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!