If you had asked me a month ago what shape Wisconsin would be in come mid-January, my answer would not have included the phrase "jockeying for conference position with Northwestern." Alas, Wisconsin has a chance to move above .500 in Big Ten play for the first time in 2012 Wednesday night when the Badgers (14-5, 3-3 Big Ten) host the Wildcats (12-5, 2-3).
Northwestern has whipped its fanbase into a tizzy – even daring to talk NCAA tournament bid once again – after handing Michigan State its first Big Ten loss of the year in Evanston. The Wildcats are led by two of the Big Ten's top scorers, John Shurna (19.1 ppg) and Drew Crawford (17.6). As I wrote yesterday, Northwestern even boasts a higher RPI rank than the Badgers. Either way, this game is more of a toss up than ever before.
I say it's about time to regain that Kohl Center magic. What does our guest think?
This week, Lake The Posts (the pre-eminent Northwestern blog on the Internet if you must know) agreed to grace us with knowledge and passion for all things purple. Read my Badger perspective on their site.
B5Q: Northwestern is coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons under Bill Carmody. Is there a sense that it's "now or never" for the Wildcats to get that first-ever NCAA berth?
LTP: Indeed there is. Candidly, with the loss of Juice Thompson at the point, I thought it might have been last year, but give credit where it is due. True freshman Dave Sobolewski has stepped in and been a national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio and exceeded everyone's expectations. The fact John Shurna, who is just 200 points away from becoming the all-time leading scorer, is in his senior year and paired with fellow scoring machine Drew Crawford, you get the sense it is now or never.
B5Q: What went right for Northwestern on Saturday to beat Michigan State that didn't go their win in any of the previous matchups with Top 25 opponents? (And thank you by the way...)
LTP: Two things. First, Davide Curletti played the best game of his collegiate career completely owning the Michigan State bigs on offense with 13 first half points. It's on the second start of the senior's career and came in part because Drew Crawford had the flu. Curletti carried us as Izzo wisely spent a lot of time having his team focusing on shutting down John Shurna.
The second thing was the fact we found that killer instinct. That's what failed us during back-to-back heartbreak losses to Illinois (one-point loss) and Michigan (two-point OT loss). We had 10-point leads in both of those games with 10 minutes to go and well, got tight. We still have that "X factor" as a program of not knowing how to put teams away, which is oddly similar to the football program. We can play with anyone, but seem to lack the ability to grab the jugular – until Saturday. Shurna went in to "refuse to lose" mode and the entire team had a swagger about it that I believe was buoyed by Curletti's first half play.
B5Q: Wisconsin handed the 'Cats their worst thumping of last season (76-48) – in Evanston no less. But this season, though their styles are still very different, I see two teams with stunningly similar resumes so far. While I long for the good ol' days, make a case for who gets into the tournament today if these two teams were fighting for the final bid.
LTP: Man, that's unfair at this point in the season. Way too early. I'd lean heavily on stats like the tournament committee does. Our best friend is Seton Hall, a #5 RPI team that we beat in a pre-season tournament. We are #25 in RPI, have a #7 SOS and are 2-5 vs top 30 RPI teams with two of those being the above mentioned heartbreaking variety. The other three losses are to RPI giants Ohio State, Baylor and Creighton, with two of those three on the road. Add in the human interest storyline of NU having NEVER (as if you didn't know) been to the Big Dance and I think it's an airtight case over Wisconsin. That being said, talk to me after we exit our house of horrors on Wednesday night.
B5Q: For some reason I find it funny that the Wildcats are terrible at rebounding, but still block a decent # of shots. Can you explain? Is there any reason to respect Northwestern up front in spite of Davide Curletti's clutch performance against the Spartans?
LTP: Funny, as many NU fans don't find this funny and use it as a bullet-point for Coach Carmody's dismissal. It's infuriating. I've played enough hoops and watched enough NU to really come up with no other explanation than poor coaching and poor execution. If you watch, we don't do the basics and find a man, put a body on him and seal. We turn and look for the ball and jump to it. On offense we're so concerned about stopping transition baskets when guys shoot, the perimeter retreats. Our bigs, Luka Mirkovic and Curletti, simply don't have the size of the guys they're going up against and when it is two or three on five in rebounding, your chances are slim to begin with.
B5Q: Minutes-wise, NU is a three-headed monster with the emergence of freshman David Sobolewski at the point. Since he played with UW's Frank Kaminsky in high school, I'm somewhat familiar with his game, but how has he filled the position left by Juice Thompson? Will he be a four-year thorn in our side?
LTP: He's been nothing short of spectacular. Steady is his middle name. He simply doesn't make mistakes. At times he's stepped up and even taken over games, like Penn State, or towards the end of the Michigan State game when we spread the floor, milked the clock and he found himself one-on-one with Keith Appling, he'd drive and create a foul. He's pretty inconsistent from three, but you just know he's going to improve his shooting. Against Penn State he simply carried us with a mix of 3-point shooting and dazzling penetration runners. I'm thrilled with his play. For most of the season he led the entire nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and entering the MSU game was top five. So yes, he's going to be a guy you'll get sick of. He's actually a Bo Ryan-type player – gutty, physical, tough and has that refuse to lose mentality.
B5Q: I can't let you go without talk of John Shurna and Drew Crawford, since they each take nearly a third of the team's shots when their on the floor. Are you happy with the development of these players, particularly Shurna, over their careers?
LTP: Very much so. When John Shurna dipped his toe into the NBA Draft last year the fan base went into collective heart palpitations. He did it to learn what he needed to work on and Carmody has been saying all year that both Shurna and Crawford need to learn to take the game over. Crawford has taken that step and Shurna is still a tad too unselfish, but when you’ve got two of the B1G’s top three scorers on the same team, it’s hard to complain. Crawford is so pure when he gets going – his shot has authority and his ability to create and play above the rim is a rarity for us in Evanston. When they are both "on" it’s really something to watch.
B5Q: Just curious to get a Northwestern fan's take on the end of the Kevin Coble era now that you're a bit removed from it. Do people blame the kid or blame Carmody, and did Coble's unexpected departure damage the program or recruiting in any noticeable way?
LTP: Completely perplexing. For much of that season we all said "imagine if…" after each close loss. It really is one of those things that challenged the inner core of your Northwestern fan-ness. How could we have an All-Big Ten senior-to-be not only quit the team, but also stay in school to get his degree? There is no doubt that would’ve been the best team on paper in Northwestern history. Coble, Shurna, Crawford, Juice Thompson, Jeremy Nash. It was a fantastic line-up. Fans have collectively buried the story. At the time, several of the players seemed to hint that Kevin beat to his own drum and was a borderline loner. The Coble-Carmody spat that led to the less-than-friendly parting of ways is still one of the great NU mysteries as to what really happened.
I think it's had zero impact on recruiting as we’ve had some pretty solid classes since then. Big picture I think the only damage it’s done to the program is the fact we’re convinced we would’ve ended the streak a year ago.
B5Q: Assistant coach Tavaras Hardy has elevated the recruiting acumen in the program significantly. Are we looking at a future Wildcat head coach if and when Carmody is done?
LTP: Tavaras is indeed the lifeline for the program. He gets the brand ambassador element of the job much better than Carmody does. Whether you like it or not there is a mayoral element to being a coach and Carmody would rather not be bothered by that kind of stuff. Tavaras is passionate about his alma mater and having played at NU and now coaching at NU there is a strong but not overwhelming sentiment that he should get a shot when (not if) that day comes. Obviously having never been a head coach before at the college level starts that whole debate, but he will definitely be a candidate. If Carmody somehow managed to survive in Evanston the next five years, a succession plan would likely need to be laid out to make that path visible and apparent to all involved.
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