In a season that featured five sellout crowds, Welsh-Ryan Arena was barely over a quarter full as the Northwestern Wildcats took the floor against the Akron Zips in the first round of NIT play.
While many fans gave up on the season after the ‘Cats failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the 74th straight year, the team is in it to win it. At least that is what Bill Carmody says.
A disappointing end to the regular season almost carried into the NIT, as Northwestern barely escaped with a 76-74 win when Akron’s would-be game-winning shot bit iron and refused to go as time expired.
While the ‘Cats led by as much as 15 in the first half and took an eight-point lead into halftime, the Zips tied the game 6:25 into the second half. This came in the midst of a 5:21 long span in which Northwestern hit zero field goals.
As has been the story of the past several games, JerShon Cobb stepped up at this point, and it was his jumper that broke the drought and tied the game. He finished with 19 points, three rebounds, and an 80 percent field-goal percentage.
Drew Crawford was also on a mission, pouring in 27 points and adding seven rebounds and four assists.
However, his counterpart, John Shurna, seemed to be elsewhere for most of the contest.
Statistically he had a great game, recording a double-double, becoming the all-time leader in blocks at Northwestern, and becoming the first Wildcat ever to break 2,000 points. Regardless, for most of the game he looked like anyone but Northwestern’s best player.
On defense, Shurna looked immobile, and on offense he was throwing one-handed passes out of bounds and to the other team. If Shurna is not on his game against Washington, the ‘Cats do not stand a chance.
It certainly did not help that he played 40 straight minutes and 30 of them as the center. Carmody must play Davide Curletti more than the 10 minutes he did against Akron so Curletti can add size in the middle and allow Shurna to play on the perimeter where he is much more effective.
Carmody also needs to realize when the 1-3-1 is not working. A switch was clearly needed on defense in the second half as Akron came alive.
Finally, the usual best and worst statistics stayed constant for Northwestern. The ‘Cats were out-rebounded by 14 boards but countered that statistic with 25 assists compared to six turnovers.
Being out-rebounded by Akron does not bode well against the Washington Huskies who are the fifth-best rebounding team in the country. Northwestern is the 333rd best.
However, Washington did not dominate the University of Texas at Arlington, and its best players are young and inexperienced. The team has three players averaging over 10 points per game, but two are sophomores and one is a freshman.
For whatever it is worth, Washington won the Pac-12 regular season title, yet the team’s RPI is still only 65. The Huskies are 22-10 and 14-4 in conference, and they had close losses to Marquette and Duke during the year.
This game could easily go either direction with two of the most talented teams in the NIT going head-to-head. In order for Northwestern to win, the ‘Cats must find balanced scoring on offense and strength inside on defense.
Crawford, Cobb, and Shurna accounted for 69 of the team’s 76 points against Akron, and Washington will be much more effective than the Zips at forcing those players into tough shots. Reggie Hearn, Alex Marcotullio, and Dave Sobolewski need to step up to help carry the load on offense.
On defense, the ‘Cats need to stay strong in the middle while not allowing open shots on the perimeter. It is extremely basic, but it is something they have been finding difficulty doing.
Less porous defense and better shooting will come naturally if the ‘Cats head into this game hungry for a win. They did not show that desire against Akron, and they need this win to prove they have not given up since Selection Sunday.