by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Laying a strong foundation for an NCAA Tournament-level nonleague portfolio was the goal for Northwestern at this weekend’s South Padre Invitational. The Wildcats achieved that goal with a 72-69 overtime win over Illinois State in the championship game Saturday night. What follows is our brief analysis on Northwestern’s tournament triumph.
The Good: Jared Swopshire
The biggest question for Northwestern heading into this season revolved around the replacing John Shurna’s 20-points-per-game scoring load. No single player could recreate Shurna’s offensive output; it would require a handful of helping hands. Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire will be a pivotal piece in that puzzle, and he proved as much Saturday night by submitting his best game as a Northwestern player. Swopshire posted 15 points and 10 rebounds and was awarded the Tournament mvp. Swopshire didn’t back down from Jackie Carmichael, a potential NBA prospect, and flashed a range of versatile skills. Whether spotting up on the perimeter or banging in the paint, Swopshire has given all indications he will be one of the Wildcats biggest scoring threats this season. That’s good news.
The Bad (kind of): Alex Olah
I suppose Olah’s performance can be chalked up to inexperience, or freshman growing pains, or some combination therein. Because make no mistake, the dude can play – he just needs time to figure things out at the college level. On Saturday night, Olah was ineffective against the Red Birds’ pressure defense. He logged nine minutes and attempted only one shot. It was probably Olah’s worst game of the season, but at this early stage, it’s not something we should put all that much stock into. Freshmen – particularly freshmen big men – need time to learn their role, to grow into their positions. For a system as complicated as Carmody’s Princeton offense, the learning curve is even steeper. So it’s hardly a huge surprise that Olah is struggling early on. The hope is that Olah can learn from his missteps, correct the mistakes, and round into form come conference play. For now, he’s a big body with promise, a mass in the middle with a work-in-progress skill set.
Stat of the Night: 36 Points by Illinois State senior guard Tyler Brown
This result wouldn’t have been nearly as suspenseful if not for Brown’s remarkable clutch shot-making. The senior guard revived ISU from sure destruction on several occasions – from his two three-pointers inside the final minute of regulation to force overtime to his 12 points in overtime that kept the Redbirds hanging around far longer than they should have – and turned a comfortable Northwestern victory into a flashback from last season’s nail-biting drama. Brown deserves credit for his late-game heroics.
Having secured a win over Illinois State, Northwestern has a solid nonleague data point to bank for the rest of the season. But the Wildcats were expected to win this game. Their first real test is Tuesday night’s ACC-Big Ten challenge matchup with Maryland, who boasts a 4-1 record, a roster with more than one NBA-bound player, and a surging momentum under coach Mark Turgeon unseen in College Park since the national championsip heyday of a decade ago. Northwestern will be tested on all fronts, but a win would do wonders not only for its Tournament resume, but also for its reputation heading into conference play. Win this game, and people start to take notice. We’ll have more preview coverage on the Terrapins early next week.