The small sample size suggests the Wildcats deserve their first NCAA Tournament berth, right? Well, let's look at the rest of the sample. Northwestern couldn't close out things in January at Michigan and it couldn't close out matters Tuesday night at home. The Wildcats led by four points late in regulation Tuesday, but the Wolverines forced overtime and then scored the first nine points in extra time to earn a 67-55 victory.
The loss dropped Northwestern to 6-9 in the Big Ten, which pushes Saturday's trip to Penn State into the must-win category. The Wildcats handled the Nittany Lions 68-56 on New Year's Day, but a lot has changed since then. Most important on Northwestern's end? Junior swingman Drew Crawford, who produced a game-high 21 points in the teams' first meeting and remains among the league's top scorers, sat out the final 12 minutes of Tuesday's game with a right leg issue.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody didn't offer specifics after the game, but it doesn't take a genius to realize the Wildcats' offense becomes easier to defend without Crawford on the floor. Northwestern scored just 24 points in the final 25 minutes while Crawford was in and out of the game -- and he was not exactly 100 percent when he played. His six points came in the opening 14 minutes.
If Crawford isn't at full strength against Penn State, then the Wildcats must hope sophomore Jershon Cobb has more in the tank after missing most of the last two months. Cobb started Tuesday and contributed four points in 28 minutes. He missed seven of eight shots, including a 3-pointer that came up short on Northwestern's final regulation possession when the score was tied. Perhaps more important, Cobb didn't provide anything else on the stat sheet other than one rebound. The Wildcats need him to become a threat on both ends of the floor if they're going to win two of their final three.
TRENDING: Coaches are notorious copycats. If something works for one guy, then the next guy is going to watch the tape and find a way to mimic it. With that in mind, expect Penn State coach Patrick Chambers to glean a ton from Northwestern's 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan on Tuesday.
The Wildcats entered the night leading the Big Ten and ranking among the nation's best with an average of 8.9 made 3-pointers per game. They came in hitting 39.5 percent of their 3-pointers in league games. They came in trying 21 3-pointers per league game. Michigan, though, extended its defense and all but forced the Wildcats to go inside in order to score.
Northwestern took just 16 3-point shots (its fourth-lowest total of the season) and hit a season-low three. Considering the Wildcats nailed nine of 21 3-pointers when they bounced Penn State 68-56 on New Year's Day, look for the Nittany Lions to force the undersized Wildcats to get their points inside the arc.
Wildcats keep NCAA hopes alive with win over Gophers
--There have been plenty of must-win games recently for Northwestern. But the Wildcats claimed a big victory by defeating Minnesota 64-53 on Feb. 18.
The Wildcats and Gophers both needed a victory to keep their slim chances for an NCAA Tournament alive. But the Wildcats couldn't afford losing for the second straight time this season to the Gophers, and managed to end a two-game losing skid.
Even Northwestern coach Bill Carmody admitted the importance of beating the Gophers.
"People ask me if this is a must-win for us leading up to the game the last couple of days and I didn't really think so, but it was close to a must-win," he said. "We got it, and that's an important thing. John (Shurna) said the important thing was that we got a win, and that's the kind of kid he is. I just thought it was a really nice team effort tonight."
Northwestern senior John Shurna understands the importance of history after becoming the school's all-time leading scorer in the victory over Minnesota. Shurna finished with 18 points, increasing his career total to 1,902 points, passing former NU legend Billy McKinney's scoring record of 1,900 points. But Shurna was more focused on the bigger picture: ending Northwestern's streak of not making the NCAA Tournament.
"Obviously it's an honor but I think it was more important that we won on our home court today against a good Minnesota team," Shurna said. "I wasn't really focused on trying to score points; I think everyone was playing well. Dave (Sobolewski) was hitting shots; Drew (Crawford) was hitting shots. We got key contributions from everyone."
--Senior forward John Shurna became the school's all-time leading scorer in the Minnesota game on Feb. 18. Shurna passed Billy McKinney by swishing a 3-pointer with less than 11 minutes remaining in regulation. He finished with 18 points to put his career total at 1,902 points. Shurna played a team-high 37 minutes against Minnesota, extending his streak to 16 straight games with at least 37 minutes. Shurna's hit a minimum of two 3-pointers in 13 straight games.
--Freshman guard Dave Sobolewski has answered any questions over hitting the wall in the last few weeks. After a stretch of six straight games not scoring in double figures, Sobolewski has exploded for his best scoring surge in his career. The NU point guard scored 22 points against Minnesota on Feb. 18 to mark the fifth time in his last six games with at least 12 points. Sobolewski missed his career-high of 23 points set against Iowa. Sobolewski's shooting from beyond the arc has been a big part of his scoring uptick. He made 4-of-5 from 3-point land in the win over Minnesota, increased his recent surge to 16-of-29 in past six games.
"Dave's been great," NU senior John Shurna said. "His role continues to grow each game which is huge for us. That's definitely what you want out of a freshman point guard. He's poised, and he'll take and make big shots for us. He'll come up with boards. He's been huge for us and one of the main reasons we've been winning games."
BY THE NUMBERS: 231 -- The Wildcats had made 231 3-pointers this season in 26 games through Feb. 19. John Shurna led Northwestern with 70 3-pointers, while Drew Crawford had 47 3s.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There is a lot of pressure on a guy to break that scoring record. Billy McKinney was a tremendous player here and a really good guy in this program who has accomplished a lot and is a humble guy; John's not unlike that. He's a quiet, humble kind of guy. He cares about his teammates, and I'm just really happy for him. Today, he waited his time. He didn't score in the beginning a little bit, so he was sort of carrying a load there. Then he came on. I just thought a really nice team effort on our part." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, on John Shurna becoming the school's all-time leading scorer.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Penn State, Feb. 25
KEY MATCHUPS: Regardless of what happens against Michigan, the Wildcats can't afford a loss to last place Penn State a few weeks before the NCAA Tournament selection show. The Nittany Lions are a predictable club, with Tim Frazier leading the team in scoring in the last six games. Frazier has been on a scoring tear, tallying 23 points twice in the six-game span.
FUTURES MARKET: Northwestern gained a slight upper edge over Minnesota by splitting the two regular season games. The Wildcats couldn't afford another loss this year to the Gophers, not with both teams hanging on for dear life for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Wildcats helped solidify their position by moving to 43rd in the most recent RPI after the Minnesota victory. The Wildcats have split their last 10 games, but own an 11-3 mark this year at home. Northwestern can help its chances with a victory over Michigan at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 21 and a victory at Penn State on Feb. 25.
--Senior F John Shurna didn't do a ton to add to his Northwestern career scoring record during Tuesday's 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan. Shurna led the Wildcats with 14 points -- which pushed his total to 1,916 -- but he shot just 6-for-16 from the floor, and coach Bill Carmody suggested afterward that his leader was reluctant to look for his shot. Shurna also grabbed just four rebounds in 40 minutes. He can't afford to be tentative, reluctant or any other word that connotes non-aggression during Northwestern's trip Saturday to Penn State. NCAA Tournament-caliber teams need their best players to be their best in March ... and the calendar might as well read March for the Wildcats as they enter must-win territory.
--C Davide Curletti hails from suburban Detroit, and he loves to face the Michigan schools at home. The 6-foot-8 senior came off the bench during Tuesday's 67-55 loss to Michigan and delivered 12 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals. His only better home game this year came during the Jan. 14 win over No. 6 Michigan State, when Curletti stacked up 17 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block.