Opportunity missed, opportunity ahead

Northwestern let one slip away at Minnesota, but there is an even bigger game around the corner. The Sports Xchange looks at the Wildcats' defeat to Minnesota, as well as where it leaves the Wildcats in the Big Ten and in the Tournament bubble debate. Also, a look ahead to the Michigan State game.


If Northwestern had finished off its rally at Minnesota on Tuesday night, there's no telling how much momentum the 'Cats would have carried into No. 5 Michigan State on Saturday night. NU would have been 4-4 in the Big Ten and riding a two-game winning streak over its most ardent in-league competitors for precious NCAA Tournament bids.

Alas, the Wildcats fell short 65-61 at Williams Arena and now need to shock the Spartans at the Breslin Center for the second consecutive year in order to fulfill their self-imposed goal of a split for the week. Considering the urgency with which Michigan State played when it bounced Northwestern 91-70 on Jan. 2 at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Wildcats' chances are slim at the Breslin Center.

When the teams met the first time, Michigan State did a brilliant job of dissecting Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone trap. Spartans coach Tom Izzo placed point guard Kalin Lucas in different spots on the floor, which allowed him to come off the ball, accept some passes and attack the middle of the zone. The Spartans wound up shooting 57 percent against the Wildcats as Lucas pumped in 21 points and Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers hit for 17 each.

"They got the ball in the middle a lot, and that kills a 1-3-1," Northwestern junior guard Michael Thompson told the Daily Herald after that game. "That kills pretty much any zone, getting the ball in the middle, so they were pretty much able to pick their poison -- whether they wanted a 3-point shot or a layup."

Since that game, Northwestern has spent more practice time working on its 2-3 matchup. If the Wildcats play it right, then they might force the Spartans to waste some time adjusting to its nuances. At the least, Michigan State shouldn't be able to access the middle of NU's zone as readily.

Meanwhile, NU needs to regain some confidence in its post game. Minnesota rejected a whopping 11 shots on Tuesday as the Wildcats recorded 12 of their 22 baskets from beyond the 3-point arc.


The Wildcats rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to take a 49-48 lead with 5:08 to go, but Minnesota's Blake Hoffarber drilled two of his five 3-pointers shortly thereafter to lift the Gophers to the Big Ten victory at Williams Arena. Hoffarber led everyone with 20 points as NU missed a chance to earn its most significant road victory of the year.

Sophomore forward John Shurna led Northwestern's second-half charge and finished with a team-high 19 points, but he missed a jumper that could have pulled NU within one in the final minute. The Gophers missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 10 seconds left, but Hoffarber procured the offensive rebound and nailed both subsequent free throws to salt away the game.

Junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson added 15 points and six assists for NU while Luka Mirkovic delivered a career-high 14 rebounds to go with six points and four assists. The Wildcats bench played just 19 minutes and would've seen less time if not for senior Jeremy Nash's foul trouble. Nash, who put up a career-high 22 points in his most recent game, posted just seven points in 32 minutes against Minnesota.


When Illinois beat Northwestern 89-83 in overtime on Dec. 30 in Champaign, Illini center Mike Tisdale destroyed 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 continued to lead the country by a wide margin in assists per basket going into the week. 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 ranked 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 The fastest way for Northwestern to prove it belongs in its first NCAA Tournament would be to win on Saturday night at No. 5 Michigan State. Since that doesn't seem too likely -- especially after the Wildcats shocked the Spartans on their home court last year -- the best-case scenario would be for the Wildcats to give a strong accounting of themselves and not give the NCAA committee any room to think less of them.

How to do that? It starts with playing better defense. Michigan State put up 91 points against NU on Jan. 2 at Welsh-Ryan Arena as the Spartans figured out ways to keep the center in the middle of the 1-3-1 zone trap from playing high enough to shut down passing lanes and drives. The Wildcats need to figure out how to counter that maneuver while also oiling up their 2-3 matchup.


"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.


Northwestern is surviving 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 -- the Wolfpack beat teams like Duke and Florida State.

Northwestern 72, Purdue 64
Ohio State 76, Northwestern 56
Northwestern 73, Illinois 68
Minnesota 65, Northwestern 61
at Michigan State, Saturday, Jan. 30
vs. Michigan, Tuesday, Feb. 2
vs. Indiana, Sunday, Feb. 7
at Iowa, Wednesday, Feb. 10


While the Wildcats proved they can win at Michigan State last year, it's fair to say the Spartans and their fans will be ready for NU this time around.


Sophomore F John Shurna led Northwestern in scoring for the fifth time in eight Big Ten games and the 10th time overall. Shurna delivered 19 points in Tuesday night's 65-61 loss at Minnesota, though he needed 16 shots to do it. Shurna drilled three of his four 3-pointers during a second-half run to help the Wildcats turn a 13-point deficit into a brief one-point lead. He also added seven rebounds while playing the entire game.

Junior PG Michael "Juice" Thompson had to stay on the perimeter in order to find his shots against Minnesota's tall and lengthy defenders. Thompson drilled five of 10 3-pointers -- tying his career high for 3s -- as he finished with 15 points and six assists. Thompson also committed just two turnovers against Minnesota's voracious pressure while playing the whole game for the eighth time this season.

Sophomore C Luka Mirkovic grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds as he tried his best to keep the Wildcats competitive on the glass with Minnesota. As it turned out, Mirkovic had one more rebound than the rest of his teammates combined. Mirkovic also handed out four assists and earned two steals, but he rarely got a clean look at the basket against the Gophers' towers. Mirkovic, who isn't the most explosive post player in America, went 2-for-9 from the field and he was responsible for several of Minnesota's 11 blocks.

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