Northwestern staying afloat

The Sports Xchange breaks down where Northwestern is at following the big win over Illinois. Players talk about how it was an absolute must-win, Bill Carmody and Bruce Weber talk about Juice Thompson and a look at how NU has weathered this early Big Ten gauntlet.

GETTING INSIDE

It's trite and even cliche, but Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has tried his best to minimize the importance of any individual Big Ten game. When the Wildcats knocked off No. 6 Purdue on Jan. 16, he cautioned them about the game three days later at No. 21 Ohio State.

And when the Wildcats played dead from the start of their 20-point loss against the Buckeyes, Carmody attempted to slough off any lingering impact by reminding them about Illinois' visit on Saturday. And while Carmody tried not to build up the Illini game as being bigger than the others, his players knew the score.

"All the guys knew this was a must-win for us," said NU senior guard Jeremy Nash, who produced a career-high 22 points.

If Northwestern hadn't rallied down the stretch to pull off the 73-68 victory -- snapping an 11-game losing streak to Illinois -- then its NCAA Tournament resume would have added another blank spot where success needed to be in black and white. Now the Wildcats can point to Illinois and Purdue home wins to offset the home disappointments against nationally ranked Michigan State and Wisconsin. Moreover, it wouldn't have been good to head into this week's road games at Minnesota and Michigan State with a 2-5 Big Ten mark.

"Absolutely it was a must-win," NU sophomore center Luka Mirkovic said in the Daily Herald. "I'm not going to lie. I mean, everybody knew that."

Not only did the Wildcats win, they did it without the usual iron-man performances from junior point guard Juice Thompson and sophomore forward John Shurna. They entered the game leading the Big Ten in minutes for conference games (Thompson at 39.7 per game and Shurna at 38.7), but both got into first-half trouble. Thompson sat for 12 first-half minutes while Shurna sat for 6.

Somehow, Northwestern managed to cut its deficit from four points to three while Thompson and Shurna sat for the final six minutes of the half. That figures to give the other Wildcats, including rarely used subs Nick Fruendt and Mike Capocci, confidence as they head into the final six weeks of the regular season. And, perhaps, Carmody will have more confidence in his subs and give Thompson an occasional rest every game?

"Everyone says that 38 minutes (per game) is too much," Carmody said. "He's 20 years old. He's in great shape. So, I think 38 minutes isn't (enough) ... I'm going to go 40 from now on with that guy. I like him out there."

NOTES, QUOTES

When Illinois beat Northwestern 89-83 in overtime on Dec. 30 in Champaign, Illini center Mike Tisdale killed NU's center combo of Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley for 31 points and 11 rebounds. Mirkovic and Rowley combined for seven points and 14 rebounds, but Mirkovic compounded his defensive issues by shooting just 3 of 13 from the field.

When Northwestern took the rematch 73-68 on Saturday in Evanston, the Wildcats centers turned around their matchup as well. Tisdale finished with 14 points and six rebounds, but Mirkovic delivered nine points and nine rebounds while Rowley contributed four points and three rebounds in their combined 40 minutes. "I thought our centers were terrific," said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody.

In Mirkovic's seven games since the Illinois loss, the 6-foot-11 sophomore from Serbia has averaged 9.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists. That improvement has boosted his season numbers to 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

According to Ken Pomeroy's web site, Northwestern continues to lead the country by a wide margin in assists per basket. The Wildcats set up 72.9 percent of their field goals with an assist. Through Saturday's games, Pittsburgh (68.9) and Samford (68.9) were next-best on the list.

The Wildcats also rank high among the national leaders in their willingness to shoot the 3-pointer. Through the Illinois win, a whopping 47.5 percent of Northwestern's shots (480 of 1,011) have come from beyond the arc. That ranks fourth in the country behind Samford, North Carolina A&T and Samford. The Wildcats' top four guards (Juice Thompson, Jeremy Nash, Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio) each have taken more than half of their shots from 3-point range.

ON THE SPOT

In order to win one or both of their road games this week (at Minnesota and Michigan State), Northwestern needs to find a way to force more turnovers. The Wildcats won at Michigan on Jan. 10 while forcing 18 turnovers. Then they forced a grand total of 21 turnovers in their games against Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State, but the Wildcats got well on Saturday by forcing Illinois into 17 miscues. Most of them came early when NU took a 13-2 lead and late when NU outscored Illinois 29-17 in the final 10 minutes.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"He's their leader. He runs the show. He didn't score against us either game very well, but he takes care of the basketball and gets them in their stuff. He wants to win. And that's all he cares about. He does the things that a leader needs to do to help them win." -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber complimenting NU junior point guard Juice Thompson after the Wildcats' 73-68 win on Saturday.

SEASON RECAP

Northwestern looks like it's going to survive its grueling first-half Big Ten schedule with its confidence intact. The Wildcats own home wins over Purdue and Illinois (the latter snapping an 11-game losing streak in their intrastate rivalry) as well as a road win at Michigan. Northwestern's best non-conference win (at North Carolina State on Dec. 1) continues to look better and better as the Wolfpack beat teams like Duke and Florida State.

IN FOCUS

At first glance, Northwestern looks like it's in for a rough week on the Big Ten road. Minnesota ranks among the team's finest defensive teams, but the Gophers are breaking in a new point guard in the wake of Al Nolen's academic suspension. Perhaps the Wildcats' tricky defenses can cause trouble for interim Minnesota PG Devoe Joseph. Then comes the trip to Michigan State. While the Wildcats proved they can win there last year, it's fair to say the Spartans and their fans will be ready for NU this time around.

ROSTER REPORT

Junior PG Michael "Juice" Thompson scored a total of 10 points last week when Northwestern split with Ohio State and Illinois as teams continue to try to smother him and keep him from shooting. Thompson went 3 of 15 from the field (almost all of it from 3-point range), but he still ran the offense effectively as he handed out 6 assists versus 2 turnovers.

Sophomore F John Shurna grabbed a season-low 2 rebounds on Saturday against Illinois and needed a big finish to avoid just his fourth non-double figure scoring game of the year. Starting with a back-door dunk with 7:19 to go, Shurna scored 12 of his 19 points down the stretch when the Wildcats rallied to win. Shurna continues to rank among the Big Ten's best free-throw shooters. His career-high 9-for-10 effort against Illinois pushed him to 31 of 33 (.939) in conference games.

Senior G Jeremy Nash followed up one of his worst games of the year with one of his finest efforts. Nash managed just three points and one rebound in Ohio State's blowout win on Tuesday, but he recovered to produced a career-high 22 points with four steals, four rebounds and three assists against Illinois.


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