Silver linings after OSU blowout

This Sports Xchange breakdown looks at the bright side of Northwestern's defeat against Ohio State: some players played fewer minutes than normal, NU's ridiculous start-of-the-Big-Ten gauntlet is winding down and the Wildcats return home to play Illinois. Details and much more inside.

GETTING INSIDE

It might have been a little much to expect Northwestern to win at No. 21 Ohio State on Tuesday night, seeing how the Wildcats' 76-56 Big Ten loss marked their 27th consecutive defeat in Columbus dating back to 1978.

But there was little reason to expect the Wildcats to suffer their first no-show of the year. As the Buckeyes rolled out to a 9-0 lead in the opening three minutes, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody took the unprecedented step of going deep into his bench and bringing in two lightly used reserves in an effort to find a spark.

Considering the Wildcats trailed by 23 points at halftime and never made a run in the second half, the spark was nowhere to be found. But there was a consolation prize to the blowout: The starters received some much-needed rest as the subs handled the final several minutes. Point guard Michael Thompson, who entered the night ranked second nationally in percentage of minutes played, performed for "only" 36 minutes, while sophomore John Shurna played 35 minutes.

That rest could produce dividends in Northwestern's next game. The Wildcats, who open their Big Ten season with 10 consecutive games against programs that qualified for the 2009 NCAA Tournament, embark on Game No. 7 of that grueling march Saturday when they play host to Illinois. The Wildcats and Illini opened the Big Ten season on Dec. 30 at Champaign, where the Wildcats built a 10-point second-half lead but couldn't hold it as the Illini kept pounding the soft interior of Northwestern's zones.

Seven-foot-1 Illinois center Mike Tisdale dominated inside for a career-high 31 points as well as 11 rebounds, while 6-9 Mike Davis piled up 20 points and 17 rebounds. Northwestern center Luka Mirkovic has improved his play since that game, but the Wildcats also need 7-foot reserve Kyle Rowley to lean his superior heft on the wiry Tisdale. Rowley contributed seven rebounds in 15 minutes during the teams' first meeting.

OHIO STATE 76, NORTHWESTERN 56: Playing their third nationally ranked opponent in seven days, the Wildcats suffered their first absolute clunker of the year. The No. 21 Buckeyes scored the game's opening nine points, and things only grew worse from there for Northwestern on Tuesday night at Value City Arena in Columbus.

Sophomore forward John Shurna led the Wildcats (13-5, 2-4), who trailed 40-17 at halftime, with 22 points, five rebounds and four steals. Freshman Drew Crawford (11 points) was the only other Northwestern player in double figures. The Wildcats somehow shot better on 3-pointers (nine of 23) than 2-pointers (nine of 24). Evan Turner riddled Northwestern for 20 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

Northwestern couldn't build on its victory over No. 6 Purdue. The Wildcats won the rebounding battle by 19 against the Boilermakers, but they were outrebounded by eight against the Buckeyes. Ohio State hit 27 of 52 shots to become the third team to make at least 50 percent against Northwestern.

NOTES, QUOTES

Michael "Juice" Thompson and John Shurna couldn't carry Northwestern the whole season. Fortunately for the Wildcats, their other starters are kicking into high gear just as Big Ten opponents start to take away Thompson and Shurna.

With sophomore center Luka Mirkovic and freshman guard Drew Crawford leading the way, Northwestern righted one of last year's wrongs when it knocked off No. 6 Purdue on Jan. 16 at home. The Boilermakers escaped from a 14-point second-half deficit to win at Welsh-Ryan Arena last season, but the Wildcats made the big plays late in their 72-64 win that brought much of the student body (wearing their purple "Make Shots" T-shirts) rushing to the floor at game's end.

"It's pretty cool," Crawford told the Daily Herald. "I got popped in the face after, but it was pretty cool."

Crawford was pretty cool, too. Named the Big Ten Network's player of the game, the 6-foot-5 guard rapidly has developed into NU's go-to guy in the clutch. With NU holding a tenuous 1-point lead with 2:05 to go, Crawford drilled a 3-pointer. The next time down the floor, Crawford resisted the urge to jack another 3 and drove to the hoop for an off-balance layup that became a 3-point play. He finished 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-10 Mirkovic dominated the statistical battle with Purdue's all-Big Ten center, JaJuan Johnson. While Johnson fouled out with just seven points and two rebounds in 18 minutes, Mirkovic rolled up a career-high 16 points with 10 rebounds for his third career double-double. The affable Serbian had averaged 12.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.0 block per game over Northwestern's last four outings entering the week.

Junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson injured his hip late in the Illinois game on Dec. 30. Over the ensuing four games, whether it be because of the hip or because of increased scrutiny from opposing defenses, Thompson shot just 10 of 37 from the field.

Thompson had every excuse to continue his slump against Purdue on Saturday, including an illness that forced him to throw up at halftime. But Thompson stepped forward with 6-for-9 shooting from the field and 6 for 6 from the line for his first 20-point game since his 22-point effort on Dec. 1 at North Carolina State. He ranks fourth in the Big Ten in assists (4.4 apg) and 3-point goals (2.4 per game).

According to Basketball State, Northwestern ranks among the nation's most-efficient ballhandling teams. The Wildcats entered the weekend as the country's leader in assists per basket (73.0 percent) and sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (which dropped from 1.54 to 1.49 during Saturday's win over Purdue). Juice Thompson's 2.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the Wildcats, while backcourt mate Jeremy Nash owns a solid 2.0-to-1 ratio.

ON THE SPOT

When Northwestern played Illinois on Dec. 30, the Wildcats raced out to a big lead, as they drained 3-pointer after 3-pointer. While Northwestern went on to set an Assembly Hall with 16 3-pointers, the team became too dependent on those shots, didn't probe Illinois' relatively weak interior defense and wound up blowing a 10-point second-half lead to lose 89-83 in overtime.

This time around, even if the Illini give up early 3-pointers because they're scared of the backdoor layups inherent in the Princeton offense, the Wildcats must remember to work the ball and not jack it up on the first semi-opportunity that presents itself.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"After a while, you're not like a freshman anymore. He's willing to take a big shot." -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, discussing freshman guard Drew Crawford in the Chicago Tribune. Crawford ranks No. 3 among Big Ten freshmen in scoring (10.9 ppg), No. 2 in field-goal shooting (50 percent) and No. 3 in 3-point shooting (40.8 percent).

SEASON RECAP

GAME REVIEW:
Northwestern 68, Michigan 62
Wisconsin 60, Northwestern 50
Northwestern 72, Purdue 64
Ohio State 76, Northwestern 56

GAME PREVIEW:

vs. Illinois, Saturday, Jan. 23
at Minnesota, Tuesday, Jan. 26
at Michigan State, Saturday, Jan. 30
vs. Michigan, Tuesday, Feb. 2

IN FOCUS

After playing his bench just 12 minutes in a 60-50 home loss against Wisconsin, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody made a bigger effort to get his starters a break against Purdue. Backup center Kyle Rowley (13 minutes) and backup guard Alex Marcotullio (12 minutes) saw their workloads double while junior forward Mike Capocci contributed two minutes. That enabled every Northwestern starter to get a rest, which hasn't happened for Juice Thompson and John Shurna in several games. It'll be Carmody's job to find ways to follow a similar plan against Illinois on Saturday.

ROSTER REPORT

Sophomore F John Shurna, who stacked up five consecutive 20-point games earlier in the year, returned to his high-scoring ways with a game-high 22 points on 7-for-10 shooting at Ohio State. Shurna posted 14 of those points after halftime, which wasn't much more than garbage time, as Ohio State led by 23 at the break. Shurna added a career-high four steals in his 35-minute stint.

Junior PG Michael "Juice" Thompson found his shot in the Jan. 16 win over Purdue, but he lost it again at Ohio State. Thompson went 2-for-10 from the field, including 2-for-7 on 3-pointers, to finish with six points. He contributed three assists vs. two turnovers, which means there still has been just one game this year (North Carolina State) when Thompson had more turnovers than assists.

Sophomore C Luka Mirkovic didn't maintain his recent roll. Mirkovic, who lit up Purdue for 16 points and 10 rebounds, played just 10 minutes against Ohio State and managed just two points and three rebounds. Mirkovic committed a turnover on Northwestern's first possession, missed a layup on the next possession and picked up two fouls before the second media timeout.

Senior forward 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 also underwent surgery and seems on target to use his redshirt year and return as well.


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