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Handing Out Three Holiday Gifts To Northwestern Basketball

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

You’ve long begun holiday preparations at your humble abode, apartment or whatever living establishment you call home. That process commenced weeks ago. Trees were erected, decorations were hung, jovial music was blasted, sugary delicacies were baked and now, the culminating event – the opening of presents – is just around the corner. In fact, depending on when you hold your annual tree gathering, and when you’ve chosen to skim over this post, the paper-ripping festivities should take place in less than 24 hours.

I, too, am a sucker for the holiday spirit. The ugly Christmas sweaters have been a constant in my daily wardrobe for the last week, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Naturally, my generous spirit extends to the sports world. In particular, I’m targeting Northwestern basketball. The Wildcats could use many gifts to help them along the 2012-13 season, but I’ve chosen three special holiday treats to bolster their spirits as they look ahead to the Big Ten season. These aren’t what you’d call tangible, material presents – more like traits or attributes to enhance the Wildcats on-court endeavors. This year’s Big Ten is a brutally harsh landscape. The Wildcats will probably have a hard time whether or not the following gifts come into their possession. The aim here is constructive criticism, with an eye towards pointing out three key areas of need to improve Northwestern’s fortunes at the turn of the New Year.

Isolation Scoring

Before you read that headline and curse the fates and rage against my love for an NBA-style isolation offense, allow me to explain what I mean when I say “isolation scorer”. I’m talking about someone who can be trusted to beat his man off the dribble, dart into the lane and finish at the rim. Someone like (welp) Drew Crawford or John Shurna – a player with enough skill to create off the bounce and manufacture his own shot. This type of one-on-one threat is particularly important when, as has often been the case this season, the various cuts and handoffs that underpin Bill Carmody’s Princeton system grind to a halt, the shot clock ticks away, and the Wildcats are left scrambling for an ill-advised three or low-percentage  jumper.

A skilled isolation scorer cutting into the lane forces opposing defense to execute rotations and collapse into the paint, which frees up shooters on the perimeter. The Wildcats have an abundance of capable three-point threats – Alex Marcotullio, Kale Abrahamson and Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn, to name a few – only they’re so often forced to take contested shots. Dribble penetration, arguably the biggest benefit of a skilled iso-scorer, allows for cleaner looks from the outside and forces defenses to make snap judgments on whether to sag off perimeter shooters and provide help near the rim or stay glued to the three-point stripe in the interest of preventing kickouts for open long-range looks.

An added element of individual creativity gives opposing defenses a whole new set of responsibilities. The Princeton offense requires hours of film study and an extremely focused approach. Just imagine what a dynamic wing scorer could bring to the fore, the possibilities it could open up, the ways it could help pry open compact defensive schemes. It would take Northwestern's offense to a whole 'nother level.

An Age Potion….To Accelerate The Maturation of Alex Olah and Mike Turner 

This summer, as Northwestern loaded up on frontcourt size through recruiting and transfer, there was a concerted rush to herald the end of the Wildcats’ frontcourt woes. With two seven-footers entering the fold, two promising players forced to sit out the previous season finally getting eligible, and a Final Four-conditioned veteran providing help along the way, surely, Northwestern was poised to bang with the Big Ten’s best interior regimens. More size meant, at the very least, a bigger presence on the offensive boards.

As it turns out, the Wildcats are still rebounding the ball at a pretty putrid rate – their offensive rebounding percentage (30.2) ranks 227th nationwide. Rim protection has likewise lagged, with Northwestern coming in at 239th in block percentage (10.9), and neither freshman center Alex Olah nor redshirt freshman Mike Turner – Northwestern’s two highest-usage frontcourt players – has found a sustained level of consistency on both ends of the floor. For starters, integration into the complexities of Princeton offense has not come easy. That much was expected, especially from Olah, who, unlike Turner, has been thrown into the rotation in his first year on campus.

Their offensive bugaboos transcend simple schematic discomfort. Olah and Turner have not been attacking the rim with the aggressiveness and intensity needed to either a) draw contact or b) score. This is especially important for Olah, who all too often seems to minimize his own size advantage by taking poor angles on his way to the rim, or by allowing post defenders to dictate his position on the low block.

The problems on defense are more difficult to identify, but most of it can be boiled down to sheer inexperience (Turner’s size is an unavoidable natural hindrance). Both have provided brief moments of excellence – Olah’s 16-point effort against Stanford and Turner’s 10-rebound performance against Ilinois State come to mind – but for every positive step made, there’s been an equal measure of head-scratching moments, where Olah and Turner revert to bad habits.

In the end, Olah brings a more enticing skill set, and the more natural physical portrait of a true center. Once he gets his sea legs, develops a more acute decision-making intuition on the high-post and maximizes his physical talents both as a scorer and a defender, Olah will be a special player. Turner has plenty of room to grow, too, but his size will always serve as at least a minor obstacle on his road to becoming an effective low-block operator. In time, both players will grow with experience and repetitions. An age potion would accelerate that timetable, and immediately elevate Northwestern’s frontcourt prospects.

Patience…about the NCAA Tournament.

It is a simple concept. And it is one so often lost on Wildcats partisans. I fully acknowledge the difficulties of easing a deliberate approach in the larger historical framework of Northwestern’s singularly ignominious NCAA Tournament drought. But the refrain must be reinforced: the Wildcats will get there….just probably not this season. The chances of the oft-referenced streak coming to an end in 2012-13 are slim. JerShonn Cobb’s suspension was a huge blow. Crawford’s injury might have been a killer. It’s not difficult to see why the Wildcats will need a near miracle to contend in the deepest conference in the country with a lineup ravaged by injury and suspension.

If you can accept that defeatist approach as a lens through which to analyze this season, then the ultimate outcome – in all likelihood, an NCAA Tournament miss –will be much easier to swallow. It is unreasonable to expect Carmody, a common scapegoat for recent postseason frustration, to get this team to the Big Dance – not with the massive personnel depletion, the lack of scoring punch and the overall youth on the roster. This isn’t the year. Next season, when Cobb and Crawford (pending an NCAA injury hardship waiver) return to a more seasoned lineup, plus a pair of polished backcourt pieces in Jaren Sina and Nate Taphorn, presents a rosier prospectus.

So while I understand the angst built up over a 74-year period of postseason frustration, this season is not the time to rail on Carmody or voice whatever laments you may or may not have for his coaching style, or the general progress made during his tenure. It is right to demand progress, even from this underequipped roster, but to judge Carmody on a win/loss scale just isn’t rational. It’s downright unreasonable. Northwestern fans have gone 74 years without the NCAA Tournament. The overwhelming probability of one more tourney-less season is frustrating, but it should not lead to unfair critiques on Carmody’s ability to lead this team in the right direction. All of which is a long-winded way of saying: be patient.