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.