Seniors Jeremy Nash and Matt Steger raise the CIC championship trophy
For the second straight night, Northwestern used a strong second half to upset an unbeaten BCS conference team, rallying from a 5 point halftime deficit to beat Iowa State and win the Chicago Invitational Challenge. This one wasn't easy, as Iowa State looked a lot more like a top 25 team than Notre Dame did the night before. But the 'Cats managed to pull out the victory, and for the second straight night got contributions from a lot of different players.
In the early going John Shurna was fantastic, scoring 17 points in the game's first 12 minutes and singlehandledly keeping Northwestern in the game. He finished with 23 points and 7 rebouds, and once again scored in a variety of ways, with 3-pointers, strong low post moves, and two athletic 3-point plays in transition. His best play of the night was a spectacular low post move in the 2nd half, when he made Cyclone star Craig Brackins (a much better athlete than Shurna) look silly with some fancy footwork. For his efforts, Shurna was named tournament MVP. Michael Thompson added 16 points despite being closely guarded by much larger Cyclone Diant Garrett. He did a nice job of not forcing up tough shots and taking what the defense gave him. Jeremy Nash had just 10 points, but all 10 were very important. He hit back to back threes early in the 2nd half when Iowa State was up 9 and looked like they were about to turn the game into a blowout. He then went 4 for 4 from the free throw line in the final minute to put the game away. Alex Marcutullio was again excellent off the bench, with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals. I can't say enough about how much he's contributed on defense, the kid plays his heart out and has a nose for the ball.
But the biggest shot of the game was by the unlikeliest of heroes, 3rd string center Davide Curletti. With both Kyle Rowley and Luka Mirkovic relegated to the bench thanks to poor play, Carmody gave Curletti a shot, and he came through in a big way. With Northwestern clinging to a 3 point lead and just under 4 minutes to play, Curletti came off a screen at the top of the key and buried an off-balance 3 pointer to give the 'Cats some much needed breathing room. If you didn't know better, you would have thought Craig Moore was back in uniform. In terms of selection, it was a highly questionable decision for a guy who hadn't made a 3 pointer all year, especially early in the shot clock. Shon Morris on the BTN broadcast put it best by saying "if he doesn't make that, he might be on the bench until I retire." But Curletti buried it, and has in my opinion earned himself the starting spot. Rowley once again struggled mightily, and Mirkovic had some big rebounds but couldn't make a move in the post without getting called for traveling. I'd like to see a rotation of Curletti and Mirkovic at the center spot, with Rowley only playing in garbage time or if someone fouls out. Rowley has shown zero improvement this offseason, if anything he looks worse, and he's killing Northwestern's offense when he's in the game.
As for Bill Carmody, it's early in the season but I have to say he's done a good job with this roster so far, especially the last two games. He recognized that Capocci and Peljusic weren't getting it done and relegated them to the bench, and he's made good in-game substitutions, keeping his most effective players on that night in the game in crunch time, regardless of whether they started. He's also done a great job of adjusting mid-game and changing his defenses according to the situation. Iowa State was carving up the zone, so he switched to man to man for a lot of the 2nd half and it was very effective. Both tonight and last night vs Notre Dame, his defensive game plans helped Northwestern neutralize an excellent interior player (Harangody and Brackins). Northwestern also controlled the tempo in both games, forcing athletic teams that like to run to grind it out in the halfcourt.
Speaking of coaching, Iowa State supporters are less than pleased with their team's game plan. Click here to read an excellent recap of the game from a Cyclone perspective.
I think it's going to be very important for someone to step up and back up Shurna and Crawford on the wing, be it Peljusic or Capocci. Right now they're rotating 4 guys between 3 spots (Shurna, Crawford, Nash and Marcotullio), and its a very small lineup when either Shurna or Crawford comes out. Shurna's going to wear down over the course of the season if he has to play nearly 40 minutes a night.
With this win, there's reason to get excited about the season. 5-1 against the schedule Northwestern has played is a pretty strong showing, one I'd be happy with had there not been any injuries. With so little depth due to injuries, it won't be easy to keep this going, but right now the 'Cats are really clicking. Unless more key contributors go down with injuries, I think this team is good enough to make the NIT, which seemed like a pipe dream when Coble went down. As for the holy grail of making the NCAA tournament, that's going to be very very difficult to do with how strong the Big Ten is, but I don't think its completely impossible. The fact that's even in the discussion right now says a lot about how far this team has come; after that escape against Tennessee State 10 wins on the season looked like a challenge.
The schedule doesn't get any easier, as Northwestern heads to NC State on Tuesday night for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but for now let's enjoy another great win, and take joy in how this probably won't be a lost season after all. Go 'Cats!
edit: thanks again to NUBears for putting up the game highlights, here they are: