Northwestern may not be going to the NCAA tournament, hell the NIT isn't even a guarantee at this point, but they showed me something last night, maintaining their poise in a hostile environment and withstanding every run Indiana made in the second half. It would have been pretty easy for NU to quit on the season after the Penn State debacle, but instead they have bounced back well and done what they couldn't do last year: win on the road against the bottom of the conference.
The win completed a football/basketball sweep of Indiana, making them the second team Big Ten this year to be so shamed. I fully expected that NU hadn't done that to two teams in one year for decades, but NU actually accomplished that feat in 2005-06, sweeping both Iowa and Purdue in football and basketball.
NU will now finish no worse than ninth in the Big Ten. I know, not exactly something to be thrilled about, but a week ago, last place seemed like a real possibility, so it's a step in the right direction. And amazingly, NU is now only a game and a half out of 4th place. It would take a miracle for NU to finish in the top 5 of the conference and get a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament, but with a strong finish to the season they could move up to 6th or 7th, which would allow them to play Iowa or Indiana in the Big Ten tournament first round, and more importantly avoid a quarterfinal match-up with Ohio State.
Game notes after the jump.
- NU led by 10 at the half, and it was largely due to Tom Crean's bizarre defensive game plan. Whenever Luka Mirkovic got the ball in the low post, Indiana immediately double-teamed him. Yes, really. Every time they did this, NU either got an open three or a lay-up, as one thing Mirkovic is good at is passing out of the post.
- All 5 of Mirkovic's points came in the first half, on a 15 foot jumpers and a top of the key three. After the three, he ran back down the court doing his patented Serbian finger guns move, drawing the ire of the Indiana crowd. Hilariously, Indiana's Tom Pritchard scored on the next possession and copied Luka's move on his way back down the court, which really got the crowd going.
We've seen Luka do this a couple times on the road and anger the crowd (the other time was at Purdue), and while the announcers always criticize him for it, I don't think it's a big deal; in fact it's rather hilarious. What is a big deal is that Luka lets the crowd get to him; he responded to the taunts by going one on one and forcing up an absurdly difficult running hook. If he just laughed at the crowd and kept playing within himself, the taunts would be awesome. So stop letting the crowd get to you, Luka.
- John Shurna is back to his old self. He hit 3 of 5 threes to get back to 50% on the season, and more importantly was attacking the basket with confidence. He also did a great job on defense down the stretch despite having 4 fouls at the time, which was odd because he got beat a couple times earlier in the game: somehow he got better with 4 fouls, rotating over to block Christian Watford late in the game, and pulling down a couple key defensive boards in traffic. Good to see.
- Alex Marcotullio was excellent off the bench, playing heavily in place of foul-plagued JerShon Cobb. Marco finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, one of the best games of his career, and he was a key part of the late 1st half run that helped NU open up the lead.
- Conversely, Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci were both horrendous off the bench. Curletti fouled out in 14 minutes, as he still can't set a screen legally, and he did nothing positive on either end of the court, finishing with more fouls than points, rebounds and assist combined. Meanwhile, Capocci continues to get abused on the defensive end, which is totally inexcusable since that's the one thing he should be bringing to the table, yet he let Jordan Hulls waltz right by him for a lay-up and was promptly benched. I don't expect anything from Capocci on offense, but it makes no sense that a guy with his athleticism can't stay in front of people on the defensive end.
- Drew Crawford's lack of development has been very disappointing this season; he's essentially the same guy he was last year. What worries me most is his inability to create his own shot. A couple of times in the second half, NU isolated Crawford against Verdell Jones III (not exactly the world's greatest defender), and both times Crawford turned it over. For such an athletic player, it's odd how slow Crawford moves when he goes to the basket, it's reminiscent of Evan Watkins trying to scramble. He really needs to work on that part of his game in the off-season.
- Michael Thompson had a very strange game. At times he was brilliant (scoring 12 points in about 3 minutes late in the first half, hitting all 11 of his free throws, many coming down the stretch) but he also had 5 turnovers against just 2 assists, and two of those turnovers came in the final minutes and were of the unforced variety. At times he was trying to do too much and forced up several really tough shots in the lane, but he made up for all of that with celebratory high-stepping dribble after the final buzzer (see the post-game thread).
- While the interior defense was suspect as usual, NU did a good job of defending the three, allowing Indiana to hit just 4 of 13. I think defending the three is very important for NU; with the personnel they have, the interior defense is always going to be pretty bad, and when they start over-compensating for it and allow teams to get hot from three, that's when you see the opponent go crazy and put up ridiculous efficiency numbers (see the Purdue, Illinois, and Wisconsin losses).
That's it for now, more Big Ten and post-season tournament related stuff coming this week.