‘Cats Shining Moment Falls Short In OT; Wait ‘Til Next Year

Man.  That was insane. An undermanned Northwestern (18-13,7-11) team nearly pulled off the hoops upset of the current century. However, the Jared Sullinger FT show was too much as the ‘Cats lost their Big Ten Tourney Quarterfinal game in OT to Ohio State (30-2), the nation’s top-ranked team 67-61.  Wildcat fans (and for that matter Buckeyes fans) will be talking about this one for quite a long time. 

I’ve been one to criticize Northwestern’s defense and Coach Carmody in general this season. However, today, Northwestern was valiant in their effort as the ‘Cats completely dominated the tempo of the game and had the Buckeyes completely out of sync.  If you are a regular then you know complaining about calls is something I rarely do – I’m more apt to point the finger at us. But, I was frustrated down the stretch as the refs began to anticipate calls as it became a rinse, lather, repeat strategy of pound the ball down low to Jared Sullinger.  Give the Northwestern defense a ton of credit. Davide Curletti was phenomenal against Sullinger as ESPN’s Dan Dakich pointed out time and again. Curletti put on a defensive clinic in terms of cutting down angles and dictating the post moves of Sullinger. Yes, many of the fouls were indeed fouls, but down the stretch the refs simply started anticipating and it ticked me off.  John Shurna’s “D” on Sullinger in OT was exhibit “A”.  Sullinger was just 2-12 from the line but was 16-18 from the FT line which was by far the difference in the game.  He is a 53% FT shooter on the season.  Crazy (OK, not crazy, just bad stats from ESPN – he’s actually a 71% FT shooter).

John Shurna carried Northwestern and was downright inspirational for NU from the get-go and scored 23 points.  Juice was his usual unselfish self and helped the team by doing all of the other things and then of course scored when we needed him to in the second half. The story of the day was our interior “D”, both good and bad.  Drew Crawford also showed his usual flashes of sick athleticism and great play and would go invisible for stretches.  If he could play the full 40 he’s 1st team All Big Ten.  And Alex Marcotullio was once again a scrappy guy who I’ve grown to love as he does more intangibles than anyone on our squad. Of course, my bitching about the refs bailing out Sullinger EVERY trip down the floor will be countered by a crucial miss by the refs on Alex’s money 3-point shot as the shot clock expired to give NU a lead in the closing minutes. It turns out it should’ve been a shot clock violiation.  It doesn’t take away how clutch it was. 

The real gamebreaker though was the downside of our interior. Luka Mirkovic, who is really a shell of his former self and needs to recharge the confidence battery let his emotions (once again) get the best of him and it cost NU dearly.  Luka was called for a foul on a rebound (it was a foul) for holding Sullinger.  He was frustrated and threw his mouth guard which not only earned a technical foul, it counts as a personal and disqualified him from the game as it was his fifth foul.  Northwestern, with no starting JerShon Cobb, no athletic Mike Capocci (injured) was now without either center and the game was over from that point on.  Luka will have to use this a huge learn as it is simply unacceptable to have that happen with the game on the line. 

I have to rant here for a second to defend our ‘Cats. I thought the ESPN broadcast crew was very good, however I was ticked at the relentless analysis that we were “mugging” Sullinger. Huh? Indeed we were playing tough denial defense. However, Curletti was using great base strength and angles and playing straight up forcing Sullinger to get out of his comfort zone.  Where was the kudos for our “D”? Then, the EPSN bottom line kicked in letting the nation know that NU had Ohio State in trouble but even the ticker gave us no credit as it read something about “Ohio State’s poor shooting has Northwestern pressing the nation’s #1 team”.  What the hell is that about? How about a little credit?

Northwestern played the #1 team in the country twice this year and lost in the final seconds by 1 (58-57) without John Shurna at home. Then, today we took the #1 team in the country to OT in the Big Ten Tournament.  Note to NU Athletics, PLEASE schedule really good non-conference teams. The ‘Cats rise to the level of their opponent.  We play Purdue tough, Ohio State tough and Wisconsin (most of the time) tough.  Let’s schedule several top 25 teams, even if it means losses. We need the RPI help and more importantly we need to be tested so we can grow throughout the season.  Every other BCS hoops team with 18 wins is bubble-bound, yet thanks to our poor non-conference schedule, we’re NIT bound (yes, I know if we scheduled better we wouldn’t have 18 wins).

Northwestern made all of us proud today. I know, there are no more moral victories. We’re now 0-17 against #1 teams all-time.  Nonetheless, we took the #1 team to OT without several guys at full strength and three who didn’t even dress.  Days like today you realize how good we can be. Then, it makes you wonder how the heck we can play that well against the #1 team in the nation – TWICE – yet still not manage to get to .500 in conference. Bill Carmody, in all likelihood, saved his job for one more year with the Big Ten Tournament of 2011.  I truly believe that and in five years from now we’ll likely get him to even admit it.  But for NU fans it is now off to the NIT for the third straight year and the allure of a consolation tournament is long gone.  Perhaps this is the year we actually escape the first round.  Regardless, it is not March Madness, so all it will do is give us the mental ability to get up off the canvas and say “wait ’til next year”. 

Good effort, tough loss. Go ‘Cats!

  • Sigh

    I really think if we’d gone 2-0 against Penn State instead of 0-2 both this year and last year, we’d have made the tourney both years. 9-9 in the Big Ten or 10-10 including Big Ten Tourney games combined with 20+ wins (instead of 18 wins, 7-11 Big Ten) is a lock. This game stings, but it’s Penn State that’s been the poison pill two years in a row.

  • Lake The Posts

    @ sigh – Ding, Ding, Ding. You nailed it. Can’t complain about losing to potential national champion. It is the effort against the #1 team that really makes the Penn State games so painful. 100% agree with you.

  • Rick

    Good analysis. Tough loss. Note that Sullinger is a 71% FT shooter, but if he shoots his average it’s still a 3 pt game to OSU. To your point he shouldn’t he been on the line that much.

    I normally turn off Dakich, but he was tolerable today, effusive in deserved praise for Juice.
    He will be missed, but IMHO our point guard next year will be Marcotullio, and without much drop off in point production and a likely improvement in D. If the incoming frosh can help, great. I also think there’s reason for optimism next year with a healthy Shurna, and the normal improvement of players from year to year. Add to that the graduation of so many quality players in the B10, recently chronicled in the media, and maybe next year…

  • I’m just so tired of coming close and not winning. Ugh. The worst part is like you say @sigh, when you leave “winnable” games on the table… everything is magnified.

  • Drew

    I know they were showing that Sullinger was a 54% FT shooter, but he actually shoots 71% http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/player/profile?playerId=51405

    I think someone on the production team screwed up. I know it was incredibly frustrating to watch and after the game I kept saying “If a 50% FT shooter is going to go 16-18 then you can’t complain too much”…so hopefully that makes a little more sense for everyone.

  • And Northwestern did not make me proud. I liked the way they played but I’m not proud of losing games.

  • Chadnudj

    @kinsella316: I’ll respectfully disagree. Northwestern student-athletes playing the game hard always make me proud, win or lose.

    Am I chalking this one up as a win? Hell no. Like Fitz said, there are no more “moral victories” for the Cats, in any sport.

    But I’m always proud of our student-athletes, when they give effort on the field of play and in the classroom and community.

  • Sam

    I’m glad you brought up the scheduling. The non-conference season was really a waste, but we all knew that. As players, coaches, and fans, the only thing you ask for out of a non-conference schedule is to learn something about your team. Until the St. Johns game, we learned absolutely nothing. We knew Shurna could score. We knew Juice could control a game, pass, and score. Same with Crawford. We knew Marco could shoot at times and could play with energy, and we knew that our centers can look decent when no one is guarding them. But what we didn’t know, and would only learn once in the non-conference schedule, was whether this team had made any significant progress from last year. Safe to say, it’s the same team–centers need a lot of work to say the least, the defense is extremely suspect, and the team just doesn’t have that “over-the-hump” guy. We knew Juice isn’t that guy, because he is generally too small and not fast enough to drive to the basket and pick up the foul. Prior to the season, of course we thought Coble would be back and all would be well, but after that fiasco, I’d hoped that Shurna would grow into that, and it certainly looked like Crawford would step into that role nicely. Alas, it didn’t happen–and on multiple occasions this year, that has come back to bite us, and it really stings. Not sure if I see a change in this next year or beyond–which brings up the Carmody question, which is disappointing because it is clearly what separates NCAA teams from NIT ones.

  • Mikey

    Have to respond to Rick, and make a comment to any fan or anyone who remotely follows NU basketball. If Marcotullio is our main PG next year, this team will be fighting with Iowa and Indiana to stay out of the basement of the Big 10. If anyone believes that Marcotullio can be effective at PG, you haven’t understood what Juice has meant to this team for 4 years. Sure, Juice is undersized and everyone makes a point about it, and sure he can’t drive and finish at the rim like other guys in the league, but don’t underestimate what 40 minutes, every game, with the ball in his hands the majority of the time means to this team. Besides the fact that he seems to be the only player on the team that consistently comes to play, no one on this team has close to the ball handling/decision making skills that he has (not close), and no one on this team can come close to replacing his minutes. If next year’s freshmen can’t contribute significant minutes and play 30+ minutes at the PG spot, NU is in for a long year.

  • Simmons

    Nice recap but you overlook the details on what Luka did today (3 points, 0 rebounds, 5 fouls including the technical).

    Not that the T necessarily cost the game (because they did miss the FT), but it was clearly the game changing moment in terms of attitude. 4 fouls in 2 minutes of OT. And to top it off anyone remember what happened last year in the BTT against Purdue when Luka elbowed one of the players and was called for a flagrant? That game he had 4 pts 0 boards in 14 minutes after Carmody took him out. Sound familiar?

    He’s made no improvement this year and if anything has regressed. Don’t understand how he plays over Peljusic but coaching staff must think really little of him. Something has to be done at center for this team to be consistent. Since odds of bringing in a decent one for next year are slim, maybe a coaching change (assistant)?

  • MikeH

    @kinsella316 – A warrior may not always win but they play with heart, desire and the best effort they can muster. I will take the warrior effort today. Yea, I’m sad they are watching the rest of the tournament, but looking at what they were facing, it would have been easy to give up before tipoff. All I ever want from our athletes is to compete like warriors. Leave it all on the field/court.

    @Sam – I totally agree. I also thing some tougher games will lead to closer games and help the team learn how to close out. The two MSU games or the OSU regular season game are my case for that. I believe a more battle tested team wins at least one of those games. Maybe even two. There has got to be some middle ground between Chicago State and Ohio State that would help us in the preseason. As a season ticket holder, I would even give up some home games to get better ones.

  • Lake The Posts

    @all – great stuff. Agree that Marcotullio, while I love him, is not the answer at PG. We’re right back to where we were pre-Juice, resting our PG and season hopes on a senior in high school. Sobo, the floor is yours.

    Keep the comments coming!

  • DT

    Folks, let’s give the Cats some credit for the year they had. C’mon, if most are candid we would have said this would have been a decent showing when Coble left the team via whatever means or motivation. For my nickel the kids played hard and pretty much to the collective ability of the team far more often than not. Hopefully they advance on to the NIT and send Juice out with a very deserving win or two… The young man was a warrior and had huge heart in recent weeks. More than a few on this blog were giving NU up for dead with what looked like a bad loss to St.Johns in non-conference. No Coble and an injured Shurna for a good portion of The Ten? All in all, not a bad showing. Still, Carmody has had his shot and time for a change. Was apparent to most, The Princeton system would not work at this level five years ago- nor encourage the quality of athlete needed to particpate at the highest levels of Power Conference Hoops- specifically The Big Ten, to seriously consider NU… New coach, new system, new culture, renewed hope… And all due respect to Tavaras Hardy, someone above his paygrade and capability is needed to break this iceberg that is the continued lack of NU participation in the NCAA Tourney…

    Finally, one former NU Football player is on record varifying a decided lack of enthusiasm for March Madness… Marquice Cole was featured in the ESPN The Magazine “Scale Of 1 to 10” rating his interest level at a three… Maybe, when/if NU ever dances, that goes up a bit! I’d like to get his level of enthusiasm on the Defense shown against Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech… A zero is not an option…

  • Alaskawildcat

    I know many were just hoping we would play a good game today. Taking the number one team in the nation to overtime sure beat that expectation! On a side note, at least to the end of regulation, Shurna was the leading scorer for either team today. Nice to see him able to have such a good game after coming back from ankle injury and concussion. Got to hand it to the entire team for a valiant effort today and I think the Wildcats have as good a chance as anyone of winning the NIT. Hoping those who were unable to play in the Big Ten Tournament will be healthy and able to contribute in post season play.

  • Simmons

    It’s difficult to say anything too negative about the in-game coaching and pre-game preparation that went into the season against OSU because clearly NU came prepared. But 2 games against OSU and we did the same stupid thing at the end of regulation. If a team is down or tied with the ball near the end of the game (within the last few seconds, i.e., only time for 1 shot), you MUST put yourself in a position to get fouled. It makes very little difference what the shot looks like it just has to be one that you could get fouled taking (of course if you have a wide open look and you are a decent shooter that would be best but it’s not usually that easy).

    In the game at home against OSU, with 3.5 seconds left (plenty of time to dribble to half court and still have at least 1.5 if not 2+ seconds left) instead of using a timeout at half court which allows you to inbound from halfcourt (NU used 2 timeouts to set up the last play, instead of saving one) and throwing something towards the basket where someone could get fouled on a quick catch and shoot–or even cutting towards the basket (without a shot), Carmody called a play where a Crawford dribbles it up the floor and heaves it from halfcourt. Today, Juice dribbled across looking for an outlet (not to shoot), and found Drew too late to do anything (and in a position to shoot and not drive anyway). Again, Carmody had timeouts left to run something today. To be fair, Matta did the same thing at the end instead of having Sullinger throw up something inside the paint, he faded away with a terrible shot to end regulation. But OSU and Sullinger learned the lesson and just pounded the interior in OT, and got the win–without making any of the baskets. Don’t remember specifics about the MSU games, but wouldn’t be surprised if similar things happened.

    Point is, just as players learn from late-game situations, and can learn to execute in key situations same goes for the coach. Carmody failed to get anything good in those key situations and it hurt our chances big time (might have lost the game today, and lost a chance for upset at home earlier in the year). I’d hope that a veteran coach like Carmody would know better.

  • Stevo21

    What a cap to a depressing year, from day whevenever Coble left (before day 1, I guess). Boring non-con, immediately start the b10 looking bad especially wo Shurna, and are pretty much out of it from the get go. And unlike the last few years, no good wins for the team which make the year memorable. Best win might be against Michigan (the win against Illinois is no longer impressive at all), but that team was completely different in January and looked really bad back then. I think Michigan started the b10 1-6 or something. Why can’t our team improve like that over a season? Do we have the wrong players? The wrong coaches? Something needs to change.

  • Drew Fletcher

    One comment on the “bad call” on the 3-pointer by Marcotullio. No good referee in making this call are looking at the shot clot above the backboard as implied by the replays and subsequent criticism of the call. Instead, they are listening for the violation buzzer and then judging whether the ball had left the shooters hand. For ESPN to show the clock, without the sound of the buzzer, is useless. And then to make a big issue of it (and what a huge issue it would have been if NU had won) by the several replays just shows how little they know of refereeing. Can you imagine the criticism of the referees if they had been looking at the shot clock and instead missed an obvious foul on the shooter? The obsession with instant replay is ruining sports.

  • JMK

    @Lake the Posts
    Why isn’t Marcotullio our answer at point guard? He has the best hands on the team, has shown increasingly good ball-handling ability, and has a great deal of on-court confidence. To me, he has proven himself as Juice’s heir apparent. While he cannot replace Juice, he will be a perfectly competent point guard.

  • JCat93sabrina

    As I have posted many times before……get marketing on the line…..new slogan for 2011
    “Expect Close Painful Losses” get rid of Carmody!!!!

  • AF9

    Please change my handle to “AF9.” Thanks.

  • @chad – of course i’m proud of the team playing hard and whatnot… but i’m not taking any solace in “well we played the number one team in the country tough and almost won.” we had the ball twice against the number one team in the country in a tie game WITH A CHANCE TO WIN TWICE and don’t come through. proud of the effort? hell yea. proud of the result? never.

  • Chaddogg

    @kinsella316 — fair enough. I think we’re both on the same page. Just wanted to clarify that I’m always proud of our student-athletes, win or lose, when they give a great effort.

  • NUmanager

    @LTP- If a quarterfinal exit from the B10 tourney is enough to save BC’s job, then we should probably just grant him tenure. Gotta look at the entire picture. We were universally tabbed as tourney quality to start the year. We didn’t even end the season on the bubble. Again.

    It’s been 11 years. No more excuses.

  • Mikey

    @JMK – Sorry, but Alex does not have the best hands on the team. And if he has anywhere near the best hands on the team, we are in pretty bad shape. Watch some game tape–if nothing else, the guy is probably a 50% layup shooter when contested, and can’t handle layups under pressure, especially with his right (off) hand.

    Alex doesn’t have the speed you need at the PG spot (part of the reason he misses the layups). And you’ve never seen him handle the ball for extended periods of time under pressure, because Juice is ALWAYS playing, and would ALWAYS get the ball in tight situations. He is weak with his right hand, that is quite clear.

    If you still don’t believe me, take a look at Minnesota. I would say that Blake Hoffarber is as pretty equal with Alex in most ways, except a much better/more consistent shooter, and look what happened to that team with Blake running the show. It was painful to watch that team play.

    Alex is a decent player, and has great energy which is apparent especially on the defensive end. Unfortunately, his athletic abilities are limited which shows when playing big 10 guards (on defense, especially). He is great against lesser competition, but just not the same against the good guys. On any other B10 team, he’s a 10 minute guy at most, but only if he can shoot more consistently (i.e., close to 40% from 3).

    On top of all of that–need I mention some decision making skills? Again, we’ve never seen it over the course of a game since Juice is always running the show, but in what we have seen, remember the pass in the OSU game at home on our last possession?

    Conclusion–he’s not the answer at PG.

  • NUmanager

    One last BC comment from me and I’ll shut it for awhile.

    If you had an employee for 11 years who was running one of your most important divisions, and not once in 11 years did that employee meet HIS OWN goals for that division, would you keep that employee?

    BCs had given his best. I thank him for that. But it turns out his best isn’t good enough. Maybe the next guy will fail too. But we have to keep trying. If we dont make a change, I promise we’ll be right back having the exact same tedious exchanges next year.

  • Message to Luka and Curletti!
    Once this season is concluded…….don’t look at a basketball until Mid-August.
    Both of you get with the NU Basketball Weight- Strength coordinator and begin a lifting and training program to develop 10-15 lbs of NEW upperbody strength.
    You each have \endured 3 seasons of Big Ten Basketball play in the \Paint\ and have paid an embarassing price for the education of not being strong enough to successfully compete. It’s now time to apply your painful lessons learned, in attempting to play the \5\ in the Big Ten Conference on both the offense and defense.
    The message for the 2012 Season is to use this interval time to develop the new strength and agility and dish it back to the Conference. Set a goal, that between you two gents..it’s total 15-20 points and 15+ rbds a game basis minutes played. Next year will be the CATS best chance to achieve the seasonal goals that have eluded the Program all these years.
    Both of you have it within your grasp to do the muscle work between now and October 15th to make a personal difference in your Senior Season play …DO IT…& ..GO CATS!!

  • Joe the Schmoe

    Up until OT, Mirkovic and Curletti did a good job containing Sullinger. For example, Luka was guarding Sullinger at the end when Sullinger had to throw up the wild off balance fade away that fell far short and allowed the OT to happen. Luka hit the critical 3 pointer. Unfortunately, we tend to remember the technical (but where Buford missed both foul shots). Even with the loss (against the #1 team in the country), NU played darn well.

  • Stevo21

    Have to argue about Mirkovic and Curletti doing a good job containing Sullinger. Yes, Sullinger did not have a field day early against us, but I couldn’t help but think that Sullinger looked pretty bored in that game until OT. Maybe that was our offense at play, but I can’t give too much credit to our centers. Plus, when your centers get a combined 1 rebound, they didn’t contain anyone, period, and certainly didn’t contain Sullinger who had close to 20 boards. One-on-one against Sullinger everyone seemed to do a good job until OT. Juice was on him, Alex was on him, John, and he never took off. But we got crushed on the boards all game, and for a team that shot so poorly (OSU), that was the big difference maker in regulation. 1 rebound for your centers is just embarrassing. Watch the game again, and you’ll see time and time again Luka and Davide standing under the basket watching Sullinger and company (with Drew doing his best, it seemed) own the backboards. You can’t blame it on the defensive schemes either, since it was basically man to man with some switches here and there, so we should have been in perfectly good position to get rebounds.