It takes a lot to excite Bill Carmody. Northwestern's 58-year-old head coach carries himself as a wry East Coast guy who almost always prefers to go the understated route.
But if one thing particularly pleased him about the Wildcats' 67-52 home win over Michigan on Tuesday night -- especially as it pertains to their future -- it was the fact that four players scored in double figures for just the third time in Big Ten play.
Carmody didn't enjoy it when John Shurna scored 31 points in Saturday's loss at Michigan State but nobody else managed more than 12. Against Michigan, freshman Drew Crawford led the way with 17 points while Shurna hit for 15 and center Luka Mirkovic and point guard Juice Thompson added 12 points each.
Oh, and each of NU's starters handed out at least three assists. The Wildcats posted 21 assists in 25 baskets, which is a good omen heading into Sunday's home game with Indiana.
"I liked that there was balance," Carmody said. "Shurna had a big night the other night and that's great and all, but it's a team game. You just like it when you see four or five guys that are really involved offensively and finished plays. That's important."
Another key going into the Indiana game: The Hoosiers have been susceptible to giving up points in the post. Northwestern doesn't always score often in there, but the Wildcats decided early against Michigan that they would make sure to throw the ball in to Mirkovic and backup center Kyle Rowley. The duo combined for six layups in the first half against Michigan, which also helped NU's shooters gain the room to drill five 3-pointers in five first-half possessions.
"We take a lot of 3's," Carmody told the Daily Herald. "We have guys who can knock down shots. And, again, we threw the ball inside. We threw it into Johnny (Shurna). We threw it down to Luka. We threw it down to Kyle (Rowley) in the first half. I think that's really important -- that inside-out stuff."
NORTHWESTERN 67, MICHIGAN 52: The Wildcats wrapped up the program's first sweep of Michigan since the 1966-67 season with a thorough victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Northwestern made its first bold move when four Wildcats combined to hit five straight 3-pointers in a 2-minute, 13-second stretch midway through the first half. Michigan rallied to pull within 6 points with 13:56 to go, but NU held the Wolverines scoreless for more than six minutes to pull away. NU also limited DeShawn Sims, the Big Ten's leading scorer in conference games (20.6 ppg), to just 4 points on 2-for-9 shooting.
Freshman swingman Drew Crawford, who drilled Michigan for 25 points in the final 25 minutes of their first meeting, led all scorers with 17 points. He hit 4 of 5 from 3-point range. John Shurna added 15 points and eight rebounds while center Luka Mirkovic and point guard Juice Thompson contributed 12 points apiece. The Wildcats set a season-best for field-goal shooting (54.2 percent) and tied their best 3-point effort (10 of 20) on their way to their largest victory margin over Michigan since the 1998-99 season.
--Ever since the Big Ten schedule was released in the fall, Northwestern and its fans have been lamenting the power-packed opening half of the slate: Two games with Michigan State. Two with Illinois. Trips to Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan. Visits from Purdue and Wisconsin.
Here's the damage from that first-half gantlet: Three wins, including a triumph over the No. 6 Boilermakers. Six losses, including four against nationally ranked teams. It's little wonder the Wildcats went from No. 25 to nowhere in the Associated Press poll during that stretch. They're certainly on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But similar to a child who gets dessert after choking down his broccoli, Northwestern finally gets a reward for its suffering. The Wildcats' final 10 regular-season games, including Tuesday's victory over Michigan and an upcoming home date with Chicago State, feature just one matchup with a nationally ranked team, the Feb. 21 trip to Wisconsin.
--Sophomore F John Shurna poured in a career-high 31 points in Northwestern's 79-70 loss at No. 5 Michigan State on Jan. 30. We mention this not just because Shurna scored 60 points in the Wildcats' two games with the Spartans this year, but because Shurna isn't afraid to lead the way when Northwestern plays ranked opponents.
In Northwestern's five games against AP Top 25 teams in January, Shurna averaged 21 points while shooting 37 of 75 (.493) from the field. He led the Wildcats in scoring in four of those five games. By contrast, Shurna averaged 17.5 points while shooting 22 of 54 (.407) in the Wildcats' four games against non-ranked foes.
--One of Northwestern's team goals is to lead the Big Ten in 3-pointers. Indeed, the Wildcats led the league in both makes (9.2) and attempts (25.5) per game entering the week. They also ranked third in 3-point shooting percentage (.362). At the same time, the Wildcats ranked third in 3-point percentage defense (.297). NU and Illinois were tied for the best 3-point percentage disparity (plus-.065) in the league.
ON THE SPOT: It's nit-picking after Northwestern's complete 67-52 victory over Michigan, but the Wildcats committed 12 turnovers. While that's just one miscue over their average, the problem was the type of turnovers. Point guard Juice Thompson, one of the nation's most solid playmakers, threw away post passes that Luka Mirkovic couldn't handle. Swingman Drew Crawford didn't use the proper fakes before trying to feed the post and had at least two passes deflected and stolen. Even backup Alex Marcotullio threw away a backdoor feed. Playing a relatively slow tempo, the Wildcats can't afford to give away so many possessions.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'd rather not talk that much about it because it's a team game and we lost. I'm happy for him, but we have things to work on so I don't want to say anything." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody in the Chicago Tribune, discussing his unwillingness to discuss John Shurna's career-high 31 points in Saturday's loss at Michigan State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Though they lost their best player and their second-best reserve in mid-November, the Wildcats are in the hunt for their first NCAA Tournament berth. As the committee members size up NU's resume, they'll see just one win over a likely NCAA team (Purdue). The Wildcats have lost five games against likely NCAA teams (Butler, Wisconsin, Ohio State and two vs. Michigan State).
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Drew Crawford, F John Shurna, C Luka Mirkovic, G Michael Juice Thompson, G Jeremy Nash. Key Subs G Alex Marcotullio, C Kyle Rowley, F Mike Capocci.
Northwestern 73, Illinois 68
Minnesota 65, Northwestern 61
Michigan State 79, Northwestern 70
Northwestern 67, Michigan 52
vs. Indiana, Sunday, Feb. 7
at Iowa, Wednesday, Feb. 10
vs. Minnesota, Sunday, Feb. 14
vs. Penn State, Wednesday, Feb. 17
IN FOCUS: The Wildcats, who beat Michigan at home on Tuesday, get three of their next four games at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where they've gone 11-3 with recent wins over No. 6 Purdue and Illinois. To remain a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender, NU probably needs to win all four of these games. A 4-0 run would give the Wildcats a single-season school record for victories.
--Sophomore F John Shurna led Northwestern in scoring six times during the first half of the Big Ten schedule, but he was just a spoke in the wheel during the Wildcats' 67-52 win over Michigan on Tuesday. Shurna took just nine shots -- one off his season-low -- but he contributed 15 points, eight rebounds and a career-high five assists.
--Freshman swingman Drew Crawford drove Michigan nuts again. He finished with a game-high 17 points as he canned 4 of 5 3-pointers as well as a circus-style driving reverse layup for a 3-point play. In NU's two wins over Michigan, Crawford made 13 of 18 shots overall and 8 of 10 3-pointers for a total of 42 points in 65 minutes.
--Senior G Jeremy Nash scored just five points in 38 minutes, but the 6-foot-4 leaper controlled the defensive glass and finished with a career-high 11 rebounds. Nash also handed out five assists, which is his season-high against a Big Ten team.
--Senior F Kevin Coble (Lisfranc fracture in his left foot) and senior swingman Jeff Ryan (torn ACL in his knee) are out for the year. Coble, a second-team all-Big Ten pick last year, has undergone successful surgery and plans to start running in late March when the screws are removed from his foot. Ryan also underwent surgery and is on target to use his redshirt year and return as well.
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