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Northwestern basketball roster breakdown (plus Robert Morris game recap)

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Northwestern finally started their season last night, cruising to a 91-71 victory over the Robert Morris Eagles, one of the top teams in the NAIA. The Eagles got off to a quick start and took an early 12-5 lead, but it was all NU from there, as the 'Cats took a 46-35 lead into halftime and never looked back.

Some quick general notes:

- The offense looked very good, as NU had 91 points on just 71 possessions and turned the ball over only 4 times the entire game, including none in the first half.

- The dreaded 1-3-1 trap was nowhere to be found last night; Carmody went entirely with man-to-man and match-up zone. Considering that NU played almost entirely man-to-man in Italy, could this mean the end of the 1-3-1? We can only hope. Anyways, NU held Robert Morris to just 35% from the field and blocked 10 shots, but allowed the Eagles to grab 19 offensive rebounds, which is certainly a bit concerning. Transition defense was also pretty bad; often times too many NU players would hit the offensive glass and Robert Morris would have an odd-man break going the other way. That problem can be easily solved though, the lack of rebounding may be more problematic, especially considering NU was last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin last season.

Rather than make two separate posts about the individual players, I figured I'd simply combine a recap of the game with a look at what we can expect from NU's roster this season, so hit the jump.

Starters

JerShon Cobb (6'5", 180, freshman, starting shooting guard)

I paid to see last night's exhibition in large part so I could see Cobb make his first appearance at NU, and I wasn't disappointed. It's easy to see why he was so highly regarded by recruiting experts; he's long and lanky yet looks very smooth handling the ball, so smooth that he doesn't appear to be trying very hard even as he hustles the ball up the court. Cobb got the start last night and scored 12 points in just 19 minutes, hitting 2 of 4 threes and wowing the tiny Welsh-Ryan crowd when he took the ball coast to coast with some nifty dribbling and laid it in with his left hand. He's still a bit raw, but there's no doubt that Cobb will be an impact player from day one. I think we can expect JerShon to have a season similar to Drew Crawford's freshman campaign.

Drew Crawford (6'5". 205, sophomore, starting shooting guard/wing)

Last season: 10 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 58.1 two-point FG%, 34.2 three-point FG%, 64.2 FT%

Expectations are very high for Crawford this season. He was named co-Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten last season, and NU fans hope he can develop into one of the better scorers in the conference. In last night's game, his outside shot wasn't falling (0 for 6 from three), but he still managed 16 points because he was attacking the basket and crashing the boards, grabbing 9 rebounds in his 29 minutes, highlighted by a spectacular one-handed put-back dunk. But what impressed me most about Crawford last night was his defense, as he had six blocked shots and was very active. His biggest weakness last season clearly was as a defender; during the bubble-killing losses to Iowa and Penn State Crawford's defensive effort could best be described as disinterested. There is no doubt about his offensive talents, so it's great to see him start off strong on the defensive end; hopefully it continues into the season.

John Shurna (6'8", 215, junior, starting wing)

Last season: 18.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, 54.9 two-point FG%, 35.5 three-point FG%, 77.5 FT%

Shurna was the 'Cats best player last season, making second team All-Big Ten, and he should have another huge year as a junior. He's a dangerous 3-point shooter, has a variety of moves in the mid-post with his back to the basket, and can face up and drive to the rim. And as impressive as the above stats are, they were even better during Big Ten play, where he averaged over 20 points a game and shot 40% from behind the arc. Shurna is one of the best players in an extremely talented Big Ten, and he'll be the go-to guy on offense.

Last night, Shurna was clearly the best player on the court, as he had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in just 23 minutes. What I really loved about Shurna's performance is that he treated the game the way veteran NBA players treat exhibition games (it must be due to his time this summer scrimmaging against the USA olympic team). He seemed to be cruising along at about 75% effort and more than anything just wanted to avoid injury. He was the best player on the court, and everyone knew it, including Shurna himself.

Michael Thompson aka "Juice" (5'10", 190, senior, starting point guard)

Last season: 14.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 44.1 2-point FG%, 41.1 3-point FG%, 82.9 FT%

Thompson has been the starting point guard since the beginning of his freshman year, and last season he was the Big Ten's iron man, playing nearly 38 minutes a game. He's an excellent ball handler and distributor (consistently posting a 2 to 1 or better assist to turnover ratio), and the most underrated 3-point shooter in the conference. No one ever talks about Juice when they discuss the best shooters in the Big Ten, but Thompson's 42 percent career 3-point shooting has him right there with fellow seniors Blake Hoffarber and Jon Diebler, the two guys considered the best shooters in the league. One person who doesn't underrate him is Thompson himself, he gave himself the nickname "Juice" at a young age because his jump shot is 100 percent pure (and no, I am not making that up).

The potential emergence of Crawford and Cobb should mean that NU won't rely as much on Thompson to score, which I think is a good thing. Thompson is an excellent 3-point shooter, but he's too small to be an effective scorer off the dribble in the Big Ten conference (as seen by his relatively low 2-point FG%). The ideal offensive role for him is to handle the ball vs. pressure, look to set up his teammates first and foremost, then be ready at the 3-point line for the kick-out. As the only senior starter, Thompson will also provide leadership.

Luka Mirkovic (6'11", 248, junior, starting center)

Last season: 7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 50.3 2-point FG%, 34.6 3-point FG%, 55.7 FT%

As a sophomore, Mirkovic was like a barometer for Northwestern. When he played well, the 'Cats often played well (in the upset of #6 Purdue, he had 16 points and 10 rebounds), but when he struggled, the team often struggled along with him. The problem for Mirkovic is that he's an overly emotional player, and when he struggles early in a game he lets it get to him and he has a tough time bouncing back. Hopefully we see a more mature Mirkovic this season, as he is a solid rebounder and passer from the high post when he's on his game.

In last night's game, he was sporting one of those Rip Hamilton-style face shields, and will apparently be wearing it all season long. It's not a very stylish look, but I think it fits Mirkovic well, as he needs to be a grinder and do all the dirty work for Northwestern this season. At times last year, he tried to do too much offensively, which took touches away from more talented teammates. NU doesn't need much offense from him, instead he needs to rebound and defend and leave the offense to others.

Bench

Alex Marcotullio (6'3", 180, sophomore shooting guard)

Last season: 4.8 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.0 apg, 47.8 2-point FG%, 36.9 3-point FG%, 70.8 FT%

Marcotullio was a key part of NU's non-conference success as a freshman, providing  a smooth left-handed 3-point stroke, energy, and active defense, but once Big Ten play started his production really fell off. His biggest problem was that he's not a good enough athlete to defend Big Ten guards, so if his shot wasn't falling he wasn't bringing anything to the table. He spent the summer playing for the Under-20 British national team (as Rodger so hilariously chronicled), and fans hoped he could turn into a solid ball-handler and backup point guard, but after watching him last night, I don't think he's ready to play the point in the Big Ten quite yet. John from Chicago College Basketball noted that he has the highest dribble of any guard he's ever seen, which doesn't bode well. Also, he still can't make a right-handed layup; twice last night he missed easy finishes because he had to use his off-hand. Considering this deficiency cost NU a game last year at Indiana, you'd hope he'd correct the problem in the off-season. I'm beginning to think it's a mental block or something. Still, Marcotullio is a very good 3-point shooter, and that skill alone will earn him some playing time off the bench.

Jeff Ryan (6'6", 205, senior guard/forward)

Last season: red-shirted due to a knee injury

Ryan is like a utility player in baseball; he doesn't have any one spectacular skill, but he can fill in and do a passable job at a lot of different positions. He can handle the ball, defend, rebound, and is comfortable within the complex Princeton offense. Even though he's not a good perimeter shooter (he looked very tentative with the ball last night), he can come in off the bench and let one of the starters rest, and while he's on the court you know he won't hurt you. Northwestern didn't have anyone like this on the roster last year, and it really cost them.

Ryan still hasn't fully recovered from his injury, as he played just 10 minutes last night, but I thought he was moving around pretty well and I'd expect him to be 100% by the time Big Ten play starts.

Davide Curletti (6'9", 238, junior center)

Last season: 2.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.6 apg, 10 for 22 on twos, 3 for 6 on threes, 19 of 30 from the line

Curletti has been the third-string center for most of his NU career and thus has played sparingly, but he did emerge as the backup at the end of last season, and with Kyle Rowley gone now, he figures to be the backup this season. He's shown flashes of being a decent outside shooter (one of those 3 made threes last year came in crunch time of the win over Iowa State), but I'm skeptical of his ability to defend opposing centers, as he's a bit undersized and hasn't displayed any shot-blocking ability. Still, he will most likely get the nod as a backup, because...

Ivan Peljusic (6'8", 215, senior wing/center)

Last season: 1.2 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, 5 for 16 on twos, 4 for 13 on threes, 5 for 9 from the line

Peljusic has seen his minutes decline each season at Northwestern, which certainly isn't a good sign. He was forced to play a lot out of necessity as a freshman (there were no other big men on the roster), and he is a decent athlete, but he has trouble fitting into Carmody's system on both offense (where he is turnover prone and can't make an open jumper) and on defense (where he's often out of position and doesn't move his feet). Don't look for him to get too many minutes this season, he's just too much of a liability on defense, and defense is the most important thing when determining who will be the backup center.

Mike Capocci (6'6", 195, senior wing)

Last season: 1.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, 17 for 29 on twos, 1 for 4 on threes, 10 for 15 from the line

Capocci has been a frustrating player during his NU career. He has Big Ten level athleticism (as seen by him winning the team dunk contest at Midnight Madness) and should be able to contribute as a defense/energy guy. But like Peljusic, Capocci has had trouble fully grasping Carmody's systems. He's a good finisher around the rim, but he can't make an outside jumper and struggles with turnovers, and on defense he just looks totally lost; particularly last night when he committed 4 fouls in 4 minutes. It's a bit odd that he still doesn't have a high basketball IQ, especially considering the Big Ten Network announcers constantly praised him last year for his excellent GPA as an economics major. So don't feel too bad for Capocci, he may not have a pro basketball career but he'll be raking in the cash working some finance job before too long.

Practice players

Junior Nick Fruendt and sophomores Reggie Hearn and Austin Nichols round out the roster. Fruendt is on scholarship while the other two are walk-ons, but given Fruendt's underwhelming performance the past two seasons, and the fact he didn't get into the game last night until garbage time, I don't think we'll see him playing any meaningful minutes. Hearn actually looked decent last night, he handled the ball well versus full court pressure  and made a nice layup with his off-hand on a backdoor cut. That being said, it won't be good if any of these three have to play meaningful minutes.