When Northwestern scraped through the arduous opening half of its Big Ten schedule with a 3-6 mark, the Wildcats remained confident they could make a sprint for the NCAA Tournament thanks to their relatively tame second-half slate.
Northwestern had two games apiece with bottom-feeders Indiana, Iowa and Penn State on its plate, but Bill Carmody's bunch lost four of six games against that group and finished the regular season with a 7-11 mark.
NU's weak finish doesn't exactly defy explanation. Rather, there are multiple reasons for the seventh-seeded Wildcats' flagging fortunes entering Thursday's Big Ten tournament opener against 10th-seeded Indiana -- and each of them makes it difficult to believe they can win four games in four days to secure the program's first NCAA Tournament bid.
Issue No. 1: NU's flagging defense. If Carmody had his druthers, he'd have his guys perform well enough in the 2-3 matchup zone that they could use their vaunted 1-3-1 zone trap as an occasional shock to an opponent's system. But as the Wildcats have failed to move well enough in the matchup -- which is essentially a man-to-man that switches every screen -- they've had to spend more time in the 1-3-1. And as they spend more time in the 1-3-1, opponents discover more ways to beat it. During the Wildcats' 2-5 finish in Big Ten play, their opponents shot 40 percent on 3-pointers (58 of 145) and 48 percent overall.
Issue No. 2: Those poor defensive field-goal percentage would almost be acceptable if the Wildcats earned their share of rebounds. Instead, NU lost the battle of the boards in each of their last seven Big Ten games and finished the regular season 10th among Big Ten teams in rebound margin (-2.5 per game).
Issue No. 3: The Wildcats' defensive and rebounding issues could be explained by the team's limited depth. Junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson (38.4 mpg) and sophomore forward John Shurna (38.3 mpg) led the league in minutes during Big Ten games while senior guard Jeremy Nash averaged 35.6 minutes.
This trio has even more on its plate, if that's possible, going into the tournament as freshman Drew Crawford hasn't been able to log his usual 30-plus minutes per game due to a strained hip flexor and sore back. Crawford (9.9 ppg) saw just 41 minutes in NU's games against Chicago State and Indiana last week and hasn't scored in double figures since Feb. 14 against Minnesota.
"My back has been getting better, but it slows me down a little," Crawford said in the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not as fast as I was, but it's still no excuse. I have to pick up my play."
--Sophomore forward John Shurna missed two 3-pointers and a free throw in the final 1:19 of Northwestern's regular-season-ending 88-80 overtime loss at Indiana. Had Shurna made any of those shots, he would have overtaken Ohio State's Evan Turner for the Big Ten's scoring title (conference games only). Turner finished with 20.13 points per league game while Shurna averaged 20.11 per game.
Shurna would have been the first Wildcat since Ray Ragelis in 1951 to win the league-games scoring title. Shurna enters the Big Ten tournament as the Wildcats' leader in scoring (18.5 ppg), rebounding (6.4 rpg) and blocks (30) while ranking second in 3-pointers (74). He ranks among the Big Ten's top ten in all four categories.
--The Big Ten tournament debuted in March 1998 and Northwestern has been the league's worst performer in its money-making postseason showcase. Not only have the Wildcats never received a first-round bye (the first five seeds go straight to the quarterfinals), they're the only team never to reach the semifinals. Northwestern owns a 4-12 record in the conference tourney while the next-worst team (Penn State) stands 6-12.
--Northwestern set the school record for single-season wins when it defeated Chicago State 72-49 on March 3. The Wildcats seek their first 20-win season in Thursday's Big Ten tournament opener against Indiana.
ON THE SPOT: Early in the Big Ten schedule, freshman swingman Drew Crawford reeled off nine consecutive double-figure scoring efforts. In his last six games, however, Crawford hasn't hit double digits at all and averaged just 4.0 points while shooting 9 of 29 from the field. He has been battling a strained hip flexor and a sore back for the last three weeks, but he has maintained his streak of starting every game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "All these teams in our conference can beat us, and I think we can beat them all." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody sizing up the Big Ten tournament in the Chicago Tribune.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Northwestern outstripped all expectations during the first two months. After losing Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan at the season's outset, the Wildcats went 10-1 in pre-conference play and entered Big Ten action with their first Associated Press' national ranking since 1969. That stay at No. 25 lasted just one week, but NU recovered with a home win over No. 6 Purdue on Jan. 16. Since that time, the Wildcats have gone 6-8 and haven't won away from Welsh-Ryan Arena since Jan. 10 at Michigan.
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.
Penn State 79, Northwestern 60
Northwestern 72, Chicago State 49
Indiana 88, Northwestern 80 (OT)
vs. Indiana (Big Ten tournament), Thursday, March 11
IN FOCUS: Northwestern gets another crack at Indiana just five days after a disappointing loss in Bloomington, Ind. The Wildcats didn't get the ball inside frequently enough against IU's 2-3 zone -- they shot 42 3s vs. 30 two-pointers -- and they allowed freshman sharpshooter Jordan Hulls (8 3-pointers) far too many open looks. If the Wildcats top the Hoosiers, then they get a chance to run their winning streak against Purdue to 3 games. NU won 72-64 on Jan. 16 at home, but the Boilermakers have gone 12-1 since.
--Sophomore forward John Shurna will be an all-Big Ten selection after posting the league's biggest statistical improvement. Shurna averaged 7.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in 18.5 minutes last year, but he enters the Big Ten tournament averaging 18.5 points and 6.4 rebounds in 36.4 minutes per game. In Big Ten games, Shurna led everyone with 52 3-pointers and 131 attempts.
--Junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson set a career high with 7 3-pointers in Saturday's loss at Indiana. Thompson finished the regular season with 77 3-pointers, which ties him for fifth with Todd Leslie on NU's all-time single-season list. Thompson ranks second among Big Ten ballhandlers in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.58-to-1) as he has started every game for the third year in a row.
--Senior guard Jeremy Nash should accompany Shurna on any all-Big Ten list for most-improved players. In addition to averaging 9.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game -- the latter coming as the ferocious head of NU's 1-3-1 zone trap -- Nash ranks third in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2 to 1). All this came from a player with 1 career start entering the year.
--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.
Here Come the Cats...Again
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