Popping in the clutch

Alex Marcotullio has proven to be every bit the pure shooter that he was reputed to be. But the freshman guard has provided more that just the occasional three-pointer. He's been shooting – and nailing – some truly clutch deep balls. Purple Reign looks at Marcotullio's deadly and incredibly timely shooting.

Drew Crawford was the freshman that came in with all the hype. Crawford, a three-star recruit out of Naperville Central, was a first-team All-State selection by the Sun-Times and averaged 24 points per game as senior. At 6-foot-5, he has serious hops – documented here – and had the accolades that go along with being an athletic specimen who filled it up in high school.

And truth be told, Crawford hasn't disappointed. Along with leading the Wildcats against Liberty with a game- and career-high 22 points, he is fifth on the team in scoring (6.3), third in rebounding (3.3) and is averaging exactly one block per game. And remember that those cumulative numbers include a 12-minute, little-production season-opener; he's averaging 8.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists over his last four games. Suffice it to say that, six games into his career, Crawford has lived up to his billing.

But you can't say the same about Northwestern's other freshman, Alex Marcotullio. No, Marcotullio has been better than most people guessed.

Marcotullio's only scholarship offers were from Oakland – a member of the Summit League – and Western Michigan. (Crawford, by comparison, had nine offers, including ones from Oklahoma State and Wake Forest.) Marcotullio was, depending on the publication, a one- or two-star recruit, and there was little hype about NU's No. 2 freshman. At least compared to Crawford*.

* For instance, in this article from NUSports.com, discussing the perils and opportunities of Coble's injury, Marcotullio goes unmentioned. Crawford, however, has his own section. And in the afore-linked article above, the one from the Tribune that deals largely with Crawford's hops, all it says of Marcotullio is, "Fellow freshman Alex Marcotullio, ‘a lights-out shooter,' according to Thompson, averaged 16 points for De La Salle in Warren, Mich." That's it. Oh, and the title of that Trib article is "Freshman has Northwestern basketball hopes jumping". That's freshMAN, singular.

Lo and behold, Marcotullio has been every bit as integral to the Wildcats' early-season success – a 5-1 record, a Chicago Invitational title, etc. – as Crawford.

Again, it's not that Crawford has been lackluster. It's just that Marcotullio has been exceptional. And not just the raw numbers, though those have been good too. In just 14 minutes per game, Marcotullio is averaging 6.8 points and shooting 52.4 percent – 11 of 21 – from three-point land. He has eight steals – second on the team to Jeremy Nash – and just one turnover. Pretty good numbers for a freshman, let alone one who not long ago was seen by some as just the other freshman.

But what's been even more impressive than Marcotullio's raw numbers – good as they may be – is the propensity that the 6-2 Warren, Mich., native has shown for hitting big shots. Marcotullio doesn't fade down the stretch. No, he thrives down the stretch, and his numbers aren't products of junk-time minutes. They're the product of ice water or some other coolant that permeates his veins.

For instance, look at Marcotullio's breakout game, a three-for-three-from-downtown, nine-point effort in that all too close Tennessee State win. Now, Michael Thompson's 31 points were the catalyst for that comeback win, and the fact that Juice dropped 14 in the final 5:55 shows that he was pretty clutch himself. But let's not forget Marcotullio.

After canning a relatively meaningless – at least for him – three-pointer with 9:14 to go in the first half, Marcotullio canned one four minutes into the second frame with NU down by two. Trailing 39-41, Northwestern suddenly had a 42-41 lead. Tennessee State, of course, didn't go away, and NU found itself tied, 62-62, with about 2:25 to go. Cue Marcotullio, who called for the ball and nailed a HORSE-style shot from waaaay downtown, giving the Cats a 65-62 lead that they wouldn't relinquish. So one of his threes gave NU a second-half lead, and another broke a second-half tie.

"And then Alex Marcotullio banged that big shot, which was nice…" Carmody said after the game. "I knew that one was going in, but Alex's was a pretty long shot there. He sort of caught it in stride and he was calling for the ball. He wanted the ball."

Marcotullio was up to it again last weekend as NU downed Notre Dame and Iowa State, both of whom were previously unbeaten. Against Notre Dame, he pulled the trigger on a three with about 6:50 left in the game and Northwestern clinging to a one-point lead. And Notre Dame, by the way, was in the midst of a 13-2 run. Naturally, Marcotullio's shot went in, giving NU a 55-51 lead and stopping the Irish charge. ND stormed back again, cutting the lead to two with two minutes left, but Marcotullio hit another three, giving NU a 61-55 edge that it wouldn't give up. On the night, he finished three-for-seven from downtown with 13 points and two positively back-breaking threes.

And against ISU, a two-for-three three-point performance, Marcotullio found himself in the middle of runs – either stopping the opponent's or prolonging Northwestern's. He stymied a 5-0 run in the first half, giving NU a 19-14 lead 10 minutes in. Then, 10 minutes into the second half, he canned a three with NU down by two, giving the Cats a 54-53 edge on the strength of the Marcotullio-aided 10-3 run.

It's not like Marcotullio is the reason that NU finds itself off to such a good start. And while this is the second article from Purple Reign written recently about him – along with this one – there are of course other players and other factors at play. But Marcotullio's emergence not only as a shooter, but as a clutch shooter, should bode well for Northwestern's season-long quest to replace Coble's offense.

Purple Reign can be reached at northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

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