29 January 2011

NU hosts #1 OSU, Shurna out with concussion

NU has officially gone from the frying pan and into the fryer. Barring an upset of epic proportions the NCAAs dream will have to be earned in the Big Ten Tournament. An NIT bid may even be in jeopardy unless NU can continue to have its way against the lower tier of the Big Ten.


24 January 2011

Just like football redux

As a footnote for most Chicagoans and Wisconsinites who had their eyes set on a stadium about a dozen miles south from Evanston along the lake, NU and the Badgers locked horns on the hard court this past Sunday. Just as well. NU got thumped by a grind 'em up offense and a ball hawking, hard nosed defense. Yup, just like football!

In addition to teams with brawny and athletic bigs, you can add teams that protect the ball to the "do not play" list for NU basketball. This one was ugly and vaguely reminiscent of our now partially repressed memories of the game in Shampoo-Banana, save for the immediate onslaught from the opening tip. Against Wisconsin NU made a game of it for the first 10 minutes or so before they wilted under the relentless pressure from Bo Ryan's team.

Enough about that. On to our next game up at McDonald's Arena, errr.... the Barn against the Gophers. Al Nolen is out, and we all know from earlier this season that he is the straw that stirs their drink. If NU is the team we think they are then they will go out and win this game and quiet the naysayers at least until Jared Sullinger and the #1 Buckeyes bulldoze their way through Evanston.

Make it so.

21 January 2011

Addendum: a wrinkle to our 20 win threshold

An astute point was raised by "jonesingcat" in response to our post from earlier today that NU is on track to make NCAAs. That is that imbalanced schedules could throw a monkey wrench into our simplified view of Northwestern's NCAAs chances.

Due to the Big Ten's imbalanced schedule NU plays only once what are arguably the top two teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State and Purdue). This scheduling quirk undermines somewhat Northwestern's ability to piggyback off of the Big Ten's overall conference strength. Therefore we acknowledge that a 9-9 Big Ten record for NU may in fact not be enough to make the NCAAs as it would be accomplished against a somewhat weaker Big Ten conference schedule than implied by overall conference strength.

We will take jonesingcat's point one step further. The Big Ten is not the only conference with an imbalanced schedule. In fact most of the conferences have imbalanced schedules. In converse to NU's favorable conference schedule situation there could be a team or three from the Big East etc... with relatively strong conference schedules that could look favorable to the selection committee despite conference records which on the surface appear unworthy of an invitation to the Big Dance.

Since we are already scratching below the surface of the landscape we should also mention the risk of an unusually large number of upsets of nationally prominent favorites in the lesser conference tournaments. This x-factor would reduce the number of at-large bids for teams like Northwestern. All along we have implicitly assumed that there would not be an unusually high number of upsets of the Gonzaga's of the world in their conference tournaments. We acknowledge the reality could turn out differently.

In sum we now think 9-9 would put us in prime bubble territory and not safely into the NCAAs. So if you want to think in terms of wins necessary for a likely NCAA tournament invite we now think that number is 21. Still we will keep with the 20 win threshold for now until the picture comes into focus over the next few weeks but with the thought that 20 wins would get us onto the bubble and allow for some serious Maalox moments come Selection Sunday.

Northwestern on track for NCAAs

NU's record is (13-5, 3-4) in the wake of last night's decimation of outmatched SIU-Edwardsville. We have said all along that 20 wins is the magic number for NU's NCAAs dreams. In the mailbag critics have argued this is an oversimplification. While there is no doubt that we have simplified the picture to better see the forest through the trees, this does not mean that we are off-base in our thinking.

The way we figure it a 9-9 record in the #1/#2 conference plus one Big Ten Tourney win implied by the 20 win threshold would be enough to make the NCAAs regardless of the particulars of how NU got there. The discussion will merit more fine tuning as season end nears and the outlook comes more into focus, but for now it will have to do.

Of note kenpom now shows that NU's expected regular season performance has improved to (19-10, 9-9). There are no guarantees that this will come to fruition, but it does show that NU is on track for its first ever NCAAs berth at the moment under the reasonable assumption that NU will win what is sure to be a favorable match-up against a lower-tier team in the first round of the Big Ten tourney.

A win against Wisconsin at the Welsh on Saturday would certainly help NU's causes. kenpom has NU's chances at 44% with an expected score of 65-66. The game is there for the taking, and NU has had success in the past against the Badgers at the Welsh. Make it so.

Magic number: 7

20 January 2011

On Luka Mirkovic

As the season wears on it is becoming increasingly apparent that the play of favorite Northwestern fan punching bag Luka Mirkovic is as good a barometer for this team as any. A review of the +/- stats from within conference play bare this out.

In the first three games of the Big Ten schedule (at Purdue, Michigan State, at Illinois) Luka had +/-'s of -19, -15, and -16 respectively. If we take these stats in isolation then it is clear that Luka struggled against these nationally ranked foes.

Luka's performance in those games looks even worse when one considers how NU fared with Luka on the bench. The Roland Rating ("RR"), computed as on court +/- less off court +/-, provides such insight. In those same three games Luka's RR was -25, -27, and -7.

For the math-challenged Carmody Courters, if a player's RR is less than the +/- then Northwestern gained ground on its opponent while that player sat on the bench. This is what happened with Luka in the games at Purdue and against Michigan State at the Welsh. The reverse is true in the game at Illinois, but we don't think it is wise to glean much from the Illinois game due to the blowout nature of that game. That said, NU was -16 during Luka's 22 minutes and -7 during Davide Curletti's 18 minutes (which were more heavily weighted during that sloppy second half) which is not exactly a resume building statistic for Luka.

With the easing of the schedule over the past four games (Indiana, at Iowa, at Michigan State, Michigan) Luka's performance has been markedly better. Luka had a +10, +3, +3, and +21 in those games, respectively. His corresponding RR statistics were +8, -13, +10, and +28. That is, NU was about equally well off in the Indiana game whether or not Luka was on the floor and was better off when Luka was sitting at Iowa. As was the case with the Illinois game we don't put much weight on the Iowa game statistics as that game was a blowout starting about midway through the first half.

To us what really jumps out is Luka's performance in NU's most recent two games at Michigan State and against Michigan at the Welsh. If you consider Luka's performances in both Michigan State games his +/- improved from a -15 to a +3, and this improvement was made by a typically under performing "Road Luka" over the comparatively better "Home Luka." Furthermore as mentioned above Luka's RR in the first game against Sparty was poor, but his RR flipped in the rematch with NU faring much better with Luka on the court.

To follow-up his solid performance in E Lansing, Luka had an outstanding game against Michigan at the Welsh. It probably would irk some NU fans and opponents, but it would be appropriate for Luka to do his vintage chest thumping over his +/- of +21 and an RR of +28 against Michigan.

In sum the trend is for a markedly improved Luka within the conference over the last four games. Similarly NU's performance in those games has also been markedly improved. Certainly some of that has to do with the quality of the opponent. However the +/- and RR statistics suggest that Luka has started to turn a corner. Let's hope this trend continues since NU's performance are pretty closely correlated to Luka's performance.

Hat tip to shatsheet.com which is our source for the +/- and RR statistics in the above analysis.

18 January 2011

Beilein on the hot seat

So far this year the wolfies up and fired one coach they stole from West Virginia (RichRod). Maybe they will do a 2-fer and can the other coach they stole from the Mountaineers, John Beilein? It's quite possible Beilein is on the chopping block as the Michigan fan base still remember the days of the Fab Five, and he has yet to do anything of note either on the court on the recruiting trails.

Michigan hired Brady Hoke away from San Diego State to replace DickRod. Will history repeat itself and Michigan steal both major revenue sport coaches from the same school? It's an interesting question since the San Diego State coach is none other than Steve Fisher, the guy who led the Fab Five to the national title as an interim coach.

Could it happen? Never say never. It would be special if Michigan were to (re)hire Fisher. NU can do its part in making it so by trouncing Michigan tonight at the Welsh. Si se puede!

15 January 2011

Analyzing conference play - first trimester report card

Back in December we dissected the conference schedule and projected what we thought might happen in NU's run to the NCAAs. This projection included a grouping of games into four categories including predicted records within the groups as well as a 9-9 record overall. With a 10-1 non-conf schedule and a first round big ten tourney win we remain optimistic that would land NU on the right side of the bubble.

Well six games are in the books so we have a full trimester of results to analyze. So without further delay here is a look back at the predictions with a summary of where things stand and how NU performed in its first trimester.

Projected: 4-1
Actual: 1-0 (W: Indiana; L: none)
Difference: 3-1 (Michigan, Iowa, Penn St, Minnesota)

Low Hanging Fruit
Projected: 2-1
Actual: 1-0 (W: at Iowa; L: none)
Difference: 1-1 (at Michigan, at Penn St)

Projected: 2-2
Actual: 0-1 (W: none; L: Michigan St)
Difference: 2-1 (Wisconsin, Illinois, at Indiana)

Projected: 1-5
Actual: 0-3 (W: none; L: at Purdue, at Illinois, At Michigan St)
Difference: 1-2 (Ohio St, at Minnesota, at Wisconsin)

First Trimester Grade: C

The first thing that jumps out is that 4 of the 6 games NU has played are in the Bling or Wheaties groups.

The second thing to note is that NU has taken care of business in the Egg and LHF categories so far, but we still expect at least a couple of missteps among the 6 remaining games (cough, Penn State)

The front loading of the schedule means that it is not surprising NU is 2-4 at this point. In fact it was to be expected so we gave NU a "C" for its efforts so far.

From here on out the schedule is pretty balanced with six games of Bling or higher and six games of Low Hanging Fruit or lower. NU must go 7-5 in these games so there is work to be done. The good news is that this team has shown the potential to just that over the last few games.

Make it so.

NU falls in overtime at East Lansing

In its rematch with Michigan State, Northwestern battled longer and harder, but the result was the same. The overtime loss at the Breslin leaves NU and its fans with that old familiar empty feeling of a missed opportunity to make some hay.

First let's give credit where it is due. Michigan State executed down the stretch in a well-managed final minute of regulation and overtime. Sparty aggressively attacked the basket and either got layups or to the charity stripe where they knocked down all their freebies.

Northwestern did its part to contest the outcome. Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and Luka Mirkovic were cold blooded in front of a raucous MSU student body as they repeatedly knocked down some absolutely huge buckets.

Ultimately it was NU that blinked. First Luka Mirkovic missed a FT regulation that if converted very likely would've sent Northwestern home victorious. Then in overtime NU had a three point lead and the ball midway through the stanza when Drew Crawford made an ill-advised pass that led to a breakaway Draymond Green dunk.

As always these close games bring out the armchair coaches. We've seen many criticisms including Coach Carmody not calling timeouts or not taking the ball earlier at a foul plagued Green to get him out of the game or inbounding the ball to Mirkovic which allowed MSU to foul him. These points are all debatable but ultimately inconclusive in our opinion.

The thing that bothered us the most was the questionable substitution pattern in which Coach Carmody brought in Luka Mirkovic for Davide Curletti for that fateful inbounds play. In that situation Sparty had to foul so it made sense to get your best free throw shooters. Why sit Curletti for Mirkovic in that situation? It makes no sense.

In any event the best part about this game is that Northwestern demonstrated that it can play consistently solid defense. We also liked to see Drew Crawford attacking the hoop, and other players stepping up when opponents zero in on Shurna. Cobb was very impressive and Mirkovic had a solid second half.

With an improving defense and a stellar offense the NCAA dream is far from over.

14 January 2011

MLK Weekend Big Ten Power Rankings

Off to the wild blue yonder this weekend so we wanted to get our much anticipated MLK Weekend power rankings out there now.

More so than in any previous year (which is one) the big ten power rankings look to be highly variable. That is because the conference is pretty darn deep and no game can really be taken for granted. So here we go...

1. Ohio state. Undefeated for maybe another week (no change)
2. Purdue. Solid team, jobbed by refs at Minn. (+2)
3. Wisconsin. Bo Ryan doing his thang. (+1)
4. Illinois. Front court barometer. (+3)
5. Michigan state. Inconsistent guard play. (-2)
6. Minnesota. Unbridled talent. (-1)
7. Northwestern. Shurna on the mend. (-1)
8. Michigan. Meh. (n/c)
9. Penn state. Restored faith in DeChellis. (+2)
10. Indiana. Bare cupboard? (n/c)
11. Iowa. Google "perimeter defense." (-1)

13 January 2011

From the "now I've seen everything" department

Re: Just got back from the godawful NU game

"One thing that was very clear last night, viewing the game in person: The NU team looked like men playing against boys. The difference in physique was remarkable. The three European players were most notable.

NU was a very physical defensive team, and were allowed to get away early with a lot of hands on defense that pushed Iowa out of their comfort zone. Gatens and Cartwright had to work their ass off to get open.

And I don't believe for a minute that May's groin isn't bothering him. That particular injury is sneaky, and will linger the rest of the season. It can greatly hinder his explosiveness, his jumping, and his cutting ability."

Posted by "redbirdhawk" on the rivals message board 1/13 5:28 PM | IP: Logged

Many NU fans will be rubbing their eyes when they read this gem.

Just like football

Northwestern destroyed Iowa at the Carver last night. This wasn't some war of attrition in which NU slowly constricted the life out of the Sqwawks. No, this was an early grizzly bear swat to the Iowa head that mortally wounded the Hawkeyes by midway through the first half. The outcome of the game was never in doubt from that point forth.

The game was supposed to be a toss up so the ease in which NU won was unexpected. Also unexpected has been the reaction to this impressive victory from NU fans. Several fans act as if this was the expected outcome, that NU should have blown out Iowa. Say what?

Any road game in the Big Ten is difficult, and any win no matter how ugly or close it may be is cause for celebration. People forget that Iowa recently went to toe-to-toe at the Carver against Ohio State, the heir apparent to the top ranking not just in the Big Ten but in all of college basketball. Furthermore, the betting line corroborates that this was not the expected outcome. Get real people.

Over the last couple of games NU has started to look like its former NCAA-caliber self. Sure it has helped that the games were against Indiana and Iowa, but simply put NU is doing what NCAA-caliber teams do against inferior teams. Tourney-worthy teams impose their will and win these types of games decisively.

It is of no coincidence that the turnaround has occurred simultaneously with the improvement in John Shurna's ankle. It is unfortunate that a healthy Shurna may have made a difference at Purdue and against Michigan State, but there is no use crying over spilled milk (unless it is in Jim Phillip's cover letter to NU's resume that is sent to the NCAA selection committee in mid-March). The good news is that he is on the mend, and that NU has its swagger back. This bodes well for the rest of conference play.

A win in our next game at the Breslin is not imperative, but it would put NU back into the thick of the NCAA tourney conversation. Make it so.

NU's magic number: 9

07 January 2011

Paging Drew Crawford

Well now we know how The Mount felt when they rolled into the Welsh in December. The Illini didn't run out to a 20-0 lead, but it sure felt that way after the first four Illini possessions resulted in twelve points. This game was over before halftime, and the coaches/players were lambasted by the commentators. Rightly so.

Juice Thompson did his best to hold the line early on, but it was akin to sticking a finger in an irreparable dam. With a Northwestern defense that made it look like a Illini five-on-three power play, there was little hope that even our prolific offense could keep pace.

It is quite obvious that Northwestern is reeling from the significantly diminished effectiveness of John Shurna. The guy has gone from a 60%+ shooting pace from beyond the arc and 20+ ppg to 1-11 shooting games and single digit scoring efforts. It's hard to not be disheartened by this swift change of events.

Someone desperately needs to step up his game or this season will be a wash even before the PSU's of the world have their chance to dash our NCAAs dreams. We have been hoping that Juice Thompson would exert his will, but now we're not sure how much more he can do frankly. Nor are we counting on any increased production out of the five hole even though we suspect there will be occasional games in which we will be pleasantly surprised by Mirkovic and/or Curletti. JerShon Cobb has shown great potential, but he is just a freshman and will have his ups and downs.

That leaves Drew Crawford as the the key to saving this season. Just as was the case with John Shurna last year, Drew needs to step up his game and on a consistent basis. He has the skills to do it, but maybe not the right mindset. Maybe he should take notes from John Shurna who takes what the defense gives him. Instead of jacking up forced threes under pressure or off-balance he needs to take the ball to the hole. He's playing in the three spot, and in the face of pressure along the arc he should be able to drive past his man and force the defense to collapse.

So ready or not, Drew, this is your time. Make it so.

03 January 2011

One box out short of a historic comeback

Tom Izzo decided to take take the air of the ball and nurse a 13 point lead with about three minutes to play. Northwestern nearly made the Spartans pay.

This tactical decision effectively made the Spartan players hesitant and caused them to do just about everything possible to allow NU back into the game for a chance at an improbable victory. Poor passes leading to turnovers, charges, passing on wide open threes by shooters who barely stirred the net as they swished them previously, you name it.

In what seemed a blink of the eye, what was once a comfortable road victory for Sparty turned into a nail biter as Northwestern stormed back to make it a one point game with just 25 seconds to play. That's where the storybook ending for the Wildcats unraveled.

On the penultimate possession of the game Alex Marcotullio reached-in on Kalin Lucas with about a dozen seconds remaining to force a one-and-one situation. Normally foulding Lucas would be a bad idea, but as noted in our pregame bit Lucas is but a shell of his former All Big Ten self at the moment.

As Lucas settled in for the front end, we were yelling "box the f#*&$ out" in this pivotal moment. As if on cue, Lucas spun out his attempt, but Green bulled his way through John Shurna to corral the rebound and put it back for an easy deuce. MOTHER F%#&ER!!!!!

Northwestern opted to not take a timeout on the last possession of the game, and ultimately they were unable to knot the game at the buzzer. Cue the armchair coaches.....

Hindsight may be 20/20, but a little foresight would've suggested that leaving a gimpy Shurna out there to box out Green was not a wise decision. Bad decision, Coach. Senior Mike Capocci who has the hops and the strength to corral a pivotal rebound should have been out there in his stead. Green may have still gotten the rebound as he is a heckuva player, but at least put a guy out there who has some ups and isn't nursing a bum ankle to box him out.

As for the criticism that NU should have called a timeout we think it might have been a good idea to have juice take it down to the bench and have a play set up with about 6 or 7 seconds to play. Even Carmody's detractors grudgingly admit that he is good at drawing up inbounds plays that result in open looks.

What we haven't seen from the fans is criticism to let the clock wind down to about 12 seconds before fouling Lucas. Really? In those situations you extend the game and adjust on the fly. If the opponent gets the ball to a JJ Redick type then so be it. Just foul the guy and stop the clock.

Carmody deserves a bit of the blame for some tactical errors in the last 25 seconds. But Izzo also deserves some blame for allowing the comeback to even become possibility. No one is perfect.

Lastly while we are disappointed in the outcome as we wrote in our pregame analysis we were more interested in the health of Shurna's ankle. It clearly is bothering him which should be even more troubling to Northwestern fans than this missed opportunity to steal a win.

Tonight's game barely on MSU radar

Or at least it isn't on Red Cedar. We recall a similar absence of chatter prior to our game in East Lansing in January 2009.......

02 January 2011

NCAA tourney chances hinge on healthy Shurna ankle

The last game of 2010 against Purdue was a mixed bag. The biggest downer was not that Northwestern lost but the realization that Shurna is hobbled by a bum wheel. How long will the ankle affect Shurna? The answer to this key question is also the answer to the viability of Northwestern as a tourney squad.

Against Purdue other Wildcats stepped up their games to fill the void left by an ailing Shurna. Most notable was Mike Capocci who gave a real defensive spark that energized the team. JerShon Cobb had a very impressive Big Ten debut showing off a polished repertoire of offensive moves. Luka Mirkovic benefited on the offensive end from Purdue's willingness to let him beat them instead of risking fouls to JaJuan Johnson.

In the first game of 2011 Northwestern tries to level its Big Ten record tomorrow night against Sparty at the Welsh. Michigan State is 1-0 in the Big Ten after defeating Goldie in E Lansing. Sparty has tons of talent, but they are still trying to find their way.

This is a tough match-up for Northwestern as Sparty has the wide bodies down low to turn Luka Mirkovic into road kill ala St John's. Durrell Summers also has the ability to go E'twaun Moore on us and bomb away from beyond the arc. That does not bode well.

More important than the actual outcome of this game is Shurna's health. A loss to Michigan State would not be devastating to our NCAA dreams, but a chronic problem with Shurna's ankle would be. We'll be monitoring how Johnny's ankle looks in this game.