"It hurts to lose; it definitely hurts to lose," Northwestern junior guard Drew Crawford said. "We've been in this position, it seems, for a few weeks now. It's tough. We just have to watch the film and just learn from it."
That the loss dropped the Wildcats to 12-8 and 2-6 in the Big Ten and all but signals an end to the season-long projections of Northwestern ending its NCAA Tournament drought. The Wildcats, who have never been to the NCAA Tournament, danced with ending that dubious streak in the first two and a half months with several key victories, but conference play signaled NU's traditional swoon. Unlike past years, with the exception of beating highly ranked Michigan State on Jan. 14, the Wildcats haven't been able to claim another big victory against a ranked team in the conference through the first eight games.
The Wildcats might have the most talent in the Carmody era, with John Shurna and Crawford lighting up the scoreboard in several games. But the Wildcats have failed to live up to the high expectations from the fast start in non-conference play.
On Jan. 23, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Northwestern as one of the final four teams outside the NCAA Tournament. Now, after five losses in the last six games, the Wildcats surely need to win more than half of their remaining 10 conference games leading up to the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis on March 8.
The Wildcats played without center Luka Mirkovic against the Boilermakers due to an ankle injury. Mirkovic's play has been a big disappointment this year, with senior Davide Curletti's play sending Mirkovic to the bench in recent games. Mirkovic has started 15 of the 19 games that he's played in this year, averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Last year, Mirkovic averaged 7.4 points and 5.2 rebounds, while averaging 7.3 points and 5.7 boards during his sophomore year. His sudden drop-off is uncharacteristic for a seasoned senior with experience. The Wildcats have to get more production out of Mirkovic to take some scoring pressure off of point guard Dave Sobolewski and guard Reggie Hearn.
--Senior forward John Shurna is the Big Ten active leader with 36 games of scoring 20 points or more. The 6-foot-9 Shurna raised his scoring average to a team-leading 19.0 points. His shooting ability -- 42.4 percent on 3-pointers -- and 79.1 percent free throw shooting combined with his savvy and size make him a tough player to guard for most opponents. Shurna has made a team-high 53 3-pointers this year and leads the conference in scoring, seventh in rebounding at 5.9 boards per game and eighth in 3-point field goal percentage.
--Freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski moved into eighth in the conference in assists, averaging 3.9 assists per game. Sobolewski doesn't attempt many shots, shooting four times in Northwestern's loss to Purdue. Sobolewski has played 694 minutes this year, but shot just 46 times. Although Sobolewski's ability to run the offense and keep turnovers down is important, the Wildcats could use some more scoring from the lead guard spot to ease some offensive woes in key stretches.
BY THE NUMBERS: 37.1 -- The Wildcats rank second in the Big Ten Conference in 3-point field goal percentage at 37.1 percent. Northwestern has four players shooting higher than 40 percent from beyond the arc.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was trying to be aggressive in forcing things that weren't there. "I think it was more just being sloppy overall." -- Northwestern guard Reggie Hearn after committing five turnovers in a loss to Purdue on Jan. 28.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
--vs. Nebraska, Feb. 2.
KEY MATCHUPS: The Wildcats have to focus their defense on not letting Nebraska senior guard Bo Spencer taking over and scoring points in bunches. Spencer's athleticism and ability to score in a variety of ways poses problems for the Wildcats. Keeping Spencer in check is a must for the Wildcats if they want to end their three-game slide. --at Illinois, Feb. 5.
KEY MATCHUPS: The Wildcats have revenge on their minds after losing by two points at home to Illinois on Jan. 4. The Illini play better at home, so the Wildcats have to be prepared for a heavy diet of 3-pointers and must try to get 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard in foul trouble. Playing strong perimeter defense and boxing out on the defensive side is important for the Wildcats.
FUTURES MARKET: Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips has a big decision to make if the Wildcats don't make the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats are a better team than their 12-8 record would indicate. With John Shurna and Drew Crawford combining to average 36.2 points per game, the Wildcats have some offensive firepower. But Carmody's inability to recruit in the Chicagoland area on a consistent basis is a concern. The Wildcats have lost five of their last six games. The program might need to look for a new direction in order to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
--Senior F Davide Curletti is welcoming the added minutes from a recent demotion and injury to center Luka Mirkovic. Curletti has started four games this year, moving into eighth on the team in scoring at 4.4 points per game. Curletti is averaging 19.3 minutes per contest.
--Junior G Reggie Hearn is one of three players along with John Shurna and Dave Sobolewski to start all 20 games this year. The 6-foot-4 Hearn is becoming a bigger part of the offense, making back-to-back baskets late in NU's loss to Purdue on Jan. 28. Hearn is averaging 6.0 points per game this season.