NU Depending On Balanced Attack

Northwestern's offense will be reliant on receiving both production from outside shooting and strong play from senior center Luka Mirkovic. If the Wildcats have a nice balance, they can, indeed, reach the NCAA tournament.

A win is a win, but the team in white at Welsh-Ryan Arena that defeated Texas Pan-American on Sunday hardly resembled the Northwestern teams we've grown accustomed to seeing in the Bill Carmody era.

The Wildcats shot just 43.8-percent from the floor and 22.7-percent from three-point range, this coming off an outstanding shooting effort in an exhibition game against Robert Morris.

"I'm just happy this game is over with, to tell you the truth," Carmody said.

Due to poor outside shooting, the Wildcats were forced to focus on the inside game, where Luka Mirkovic dominated the undersized Broncs. Mirkovic had 12 points and five rebounds, and as uncelebrated as he might be by NU fans, he was a game-changer.

For the Wildcats to finally reach their goal of making an NCAA Tournament, this can't be a one-time deal for Mirkovic. There will be games—like Sunday's—where the outside shots aren't falling. In games like that, NU will need to rely on Mirkovic to bail the team out.

Carmody's teams have always been guard-focused, and with the lack of a true, consistent big man the past few years, that has caused the Wildcats to be incredibly inconsistent, ultimately causing them to miss out on March Madness.

Last year the Wildcats nearly beat Ohio State twice, beat Michigan and beat Illinois, but were blown out by Penn State and Wisconsin. There's no way to tell which team will show up, and that's a byproduct of Carmody's guard-based philosophy.

While it has led to some big upsets, that inconsistency has also led to some crushing losses and ultimately caused NU to be stuck on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

When the Wildcats get rolling, they're hard to stop—that was clear against Robert Morris—but when they're cold, things can get ugly, which is what happened against UTPA.

"It didn't flow," Carmody said. "It wasn't seamlessly going, our offense. The second half, I thought, was a little bit better. No one was really making shots, but I thought we were getting the shots we wanted."

Luckily for the Wildcats, UTPA couldn't shoot either. Heck, UTPA couldn't do just about anything. But if this type of shooting performance came against a Big Ten team, NU would be dead in the water.

Those games will happen—everyone has cold streaks—but for the Wildcats to be a legitimate tournament contender, they must find a solid inside presence. "That's one thing we need to do is get to the basket more," Drew Crawford said. "We've got a lot of knock down shooters, so that definitely spreads the floor and it gives us an opportunity to get to the basket."

Mirkovic seemed to be the answer on Sunday, as he dominated the UTPA frontcourt. However, he won't have that luxury in the Big Ten and his play has to be more consistent than past years in league play.

He has the body to compete down low in the Big Ten, but finishing has always been his problem. If he can improve his shots at the rim—he did look vastly improved in the opener—the Wildcats will be much better off when the outside shots aren't falling.

"In any situation we're trying to get Luka the ball," John Shurna said. "When he plays well, we play well. That's a big part of our offense, getting the ball to Luka, and I think he played well tonight."

With the lack of another true big man, Shurna will be called on to play a role inside, as well. He's a versatile shooter, but has also shown an ability to drive the lane and grab rebounds. If he can create attention inside, it will open up the floor for NU's strictly outside shooters.

NU will never have a physical gameplan—at least not with this personnel set—but it must have an increased presence inside if it wants to make its first ever NCAA Tournament.

Sunday's game was a definite improvement, but it's hard to make any judgments until the Wildcats have a poor shooting game against a good team—until it's time to prove themselves in the paint during crunch-time.


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