Unique NW Style A Challenge For Illini

The Fighting Illini host Northwestern in a late evening tilt at the Assembly Hall Thursday. The Wildcats had a great preseason but lost their first two Big 10 games. Their star John Shurna, one of the best shooters in the country, has been hobbled by a high ankle sprain, contributing to their recent slump. Their unique style is a challenge for the Illini.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber comments about the improved Northwestern team coached by Bill Carmody.

"You've got another home game coming up against a team that feels very good about itself going into the season. Now they've lost three out of the last four. Some of it is the teams they played, but also some of it is Shurna's injury. He was playing as well as anybody, not only in the league but in the country when he hurt his ankle."

The junior Shurna (6'-8", 215) is averaging 21.3 points a game, hitting 56.6% from the field and an incredible 58.3% from the three point line. He also pulls down 5 boards a game and is second on the team in assists.

Weber wants to win, but he respects how hard Shurna is playing despite the injury. The shot may be off, but he is still trying.

"With shooting, you talk about balance and feet. He's one of the best three point shooters in the country. And now the last couple games it seems like he doesn't have that balance and explosion. You've got to get your feet under you if you're gonna be a good shooter. Especially from the three point range, you really need the balance.

"I think everywhere else he's okay. It's not like he's limping down the court. I think the other thing too is they probably kept him out of practice. Now you don't have that rhythm you have on a daily basis. It's not easy."

The Illini will approach the game as if Shurna is at full strength. Bill Cole will defend him part of the time.

"He's tall, he's about my height. He can shoot the three. He's got kind of a funky motion, but it goes in a lot. He can do a little bit of everything. He'll post you, he'll back cut you, he'll shoot some shots you wouldn't even expect.

"Any time you limit touches for a guy like that, it's good. I'm just gonna try to not let him get off to a good start. Make him work for everything he gets."

Illini point guard Demetri McCamey played with Shurna on Illinois Wolves AAU teams coached by Mike Mullins. He didn't realize how good he was.

"He always had game, he just looked so silly no one took him seriously. But he always played good. Coach Mullins always said he was going to be a player. I didn't think he'd be as good as he is, but he's a real good player."

Shurna is difficult to stop, but it is the unique offensive and defensive style the Wildcats use that make them difficult to play according to Weber.

"Wisconsin was one style, now you've got a whole other style. We have a pretty good feel how to play against them. Now can you transfer that to the players? Can they go out and execute it on the court?

"With them, one you've got to deal with their offense. They continue to shoot quite a few threes and continue to shoot it at a pretty prolific rate. They've got a lot of people, they spread you out. With Shurna's injury, maybe they're going a little more to (Luka) Mirkovic inside, isolating him in the post. You can't help because they've got such great shooters.

"You also have to deal with their defenses. Whether it's the matchup zone or the one-three-one, they play both of them pretty well. We're not used to playing against it on a daily basis. We'll see how we attack with the basketball and also see if we can guard them like we're supposed to."

Illini seniors Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Cole and McCamey have worked against Carmody's schemes for three years, so they have a basic understanding. But the other Illini players will need time to learn everything. They may need more time than they have to prepare.

"If you came to practice (Tuesday), it's a debacle," Weber describes. They're totally confused. The way they play, you've got to make a decision. Do you guard it the same way you always do, or do you change a few things? We're not trying to change drastically against them, but we've found it's a little different on some things.

"I don't think the regular way we guard things is a habit yet, now in a couple days we're trying to change some mental habits. How do I guard the backdoor? Normally if somebody's dribbling toward you, you come up and deny. They want you to do that, they're gonna get you on the backdoor.

"They make some unbelievable passes. It's a lot like a quarterback read; they throw it before the guy is open. Then they get you spread out and get those easy shots.

"It's tough for them (Illini players), including Meyers (Leonard) the 5 man because they get the big guy involved. He's like a quarterback, he's handing off, he's spreading the court, doing a lot of different things. You have to react to each situation."

Weber recommends one technique over all others when playing Northwestern.

"No matter what, if you don't know just play hard. Whatever you're gonna do, do it hard. Don't stand around. The worst thing you can do is stand there and freeze. Just get after them and be aggressive. Don't let them get you on your heels.

"They're gonna get some baskets, they're gonna get you on some backdoors, they're gonna get you on some quick threes. You've got to just be consistent and play hard. Make them earn things."

Supporting Shurna is senior point guard Michael Thompson (5'-10", 190), who averages 14.8 points a game. He shoots 50% from the field including 40% from the arc. He also leads the team with 54 assists in 12 games. Sophomore Drew Crawford (6'-5", 205) averages 14.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest.

The junior Mirkovic (6'-11", 248) averages 6.6 rebounds to go along with 7.8 points a game. Freshman JerShon Cobb (6'-5", 180) has started 10 games and averages 6.5 ppg. Top reserve Alex Marcotullio, a 6'-3", 180 pound sophomore, is also an excellent three point shooter. Other top reserves who see time include junior Davide Curletti (6'-9", 238) and seniors Mike Capocci (6'-6", 195) and Jeff Ryan (6'-6", 205).

Illini senior forward Mike Davis knows how to play the Wildcats.

"All the backdoors, you can't really pressure too much. They've got good shooters. It's different. It took me two years to learn it. Last year I was a little more comfortable with it. We've got to help these young guys come along and get ready to play.

"You've got to stick to the script. (The coaches) do such a good job of taking time to scout them, so you've got to stick to the plan. If you go away from the game plan, you might put us in trouble."

Davis was asked about the difference between this Wildcat team and previous ones.

"They have some really good players. They have Thompson and Crawford. They have a different breed of players. Some athletic guys, guys that are different than they used to have in previous years."

Davis says UIC gave the Illini a reminder of how tough home state schools play against them.

"We've got to play hard tomorrow because they're gonna come in ready to play. We're their big brother according to the media, and they don't want to take that. They're like UIC, so they're gonna come in here with a chip on their shoulder trying to beat us."

Senior center Mike Tisdale agrees with that assessment.

"They're always gonna give us their best shot. In-state schools want to challenge us. They're gonna give it their best, and we've got to come ready to play. Hopefully we can protect the home court."

McCamey realizes the Wildcats pose numerous threats, not just Shurna.

"They're very versatile. They've got three players that can score real well. We have to be especially alert with Shurna, Thompson and Crawford because they score most of the team's points."

The Illini may not have the full services of freshman Jereme Richmond, who has a slight Achilles strain. He will play, but Weber says he may be limited as much by NW as his own health.

"I just think he has some tenderness. He hobbled through about half the practice Tuesday. Hopefully he will be better with treatment. The tough thing with him these last two games, you need the practice. You've got to guard, and they're running different systems than you play against normally."

On a more positive note, Weber is beginning to find value in reserve wing Joseph Bertrand.

"I think the one that's really made strides from the beginning of the year to now is Joe Bertrand. I think he was really a freshman, kind of lost. He's figuring it out now and starting to feel more comfortable and confident.

"We don't think he's a point guard, but what he can do with his athleticism, pull-up jumpers, getting to the basket, he's pretty good. He's definitely made himself more noticed by everybody on the coaching staff."

Bertrand may help down the road, but the Northwestern game sounds like a job for the upperclassmen. If the Illini don't defend well, they could be in trouble. With the Wildcats, experience is the best teacher.

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