If John Shurna must sit, then who plays instead?

Northwestern hasn't released any further updates on the status of John Shurna, but he isn't close to the same player since spraining his ankle. His outside shot is no longer falling, he's struggling to finish at the rim, and he's become a liability defensively and on the boards. Despite these shortcomings, Bill Carmody is still running him out there as much as ever, as Shurna has averaged 36.5 minutes over the past two games.  Going forward though, it's become clear than Shurna's minutes need to be limited, both for Shurna's health and the long-term success of the team. Whether that means reducing his minutes per game or benching him entirely until the ankle heals, I don't know, but something needs to change, or the poor kid's ankle may fall off.

So who plays instead? Cue the Bencha Nostra...

Candidate #1: Alex Marcotullio

In his sophomore season, Marcotullio has established himself as a solid backup guard off the bench. He has proven to be proficient playing zone defense, displaying quick hands and a nose for jumping on loose balls. Offensively, he is mostly a 3-point specialist (although he's struggled so far this season, making just 30%), but has also shown strong passing skills, dishing out 27 assists against only 9 turnovers.

Still, Marcotullio does not appear ready for starter's minutes in the Big Ten. He displays almost no ability to drive to the basket or create his own shot, and he lacks the athleticism to play effective man-to-man defense against Big Ten opposition.  Additionally, a lineup with Marcotullio instead of Shurna is a bit too small, and would have serious issues on the interior against a team with two effective post players. Such a lineup would have to play 1-3-1 pretty much exclusively, with Marcotullio on the top, Cobb and Crawford on the wings, and then Juice on the baseline and whichever center in the middle.

Offensively, that lineup would spread the floor well, but would likely have trouble getting stops. The best time to use it would be late in games when the 'Cats are trailing and need some quick threes to get back in it. Still, it may be the best lineup available if Shurna can't play.

Candidate #2: Mike Capocci

Capocci has played sparingly in his 4 seasons in Evanston, largely because he can't make a jump shot and plays a bit out of control on both ends of the court. Despite these major shortcoming, Capocci has occasionally provided a spark off the bench, most recently in the 2nd half against Purdue on Friday. He might be the best athlete on the roster, as he won the team dunk contest during fall practices and has bulked up a lot over the course of his career in Evanston.

He can certainly provide defense, rebounding, and energy in the form of an occasional dunk, and I think he is best suited to playing 10-15 minutes per game off the bench. Anything more than that, and his weaknesses will be exposed and his effectiveness will be limited (think Jeremy Nash when he had to go from energy guy 6th man to starter). If Shurna can't play at all, I don't think you can start Capocci, he's just too much of a black hole in the half-court offense, but regardless of Shurna's status, he should be getting some run off the bench.

Candidate #3: Davide Curletti

I'm not sure if playing Curletti somewhere other than center is even feasible; as this is his junior year and he's played exclusively at center thus far. However, I think it's worth considering. Curletti is a bit undersized as a 5 in the Big Ten, but he's about right for the 4 spot, and his 3-point shooting ability (52% in his career) will allow Northwestern to spread the floor on offense. More significantly, he can be useful defensively against teams with big front lines (like the 'Cats will see tomorrow from Illinois), allowing Northwestern to play their match-up zone and not get destroyed in the post.

I'm not really sure how an offense with both Mirkovic and Curletti on the floor would look; it would probably get pretty ugly at times with two guys with zero ball-handling ability out there at the same time. And Curletti needs to be able to stay on the floor, as he's currently averaging almost 8 fouls per 40 minutes. You definitely couldn't try this against a small team like Purdue, but against Wisconsin, Illinois or Minnesota, it may be worth a shot.

Look, the bottom line here is that Northwestern is in bad shape without Shurna in the lineup. You don't lose a 23 ppg scorer and not miss a beat. All three of the potential replacements bring something to the table, but none of the three is anywhere near a complete player at the 4 position. A healthy Jeff Ryan might be able to help out, but his knee injury has flared up against and he won't able to contribute any time soon, and the other two scholarship players (Ivan Peljusic and Nick Fruendt) aren't much better than the walk-ons. For Northwestern to have any success in Shurna's absence, it's on the other four starters to elevate their game; the Shurna replacements need only be not terrible and let the other 4 guys do their thing. It doesn't look good going forward, but we thought the same thing last November when Coble went down. Maybe Bill Carmody's team can once again exceed expectations.

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