overtime the first time the schools met and with a few more made free throws would have been the only team to win at Michigan this season. Part of the reason for this matchup is that Michigan isn’t huge size-wise. Starting center Jordan Morgan is about the same size as John Shurna and Davide Curletti. He’s got some athletic skill, but he won’t tower over the ‘Cats like Myers Leonard did. Along with Morgan the UM front court features 6-8 Evan Smotrycz. He’s a good three point shooter at 41%, but he’s not as athletic as NU’s Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn, or JerShon Cobb meaning those guys have a shot to guard him man-to-man. I feel the same way about Zack Novack who is another good shooter, but shouldn’t be able to get away from the ‘Cats trio of athletic defenders. Plus, if Michigan wants to play man-to-man they better hope Morgan is in position to block shots because Tim Hardaway Jr. can only guard one of Hearn, Crawford, and Cobb. The other two should have positive matchups for getting into the paint.

Stopping Michigan for Northwestern will be a case of stopping Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke from getting easy baskets at the rim and not letting Michigan get hot from three point range. I’d say that NU will start in the man-to-man and might stay in it much more than they have in past games. It’s possible NU will switch a lot in the man-to-man, but I think it is probably better than the 1-3-1 to contain Michigan. Look for Crawford to guard Hardaway and Hearn or Cobb to guard Burke with the other getting Smotrycz. That’ll leave Dave Sobolewski on Novack, but despite Novack’s height advantage I think he can handle the job.

On offense the key for Northwestern in their recent success has been Sobolewski and the rest of the supporting cast. I’d watch him closely, but I also thought that JerShon Cobb wasn’t that far off on his shots on Saturday. He just had a little bad luck. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cobb becomes the next complimentary scorer for Shurna and Drew Crawford. Both these teams are coming off of big wins, but the ‘Cats have home court advantage in this contest, not to mention the fact that this is essentially a tournament game for NU. Let’s hope the crowd handles it that way as well. I predict: Northwestern, 68 Michigan, 65

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Record Setting Win

John Shurna set the NU scoring record on the shot which I believe was the most critical of the game. Minnesota had just cut NU’s lead to seven points, but Shurna’s record setting three from the top of the key put NU back up by ten and seemed to eliminate any chance of a Gopher comeback. It was a big moment for Shurna and this is a big win for Northwestern. Of course, as excited as one might be about this game, which I’ll admit I billed as the biggest of the year, the Michigan on Tuesday now probably replaces this contest with that billing. Playing a Michigan team coming off a win over Ohio State and that will likely be ranked in the top-15 in the nation will give NU the chance to get a win which will boost their resume significantly. I’ve been something of a doubter throughout this year, but I’ll say that if Northwestern beats Michigan on Tuesday they are an NCAA tournament team, however, that’s a tough game which is far from an automatic victory even with a great Welsh-Ryan Arena home crowd like tonight.

Aside from John Shurna’s big shot, I thought the best part of tonight’s game was JerShon Cobb. Back from his injury, Cobb was fantastic at the top or the bottom of the 1-3-1 defense. Even though he didn’t score many points, Cobb’s intense defense netted four steals and disrupted Minnesota all night. If Cobb adds some offense to his game between now and the end of the season he could be the key guy in NU’s run towards that first NCAA berth.

Obviously, once again in a key game Dave Sobolewski stepped up big time. He’s been the key to a lot of NU’s significant wins this season. Tonight, Sobo hit four three pointers and seemed to understand what was just the right time to push the ball and be aggressive. As a result, he led the team with 22 points in 35 minutes and totally out played any of Minnesota’s guards. It was in many ways Sobolewski’s best game all year despite the fact that he only dished out one assist and he’s been listed all year as one of the top assist guys in the NCAA.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the rest of the ‘Cats also contributed to the win as well. Drew Crawford made some key early shots and got a great ally-op dunk on a pass from Alex Marcotullio. Reggie Hearn played good defense and had some nice drives to the hoop and Davide Curletti took a shot and made it and played really good defense all night. This win was team effort and with the NCAA bid on the line that same effort will need to be brought on Tuesday vs Michigan.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Biggest Game of the Year

I’ve flat out stated I don’t see Northwestern as an NCAA Tournament team right now and they won’t be one just by beating Minnesota. They will, however, take a significant step towards becoming one if they can beat Minnesota. Minnesota is a team that is also competing for a tournament slot and they are a team that Northwestern struggled with when the squads met earlier this season. Some of those struggles were simply the result of Northwestern missing shots, but Minnesota does offer a level of athletic skill that far exceeds Northwestern’s and that can be tough to handle.

I’d expect Northwestern to use more 1-3-1 zone than man-to-man in this game. Minnesota has two good shooters in Julian Welch and Andre Hollins, but the rest of the Gophers are at best average from behind the three point line. Also, I think Davide Curletti will be on the bench more in order for NU to put the best offensive team on the court, since NU isn’t much on defense anyway it’s not worth using the defense-only player in Curletti for more than a few minutes, and since NU doesn’t want John Shurna to have to play post guys man-to-man then I would say it is likely we’ll see a bunch of 1-3-1 defense from the Wildcats.

The 1-3-1 will also help clog the middle of the paint which should help NU in defending the front court of Minnesota which features the talented duo of Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III. If those guys get too many easy baskets than NU is in a lot of trouble, so I’d strongly advocate for forcing the Gophers to beat NU from behind the three point line.
On offense, Northwestern has been fine except for the lack of production from the center spot with Curletti in the game. He has to play, but it is a major problem when the ‘Cats essentially are playing 4-on-5. It was almost a joke how little respect Indiana gave Davide on the offensive end of the court. If Curletti actually does anything on offense, I would expect Northwestern to get a victory. I don’t know if I expect him to do anything, but it would certainly be nice if he did.

Obviously, John Shurna’s been playing great and should set the record for most career points at NU in this contest. Hopefully, that’ll prove a motivator for NU to continue to play hard. Of course, good defense and offense from NU’s supporting cast might be more important to Northwestern winning this game than Shurna’s offense. The home court advantage in this game could potentially be huge. I hope NU fans fill Welsh-Ryan Arena to support the ‘Cats in a game which will keep their NCAA hopes on life support and to see John Shurna make history. I predict: Northwestern, 77 Minnesota, 68

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Effort is There for Northwestern, Talent and Depth Aren’t

This Northwestern team has managed to play more consistently hard than probably any in the Bill Carmoday era since they suffered an embarrassing defeat to Minnesota. However, tonight’s loss to Indiana simply shows that Northwestern just isn’t good enough to realistically expect to beat high level teams other than an occasional miracle upset such as when they beat Michigan State because Davide Curletti, who tonight didn’t attempt a shot, scored 17 points.

I said earlier this season that the only place Northwestern was an NCAA Tournament team was Fantasy Island and though it seemed we all were about to get on a plane to go there when the ‘Cats ran off three consecutive wins, I think I was in fact correct in that pronouncement. Sure, this wasn’t a game Northwestern was expected to win by anyone (myself included) but as it turned out all Northwestern needed to do in order to win it was grad a couple more rebounds, get an occasional stop in man-to-man defense, and not turn the ball over. Of course, those are just basic basketball skills, but Northwestern couldn’t do any of three. The message boards got in an uproar the other day because someone posted about who would replace Bill Carmody as head coach and some of the more ardent Carmody supporters went nuts because NU had won three of fours games. The fact is, though, that in 12 years Bill Carmody hasn’t been able to field a team that can consistently rebound or play man-to-man defense. That’s bad and I challenge anyone to say it isn’t.

What he has been able to do is craft an offense that gives NU the best chance to win games, especially when they don’t turn the ball over. In fact, I’d strongly argue that whoever replaces Carmody (if he’s replaced) keep the Princeton Offense as NU’s primary offense. The trouble over NU’s last two games has been NU has turned the ball over and missed getting shots. Since NU can’t rebound, they can’t afford to have possessions where they don’t get a shot as happens when the ball gets turned over. I put a lot of the blame for that on Davide Curletti. Curletti? You might ask. Yes, Curletti I might respond. There were at least three times tonight (and several in the Purdue game as well) when Northwestern turned the ball over after Curletti passed up a wide open shot. I’m sorry, but he’s a college basketball player. He has to take an open 17 foot shot or just go sit on the bench and we’ll play 6-4 Reggie Hearn at center, at least he’ll shoot the ball. You can’t play 4-on-5 on offense in the Big Ten. That’s killed Northwestern several times. It’s made so much worse by the fact that Curletti was the key offensive weapon in NU’s biggest win of the year. What happened?

Aside from blaming the fact that Curletti can’t play offense, I’m also blaming NU’s man-to-man defense. The 1-3-1 zone was as good tonight as it could have been given the opponent, but the Wildcats couldn’t get a stop in the man-to-man to save their lives (or at least their NCAA Tournament lives). Rebounding? It was bad too. I don’t know what else to say. I know some Indiana guys jump high than some NU guys, but come on Northwestern, at least get in the way of the white jersey on the way to the basket! That was terrible.

The odds are that despite their current 5-8 Big Ten record that Northwestern will somehow scrape together three more Big Ten wins. An 8-10 conference record is probably going to land NU a seed on the #1 or #2 line in the NIT. That’ll position the ‘Cats with several home games and really good shot at the semi-finals in New York. It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but it would be the best postseason spot NU ever entered. I guess that’ll have to be good enough because the problem is that until Northwestern learns to play man-to-man defense and rebound Mr. Roarke and Tattoo will remain the only people likely to see NU play in the NCAA Tournament.

P.S. John Shurna is the best player I've seen at NU by far.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Northwestern Faces Tough Test at Indiana

This probably isn’t a game Northwestern is looking forward to playing. With Indiana’s ability to hit three point shots NU’s 1-3-1 zone becomes a liability. With Luka Mirkovic seemingly relegated to the bench due to a nagging injury, NU doesn’t have a center who can match IU’s Cody Zeller in terms of size. What’s NU going to do? I have no idea.

One might say that the 1-3-1 clogs the paint and so playing it could at least prevent Zeller from getting the ball. However, Indiana is one of the best shooting teams around and with Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, and Matt Roth the Hoosiers could probably tear apart NU’s zone as long as they didn’t make the mistake of tossing the ball away before getting a shot. It I were coaching NU I’d probably start the game in man-to-man. Sure, NU’s big guys might have an issue with Zeller, but the rest of the man-to-man matchups should be at least semi-competitive for the Wildcats. Victor Oladipo is a tremendous athlete who might have an advantage over whoever guards him, but I don’t think he’d be able to totally dominate Drew Crawford. Crawford for all his faults might be the most athletic player Northwestern has ever put on the court.

Really, the key to winning for Northwestern is going to come down to the offensive side of the ball. Indiana is going to get a decent number of points vs NU. They did in both games last year, but the ‘Cats still came away with two wins because they were able to score. It’s a little depressing to note that in one of those two games both Luka Mirkovic and JerShon Cobb scored in double-figures and both seem to be non-factors right now, but NU still has a potent offense. Getting production from behind the three point line from Reggie Hearn, Alex Marcotullio, and Dave Sobolewski is one key to NU winning. The other is Drew Crawford playing a full 40 minute game. I’m assuming John Shurna is playing well enough right now that he’ll do his usual job of getting at least 19 points.

All in all, I have to admit I don’t like how this game breaks down for Northwestern. I think Indiana has too much fire power both inside and out for NU to pull off the W. Especially on the road. I predict: Indiana, 77 Northwestern, 73

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Message from Several WRR Readers...and a chance to add more purple to your wardrobe

Wildcat Fans,

A couple Evanston retailers recently partnered to start a new Northwestern merchandise online store—Willie’s Wildcat Depot (

They offer nearly all of their combined merchandise on the site, and they already have the widest selection of NU gear on the internet (over 1,200 items and growing!). Also noteworthy, they’re donating 20% of their profits to Northwestern-related causes.

So purchases will benefit the school in addition to these Evanston-area businesses. If you’d like to influence how these donations are spent, feel free to give them some feedback here: You can also email them at if you have any questions or feedback.

Isn’t it about time to refresh your Northwestern wardrobe as we ready for an NCAA tournament push?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Purdue Out Shoots Northwestern in the Second Half

The bottom line on this game is that Purdue out shot Northwestern in the second half and Northwestern didn’t shoot that bad. Purdue just shoot amazingly well. Now, some of that might be a signal that Northwestern still isn’t a great defensive team, but did anyone think they were? If teams don’t turn the ball over vs NU’s 1-3-1 then Northwestern struggles to stop them and Purdue only turned the ball over five times all day. Unlike Iowa who struggled to get passes across the court vs NU’s pressure, Purdue had no problem. I’m going to lay some of that blame on the lack of depth NU has because I thought NU did a better job pressuring the ball in the first half and trailed off in the second. Some of that, though, is Purdue with better talent and more experienced guards than Iowa.

I don’t want to write NU off as I did after the first loss to Purdue because the ‘Cats showed an ability to comeback. However, they’re now in a tough spot and are paying for missing chances early in the year with the close losses at home to Purdue and Illinois and the road loss in OT at Michigan. If NU losses at Indiana (which seems likely to me) then the ‘Cats will have dropped to 5-8 in Big Ten play with five games left. That’ll be a tough spot to make a run to reach the 9-win plateau which many have focused on when talking about postseason expectations.

John Shurna had a really big game tonight with 30 points but he basically got no support. Sure, Drew Crawford had some moments and Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski did scrape into double figures, but none of those three were the constant scoring threat they’ve been during the win streak NU had before today. Also, Alex Marcotullio was a non-factor as he struggled to get shots and take care of the ball and, no shock, Davide Curletti and Nick Fruendt played like they were invisible on offense. Again, some of the credit for that goes to Purdue, but some of the blame has to go to NU just not executing and missing chances to covert at the hoop. Drew Crawford was most guilty of that and then he managed to get himself tossed from the game. Now, the fact is the call made by official Tom O’Neil was wrong, but as I’ve said before, Drew Crawford more than any other NU player seems incapable of handling struggles. Whenever things go wrong for Drew he looks upset and then starts to make poor choices. Today was an extreme example, but I don’t think NU’s in great shape next year (or really the rest of this year) unless Drew matures a whole lot. Can that happen? Sure, but some people are just who they are and Drew doesn’t seem like someone who would respond real well if his coaches pointed out the fact is he’s too emotional. He’d probably just get emotional. I think he’s basically a really nice kid who hasn’t really yet learned to recover when things don’t go right.

As I said above, lot’s of credit to Purdue. They ran offense really well. Now, personally I would have fouled Terone Johnson anytime he tried to drive the lane because he’s like a 41% free throw shooter, but with only a six or seven man rotation maybe that wouldn’t be a good plan. JerShon Cobb played today long enough to shoot a free throw. I don’t know what that means for his future. Luka Mirkovic was ruled out before the tip. I know that’s not good.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Wildcats Looking to Extend Winning Streak in Game at Purdue

Riding a three game winning steak and on the heels of their best game of the season, Northwestern will take on Purdue Sunday evening in a clash of two teams who stand evenly matched in both talent and the Big Ten standings. It is a game which undoubtedly holds significance for the postseason fate of each squad.

When the teams met in Evanston a couple weeks back Purdue came away with a 58-56 win that looked at the time to essentially be the death kneel to Northwestern’s season. Somehow, though, Bill Carmody managed to hold his team together and they’re now on the verge of essentially making a full recovery from that near death experience.

In order to make that recovery at Purdue, Northwestern needs to handle Purdue’s pressure defense far better than they did in Evanston. Purdue, for the most part, has played some of the best defense in the Big Ten this year. They’re consistently aggressive in pressuring the ball and they tend to make life tough for teams that like to toss the ball around the perimeter. On the face of it one can see how this is a tough matchup for Northwestern, however, the truth is that the Princeton Offense is geared towards beating pressure defense. It just seems that sometimes NU forgets this. Hopefully, having seen Purdue recently will give NU some confidence this time around. Key players are Dave Sobolewksi and Reggie Hearn. Both have played great of late, but both seemed a little shocked at the intensity Purdue brought to the game when the teams met the first time. Hopefully, their success over the past few games gives Dave and Reggie some more confidence to stay aggressive and not back down from Purdue when the Boilermaker defense gets tight. In fact, I’d love to see NU consistently spread the floor to create driving lanes for Sobo, Hearn, John Shurna, and Drew Crawford. Once that happens, outside shots should open up. It would also be nice if Luka Mirkovic could play and take advantage of the small Purdue team, but both Luka and JerShon Cobb ought to have their pictures on Milk Cartons because they’ve been missing for a long time.

Purdue is going to try to win with their defense and by, as they did last time, getting just enough offense. D.J. Byrd is coming off a career game vs Ohio State and Ryne Smith and Robbie Hummel have already shown NU their ability to hit big shots. The biggest offensive key for Purdue, though, will probably be how well guard Lewis Jackson does at breaking down Northwestern’s zone defense. NU was far more intense than they usually are defensively on Thursday vs Iowa and if they bring that same intensity to Purdue then Jackson is going to really have to step up for Purdue to win.

This should be another very close game in the Big Ten. Of course, it seems about 90% of the games in the Big Ten go down to the wire so maybe that shouldn’t be a shock. Purdue’s advantage is they’re at home and they’ve had some extra rest. NU’s advantage is they’re the hot team right now with a three game winning steak compared to Purdue’s two game losing streak. Purdue did play two good teams in Ohio State and Indiana to get those losses, but in both cases the usually solid Purdue defense struggled. If those struggles continue Northwestern has a chance to do some damage with their small spread court offense. I predict: Northwestern, 73 Purdue, 69

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Best Game of the Year

Tonight’s 83-64 win over Iowa was the best game Northwestern has played so far this year. If the ‘Cats had been a little better from the free throw line I might say it was as good as they were capable of playing. Regardless, I thought Northwestern ran their offense to perfection and played very strong defense getting their hands on passes in the 1-3-1 and making life equally difficult for Iowa to score when in man-to-man.

This win is NU’s third in a row and that winning streak correlates with the emergence of other scorers for the ‘Cats beside John Shurna and Drew Crawford. The most significant to me is freshman guard Dave Sobolewski. Sobo stepped up tonight with 23 points and 7 assists (against 3 turnovers) in 40 minutes of action. He also recorded four steals. It’s tough replacing what Juice Thompson did last year for NU when he played as well as any Wildcat I’ve seen in his final 10 or so games, but Sobolewski seems to be now where Juice was when Juice was a sophomore or junior. Juice led both those teams to the postseason and Sobolewski seems to be leading this team in the same direction and maybe even to a more prestigious spot in the postseason.

Another non-star who stepped up for NU was Reggie Hearn who followed up his 20 point game versus Illinois with 16 points tonight vs Iowa. Alex Marcotullio started slow, but pretty much ended the game himself when he went on an individual 9-0 run that put a stop to any Iowa hopes for a comeback.

As far as NU’s stars, Drew Crawford, like did vs Illinois, wasn’t as significant as some other guys in the scoring column (11 points tonight), but he makes an impact on defense and on the glass and tonight dished out four assists. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Drew have a huge game Sunday at Purdue as Drew tends to be a streaky player and the percentages say his outside shot will fall more Sunday after two games where he’s struggled from distance.

John Shurna was his solid self on offense with 17 points. He needs to make more of his free throws, but actually the play that impressed me most with Shurna was a rebound. He tapped the ball up to himself then controlled it in the midst of a couple Iowa players. The getting that 50/50 ball just seemed to show the intensity with which Shurna was playing and I’ve seen the same focus the last few games. If Shurna and his teammates keep that focus up they’ve got a real shot to pull off a couple upsets in the next week.

Finally, I have to give some credit to Nick Fruendt who saw some action tonight. He knows what’s going on and while he hasn’t scored in this game or the win over Michigan State, he saw significant action in both games and with Luka Mirkovic and JerShon Cobb still on the bench; Fruendt is an important player for Northwestern.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Where Are We? What Does It Mean? Are the Questions to ask as Northwestern Plays Host to Iowa.

I said before the Purdue game that I thought I’d be better able to evaluate Northwestern after their next three games. The Wildcats went 2-1 in those games and could have gone 3-0. They actually outrebounded teams and played with as great a sense of urgency as a Bill Carmody team ever has. What does that all mean? It means that somehow Northwestern now stands at 4-6 in the Big Ten. That’s not great, but it also means that the ‘Cats have a very good chance at winning at least four, if not five, more games before the end of the season as long as they continue to play with the same focus and intensity they have brought to their last three games.

Northwestern still has some issues related to defense and depth has been a problem, but they’ve gotten better efforts from their supporting cast, especially guard Dave Sobolewski in the scoring column, these past two games and that has been enough to push NU into position to earn another shot at playing their way into the NCAA Tournament. And that’s what it really comes down to at this point. The ‘Cats have eight regular season games left. No doubt if the season ended today the ‘Cats wouldn’t make the Big Dance, but unlike past seasons where it seemed NU was just prepping for a late season collapse, this year’s team seems to be positioning themselves at a spot where a good stretch run could play themselves into the history books. The first step is to beat an Iowa team that NU seems to matchup with favorably.

Iowa’s 5-6 Big Ten record is obviously similar to Northwestern, but Iowa seems to be a far less consistent team than Northwestern. As depressing as most of NU’s losses have been, they’ve really only been out of three games all season. Iowa has had some great wins, but they also have days where they simply don’t play defense. While defense isn’t a strong point for Northwestern either, offense is a strong point for the Wildcats and if Iowa doesn’t step it up on defense it’ll be a big day for John Shurna, Drew Crawford, Sobolewksi, and Reggie Hearn. Also, Iowa doesn’t start a player over 6-8 so if Luka Mirkovic can return from his injury this and the Sunday game at Purdue (who also doesn’t have a starter over 6-8) could be two games in which Luka could make his presence known on offense and really regain his confidence.

Iowa’s offense starts with Matt Gatens who is an excellent shooter and someone NU can’t afford to let get his feet set against the zone. The Hawks also have guard Roy Devyn Marble who has shown the ability to score in a number of ways. If NU goes man-to-man look for Marble and Bryce Cartwright to try to force Sobolewski guard them on drives to the hoop. Inside Iowa freshman Aaron White has hit the glass well during Big Ten season, NU can’t allow the freshman to give Iowa second chances. Hopefully, that’s where NU’s size advantage plays a role.

I’m counting on NU’s offense in this game. I think Iowa will score some points, but from watching the Hawkeyes this season, I don’t think they’ll stop Northwestern. I predict: Northwestern, 88 Iowa, 74

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Finally! A Worthwhile Road Win!

After seemingly eons (or at least three years) of waiting for Northwestern get a road win over an opponent who was respectable, Northwestern pulled out a very solid 74-70 win over Illinois on Sunday. For the record, I want to note that if you check my prediction while I thought it would be a lower scoring game, despite my feelings about how disappointing NU has been this season, I did predict that the Wildcats would win this contest. Now as to the team itself, this was a great win for NU and it was critical that NU got solid production from all six players who played meaningful minutes. It wasn’t always in points as David Curletti got one point and Alex Marcotullio got two, but those guys impacted the game on defense and with rebounding while John Shurna, Reggie Hearn, Dave Sobolewski, and Drew Crawford combined to score enough points to push the ‘Cats to victory.

I think Illinois did NU something of a favor in not subbing all that much and thus not gaining any significant advantage due to NU’s lack of depth and by not giving the ball to Myers Leonard every time down the court. However, NU took advantage of that much more than they might of in the past and ran the offense with total perfection in the second half which resulted in many easy looks for John Shurna who finished 11-of-15 from field and moved into second place on NU’s all-time scoring chart. It also caused NU to avoid any prolonged scoring drought which stretched for 5-10 minutes as we saw the first time these teams played.

The well run offense also led to some chances for Dave Sobolewski to get to the basket and aside from missing a couple free throws I actually thought this was his most assertive offensive game since NU’s big win over Michigan State (I’d note that him being so assertive and NU winning big games probably isn’t a coincidence). He not only drove the lane late in the shot clock but in fact tried to make things happen by attacking the goal at many times in many ways. As a result, Reggie Hearn benefited with some open threes which he knocked down in the first half and with some very nice backdoor layups as well. I also thought that Drew Crawford played a pretty good overall game. He didn’t seem to force as many shots and he led NU with four assists in the game.

In the end, though, I think this game was won on defense. Yes, Illinois might have won if they’d given Leonard more shots, but the ‘Cats coaching staff did nice job calling switching defenses which at times seemed to confuse Illinois. I also thought that for the most part NU at least made it difficult for Illinois to get the pass they wanted. Yes, sometimes they got that pass, but it wasn’t easy and they were forced to really work. That paid off once NU made them work equally hard on defense and is part of the reason for the late backdoors. Those backdoors and Shurna’s attacking the glass also led to NU scoring more points in the paint despite Leonard’s dominate performance. That’s huge and it shows that Northwestern can be more than a three point shooting team. That’s a good lesson for NU long term and while this game isn’t the type of win that makes NU as nationally relevant as the Michigan State win, it is a game that will keep NU fans interested and hopefully help fill Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday when Iowa comes to town.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In-State Rivalry Gives NU Another Chance to Win on the Road

Northwestern is looking for their first win at Illinois since 1999 on Sunday and despite the fact that NU is only 3-6 in the Big Ten, they’ve got a chance. Yes, NU is still suffering with injuries to JerShon Cobb, Luka Mirkovic, and Nick Fruendt, but Illinois is still a team that NU matches up decently well with. The biggest problem for NU is Illinois center Myers Leonard, especially if 6-11 Luka Mirkovic can’t go. However at times Illinois seems to forget that Leonard is on the court and relies on jump shots from D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul in order to win games. It has been enough at times for the Illini who scrapped by this week with a 42-41 win over Michigan State and have pulled out a number of other close games and home and on the road. In fact, Illinois should probably be even better than they are, but they aren’t and this is a team Northwestern can beat.

For Northwestern to win this game the ‘Cats need a solid effort from their center spot. I’m hoping we’ll see a version of Davide Curletti which is closer to what he was against Michigan State than what he has been in other games. They also need a big game from Drew Crawford. Crawford’s played well of late and if he has a really solid game (especially converting on drives and free throws) he can help push NU to victory. Of course, John Shurna must play a big role and I honestly think he’s a tough matchup for Illinois as long as NU isn’t forced to stick him at center for long stretches. Finally, NU has to get solid on defense. Whether it’s the 1-3-1 or the man-to-man, Northwestern can force Illinois into bad shots and turnovers. We’ve seen that in the past. The key is to do so and then take advantage which NU did not when the two teams played in Evanston. If NU can do that, they might just have a chance to pull off an upset. I predict: Northwestern, 61 Illinois, 58

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wildcats Get Much Needed Win

It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but the end result was just what Northwestern needed. A ten point win over Big Ten rival Nebraska offers the ‘Cats a chance to relax and feel like they ended the first half of the Big Ten season on a positive note. While overall the first half didn’t totally go as NU planned with just a 3-6 record, tonight’s result offers hope that the second half of the year can be better.

The key to NU winning games is getting a third scorer beyond just John Shurna and Drew Crawford. Tonight that third scorer was Dave Sobolewski who posted 15 points, 5 assists, and a team-high 6 rebounds. Consistent play from Sobolewksi on offense could help stabilize Northwestern as they go through the second half of the Big Ten and face several teams that they probably should beat.

Another key factor tonight was the fact that John Shurna showed a willingness to take over the game. I was impressed with how Shurna used both his outside game and his ability to attack the hoop. His end result of 28 points featured both a nice inside and outside game and he made almost all his free throws which was an issue in NU’s close losses earlier this season.

Drew Crawford also did a nice job attacking the hoop today and not forcing as many unnecessary off balance shots, though, there were still a few. The end result was 21 points and several huge baskets when Nebraska started to try to make a comeback. I was also impressed with Crawford making an effort on defense in NU’s 1-3-1.

Issues which existed in this game were the fact that NU still doesn’t have consistently solid defense and as a result will allow teams to go on scoring runs such as when Nebraska made 10-of-11 shots to start the second half. Also, the ‘Cats don’t get any production from the center spot as Davide Curletti finished tonight with just four points. Starting John Shurna at center seems to be an option, but NU’s lack of depth means that Shurna can’t stay at that spot all game. Therefore, at some point the ‘Cats need to get Curletti or Luka Mirkovic to have a positive impact on a game.

NU could certainly use more healthy players for the next part of the season, but so far Luka and JerShon Cobb remain hurt and Nick Fruendt seems unlikely to crack the lineup for any length of time despite having some success in limited action over the last two years.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Nebraska Game Offers NU a Chance to Pickup a Win

Northwestern needs a win badly. Thankfully, the 11th place Wildcats play the 10th place Nebraska Cornhuskers in Thursday’s game. Now, the truth is neither team is that bad, but neither team is exactly good either as evidenced by their struggles. The biggest advantage NU has is that they are the home team. Admittedly, I thought that would prove more of an advantage against Purdue, but the truth is that Nebraska has struggled on the road even more than Purdue has overall this season, though, they’ve actually probably been better at home.

In this contest Northwestern needs to get more production from players that aren’t Drew Crawford and John Shurna. Yes, I’ll admit that Crawford and Shurna have been more solid than any of the other Wildcats, but the non-production from NU’s centers and guards Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn have left Shurna and Crawford playing 2-on-5 at times and they aren’t good enough to win under those conditions. I sincerely hope that Davide Curletti doesn’t become afraid to shoot if he misses his first shot and I’d like to see Sobolewski show the same aggressiveness he showed versus Michigan State.

Look for Nebraska to try and get the ball to hot-hand Brandon Richardson who is coming off several strong games including 25 points in a win over Iowa on January 26th. Also, keep an eye on Cornhusker star Bo Spencer who is a dynamic player and could potentially have an interesting matchup with either Hearn or Drew Crawford in a battle of talented athletes if NU plays man-to-man.

I’d like to say more here, but I’m really kind of stumped at what else to say at this point. Northwestern should win this game and I think they will. Hopefully, it’ll give the team a boost of confidence, but at this point what NU lacks more than confidence is depth. Will JerShon Cobb ever be able to play? Will Nick Fruendt ever be trusted for any length of time? Is Luka Mirkovic ever going to play like a senior? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are and they are important for NU, but right now let’s just hope the answer doesn’t have