Northwestern Going Through Another Late Swoon

Bloomington - There was a time when Northwestern was considered a strong candidate to earn its first-ever NCAA invitation, but four losses in its last six Big Ten games have ended that talk. Indiana hosts the struggling Wildcats in Saturday's regular season finale...


Since Northwestern doesn't have a history of winning, it's hard to determine any trends when it comes to the Wildcats' late-season performances.

However, if you look at the Wildcats' better teams during Bill Carmody's 10-year tenure in Evanston, they all seem to find it hard to win in the final weeks of the season.

As these Wildcats head into the regular season's final week -- they host Chicago State on Wednesday before traveling to Indiana on Saturday -- they own four losses in their last six games. It's the team's second such streak this year, but the first one coincided with four games against Top 25 opponents. The current malaise came against just one ranked foe.

Last year's Wildcats put on a late burst to get to 17-11, which put them within a 7-foot center's reach of the NCAA Tournament, but they lost their final three games. The 2001-02 Wildcats got to 16-9 and appeared to be on the precipice of an NIT bid, but they lost their last four games and missed out on the postseason. The 2004-05 and 2005-06 teams each lost three of their last four to finish one game below .500 overall.

Why might there be a common thread, if there is a common thread at all? Because Carmody, more than any other Big Ten coach, prefers to give his best players as many minutes as they can stand. According to Ken Pomeroy's web site, junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson ranked third among all Div. I players in percentage of minutes played (93.8) while sophomore forward John Shurna ranked 21st (90.4 percent) and senior guard Jeremy Nash stood 116th (85.2 percent) through games of Feb. 21.

Only six other Big Ten players ranked among the nation's top 116 in percentage of minutes played -- and only Ohio State (Jon Diebler and David Lighty) had as many as two players on the list.

Northwestern's big three aren't likely to see their workload diminish as freshman swingman Drew Crawford, the team's fourth-best player, has been bothered for the last three weeks by a bad hip flexor and a sore back and might need to rest. That reduces Carmody's already-limited flexibility on the perimeter. He gave junior forward Mike Capocci and sophomore guard Nick Fruendt extra minutes in Sunday's 79-60 loss at Penn State and might need to do more such substituting this week.


--With Thursday's home win over Iowa, Northwestern tied the school record for single-season wins with 18. Technically, though, this year's team is the winningest in school annals as the 1982-83 Wildcats received one of their 18 wins years later when Wisconsin had to give them a forfeit in the wake of NCAA infractions. NU also has set a single-season record for home wins. The Wildcats are 14-4 at Welsh-Ryan Arena with Senior Night (Wednesday vs. Chicago State) still to come.

--Northwestern likes to rank among the national leaders in 3-pointers and that's right where the Wildcats were through February. They own a solid lead amongst Big Ten teams in 3-pointers made (267), 3-pointers per game (9.2), 3-point attempts (731) and 3-point attempts per game (25.2). Sophomore forward John Shurna (68 3s) and junior point guard Michael Thompson (67 3s) rank among the Big Ten's five most-prolific long-range shooters.

ON THE SPOT: Northwestern sophomore center Luka Mirkovic has been solid at home, but struggles mightily away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. Considering the Wildcats have just one more guaranteed home game, Mirkovic needs to figure out how to improve on the road. He's averaging 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds in 18 home games, but 4.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in 10 games outside of Evanston.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We haven't been a good road team all year. And the last three weeks our defense has really been spotty at best...we just couldn't stop them. It didn't matter the personnel that was in there (or) whatever we were trying to do: man, matchup, 1-3-1." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody on his postgame radio show (WGN 720-AM) after the Wildcats' 79-60 loss Sunday at Penn State.


SEASON RECAP: After going 10-1 in pre-conference play and returning to the Associated Press' national rankings for the first time since 1969, Northwestern has encountered enough tough sledding in Big Ten play that even an NIT invitation is no longer a given. The Wildcats have dropped four of their last six games -- including a pair of double-digit losses to previously winless Penn State -- and must win four games in four days at the Big Ten tournament in order to claim their first NCAA Tournament spot.

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, F Mike Capocci, C Davide Curletti.


Wisconsin 70, Northwestern 63

Northwestern 74, Iowa 57

Penn State 79, Northwestern 60


vs. Chicago State, Wednesday, March 3

at Indiana, Saturday, March 6

Big Ten tournament first-round game at Indianapolis, March 11

Rest of Big Ten tournament, March 12-14

IN FOCUS: Most of the Wildcats' starters have logged heavy minutes all year -- particularly Michael Thompson and John Shurna -- and they need to gather themselves this week for one big push at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. Chicago State ranks among the nation's worst teams according to every metric available while Indiana is staggering to the finish.


--Sophomore forward John Shurna had an 11-game streak of double-figure scoring snapped during Sunday's 79-60 loss at Penn State. Shurna nailed two 3-pointers in the first three minutes, but never made another basket as he finished with nine points against Penn State's constant pressure. He hit 2 of 11 shots from the field (his worst showing in Big Ten play), but the game's blowout nature allowed Bill Carmody to limit him to 31 minutes. Shurna hadn't played so little since his 25-minute stint against North Florida on Dec. 16.

--Junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson tied his career-high with 5 3-pointers Sunday against Penn State. Thompson finished with 21 points, which marked his best effort since Dec. 1 at North Carolina State, but Penn State didn't let him trigger the offense as usual as he managed just 2 assists.

Thompson remains the Big Ten's No. 2 man in assist-to-turnover ratio (116 vs. 45; a 2.57 ratio).

--Freshman swingman Drew Crawford has managed just 18 points in NU's last four games, but there's a good reason for his flagging production. Bill Carmody revealed after the Penn State game that Crawford has been slowed by a bad hip flexor and back. He played a season-low 11 minutes against Penn State and might see limited minutes this week in an attempt to heal up for the postseason.

--Senior forward Kevin Coble (Lisfranc fracture in his left foot) and senior swingman Jeff Ryan (torn ACL in his left 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. Top Stories