Northwestern Surprising As Big 10 Play Begins

The Fighting Illini basketball team expected to be flying high by the start of the Big 10 season, and the schedule favored getting off to a fast start in its first few conference games. But after two straight losses, a Northwestern quintet now ranked in the Top 25 looks as a difficult challenge at the Assembly Hall Wednesday night.

Northwestern is always a frustrating opponent to play due to its unique Princeton-style offense. But that assignment was made harder for the Illinois basketball team after losing to Georgia and Missouri on neutral courts. Now, the Illini are coming off a brief Christmas break wondering what went wrong and how to fix it instead of devoting all energy to the Wildcats' style.

"We were very disappointed in the performance the other night," Illinois coach Bruce Weber admits. "Not the loss necessarily, but we did some things we haven't done all year. We didn't execute much, and somehow we've got to find some better mental toughness and discipline. I've got to find a way to instill that.

"The first five minutes of games and halves, we've trailed 9-10 of our 12 games. We're trying to catch up all the time. We've talked to the guys about getting hyped up, being ready. I thought we were ready for Missouri, but I don't think we were ready for how hard they played.

"We didn't play as a team. And we had a lot of unforced turnovers. Too much dribbling, then even our transition defense. We would take bad quick shots and had poor transition defense from that. That was disappointing.

"We have to get the ball inside. One thing you can do to help your defense is limit your possessions on offense. Our shot selection has to get better, we've got to get some more inside touches.

"If that doesn't happen, we might have to just limit our shot selection. Make them grind it more so there will be less possessions to guard. I'd like for them to have freedom to make decisions, but if they can't deal with that freedom, then we've got to control that because it is a factor in our games right now."

The Illini suffer from a lack of consistent leadership. Point guard Demetri McCamey has improved over last year, but he is not a natural leader. Plus, McCamey needs to take better care of the ball as he leads the conference in turnovers. Weber is concerened about that.

"There's no doubt. But it's got to be a concern of his too. If you want to be a true point guard, it's judged by wins. If you score, you score. But it's taking care of the ball, leading the team, winning games.

"The Clemson game was one of his worst scoring games, but he led us, he got it to the right people. He had 7 assists, and we were a much better team when he was in there. But sometimes he just puts his head down and he dribbles too much. And then it dictates bad possessions. He's got to be convinced of it and make some changes.

"You're always looking for a 2:1 (ratio of assists to turnovers). Ideally, you want a guy going 2.5 to 3 to one. Then he's having a great year. He only had two turnovers against Missouri, but I thought it was his dribbling that put us in a bind on some possessions.

"If we have to change personnel, habits, I don't know. But it would be nice if they changed their mental demeanors. Understand what it's about and be more ready to play instead of feeling their way out. It may mean a change in the starting lineup over the next week possibly.

Until Northwestern earns its first NCAA Tournament berth, it will remain an underdog. But as the Wildcats zoom into Big Ten play, it's fair to say they accomplished everything on their pre-conference to-do list and then some.

Northwestern heads to Illinois with a 10-1 record and a nine-game winning streak. If the Wildcats can beat the Illini for the first time since 1999, they'll have the program's first 11-1 start since 1982-83 and the first double-digit winning streak since the 1930-31 Big Ten champs opened the season 12-0.

While 6'-8" sophomore forward John Shurna (15.9 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game) has received the lion's share of national publicity -- in part because he outproduced Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Iowa State's Craig Brackins on back-to-back nights -- there's no question that junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson is the guy who makes the Wildcats go.

Maybe Thompson gets overlooked because his true height is closer to 5-foot-8 than the 5-10 listing in the media guide, but that's inexplicable for anyone who has watched Northwestern improve since the day he walked in the door.

Thompson has started all 72 games since he arrived and produced well by any metric. He's averaging a team-high 16.7 points this year and figures to crack the career 1,000-point barrier in February. He leads the Wildcats in assists (42) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8-to-1) and remains on pace to become the school's all-time leading assist man.

Then there's his outside shot, which was the biggest knock on him entering college. Thompson was the Big Ten's top returning 3-point shooter entering the year (41.7 percent) and he hasn't lost his touch despite becoming the Wildcats' No. 1 threat.

In the first 11 games, Thompson hit 31 of 73 3-pointers (42.5 percent). That included such big shots as his 3-pointer with 1:24 to go against Stanford on Dec. 19 that quelled a 9-0 Cardinal run and saved the game.

Weber has great respect for Bill Carmody's bunch.

"Everyone thought Northwestern would be good, they had everybody back. With losing (Kevin) Coble and (Jeff) Ryan early and still performing at a high level, they would have to be a surprise.

"I would say Michael Thompson would be one of the most improved kids in the league and the country. I saw Shurna this summer. He did real well with USA basketball. He was a valuable member of that team, and that experience gave him a lot of confidence. He's kind of a 3, kind of a 4, he puts you in a bind because he can run around.

"I know those guys were together all summer and worked hard. They had a lot of motivation. They were at a lot of different gyms we were at. They were playing together and working out. And they're playing very determined.

"(Jeremy) Nash (6'-4" senior) does a good job of leading, accepting his role. And Drew Crawford (6'-5") has done a nice job as a freshman. He has added scoring to the mix and taken over for Coble.

"I think their best thing is their three-point shooting. Thompson is 43%, Drew Crawford is 40%, freshman Alex Marcotullio (6'-3") is 40%. Their big guy (sophomore Luka Mirkovic, 6'-11", 235) is at 40%, although he hasn't shot alot. And then Nash is making some. I'm not even sure he shot any last year. That's the scary part of it.

"They get that out of their system. They're really executing their system, maybe the best since one of my first years here. They're moving fast, cutting, finding where they can score. And they get a lot of open threes off it, especially Thompson."

This is not good news for an Illini team searching for a defensive identity. The Wildcats exploit breakdowns in defenses, and the Illini have broken down frequently at all five positions. Freshmen D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are doing no worse than their upperclassmen teammates, but they will undoubtedly take time to figure out NW's sets.

Weber says he may need to change his defensive approach to counter Illini weaknesses.

"Defensively, we have to back off a little with our pressure, make it more compact. We haven't done real well stretching our defense out, so that would be one thing. We'll put more time and effort into it, and hopefully they're convinced that it's important. Maybe we can get a better effort out of a few of them. And then tinker with the zone if we have to."

Game time is 8:00pm. Weber will need all his coaching expertise to pull out a victory over a confident Wildcat bunch. Still, his players share that responsibility.

"I've told them they can make me a better coach by playing better. Then you don't have to keep searching for answers and solutions."

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