Recapping the Cats thus far

The Sports Xchange breaks down Northwestern's season thus far, looking at trends, the upcoming schedule and how the Wildcats got to 12-3. Also, an analysis of what NU must do to stay afloat in the Big Ten.


Long misses lead to long rebounds. Time after time on Wednesday, No. 13 Wisconsin's errant 3-pointers flew hard off the rim and into other Badgers' hands. During crunch time, Wisconsin point guard Trevon Hughes turned two of those second chances into 3-pointers that led directly to the Wildcats' 60-50 Big Ten home loss.

Now Northwestern, which missed a great chance to knock off Wisconsin without one of the Badgers' top two players, needs to make a long rebound mentally in order to be ready for Saturday's visit from No. 6 Purdue. The Boilermakers will arrive at Welsh-Ryan Arena with a bad attitude caused by two consecutive losses -- and malice in their hearts after Northwestern shocked them at home last March.

Purdue's modus operandi, as always, will be to overplay the Wildcats defensively and try to harass them into submission. That strategy worked last year when the Boilers rallied from a 14-point deficit at Evanston, then worked for much of the rematch at West Lafayette, Ind. But the Wildcats came back in the second half with several reserves on the floor. Bill Carmody played five subs a total of 67 minutes when Northwestern shocked the Boilers 64-61 on March 4.

Alas, Purdue's pressure could be more effective against Northwestern's limited rotation this time around. The Wildcats' starters played 188 of the possible 200 minutes in Wednesday's loss to Wisconsin. Junior point guard Michael Thompson and sophomore forward John Shurna played all 40 minutes in each of the past two games -- and they're actually averaging more than 40 minutes per game in Big Ten play due to the overtime in the Big Ten opener at Illinois.

On the plus side for Northwestern, sophomore center Luka Mirkovic has made big strides since he struggled against Illinois and Michigan State. Mirkovic started his run with a double-double against Texas-Pan American, and then he delivered 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists at Michigan on Jan. 10 in what Carmody dubbed his "best game, by far."

Mirkovic built on that with eight points, a game-high 10 rebounds and a team-high six assists Wednesday. The 6-foot-10 sophomore even stepped out beyond the top of the key to drill a first-half 3-pointer -- a move that ought to make other centers play him more honestly and open more space for backdoor cuts.

WISCONSIN 60, NORTHWESTERN 50: Blessed with a chance to take advantage of a Badgers squad playing its first game without standout junior forward Jon Leuer, the Wildcats fumbled it away in the final five minutes.

Northwestern couldn't hit free throws, couldn't clear the defensive glass and couldn't stop Wisconsin guard Trevon Hughes from taking advantage of second-chance opportunities. With the Wildcats leading 48-46, Hughes drilled back-to-back 3-pointers after offensive rebounds by Wisconsin (14-3, 4-1 Big Ten). Then he nailed a 25-footer on a more conventional possession to hand Northwestern another Big Ten home loss.

Hughes scored 14 of his 16 points in the final seven minutes for No. 13 Wisconsin, which outrebounded the Wildcats 38-29 on the strength of 15 offensive boards. Sophomore forward John Shurna led Northwestern (12-4, 1-3) with 15 points. Jeremy Nash added 13 points, while Luka Mirkovic contributed eight points, 10 rebounds and six assists. The Wildcats hurt their cause by going 9-for-16 at the foul line.


--Sophomore forward John Shurna entered Sunday's game at Michigan with five consecutive games of 20 points or more -- the first Wildcat to accomplish that since the start of the 2005-06 season. Shurna averaged 27.6 points and 8.0 rebounds during that stretch, which included his first career double-double (21 points and 13 rebounds) against Texas-Pan American on Jan. 7. "If Shurna wasn't out there (that night), I don't think we would've scored," coach Bill Carmody said in the Daily Herald.

Shurna's streak came to an end at Michigan, where he posted 11 points and four rebounds while playing all 40 minutes in a 68-62 road win. Shurna's struggles (4 for 14 from the floor) might actually turn out to be a good thing for the Wildcats as they've been hoping for somebody other than Shurna or junior point guard Michael Thompson (14.7 points per game) to become a consistent contributor.

Freshman Drew Crawford stepped forward with a game-high 25 points, while sophomore center Luka Mirkovic added a season-high-tying 13 points.

--Northwestern has been desperate to get more production out of its centers. Since sophomore Luka Mirkovic starts and plays more minutes at center than classmates Kyle Rowley and Davide Curletti, it made sense for Northwestern's coaches to put some pressure on Mirkovic to get more accomplished.

Sure enough, Mirkovic picked up his play last week. He produced his second career double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) against undersized Texas-Pan American on Jan. 7, then followed that with 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks at Michigan. Mirkovic asserted himself from the outset in the post as he scored the Wildcats' first six points.

ON THE SPOT: Northwestern coach Bill Carmody isn't a big believer that his team needs to win the battle of the boards. Among other reasons, Carmody generally prefers to have his guys get back quickly on defense rather than crashing the offensive boards. Nonetheless, the Wildcats need to fare better in Big Ten play. After outrebounding their 12 nonconference foes by roughly half a board per game, NU has lost the boards in its three Big Ten games by an 8.3-rebound margin.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Shurna has a craftiness. When he makes a cut, his footwork is really good. He does so many little things. As a coach, I watch on film and really appreciate him." -- Texas-Pan American coach Ryan Marks, on NU sophomore forward John Shurna after he produced 21 points and 13 rebounds against his Broncs on Jan. 7.


SEASON RECAP: Northwestern's 12-3 record going into this week represented the program's best 15-game start since the 1945-46 squad also started 12-3. The Wildcats have been strong on the road for the second consecutive year (they've won at North Carolina State and Michigan while losing in overtime at Illinois), but they haven't played well at home in their last two tries. Because Michigan State won by 21 in Evanston, Wisconsin and Purdue certainly will show up at Welsh-Ryan Arena thinking they should win.

PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Drew Crawford, F John Shurna, C Luka Mirkovic, G Michael "Juice" Thompson, G Jeremy Nash. Key Subs -- G Alex Marcotullio, C Kyle Rowley.

IN FOCUS: Northwestern expected to be nine deep during the preseason, but now the Wildcats are essentially a five-man operation. The injuries to seniors Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan removed two key players. On Wednesday, coach Bill Carmody played just two reserves (freshman shooter Alex Marcotullio and sophomore 7-footer Kyle Rowley), but they each played just six minutes. Did the Wildcats wear down? Well, let's just say they managed just two free throws in the final five-plus minutes as Wisconsin outscored them 14-2 down the stretch.

Juice Thompson, who leads the Big Ten in minutes, and John Shurna played all 40 minutes. Senior G Jeremy Nash went 38 minutes, freshman Drew Crawford handled 36 and sophomore C Luka Mirkovic played 34 minutes -- one off his career high. Northwestern's guys can't keep logging all of these minutes, but there aren't any breathers until, oh, March.


--Sophomore F John Shurna entered Wednesday's game as the Big Ten's No. 3 scorer with 17.5 points per game, but he didn't take his first shot in Northwestern's 60-50 loss to No. 13 Wisconsin until 9:18 remained in the first half. Shurna wound up taking just 11 shots despite playing all 40 minutes. He finished with a team-high 15 points to go with five rebounds and two blocks.

--Junior PG Michael "Juice" Thompson found it hard to create against a packed-in Wisconsin man-to-man that stayed in front of him most of the night. Thompson, who appeared to irritate his lingering hip condition when he was fouled going to the hoop early in the second half, posted four points and four assists while playing the entire game.

--Freshman G Drew Crawford struggled Wednesday to find the hot hand he enjoyed during Sunday's win at Michigan. Crawford forced a few shots, and Wisconsin swatted two of them in the first half. Crawford finished 3-for-9 from the field and 2-for-6 at the line as part of his 10-point, seven-rebound performance. His nervy 3-pointer, though, gave Northwestern its last lead at 48-46 with 5:28 to go.

--Senior F Kevin Coble (Lisfranc fracture in his foot) and senior swingman Jeff Ryan (torn ACL in his knee) are out for the year. Coble, a second-team All-Big Ten pick last year, has undergone surgery and intends to use his redshirt so he can return next season. Ryan has a redshirt year available as well.

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