Part two of our pre-conference swing around the Big Ten features the most surprising team in the Big Ten and national media darlings, the Northwestern Wildcats. Ryan of Welsh-Ryan Ramblings stopped by to answer a few questions.
FTB: Northwestern is off to its best start in years. Has anyone in the greater Chicago area noticed?
W-RR: This is a great question. I think people are starting to notice. NU’s home
game against Stanford featured a crowd in which Welsh-Ryan Arena was almost ¾ full which is pretty good for a non-conference game with students not on campus. Also, the Chicago Sun-Times actually ran a full sized article preview for the game against Central Connecticut State. In the past, all the newspaper did for such games was run a one paragraph capsule preview. The only thing is that Chicago is quick to abandon the Wildcats if they don’t win. Therefore, the start of the Big Ten season will be critical for NU maintaining local attention.
FTB: Kevin Coble is hurt, Craig Moore is gone. Yet, NU appears to be better. How is this possible.
Well, first off you have to give credit to NU’s coaches for preparing for the post-Moore era. Moore was always a good shooter, but he ended up being a very versatile player in terms of defense and passing. Thankfully, NU’s freshman class included two guys in Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio that are natural shooting guards and have been able to offer similar skills to Moore in terms of defense and passing as well. NU’s coaches also did a great job of developing Jeremy Nash’s offensive game (especially from behind the arc) in order to make up for some of Moore’s missing offense. Basically, NU’s guards have stepped up far more than expected. Even Bill Carmody admits Alex Marcotullio’s defense is far superior to what he anticipated.
In terms of making up for Coble, again guys have stepped up and revealed skills many didn’t anticipate. For example, John Shurna has turned out to be a guy who can get a shot off the dribble if need be and who can hit the glass as well as Coble was able to do. He is not, however, at this point the three point shooter Coble is. Perhaps because of Shurna’s struggles form three, the Stanford game was the first time all year I saw moments where it looked like NU was missing Coble. Even with Michael “Juice” Thompson and Shurna showing surprising ability to make something out of nothing, when the ‘Cats hit a scoring drought it looked like they were missing that one guy who could create a mismatch on almost anybody or be almost certain to knock down a run-ending three. Juice Thompson finally did knock down the big three and has done so in other games as well, but I think a key guy in Big Ten play will be the 6-5 freshman Drew Crawford because he has flashes of Coble-like skills where he makes himself almost impossible to guard.
FTB: You may not want to divulge this, but the Gophers can’t seem to crack the 1-3-1 zone. How d0 you beat that defense?
W-RR: I can tell you the 1-3-1 is one of those things that you can practice against and seem prepared for, but then fail to handle during a game. The reason is that kind of like the option in football, it is hard to have a scout team learn to master this defense well enough in a few days to really simulate what you’re going to see. The goal of the 1-3-1 is to keep the ball on one side of the court and make passes that reverse the ball to corner (where you can hit open threes) or into the post (where you do generally have a mismatch) very difficult. If teams aren’t precise in making those passes either the point man in the zone or one of the wings can get easy steals. However, a good passing team (like Butler) that can reverse the ball quickly can get a lot of open shots from the corner. That is the key. If you can get the ball to a shooter in the corner without turning it over he should get an open look.
FTB: Michael Thompson has nearly doubled his scoring output since last year. Where would you rank him among conference point guards.
W-RR: Well, before he got hurt Ohio State was playing Evan Turner at point guard and he was basically a walking triple-double, so I probably can’t say Thompson is better than him. I’m also reluctant to say Thompson is better than Kalin Lucas as he was deservingly the Big Ten Player of the Year last season. Then again, I think Thompson could have probably put up the same numbers as Lucas with the same level of talent around him. Obviously, Talor Battle is another talented point guard who truly does stuff the stat sheet like crazy. Bottom line, I don’t know if he’s the best, but Thompson is the most underrated point guard in the Big Ten. He can shoot as well as Battle, pass as well as Lucas, and is similar to Turner in terms of value to his team. However, many people don’t know much about Thompson.
FTB: Bill Carmody has been at NU a few years less than forever. How many more years does he have to finally make the NCAA tournament?
Before Coble’s injury I figured it was NCAA Tournament or the unemployment line for Carmody at the end of the season. Now, I think he gets another season regardless. However, I actually think NU will make the NCAAs this season even without Coble. As a result, I think the discussion of Carmody’s future is about to shift. If he takes NU to the NCAA Tournament without Coble (and Jeff Ryan) he’ll be Coach of the Year in the Big Ten and probably the NCAA. That’ll make him a candidate for every major job that opens. At that point the questions becomes will Carmody stay loyal to NU for sticking with him during the tough years? I think Bill Carmody likes NU and if NU’s AD Jim Phillips offers him an extension he’ll sign it, but it’ll be interesting to see.
FTB: Drew Crawford seems to be real talent, and really inconsistent (2 pts vs NC State, 35 the next game against NC A&T. What can you tell us about this prized recruit.
W-RR: Early on Crawford was, as you point out, massively inconsistent. For example, he scored 22 points against Liberty and 0 in the next game against Notre Dame. However, since his 35 point output against N.C. A&T he has been in double figures every game. That’s a good sign because I think for NU to compete in the Big Ten Crawford needs to average 10-12 points per game in league play. I think he can do so because he is a good shooter and his 6-5 frame can create matchup problems against smaller guards as he goes to the hoop. The key will be for him to stay confident. He can’t stop trying to score if he misses a few shots as many freshmen do. In fact, at this point Crawford might not be as a good an over scorer as John Shurna, but he is probably a better three point shooter yet Shurna has attempted something like 20 more threes. I think that needs to flip around.
FTB: Your predictions for NUs conference records, (potential NCAA seed) Big Ten regular season champion, and Big Ten Tournament champion.
W-RR: I kind of stole some of the mystery on this above as I revealed I think NU will make the NCAA Tournament. Overall, I see NU finishing with a 22-11 mark after splitting two games in the Big Ten Tournament. In league play I believe NU will go 9-9. Those records should be good enough for a #10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As to Big Ten regular season champ, I can’t pick against Purdue. As far as Big Ten Tournament champ I’m picking Illinois. That might surprise people, but I see the Illini as a really talented, but very young team that, as they have been, will be inconsistent a lot, but that (if they’re as talented as I think are) ought to have things together by March.