In the wake of the Wildcats' 57-56 home loss to Illinois on Wednesday, Wildcats coach Bill Carmody wondered whether it's time to stop having one of his two centers (Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti) on the court at all times. In Carmody's perfect world, which features a five-pronged Princeton-style offense, his "5" man can both step out to hit a 3-pointer and post up to score in the paint.
But Illinois' man-to-man defense didn't honor either Mirkovic or Curletti as a threat in the second half (they combined for 1 point in 18 minutes), which allowed its four guards to overplay on the perimeter knowing that 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard would intimidate anyone who drove. The Wildcats managed just 20 second-half points against the Illini -- and nine of them came in the frantic final 1:43 after Carmody yanked his center and spread the floor with five shooters.
"At the end, I went small and maybe we're going to have to do that and have Johnny (Shurna) play the centers in this league," Carmody said, "and put five guys who can put the ball in the basket on the court at the same time. I certainly have to consider that seriously."
That would increase Northwestern's firepower, which is a concern considering the Wildcats averaged just 59.3 points while getting out to a 1-2 Big Ten start. But there's a defensive tradeoff at work, even against a perimeter-oriented team like Michigan. In last season's trip to Crisler Arena, Wolverines big man Jordan Morgan poured in 27 points as he hit 11 of 13 shots around the basket. The slender Shurna is a worse match for Morgan than Mirkovic or Curletti.
--Senior F John Shurna stuffed the stat sheet while playing every second in Wednesday's 57-56 home loss to Illinois. The Big Ten's leading scorer pumped in a game-high 20 points while grabbing a team-high seven rebounds and posting four blocks. But Shurna's offensive effort was lopsided. He produced 17 points in the first half as NU's lead swelled to as many as 10 points, but his only second-half points came on a long 3-pointer with 36 seconds left as Illinois swingman Brandon Paul hounded Shurna and didn't allow him any measured looks at the hoop. On rare occasions when Shurna wriggled free from Paul, there was always a helping defender there because some of NU's other scoring options weren't being honored by the defense.
--Junior G Drew Crawford went head-to-head with Illinois junior G D.J. Richardson for most of Wednesday's 57-56 home loss to Illinois, which meant it was a matchup of AAU teammates as well as the Big Ten's 2010 co-Freshmen of the Year.
Crawford entered the night as the league's No. 2 scorer, but he never got comfortable against the smaller, quicker Richardson as he finished 3 of 12 from the field for 9 points. Crawford kept trying to beat Richardson off the dribble and attack the basket, but his usual arsenal of runners weren't falling. He got a half-step on Joseph Bertrand on the game's final play, but 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard roamed over and swatted his game-winning attempt in the final second. Crawford's offensive struggles carried over to other aspects of his game, which had been a problem last year but not this season. He wound up with 6 rebounds, 1 steal, no blocks and no assists.
BY THE NUMBERS: 129 -- The Wildcats have been successful this year in part due to their ability to limit their turnovers. The Wildcats have turned the ball over 129 times through the first 13 games this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was pretty effective. We didn't win but we were right there. I didn't want to do that tonight. I just thought we took bad shots, ill-advised shots, and were not in the flow. If you run a certain set and the shot comes out of that, usually for whatever reason those shots go in more often. It just seemed like after 10 seconds of running our offense, it would break down and guys were trying to beat their guy. And we're not going to beat those guys doing that. I know that." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody on the Ohio State loss.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES: None
TRENDING: Northwestern thought it found a third steady offensive threat in freshman PG Dave Sobolewski, who popped for 10 points in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 28 at Ohio State and produced a career-high 20 points on Jan. 1 against Penn State. Alas, even impressive newcomers such as Sobolewski can't bring it every night. He missed all five shots from the field, including a few open 3-point looks in the first half, and finished with just two points in 39 minutes. More important, the Illini overplayed the Wildcats' offense in the second half and didn't allow them to get into their schemes. That meant Sobolewski, who ranks among the nation's leaders in assist-turnover ratio, couldn't contribute as a steady hand here either. He finished with two assists and two turnovers.
The Wildcats need somebody to step forward and join John Shurna and Drew Crawford -- the league's top two scorers -- if they're going to fight for a first-division finish. With Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin next on the docket -- three teams with point guards ranging from good to All-American -- it might not be fair to ask Sobolewski to be that reliable third option. Can junior guard Alex Marcotullio's painful toe injury heal enough to let him be that guy? Maybe sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who was pegged as that No. 3 option in the offseason, can start living up to the hype?
FUTURES MARKET: Northwestern is still awaiting the official signed letter of intent from Alex Olah. The 6-foot-10 Olah gave a verbal commitment to attend Northwestern, but has yet to send in his letter of intent. Olah has confirmed his commitment, but must contend with some issues regarding his letter of intent. Olah would end Northwestern's long searching quest for a big man. Olah had interest from Boston College, California, Illinois and Marquette.
PLAYER NOTES --Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb missed four games with an injury this year, but is starting to get his stamina back and is receiving big minutes in recent weeks. Cobb scored 40 points in the last five games entering the Jan. 1 contest against Penn State. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, Cobb is a physical guard with good size and athleticism, and can help the Wildcats on the defensive side.
--Junior guard Alex Marcotullio is starting to get more playing time after recovering from an injury. He played 17 minutes at Creighton, but just seven minutes at Ohio State after missing two of the previous three games. The 6-foot-3 guard contributed six points in 20 minutes of action against Penn State. The Wildcats will need a healthy and productive Marcotullio to give the starters a rest during NU's upcoming tough slate of games.