by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
For the past two seasons, Alex Marcotullio has not been himself. Nagging back problems have limited his mobility and explosiveness on both ends of the floor. During a five-game stretch from late November to Early December, the pain was so unbearable that Marcotullio played a total of 29 minutes and missed one game (home against Butler) entirely.
The strain has since subsided, at least to the point where Marcotullio can harness his full range of skills.
“I wouldn’t say 100 percent, but I got a shot about a month or so back that’s really helped my back out,” Marcotullio said. “I’m just trying to play through things. It’s not affecting me as much as it has.
Three-point shooting is the most readily cited trait of Marcotullio’s game. And despite fewer long-range attempts this season, shooting from distance remains Marcotullio’s field of expertise. Of his 73 shot attempts this season, 54 have come from beyond the three-point stripe. Some of Marcotullio’s best moments – last year’s ice-cold 25-foot pull-up against Ohio State chief among them – are products of the long-range shot.
But there’s another aspect of Martcotullio’s game that deserves attention: defense.
Watch Marcotullio work the top of Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone lately – the scheme that forced Indiana into a frenetic second half and plunged Minnesota into a turnover-ravaged performance – and you’d have trouble identifying any sort of physical limitations. Throughout his four years on campus, Marcotullio has stood tall at the point of attack, swarming ball handlers and jutting into passing lines, all while elevating the defensive intensity of the teammates surrounding him.
“He’s been doing that for a few years,” coach Bill Carmody said. “He hasn’t been healthy in almost two years, but he seems to have calmed down a bit. He’s really important at the top defensively.”
Defense is one thing. It is a visible, readily distinguished, fundamental element of the game. What isn’t easily spotted, at least on television broadcasts, is Marcotullio’s leadership. What the senior guard lacks in speed or athleticism, he recovers with mental acuity and a shrewd understanding of not only his roles and responsibilities but those of his teammates.
The Wildcats are low on vocal leaders, guys who bark and direct traffic on the floor. That’s where Marcotullio, along with sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski, are so valuable.
“He’s really smart,” Carmody said of Marcotullio. “He’s like a point guard. He doesn’t have the speed of a point guard, but he has the head of a point guard.
“He and sobo like to talk. They’re really good about it. I listen to both of those guys in timeouts.”
The preseason suspension of JerShonn Cobb and season-ending shoulder injury to Drew Crawford were major blows – not just for the Wildcats’ bottomline performance, but for the players who, like Marcotullio, have grown to forge strong relationships over years of practices, games and off-court bonding.
Listening to Marcotullio describe his aims and goals for his final year on campus, there’s no sense of resignation in his words. For all the trials and tribulations he’s endured – not just the back pain, but the gutting personnel losses of two key players – Marcotullio just wants to enjoy the last few games of his career.
“We need to attack each game and practice one day at a time,” he said. “I just want to win. I don’t care what else happens. I don’t care about the state sheet.”
The program has progressed under his watch, and he’s relished his time on campus (on and off the court) along the way. Over four seasons, Marcotullio has gone from three-point shooting sparkplug to veteran leader, from scantily-used freshman to trusted late-game shot maker. You won’t find his name in the Northwestern record books. He won’t be listed in the annals of Wildcats statistical achievement, with the Shurnas and Juice Thompsons of the world.
His lasting impact is more subtle. But overlooking Marcotullio’s secondary contributions is an erroneous oversight of one of Northwestern’s most important players over the past four seasons.
“He’s always given us a spark off the bench,” Carmody said. “He’s won a lot of games for us. I just hope he can be healthy the remainder of the season.”
With the second half of a brutal Big Ten schedule on tap, Marcotullio’s work isn’t done here. In fact, as his back slowly, mercilessly, progresses into a more palatable state, you can expect more and more swarming perimeter defense, with plenty of three-point shots on the other end. Beyond his individual performance, Marcotullio has a few team milestones in mind.
At the top of his checklist? You guessed it. “I’d really like to go to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I know it’s been asked a bunch of times. But that’s what I came here for. I came here to achieve that goal and move this program onto something it’s never done before.”
On Saturday, Northwestern will face Purdue with a chance to get right after consecutive losses at Nebraska and Michigan. At this point, the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament hopes are on life support. Compiling enough resume heft down the stretch would require a number of upset wins against some of the toughest competition in the country.
It’s not like Northwestern won’t have its share of chances; the Wildcats have games at Ohio State and Michigan State, and home tests against Wisconsin and Illinois. Beating Purdue on would be a nice start. Marcotullio hadn’t watched any film on the Boilermakers as of Friday’s afternoon practice, but he already has a decent feel for what to expect from Matt Painter’s team. “They’re always tough. They’re well-coached. They’re hard-nosed. We have to be ready to play hard.”
This is the final stage of Marcotullio’s Northwestern basketball experience. For the moment, the NCAA Tournament – whether or not the Wildcats get there – is what Marcotullio wants most. There’s no getting around that.
Even so, Failure to capture that elusive prize won’t detract from his four-year run. Without Tournament inclusion, Marcotullio can still frame his playing career in a positive light.
“It’s been a really special place for me,” he said. “I just want to go out on top.”