Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rocked 'Em Like a Hurricane

Let's just get this out there: I'm never going to pass on the chance to work 80's hair band videos into my posts.

I mentioned in the LSU post-game that I was worried about where the points were going to come from once teams wised up a bit and started to shut down Shurna. These fears may’ve been, um, misplaced.

With Shurna guarded closely for most of the game against Tulsa, Drew Crawford shredded the Golden Hurricanes’ defense with 28 points, as the Cats advanced to the Charleston Classic final, 69-65. Beginning with the second half on Thursday, Crawford’s now put together a solid 60 straight minutes of lights-out basketball, and showed that although Shurna is the team’s “star,” Crawford may have even greater potential. Games like this should only further increase his confidence and aggressiveness on the court.

Shurna was much more quiet on Friday, with 17 points, but much of that was due to being the constant focus of Tulsa’s D. Cobb looks ready to start turning things on, and as he works back from his hip injury, he could be a deadly weapon by the time we get to conference play. Sobo’s comfort with the system is growing faster than India’s population right now, with the next big step being him taking more of a shooting role. Reggie Mother-Fucking Hearn was impressive once again, scoring 4 points and pulling down three rebounds. In reality, RMFH should have had at least two more boards, but was unable to control them. Now that he’s getting real minutes, Hearn should put in some work around the boards to improve his form and strength, to avoid careless lost opportunities.

So far, Marco’s minutes have really dropped off in this tournament, while Demps has yet to see the floor. Marco may still be slowed by his bum ankle, but a quick scour of the interwebs hasn’t shed any light on the issue with Demps. I’m sure more will be revealed on that front in the next week or so.

Yet again, play from the center position was the biggest concern. While Mirk and Curletti combined for 10 points, they pulled down only 2 rebounds in total…you know, fewer than 6’4” walk-on Reggie Mother-Fucking Hearn. There’s only so much one can write about the frustration at watching our big men play, but we’ll state the obvious: Northwestern won’t be a tourney team without improved play at the 5 spot. Simple as that.

The Tulsa win was huge for Northwestern, propelling them to 3-0 and showing that we can hang with (possible) bubble teams. The Cats utilized the 1-3-1 less frequently than in the LSU match-up, but overall showed improvement on D. Having Hearn, Crawford and Cobb on the floor at once gives Northwestern a great defensive look . Next up, the Cats will play Seton Hall Sunday night for the championship. In theory, it should be an easier match-up than Tulsa, but the day we assume a win is the day you know we’ll start a losing streak. Til then, Go Cats!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Heeeere's Johnny!!

And the legend of one of the ‘Cats most prolific offensive weapons ever grows…

The Senior leader, hero, and the player with the most-improved acne condition went nuclear Thursday afternoon, scoring 37 points and single-handedly carrying the ‘Cats through a dreadful first half en route to an important 88-82 victory over the Tiger Bloods of LSU. Going 4/9 from three and, more importantly, 13/14 from the free throw line, Shurna took the team on his shoulders and managed more points than the next 3 top scoring NU players combined. With Juice no longer available late in a close game, it appears Shurna has embraced his new role as “The Man,” willing to take the key shots down the stretch, and make plays himself when the time calls.

But despite the victory over an athletic - if inexperienced - LSU team, Shurna’s Herculean output may be a sign that all is not well in Cat-land. As NU’s competition improves, it’s a pretty safe bet that teams will focus their energy on containing Shurna and making the rest of the team beat them. In that case, I’m not sure where the points are going to come from. Crawford continues to be very streaky, and Marco and Sobo’s reliance on outside shots always increases risk for an off night. A more full post on the scoring concerns will come later in the non-con schedule, but contributions from the rest of the team are certainly something to keep an eye on.

Anyway, back to Thursday!

Besides Sure Thing Shurna, there were some other great performances, at least in the second half. Crawford scored all 17 of his points in the second frame, mixing it up between 3’s and mid-range jumpers, as well as going 5/6 from the line. While he’s shown some of the aggression we’re hoping for around the hoop, he’ll need to work on finishing. Fortunately, I think this should resolve itself as the season drags on.

Freshman and future star Sobolewski added 10 points, including the virtual game winner – a ballsy baseline 3 with under a minute left in the game to give the Cats a 4 point lead. Cajones, he has ‘em. The rest of his line was respectable as well: 4 rebounds, a steal and a block, 6 assists and only 2 turnovers, while running the offense for much of the game. In the longer run, we’ll want to see him get more than 5 shot attempts per game, but he was impressive in this outing.

And then there was Reggie Hearn. Or, Reggie Mother-Fucking Hearn (RMFH) as he’ll be known as henceforth. The former walk-on had another great game, and I’m calling it right now: there will be REG-GIE chants in Welsh-Ryan before the season’s end. He’s the next Michael Jenkins (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap). 6 points with a couple rebounds, an assist and a steal may not seem that impressive, but the kid brought some serious energy, and his six points came at a crucial point in keeping the game close in the second half. RMFH has earned his scholarship, and should continue to see 15 minutes a game moving forward.

Marco and Cobb added 14 points off the bench, which is a positive sign. As they continue to come back from injury, those contributions should increase. Strangely, Demps did not see the floor at all in yesterday’s game. And that’s pretty much all…no one else to talk about…not anything I’m forgetting…

Dammit. The centers.

We’ll talk about them as one, as their ineptitude yesterday was indistinguishable from each other. Here’s the line: 40 minutes, 4 points, 3 rebounds, 0 (ZERO) assists, 1 block, 2 turnovers and 5 personal fouls. Oh. My. God. Defensively, Cats fans have all but abandoned hope that our Disaster Duo will contribute much, especially against better competition, but this offensive output is below even our restrained expectations. If NU is to have any hope of cracking the glass ceiling this year, we’re going to need 10+ points and rebounds a game from our big men. What is going on?!? If I’m Carmody, I tell Luka he needs to dunk once a game or he’s doing laps. Something, anything to force him to be more aggressive.

Today the Cats will play Tulsa and their 7 foot center. Northwestern fans will of course remember Tulsa from our loss to them in the 2010 NIT, and this year they are again expected to be a solid NCAA bubble team. I don’t like the match-up, but if we can get enough production from Crawford, Sobo and Marco to overcome Mirk and Curletti, we’ve got a chance. Til then, Go Cats!

Monday, November 14, 2011

One Down...

First game is in the bag: Cats 60, Broncs 36. And while it may have been nothing more than a glorified scrimmage in front of the few hundred or so people who decided to come out, that doesn't mean I can't have a bad case of premature evaluation. So here goes:

Northwestern certainly wasn't overly inspiring on the offensive end Sunday night, but considering injuries to returning players and inexperience among the freshmen this early in the season, fortunately, there were no major concerns either.

Despite playing at what seemed like less than full intensity at times, Shurna is clearly the team's star, playing at a different level than everyone else out there (and that's saying something with our weapons this year). While the Cats came out cold from deep, Shurna managed to knock down a couple threes to keep momentum rolling. More importantly, #24 showed off some great moves in the paint, cementing him as one of the best all around offensive players int he conferences. Future opponents: be afraid, be very afraid.

Whoa at Drew Crawford's new build. The guy's shed some serious weight and is now cut like a Greek god. This may only make sense to Cats fans, but he now looks like the players on the teams we face in conference - a sight Northwestern fans are most definitely not used to seeing in purple. Coming off of his ankle injury, it was tough to tell if there will be any significant change in Crawford's quickness, but I think we'll be pleasantly surprised. To be honest, it appears all of the Cats have spent some time in the gym this offseason. Obviously, this doesn't guarentee that we'll suddenly be pushing opposing players around like Purple Powerhouse that we are, errr, could be, but the strength certainly shouldn't hurt.

Scoring-wise, Crawford was fine on offense, going 3-7 from the field with one 3 and 11 points total. But, as I mentioned in the season preview, what we're looking for is agression, and boy did we see something that made our repeatedly-broken-and-stomped-on hearts flutter: seeing an open lane to the hoop, Crawford went all Superman on us with a leap-from-the-foul-line, in-your-face, bring-down-the-house, I-really-like-dashes dunk attempt, the likes of which Northwestern is almost always on the receiving end of on the next day's SportsCenter Top Ten. Unfortunately, in this case gravity was Superman's kryptonite, as he was soundly rejected by the front edge of the rim (one of 2 missed dunks by Northwestern, naturally), and nearly injured his shoulder in the process. Still, its that type of move to the hoop that could make Crawford a truly great player this year.

It was tough to get a read on Marcotullio, as he still seems to be bouncing back from his ankle injury. As he heals, I expect that he'll end up being the primary PG in Northwestern's set, with Sobo backing him with significant minutes. JerShonn Cobb sat out the game as he continues recovery from hip surgery, but may be available Thursday when the Cats tip-off in the Charleston Classic.

The play of the freshman, Sobo and Demps, was adequate for the opening game, but leaves me somewhat concerned in anticipation of our more difficult early season match-ups. Sobo seemed to have the better grasp of the offense, as well as solid ball-handling skills, but was not much of an offensive threat. As the level of competition increases, it will be important to see if he’s able to continue playing effectively as a PG under greater defensive pressure, as well as showing a better outside shot. However, I do feel really good about his longer term prospects, not only from a basketball perspective, but as a real spark with his feisty attitude. Demps will almost certainly also develop into a solid player, though his comfort with the Princeton system may be a longer time coming.

And now on to the centers… On the positive side, both Mirk and Curletti had a size advantage over Texas Pan-Am’s center and used it well on the offensive side of the ball. Mirk in particular showed off a few good post moves that I can’t recall seeing before, and was very effective inside the paint. He also showed a little more aggression in tracking down rebounds, though against stronger competition I’ m not confident that will necessarily continue. Defensively, Mirk had the stronger night by every possible definition. Now, much of this if probably due to the fact that in the first half Curletti came in and picked up two (2!!) fouls in 25 (25!!) seconds. That is to say, in the time it takes Dr. Pepper to tell you they’re having a Real. Good. Time, Curletti managed to come in, play, and get himself pulled. All joking aside, this could be a major problem moving forward, as Northwestern is only two deep at the center position. Its fair to expect that Mirk is going to be pulling huge minutes this season.

One big positive on offense was the play of walk-on Reggie Hearn. Hearn was all over the place on both ends. Offensively, he had the second highest scoring game of his career, while complementing that with a solid effort on the boards. As the primary starters work their way back from injury, Hearn’s minutes will no doubt take a hit, but he should be a solid option off the bench moving forward. Look for him to pick up 10-15 minutes a game, with a consistent 5-10 points and a couple boards.

Overall, we didn’t learn much based on the level of competition and the lingering effects of injuries to a number of players. We’ll certainly know a lot more by Thursday and Friday night, after the Cats get through the first couple of games of the Charleston Classic. The Princeton Offense offers an advantage in these types of tourneys as opponents have limited time to prepare, but if the Cats don’t come out rolling on offense, things could go off the tracks quickly. We’ll have the full recaps here. Till then, Go Cats!!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wildcat Basketball 2011: Getting Defensive

And now, the thrilling conclusion to our two part series: Northwestern Basketball 2011. Today, we look at the Defense.

The thrills!

The heartbreak!

The horror!

As good as Northwestern has been on offense the past 2 seasons, they have been equally bad on defense. How else can you explain finishing under .500 in conference with the 3rd best offense in the B1G? You can’t, I assure you. Last year, as Cats fans watched with disbelief, Northwestern’s defense was cut up worse than the folks in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When fans search for reasons for our continued failure to reach the Dance, defense sits alone at the top of the list. How could things be this bad?

Blame can be assigned liberally across the team and coaches. For much of Coach Carmody’s tenure, reports surfaced that the team practiced little defense in their preparations, instead choosing to focus on mastering the complexities of our offense. At times in the early to mid-2000s, the team didn’t need to execute on the defensive end: the very slow pace of the Princeton Offense limited opponents’ possessions, and would sometimes prevent other teams from getting into any rhythm on offense. Northwestern fans should remember games such as the 40-39 victory over Purdue, back in a time where there was a running joke that the football team would outscore the basketball Cats on any given weekend.

As our offensive pace has increased in the past 2 years, some of the natural defensive advantages of the Princeton Offense have been lost. In their absence, some glaring defensive deficiencies have emerged. In any given game, the Cats can sport a 2-3, 1-3-1 or man defense. All have been beaten badly by our conference brethren.

Having set that stage, is there any chance of improvement in the 2011-12 campaign? Maybe…

One of the big issues in my mind is that while systems like the Princeton Offense can minimize and overcome a talent gap between the Cats and Big Ten opponents, it’s more difficult to compensate for these differences on defense. Northwestern today is more athletic than at any point in their history, but with the exception of a few players, are still generally less athletic than some of their B1G competition.

When executed well, the Cats should be able to limit some of the differences through their zone defenses. However, whether it’s coaching or a lack of trust in the big men in the paint, Northwestern’s 2-3 zone is consistently beaten by dribble penetration -> defensive collapses on the ball -> opponent kicking it out -> open shot on the perimeter. Nearly every week some player lights us up with their career record in points, and as fans we wonder why we have such bad “luck” and always catch players on their best nights. Truth is, when you end up leaving guys on the outside more open than Tobias and Lindsay Funke’s marriage, they’re going to hit some shots.

Issues with our 1-3-1 zone are more well documented. While the unique defensive look can be very effective against teams out of conference, at this point most Big Ten schools have learned to exploit its key weakness, namely the single player covering the whole baseline. Teams with solid ball movement who can avoid the trapping D at the top will consistently get a man wide open for a 3 on the baseline.

The loss of Juice Thompson will undoubtedly have offensive repercussions, but the defensive impact is less certain. Juice was not one of the stronger pieces of our defense last season, and he was particularly out of place at the bottom of the 1-3-1. How many times did we hear the play by play guys laughing about the 5’10” Juice guarding a 6’9” center down low? Too many.

This year many expect Crawford to fill that role in the 1-3-1, which certainly adds a lot of length at the position, without a drop off in speed. In both zone sets, increased minutes for Marcotullio should be a positive. Marco’s quick hands generated some key turnovers last season, and it’s not hard seeing him develop into a defensive player similarly effective to Jeremy Nash 2 years ago. Finally free of injury, Shurna should be even more mobile this season, which combined with his size should result in further improved. Down low, he’s proven himself to be a fairly capable shot blocker.

The jury will remain out on the freshmen until after the Cats navigate through some of their tougher non-Con matchups, but from a size and strength perspective both Demps and Sobo look as though they can hold their own.

Continued concern will revolve around the play of our centers (yes, its them again). Defensively, both Mirk and Curletti have been dominated at times by Big Ten centers. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think this year will be any different. The key to stopping Big Ten centers from putting up huge numbers against Northwestern will be the Cats’ ability to keep the ball out of their hands as much as possible, or forcing them to get possession outside of the immediate vicinity of the hoop. This would give the Cats time to drop another player down low for the double team, which would hopefully prove more effective. Of course, the clear downside to this strategy is the open shot we’d basically concede on a kick out to whichever offensive player had been abandoned.

On the whole, the 2011-12 defense shouldn’t be any worse than last season, and may even show some improvement based on the new personnel. However, as we learned in some games last season, our best progress on the defensive end might not be tied to defensive play at all.

Playing against an immensely talented Ohio State team last season without Shurna, Northwestern decided that their best chance at victory was to kick it old school: revert back to running the Princeton Offense at a snail’s pace. Limit possessions, throw off Ohio State’s flow and see what happens. While the Cats ultimately lost in a close game, the strategy worked brilliantly. Moving into 2011, the Cats’ should continue to adjust their speed on offense up or down based on the quality of opponent. Sure, slowing it down makes the games more frustrating to watch, but if the strategy works, I trust you won’t find any fans complaining.

Expect some improvement in the players year over year, but look to the gameplan for any serious defensive improvement this season. The offense possibly being the best defense…it’s so Northwestern.