Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Northwestern Once Again Doesn’t Shoot Well Enough to Win

I think Michigan is a great team. I’m not sure they can beat Kansas and Indiana will give them trouble due to an inside game Michigan lacks, but if the four best teams make the Final Four then Michigan will make the Final Four. With that in mind I think one has to be pleased with on Northwestern actually managed to many things well tonight and didn’t look nearly as outclassed as the score would indicate. The problem was once again that Northwestern has in the last several games been unable to make shots. That doesn’t just mean three pointers, though, that missing from the NU offense creates problems. It includes making inside shots and free throws as well. I’m almost able to excuse the inside shots because NU’s freshmen big guys are still learning what works and what doesn’t in the Big Ten and Michigan pretty much was allowed to physically beat up NU yet very few fouls were called. You can’t blame the refs for this loss, but NU probably deserved to go to the free throw line on several of those missed layups.

Of course, the free throw line is not a place Northwestern wants to be right now. I can’t get over how bad a free throw shooting team this is right now and I know it’s all mental. There is literally nothing that can be done to improve NU’s free throw shooting other than the players on the team simply deciding not to get too frightened to perform every time they go to the line. If he weren’t the only ballhandler on the team I would suggest benching Dave Sobolewski. His mental state right now is so poor it almost wants to bring you to tears. You just have to feel terrible for the kid. I mean nobody deserves to be so mentally lost. It you’re a golf fan the comparison for Sobo is Ian Baker-Finch and if you’re a baseball fan it’s Steve Sax. They and Sobolewski are guys who have/had the talent to be very good players but whose brains essentially ruined them.

Three point shooting is a problem as well, but I have to be honest and say that this NU team shouldn’t be expected to be a consistent three point shooting team. There isn’t one player on the roster who statistically is consistent three point threat. Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio have proven to be streaky shooters who can have big games, but neither is night in and night out going to be a guy that can regularly knock down a shot. Kale Abrahamson was supposed to be that guy but he can’t seem to get shots and hasn’t made them when he has. Tre Demps offers some hope, but he also seems to be a guy who is mostly hit or miss. With that in mind you just have to hope NU has enough good days left that they pull out some wins in the second half of the Big Ten schedule. Matching the 3-6 record they had through he first nine games would probably be decent considering the challenges this team faces, but due to a slightly lighter schedule I’d like to see NU post four wins in the back half.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Significant Number of Opportunities and Learning Experiences Left for NU

“Many people erroneously think they have only one chance to succeed, and if they miss that chance, they are doomed to failure. In fact, most people have several opportunities to succeed.”

– Bill Walsh

The quote above comes from the man who is probably the most successful football coach ever. He might not have the most titles ever, though, he won plenty, but his style of football changed the way football is played and paved the way for today’s spread attacks. What’s interesting is Walsh didn’t immediately succeed in coaching and was actually fired from his first job as an offensive coordinator. What’s the point of this story? The point is that we’re all sometimes to quick to panic when something doesn’t go right. We’re quick to assume failure after one setback. I was crushed when Northwestern lost to Nebraska on Saturday because I thought it was a lost chance at success, but we can’t assume that’s NU’s only chance at success because it’s not. Northwestern has 10 regular season contests plus the Big Ten Tournament still to play. That’s a significant number of opportunities left for NU to get quality wins and for the team’s young players to learn about what it’s like to play in the Big Ten.

When Northwestern takes on #1 Michigan on Wednesday night the popular sentiment will be they have no chance to win. I can’t say I’m particularly optimistic about their chances myself, but it is an opportunity to succeed that I hope the team will relish. Michigan beat NU by 28 points when they last played. NU was playing without Reggie Hearn at that point and got limited minutes from Tre Demps and Alex Marcotullio due to injury, but a 28 point beating is a 28 point beating. Right from the start of the game Michigan looked far superior to NU in every way. That probably hasn’t changed with Hearn back and Demps and Marcotullio more able to play. However, NU seems to have learned some lessons since that day. The Wildcats have learned the importance of playing constantly hard on defense which helped them defeat Illinois and Minnesota. They’ve also learned how critical it is they make shots as failure to connect from the outside and the free throw line doomed them versus Indiana and Nebraska.

These lessons and the opportunities NU will have to succeed are what I think should be important to fans the rest of this season. I have no doubt I’ll get all worked up after multiple losses the rest of the season, but I’ll try to keep in perspective what I’m seeing. This is a team playing without its two best players and without another potential major contributor. It’s a team that while it features some veterans is giving heavy minutes to young players as well. As those young players fight through the challenges of the Big Ten they’ll be successful at times and fail at times. Sometimes both will be shocking. For example, I expected NU to go 1-1 last week, but I assumed the loss would be to Minnesota and win would be at Nebraska. Does that mean this team can beat Michigan and lose to Purdue? It might not be likely, but it is certainly possible (and given NU’s history maybe it is more likely than we all might think).

In the end what is important is we see progress from NU and they take advantage of enough of those opportunities to succeed that the program continues the forward momentum it has developed. That looked unlikely right after Drew Crawford went out, but I have seen enough from this team that I now believe 15 or 16 total wins are possible and I’d consider that a positive season. Plus, at this point I believe even if NU plays in the CBI postseason tournament (which I’d say is likely if NU reaches 16 wins) that they’re making solid progress and preparing for the opportunities to succeed they will have next season when Crawford, Cobb, and Lumpkin return from injury.

Prediction: I think Michigan’s fire power is too much for NU, but I think the ‘Cats actually improve by more than 10 points from their last beatdown by UM. Michigan, 70 Northwestern, 53

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Northwestern fails to make shots

The simple fact of this game is that Nebraska shot the ball better than Northwestern. Not much better, but better enough to get a win in an ugly game. The other fact is this game shows that despite all the positive progress Northwestern has made they're still not a good enough team to really think they'll do anything other than go home after their last game in the Big Ten Tournament.

The problem is Northwestern doesn't have enough good shooters and they don't have any reliable shooters. Dave Sobolewski had a nice game but nobody else for NU did much and even Sobolewski missed a lot of shots and once again was brutal from the free throw line. Northwestern as a teamwas brutal from everywhere. They couldn't make threes, twos, or free throws. This game was a total letdown and a game that at first seemed to be a game that would be close, but which NU would have a chance in eventually became a blowout win for Nebraska. Part of it was the fact NU couldn't hit shots. Another part was the fact that NU stopped getting rebounds and Nebraska had a shooting day which was above their average.

NU played okay on defense for the first half, but things just didn't go right in the second half. Not only did they not shoot well, but even when they seemed to make a nice play on defense things didn't go NU's way. The 'Cats tipped a lot of passes in the 1-3-1 that somehow ended up in Nebraska's hands. And they then usually ended up in the basket.

It was interesting that Kale Abrahamson and Nikola Cerina only played in garbage time for NU. I also think that Mike Turner continues to really struggle.

Finally, look at Nebraska's investment in basketball and look at NU's. This game will resume the Bill Carmody job watch, but honestly considering that NU gives him no institutional support I tend to think that if Morty and Dr. Jim want to fire him they ought to fire themselves too. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Road Trip to Nebraska Offers Opportunities for NU

For the first time in 37 years Northwestern will travel to Nebraska on Saturday. It is a game which offers NU a chance to move to .500 in the Big Ten and to continue what has been a very impressive road season.

This is a game which Northwestern will enter as a favorite. Nebraska has struggled this year and currently has only one Big Ten win. That win came over Penn State last weekend and was a game more lost by Penn State than won by Nebraska. What's gone wrong for UN-L? Turnovers are probably the biggest issue. They've turned the ball over more than they given out assists this year. A second issue is shooting. Nebraska has struggled to generate offense and is especially bad from three point game where they make less than 30% of their attempts. All this doesn't mean Nebraska doesn't have some talented players, but they're a team which isn't deep and which doesn't seem to have enough fire power to really score enough to get many Big Ten wins.

The best player Nebraska has is center Brandon Ubel. At 6-10 he's big enough to cause NU trouble on the glass and he's got some athleticism as well. He is not some,y a big guy who plays with his back to the basket and never moves from the lane. He will be another good challenge for NU centers Alex Olah and Mike Turner. They've faced nothing but tough games of late and they're really played okay. I'll also be curious to see if Nikola Cerina gets any playing time. He saw his first real significant action since his injury on Thursday. Will he be able to play more? Will it help if he does? You'd certainly think another big body would help NU as they battle in the Big Ten.

Nebraska also features guard Dylan Talley who is probably the team's best all around player. He's a guy who has the ability to have a big game and NU needs to make sure they contain him as it would be unfortunate if he got hot and had a game which beat NU's zone single handily as has happened
with certain players in the past.

Of course, maybe NU can stay in man to man this game. Nebraska isn't top to bottom dramatically better than NU, but with as much as they turn the ball over and struggle from three point range I tend to think that the 1-3-1 would be useful in this contest.

Prediction: I haven't been as on the money as I have in the past prediction-wise, but I'm hoping I'll on target this time around. I see this as a game NU wins because of Nebraska's lack of consist scoring. Plus, NU should take advantage of some turnovers. Still, I don't expect a real high scoring game unless NU gets hot from three point range. Northwestern, 58 Nebraska, 50

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wildcats Finally Get Big Home Win: Upset 12th Ranked Gophers

Behind a great effort from Jared Swopshire who recorded 16 points and 8 rebounds and a great team effort on defense Northwestern became the first team outside of the top-10 to beat the Gophers this season. This moves Northwestern to 2-1 in their last three games and 3-4 overall in the Big Ten. With a game at Nebraska on tap for Saturday this Northwestern team which many (myself included) feared could struggle to reach four Big Ten wins will have a chance to pick up their fourth Big Ten win in just eight games.

How has Northwestern turned around a season that looked lost just three weeks ago? I think Swopshire is the major key. When he asserts himself NU seems to be able to compete with anybody. He was great tonight in getting points, especially early, but he was even better on defense and on the glass. In a game where Minnesota was almost certain to out rebound NU, Swopshire did a very nice job keeping NU at least respectable in that area and playing overall nice defense.

That defense was assisted greatly by the move by Coach Bill Carmody to switch to the 1-3-1. I don't think NU was bad in man to man, but that defense wasn't going to change momentum nor make up for Minnesota's athletic advantage. With the 1-3-1 NU forced Minnesota to commit turnovers before they even got a chance to get offensive rebounds and when they did take shots many of those chances were so poor that they were no threat to NU at all.

NU also got some very nice games from Reggie Hearn and Tre Demps. Hearn was about the only player on either team who could make a free throw and he put the game away from NU at the line. I also thought he showed great hustle which resulted in him getting some easy transition buckets which were big for NU. Demps got his first start and while he didn't have his best game he scored 10 points and made three plays I thought were huge in the outcome of the game. He made a shot right before halftime which gave NU momentum. He made a clutch three to put NU up 43-39 when NU was clinging to a own point lead that ignited the NU run and he got fouled and made two free throws on a great out of bounds play when NU had just four seconds to get a shot.

Really as bad as NU got beat on the boards, I think the major criticism of this game was free throw shooting. NU missed nearly as many free throws as they made in this game. That type of free throw shooting will cost, and has cost, NU games. That's an area the team must improve in. Dave Sobolewski does so many things well, and showed great command of the game tonight, but if he's the guy who has the play in his hand regularly he has to make free throws.

Overall, though, a great effort by Coach Carmody and NU. They earned this win over a talented and well coached Minnesota squad.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Northwestern Faces Rematch with 12th Ranked Minnesota

My gut reaction when thinking about Wednesday’s game is that at least after the game is over Northwestern won’t have to face Minnesota again unless they play in the Big Ten Tournament (which always seems to happen) as I feel like Minnesota might be the worst matchup of any Big Ten team for the Wildcats. At Minnesota earlier this month NU was in the game at halftime down just 17-14 and could have had the led if they’d shot the ball better, but in the end Minnesota’s superior athleticism won out in the second half.

I think Minnesota is probably the most athletic team in the Big Ten and given NU’s lack of athleticism that makes Minnesota a tough matchup for the ‘Cats. I do think Northwestern is now playing better defense than they were when they first faced Minnesota and while Northwestern isn’t ever going to be impressive in rebounding I feel like the effort in that area has been better of late. All that said, I think Minnesota is going to give Northwestern some significant problems. The Gopher front court of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams is so athletic that they have he ability to totally dominate Northwestern on the glass. That didn’t happen in the first half of the first game these two teams played because NU slowed down the game enough that Minnesota just didn’t have that many chances for rebounds, but once the game’s pace picked up you could see how those two could control the glass.

Minnesota also has some good guards. They got a great shooting performance from Austin Hollins last time they played NU but at various times this year it has been point guard Andre Hollins or Joe Coleman who has led the Minnesota backcourt. Perhaps the balanced attack the Gophers have is part of the reason why they are a top 10 team. You can’t assume that stopping one player will be enough because another will step up and beat you. In fact, Andre Hollins was pretty much shutdown by NU last time, but the play of Austin more than made up for that fact.

Prediction: Northwestern’s coming off a good effort in a loss to Indiana which might at least get some fans to show up at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The fact the game is at 8PM CT on a Wednesday night is probably good for student attendance and bad for any visiting Gopher fans who might want to make the trip. Maybe that does something to create a home court advantage at Welsh-Ryan which wasn’t present on Sunday vs IU. Of course, home court advantage or not Northwestern hasn’t played well at home this season. This is a surprise because in the past NU has at least defended their home court even though they’ve been poor on the road. Now NU is a sub-.500 home team but has won 5-of-6 away from Welsh-Ryan. To find a way to surprise and please the home crowd NU will need to make shots. The biggest difference between NU’s road and home success is NU seems to shoot the ball better away from home. That makes no sense, but NU couldn’t hit anything for a good portion of the Indiana game yet made virtually everything in the first half vs Illinois in Champaign. I’m still waiting to see Kale Abrahamson have a big shooting night as I think he might be the most capable of anyone of just catching fire. I’d also like to see Dave Sobolewski hit some threes consistently. The only game he really has was in NU’s win over Penn State which was, of course, in Happy Valley. Jared Swopshire has shown signs of life the past two games and he’ll be a key player on Wednesday both on offense and on the glass. Also, freshman Alex Olah needs to take advantage of the fact that while he’s not nearly as athletic as his Minnesota counterparts he’ll have about four inches on them in terms of height. He has to be able to convert shots from five feet away. In the end I don’t like NU’s chances in this game but maybe they’ll finally show up for 40 minutes in a home game. A few years ago this was a game you’d think NU would have real shot to pull the upset, but you can’t believe that now. Minnesota, 70 Northwestern, 56

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Northwestern Puts Forth Good Effort vs IU but Takes Loss Thanks to Poor Shooting

Northwestern did play as hard vs Indiana as they did vs Illinois. As a result they had a chance to win the game in the second half but they simply didn't shoot ball well enough to finish their comeback. Perhaps, the problem was they didn't shoot well enough in the first half so they were such a hole that a come back was too hard to accomplish. NU won the second half by 6 points, but being in a 14 point hole at the break was too much to overcome. The reason for that hole was NU's 1-of-10 three point shooting in the first half. The majority of those looks were good and if NU had made just half of them the game would have been totally different, but they didn't so it wasn't. I just don't think this is a good shooting team. I think the reason Coach Bill Carmody keeps trying to play Kale Abrahamson is that he thinks he might be able to have a hot shooting game, but right now Kale struggles to get open looks against the physical Big Ten defense he faces each night.

Aside from the poor three point shooting in the first half, NU also missed too many free throws. Most of those misses belonged to Dave Sobolewski. I don't understand how NU's 6-1 point guard is a worse free throw shooter than Indiana's 7-0 center, but that's the case. It's somewhat embarrassing and it's cost NU on several occasions. If Sobolewski doesn't become a better free throw shooter I wouldn't be shocked to see his playing time reduced next season if Jaren Sina lives up to the hype surrounding him.

On the positive side, I thought NU's defense both in man-to-man and the 1-3-1 was very good. The Wildcats communicated and hustled and did what they needed to in order to slow down the fast paced IU attack. I even thought NU rebounded decently well. I mean one had to assume Indiana would win the battle on the glass, but they didn't dominate that area of the game enough that I felt it was a major factor.

Overall, I thought that NU was well prepared for this game. Coach Carmody put together a solid game plan and NU could have been in the game from start to finish but for the poor shooting early. The second half which Jared Swopshire had needs to be how he plays every minute of every game. Reggie Hearn had another great game and is clearly feeling better and it shows both on defense and offense. I loved the fact that at least Reggie made his free throws. I do think NU needs to find a way to get some offensive production from the center position. Those guys have chances to take shots, but clearly don't have the confidence to take or make them. A center who could hit a jump shot would be a tremendous help for the Wildcats.

Northwestern has a tough game coming up with Minnesota, but they then face Nebraska and Purdue who aren't that much better than they are. If they can somehow win two of those three games there might be a chance of NU still sneaking into some sort of postseason tournament.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Looking Back at Illinois and Ahead to Indiana

I didn’t get a chance to write anything after getting back from NU’s big win over Illinois, but needless to say I was thrilled with the all around effort NU displayed. It was a very unexpected win, but if Northwestern could play at the level they played at in that game then wins wouldn’t be unexpected at all. I thought the major key to NU’s success was on the defensive end. Northwestern played their best defense of the year vs the Illini. They for the most part managed to stay in front of their man and not allow easy penetration into the lane or easy entry passes into the post. NU’s effort was so strong in man-to-man they never had to switch to the 1-3-1 zone in order to try to bail them out of trouble.

Of course, it wasn’t just the defensive that went well. It was the offensive execution as well. The Wildcats, especially early in the game, ran their version of the Princeton Offense nearly without a mistake. They passed the ball well in order to set up some open looks for threes or to get easy backdoor layups. I was especially impressed with the play of Reggie Hearn, who is hopefully back to 100%. Hearn not only passed well and helped setup his teammates, but he was NU’s leading scorer in Champaign for the second straight season with 20 points. He was supported by some great play by Jared Swopshire and Dave Sobolewski. Illinois was lackluster defensively early in the game and both Sobolewski and Swopshire took advantage of that fact to get some easy layups early on. I think those two players are really the keys to NU’s success and it seems if they get to the basket early they tend to have big nights. I’d like to see Coach Carmody run some early sets that allow those players to get a chance to score at the hoop early in games.

Alex Marcotullio also had a big night. On a night when it was clear NU out hustled Illinois Marcotullio might have been the best example of that. The best example may have been a play where he played great defense denying Brandon Paul a driving lane which forced Paul to shoot a contested three and although Illinois got the offensive rebound, the Illini couldn’t do anything because Marcotullio promptly stole the ball from the player who grabbed the rebound. That’s the type of leadership and hustle you need from a senior. Frankly, it’s the type of a leadership and hustle a senior should always provide. Illinois certainly didn’t get similar effort from their seniors and the ‘Cats haven’t always gotten from their current senior class, but they had it on Thursday night. It’s probably the biggest reason for the win.

Now NU moves on to host #2 Indiana on Sunday. Some will tell you that no amout of leadership and hustle can result in NU winning that game. I’d say the bigger issue to me is the fact that NU hasn’t been consistent. I’m not saying NU has much better than a 10% chance of winning the game (the statistical experts at KenPom give NU a 12% chance) but any chance Northwestern has will be dependent on having the same type of effort they had vs Illinois. Of course, that effort would be assisted by the same type of excellent shooting. To be honest, though, I think that goes hand in hand. When NU is aggressive early and they cut hard to get layups and drives early on that tends to force teams to become more aware of the fact that despite NU’s lack of a scoring big man NU can dominate points inside. As a result, the opposing team starts to think about that fact and NU gets better looks from three. The ‘Cats don’t have great shooters this year and as a result they need to get more open looks to hit threes whereas guys like John Shurna and Juice Thompson would easily drill shots with a hand in their face.

Now, if you’re thinking like me you’re probably worried about two things Indiana has that NU really doesn’t—a scoring big man and above average athleticism at the guard spots. How will NU counter these advantages? It has to be in the same way as the Illinois game. Making shots early and establishing that IU won’t be able to just walk over NU for 40 minutes. After all, stopping Cody Zeller won’t be an easy task for Alex Olah and Mike Turner and I’m sure Yogi Farrell will get to the bucket a few times vs the NU defense, but if the ‘Cats are drilling threes early they might hang with IU. It’ll especially help if NU uses the shot clock like they did vs Illinois. They didn’t pass up good shots, but they didn’t rush shots if they didn’t have them. If NU makes some early baskets and then runs 20-30 seconds off the shot clock each possession then they’ll at least give themselves a shot.

The problem as I said earlier is consistency. IU will get offensive rebounds based on their size and athletic skill. Therefore, NU has to make some threes in order to make up for those easy twos. Coach Carmody always says 10 threes is the magic number for NU to compete. I think vs IU it might be worth upping that number to 12. If NU hits 12 threes they can compete. If not it’ll be a long day.

Prediction: The other major issue when considering this game is NU hasn’t played well at home this year. On the positive side, IU fans will probably make up about 70% of the crowd at Welsh-Ryan and NU will be wearing black uniforms as opposed to their home white. Plus, the ‘Cats are staying in a hotel Saturday night so maybe Coach Carmody can fool his team into playing like this is a road game. It probably won’t be enough, but I thought Carmody totally outcoached John Groce and I’ve never been that impressed with Tom Crean as in game coach (though he’s obviously an amazing recruiter) if the game is somehow close maybe Carmody can pull a rabbit out of his hat. One of the best efforts NU had in recent memory was a 58-57 loss to #2 Ohio State two years ago in a game where NU was forced to give heavy minutes to little used Mike Cappoci thanks to John Shurna being out for an injury. Like this game I didn’t really think NU had much of a shot, but I also suspected that because NU basketball is NU basketball that the finish of the game might result in the collective of hearts of NU fandom being ripped out and that’s how it ended. I think IU wins this game 68-55 as NU hangs for awhile, but can’t stop Zeller in the second half. However, that part of my brain (or maybe my heart) that has suffered with this team for so long sees NU leading right up until the end when Victor Oladipo rebounds a teammate’s miss and gives IU a one point win at the end because that’s what Northwestern basketball tends to do to its fans. Especially when they start to have hope.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In-State Rivalry Features Struggling Teams

I think both Northwestern and Illinois wish their last games were as fake as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend. Unfortunately they were both all too real. Illinois lost badly at Wisconsin and Northwestern played a total clunker of a game vs Iowa. As a result both teams sit at 1-3 in Big Ten play. Illinois is still a top-25 team based a solid non-conference schedule, but if they can’t get through this week with a couple wins then that ranking is likely to disappear. Northwestern is still looking for anything resembling consistent offense and until they find it they are likely in huge trouble.

Both teams have struggled because they are too dependent on outside shoots. I think Illinois’s trio of Tyler Griffey (7.8ppg 40%3PT), D.J. Richardson (11.1ppg), and Brandon Paul (18.1ppg) are better shooters than NU’s trio of Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn, and Kale Abrahamson, but neither group has been consistent enough to win regularly in conference play by simply depending on outside shoots. Illinois has Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand who average 12.1 and 9.3 points per game respectively that should be able to drive and score inside, but neither has done so consistently. On the Northwestern side, Bill Carmody has tired to get his point guard, Dave Sobolewski, to be more aggressive and drive when openings exist. Sobo’s done some nice things attacking the basket, but the reality is that he’s not a super strong finisher and can get blocked rather often. Illini center Nnanna Egwu might be less of an offensive threat than NU’s Alex Olah, but he can block shots at almost 1.5 a game and as result, I worry about NU entering the paint on drives. I’d like to see if the ‘Cats can isolate Olah to try and work his hook shot or try and get Tre Demps into the game to shoot his floater. Of course, the Princeton Offense should theoretically create some chances for backdoor cuts, but I actually haven’t seen many of those in NU’s recent action. That’s probably a credit to how well scouted teams are in Big Ten play. It was interesting to note, though, that former Wildcat star Jitim Young recently said players need to take more chances on throwing backdoor passes. Perhaps this group is too worried about turning the ball over that they’re missing opportunities to make plays. Of course, with Coach Carmody’s quick hook this season I might worry about being pulled if I turned the ball over too.
Prediction: This game really isn’t a very good matchup for Northwestern (of course, I thought the Iowa game was a good matchup and we saw how that turned out) I struggle to see how NU can play 1-3-1 with the Illini’s shooters, yet, NU doesn’t play intense enough defense to make me believe they’ll stop Abrams and Bertrand from getting into the lane to score or setup Paul and Egwu for dunks. If I’d seen any evidence that Northwestern could actually play defense in man-to-man with intensity I’d say they have a shot, but I haven’t. I’m honestly shocked Coach Carmody hasn’t gone back to the matchup zone he used with great success early in his time at NU. Of course, NU could go crazy and hit a bunch of threes which might win them the game, but overall in the Big Ten defense wins. Just look at Wisconsin did to Indiana last night by playing defense. Illinois, 74 Northwestern, 60

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Low Point

I don't have a lot to say at this point. Iowa is probably a below average team in this year's Big Ten and they destroyed NU today. Noticeable problems that continue for NU are lack of interior defense and poor free throw shooting. I'd also add that NU lacks consistent scoring from anyone on the team and continues to allow players who haven't played well all year to have great days vs them. Today it was Josh Oglesby, but it'll be someone else next time.

Basically Iowa was pretty much better in every area of the game than NU but Northwestern's inability to score any other way than the three pointer (which they couldn't make) was probably the biggest issue. I actually thought NU got decent looks, they just didn't make any shots.

Considering the mediorcore opponent this is the lowest point for NU hoops since the days of Kevin O'Neil. When Jim Phillips fires Bill Carmody this will be the game that probably caused him to make a final decision if he hadn't already. There was no reason Northwestern shouldn't have been able to compete with Iowa but they couldn't.

Just to end on a positive, this was by far Mike Turner's best game of the year. He looks like a guy who will be able to make a difference in a couple years.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Northwestern Looking to Defend Home Court vs Iowa

One of the oddities of this season has been that Northwestern has played better away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. In NU’s recent history they’d be very strong inside Welsh-Ryan, but this year they’ve been far better away from home. If NU wants to consider upending many of the negative expectations that currently surround them as a team they need to start winning at home consistently.

The good news is the Iowa Hawkeye squad who they will face on Sunday is a team they have the ability to beat. In many ways these two teams are the same. They’re both young teams trying to prove they belong in the second tier of the Big Ten instead of the third tier with Penn State and Nebraska. NU got their first Big Ten win in a 70-54 victory at Penn State, but Iowa sits at 0-3 in the league after a late collapse at home vs Michigan State. This is probably in many ways a bigger game for Iowa given that fact, but moving to 2-2 in the league would certainly benefit NU given that they face an Illinois team that is seriously slumping in Champaign on Thursday.

One of the things that got NU back on the winning track vs PSU was the fact they hit their three point shots. Making those 9-of-22 threes caused the ‘Cats to able to reach 70 points which was dramatically more than it looked like they’d ever reach in a Big Ten game after their loss to Minnesota. Making more threes will be key vs Iowa. Iowa native Kale Abrahamson needs to continue his improvement and outside shooting contributions from Dave Sobolewski and Jared Swopshire could also prove the difference as they did at Penn State. One area of concern is that Iowa has been strong in three point percentage defense holding opponents below 30%. However, it should be noted that the Hawkeyes haven’t faced great three point shooting teams yet. I’m not sure NU is a great shooting team either, but hopefully they’ll be able to get some open looks via the Princeton Offense.

NU getting those open looks is possible because Iowa plays a ton of young guys and young players often fall victim to the Princeton Offense the first time they face it. Iowa guards Mike Gesell (9.2ppg) and Anthony Clemmons have had nice freshmen seasons, but hopefully they’ll be somewhat uncertain about how to defend and attack NU. This is a game where NU might want to consider playing the 1-3-1 zone as Iowa only makes 30.8% of their threes and the zone is tough to prepare for in practice and Iowa’s young guys haven’t seen it in game action. Iowa’s best players are guard Roy Devyn Marble who averages 15.5 points per game and is the team’s only serious three point shooting threat. He was out for the Michigan State game, but will likely play vs NU. Center Aaron White has been a strong scoring threat for Iowa at 13.1ppg and he also gets 6.1rpg. He’ll be a guy NU needs to keep of the offensive glass if they do play 1-3-1. Iowa also gets some inside scoring and defense from Melsahn Basabe. Also, watch Zach McCabe who has slumped this year, but guys have been known to break slumps vs Northwestern.

Prediction: I’ve had my worst year predicting games this season (though I was just one point off on each team’s total in the NU@Minnesota game). It’s just so hard to get a read on this Northwestern team. I think this is a game NU should probably win. Yes, Iowa played Michigan State close, but that was in Iowa City and young teams generally play better at home (NU has admittedly been an exception). Also, I’m counting on the fact that facing the Princeton Offense and 1-3-1 zone for the first time in game action will confound Iowa’s youth and the fact that Welsh-Ryan is sometimes a tough place to shoot in because it’s so different in shooting background than the larger (and nicer) arenas the rest of the Big Ten has and Iowa’s a team that hasn’t shot well of late. Northwestern, 71 Iowa, 65

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Northwestern Finds Its Offense and 1st Big Ten Win

It wasn't a perfect game for Northwestern but it was far better than either of their two previous Big Ten contests. NU finally got consistent from the outside and made a enough three point shots to get the defense to respect the outside shooting which opened up some space for NU to drive and get some easy baskets. The end result was the overall best offensive game Northwestern has played in sometime.

The two keys to NU's offensive attack were Dave Sobolewski and Jared Swopshire. They both need to be 15 or more points per game scorers if NU is to compete in the Big Ten and that's what they both were tonight. I was very impressed with how Sobolewski seemed to be more aware of looking for shots than he was at Minnesota. Of course, the fact he wasn't ordered to make sure a shot didn't go up until 10 seconds or less were on the shot clock probably helped. NU ran time off the clock at times tonight, but they also were not afraid to take a really good shot if it presented itself early. Perhaps that middle ground is where NU should be the rest of this season. It seemed to help Sobolewski who made some nice drives to the hoop in addition to hitting some threes. Swopshire was primarily an inside player who scored off the dribble or in the post, but the fact he also hit an early three I think was key to his offensive confidence. He also did a nice job on the glass today and seemed to facilitate well and set up his teammates for some good shots. Perhaps he's getting more comfortable playing in NU's offense.

I also would be remiss if I didn't mention Kale Abrahamson's shooting tonight. He knocked down three threes and I really think he's going to be a great offensive player. I have total confidence when he shoots stand still shots and I think if he gets enough of those he will become a regularly double figure scorer. NU also got some nice shots from Reggie Hearn who is still clearly not 100% but I think it's clear NU is better if he's on the court even if he's not at his best. Of course, Hearn is one of several Wildcats who need to work on their free throw shooting. NU already lost to UIC this year because they couldn't make free throws and I'm really worried how their lack of consistency at the line will play out in close games.

I also worry about NU's interior defense. PSU got a lot of inside shots which didn't fall. Northwestern needs to do a better job of denying entry passes and not getting caught in mismatches when they switch. Alex Olah and Kale Abrahamson shouldn't be defending quick guards, but the willingness of NU to switch instead of fighting through screens makes things too easy for opponents at times. NU has another winnable game next vs Iowa, but they can't let Iowa get easy shots because they'll do a better job of converting them than PSU did. It's a big game for NU on Sunday if they can win that game and somehow steal a win in their next two the 'Cats could be 3-3 after 6 Big Ten games despite facing a ridiculously tough schedule.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Northwestern and Penn State Both Seeking First Big Ten Win

Both Northwestern and Penn State are facing tough situations having lost their top players for the season. PSU lost Tim Frazier and NU lost both Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb. With both rosters depleted neither team has seen much success thus far in Big Ten play and neither team is really expected to have much success the rest of the season. That means this game could be the best opportunity for each squad to get a win for sometime.

Northwestern will most likely try to slow the game down once again and hopefully Reggie Hearn will be closer to 100%. I’d also say that I really think if NU runs slow down that Tre Demps needs to be on the court virtually all the time. If you think back to when the slow down game worked well there were a number of times when the shot clock got to about five seconds left that the ball was given to Drew Crawford or Juice Thompson and they created a shot. Northwestern really didn’t have anybody with the ability to create a shot on the floor at Minnesota and as I result they suffered several shot clock violations or very low percentage shots thanks to the expiring shot clock.

Penn State hasn’t been scoring much either this year. In fact, they average less points per game than NU does. They’re led in scoring by sophomore guard D.J. Newbill at about 15 points per game. At 6-4 he’s a good athlete who is a decent rebounder which could led to some second chance points vs NU. Penn State’s other guard is Jermaine Marshall who also averages over 14 points per game. He’s also the team’s leading three point shooter, but keep in mind that’s with only 24 made on the season which shows clear evidence that Penn State is not a good shooting team from downtown. It might be worth NU trying some 1-3-1 as long as they can grab some rebounds which is always something of a question mark. Look for 6-6 sophomore Ross Travis to be a factor on the glass. He’s a little undersized for a Big Ten forward, but he plays with a good motor and as a result pulls down more than seven rebounds per game.

Prediction: This is a game which could certainly go either way. Northwestern should have a size advantage, but Penn State is more athletic. Northwestern should be able to shoot better, but they’ve also been known to allow their opponents to shoot well above their season average. I’m also not certain how significant home court advantage will be for Penn State, but they do have a 15-3 all time record vs NU at home and I don’t think they’ve had a large crowd in any of those 18 games. Penn State, 58 Northwestern, 56

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Slow Down Gives Northwestern a Chance but Speed and Talent Don't

This game showed some signs of how Northwestern can compete with their follow Big Ten teams by slowing the game down. It also showed what happens when they stop slowing the game down (though we kind of knew that). Things are better for Northwestern when they slow the game down because at least the pace of play prevents anyone from the other team of catching fire. On the other hand, when they attempt to play at a fast pace you get what you got today when NU tried to speed the game up and Austin Hollins caught fire and drilled multiple threes in a row.

Basically, then first half of this game was how NU should play and the second half was the Michigan game again. NU needs to play as slowly as possible to compete. In addition, they need to make three point shots and not turn the ball over. The three wide open three point misses by Jared Swopshire in the first half were huge as they could have given NU nice momentum. Early in the second half when NU still had a shot Kale Abrahamson missed a key three. This Northwestern team hasn't shot well all year and that's a problem. If they are going to play slow each possession matters so much more and if they can't hit shots it'll be a problem.

Swopshire needs to play less if he can't score. Why Tre Demps doesn't see more time is beyond me. In addition, Mike Turner doesn't seem to offer anything offensively or defensively from my point of view. I know Alex Olah can't play all 40 minutes but somehow NU needs a sub in that position that actually is a factor in the game. I really wouldn't t mind seeing Chier Ajou get a shot since at least he's 7-2 and accidentally grab a rebound based just on size.

Overall, I really didn't expect this team to be as bad as they appear. I think the biggest problem is the fact NU can't score, but bottom line right now this is a bad basketball team that Northwestern is putting on the court right now. I don't know if they're worse than the 1999-2000 team which went 0-for-Big Ten play and couldn't score at all, but they're pretty bad. I'll be paying attention and being supportive the rest of the year, but these last two games haven't been pretty to watch. The only positive is NU has two of their best chances at a Big Ten win in the next two games. I have doubts about a win happening but at least they aren't facing a top-15 team.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Northwestern Seeking Better Effort at Minnesota

The fact is that right now Northwestern is overmatched in virtually any game they play. Hopefully Reggie Hearn and Nikola Cerina will return at 100% soon, but years of being a Northwestern fan make me wonder about the likelihood of that occurrence. Regardless, the disappointment of NU’s loss to Michigan wasn’t the fact that NU lost badly—it was the fact NU didn’t seem to play with the intensity one would have assumed was necessary when playing a top-5 team in that nation. Maybe the reason for that was simply the fact that due to the team’s injuries that NU was playing a number of guys who never played a Big Ten game before and they were surprised by what they experience was like. I don’t know, but I do know that NU has to display more intensity (especially on defense) or what we saw vs Michigan will be the same in virtually every game.

NU now goes on the road to play at Minnesota. The positive is that NU has played better on the road this year than at home, but the fact is that Minnesota is a team which is way more talented than Northwestern. In fact, I’ve probably been more impressed with Minnesota than any other Big Ten team this year. I like the Gophers athletes up front and they play good defense as a team. Most concerning for NU is the Gophers 41 rebounds a game average. I’m thinking that Minnesota might be able to score every possession if they don’t turn the ball over as I’m not sure Northwestern will be able get any rebounds vs Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe, and the rest of the super-athletic Gophers.

On offense Minnesota balances their scoring with four players Williams, Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, and Joe Coleman all in double figures. Williams is the type of guy who scores a lot on putbacks and lobs because he’s so athletic, but the other guys can score in multiple ways and have the ability to knock down shots.

I’m not really sure what the best defense for NU to play vs Minnesota would be, but it better be one which shows some effort and hustle. On offense, NU should return to the slow-paced burn offense and if nothing else should at least keep the game low scoring. If NU shoots a high percentage from three then that slow pace will give them a chance.

Prediction: I think Minnesota wins this game with second chance points, but NU slowing down the game keeps the score below 70. Minnesota, 68 Northwestern, 52

Thursday, January 3, 2013

#2 Michigan Outclasses Northwestern

This was a game that was over within the first five minutes. Michigan played as well as they could for the first seven or eight possessions of the game and Northwestern played about as bad as they could. Granted, I didn’t expect Northwestern to be able to beat this Michigan team, but I thought they’d at least make the game interesting for a half or so. They didn’t make it interesting for more than a half a minute.

Michigan is talented and anybody watching tonight would be ready to draft Trey Burke as their first player if they were going to start a team, but this game was decided much more by Northwestern’s ineptitude than Michigan’s talent. This was probably some of the worst basketball played by NU in Welsh-Ryan Arena in several years. Michigan simply did whatever they wanted on the offensive end and Northwestern was hopeless or maybe helpless to stop them.

Some will say that it was simply the talent gap that resulted in NU’s defeat, but I point to effort. It seemed Northwestern came out flat for a game vs the #2 team in the country. That doesn’t make sense to me. If they weren’t flat then they were simply scared to death which isn’t acceptable either. Whatever the reason, Northwestern had a notable lack of intensity on defense and that allowed Michigan to make six of their first seven shots and pretty much put the game away before some of the fans who entered late had even found their seats.

NU’s lack of intensity on defense, especially in man-to-man, has been something I’ve talked about a lot over the past 4.5 years. I don’t really want to rehash it again, but I will say that though I think it would be totally unfair for AD Jim Phillips to fire Bill Carmody after all the bad breaks this season that NU’s lack of intensity is the type of thing that gets a coach fired. If you as a coach can’t at least get your guys to play hard vs the #2 team in the country, overmatched as they might be, that’s not something which your AD is going be very happy about.

I do see hope for NU on offense as I see scoring potential in Tre Demps, Alex Olah, and Kale Abrahamson. I’d hope Abrahamson and Demps would be a little better from the outside and that Olah would be a little stronger with the ball, but the talent exists for them to do something productive. Offense, though, won’t win games for this team. The firepower just isn’t there. If Northwestern is to have any chance they have to play defense. I don’t expect them to beat Minnesota either, but if they don’t at least play harder on defense it’ll be hard for me to have any hope about where this season is going the rest of the way.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

#2 Michigan at NU: Do the 'Cats have a chance?

First off congrats to NU's football team and coach Fitzgerald. Wildcat Nation is really a very happy group right now and deservedly so. Hopefully, many of those who cheered the football 'Cats on to victory in Jacksonville will be around to support NU's hoops team on Thursday night. I truly believe the NU crowd made a difference in the Gator Bowl and I know similar things can happen in basketball when the crowd is into the game.

Now, I have to admit that this game doesn't seem to offer the Wildcats much of a shot. Michigan is a team which seems not to have any sort of weakness. They get rebounds, play defense, and can score both inside and outside. I think they're also well coached and have played a competitive enough schedule that their 13-0 record is legitimate.

As has been the case in the past, the guys who really make UM go are Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. It's a shame both didn't go to the NBA as they considered because it would have really increased the odds of NU beating these guys who they've consistently lost close to in the last few meetings. Burke's all around skills have him scoring nearly 18 points per game and shooting over 50%. He's also given out 96 assists so far this year. Hardaway has improved as a shooter at 35% from three which forces defenders to respect his outside shot and causes him to have more ability to get to the hoop. Those two are joined by dead-eye shooter Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III as UM's top scoring threats. Those offensive players are supported by past Wildcat killer Jordan Morgan and freshman Mitch McGary who dominate inside. I once again feel this will be a tremendous challenge for NU's Alex Olah and I'm glad NU played enough tough non-conference games that Olah won't be totally overwhelmed by Big Ten big men.

NU's other key players are Tre Demps and Reggie Hearn. The 'Cats must score points and those guys to be offer the most well rounded offensive games on the Wildcats. I'd like to see Demps get a little more time than he has those far. He needs to play well on defense to keep himself on the court, but the kid is a natural scorer and that's huge. Health is a hopefully not an issue for Hearn who missed NU's last game. With the number of injuries NU's had the team now is without a doubt led by Reggie and Alex Marcotullio so hopefully Hearn can be on the court most of this game. Also, look to see if Nikola Cerina can play. With Sanjay Lumpkin once again out the added depth of Cerina's return could be a big boost for NU. He's also possibly someone who can add a little more offensive as Jared Swopshire has been more of a defensive oriented player of late.

Prediction: I have more hope for NU than many others it seems. Real Time RPI predicts NU to go 7-11 in the Big Ten and I really think that's not unreasonable. I think Demps scoring is a key and I think  Olah needs help form Cerina on the glass, but it could happen. That said, I struggle to see how NU can have enough fire power and size to best a very strong Michigan squad. Michigan, 70 Northwestern, 60