Small Lineup is NU's Best Bet

Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler was worried upon seeing that John Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer, was slotted at center for Thursday's game. In his postgame press conference, Sadler stated Northwestern is at its best with a smaller lineup. He's got a point.

Northwestern's offense has yet to find an identity this season, as personnel issues and injuries have forced the Wildcats the change up their offensive look at times this year. At times they've gone with their original starting lineup and other times they've changed around their big men, while sometimes they've done away with big men altogether, playing with a small lineup.

All three looks have given NU mixed results, but Nebraska coach Doc Sadler knew which one he thought was the best after his team's 84-74 loss to the Wildcats Thursday night.

"I think the small lineup is their best lineup," he said. "You've got another shooter out there. You've got to guard shooters."

NU started with a small lineup Thursday and it came out of the gate hot, pulling out to a 41-26 lead at halftime. However, the Cats took an astonishing 12 of their first 13 shots from beyond the arc. Part of that was because they had open shots, but part was also because they couldn't compete inside.

"I thought sometimes we were shooting too quickly, but when you get an open 20-footer at this level you have to take it," NU coach Bill Carmody said.

The Cats are certainly one of the best in the conference at sinking 20-footers. They rank second in the conference with a 37.6 percent shooting percentage from beyond the arc. However, if they can't get an inside presence, they are sometimes forced to take outside shots, which can lead to bad looks.

When NU goes "small" it puts John Shurna at center, which forces Drew Crawford to play forward. Neither Shurna nor Crawford is in his natural position when the Cats go small, but when they play a team with a weak frontcourt they flourish, as Shurna had 28 points and Crawford had 21 against the Huskers.

Shurna and Crawford are NU's biggest scoring threats, so if both of them can be on the floor, along with other shooters, the Cats' offense excels. Center Davide Curletti is an asset against bigger frontcourts, but in games that Shurna can play the "five" spot, the small lineup may be the key for NU.

"Curletti's a good player, but see what he did," Sadler said. "Besides the two main dudes, that's 21 points."

The two main dudes would be Shurna and Crawford, and Sadler's math was a little off, as the rest of the team scored 35 points. But his main point, that the small lineup can be successful, certainly is valid.

However, while the small lineup may work against teams with weak frontcourts, NU will have to adapt when it plays bigger teams. The Cats' ability to adapt will be tested Sunday against Illinois, as NU has to find someone to guard Illini big man Meyers Leonard.

That's not a matchup Shurna is likely to win, and due to an injury to backup center Luka Mirkovic, it will likely be Curletti on the floor at Assembly Hall. With injuries hampering the Cats' depth, Curletti will be called on to play a major role Sunday and any other game from here on out where a small lineup is not an option.

Curletti isn't some obscure player that NU relies on off the bench. He broke out in the Cats' win over Michigan State and has been a staple in the lineup ever since. Despite starting Thursday's game on the bench, he still logged 28 minutes.

"His presence was really key for us (against Nebraska), with his energy and his aggressiveness," Shurna said.

Curletti's presence will need to be even bigger against the Illini, and he almost certainly will play more than 28 minutes.

NU can't get to the NCAA Tournament by playing a small lineup every game and Curletti's ability to put together a consistent performance as an integral part of the Cats' system is still unknown. However, it may hold the key to NU's chances of dancing in March.


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