It was a strange sight; Northwestern standing at half-court of the UIC Pavilion holding a giant tournament trophy. They are the champions of the Chicago Invitational. Northwestern hadn't been the champions of any tournament since 1993. Going into the four-team tournament portion of the Invitational, no one really expected NU to get past the first round.
But sophomore forward John Shurna, who earned tournament MVP honors, would not let them lose to Iowa State on Saturday, and he tallied a career-high 25 points in Friday's upset over No. 23 Notre Dame.
He "only" scored 23 against Iowa State, but he had 17 before you could blink in the 1st half. Northwestern's offense was absolutely stagnate against the Cyclones early on in the game. Shurna was the only man who kept them going. He drilled two three-pointers early, but actually struggled with his outside shot as the game went on, finishing 3-10 from deep.
No worries, Shurna went inside and displayed the best post moves I've seen from him during his short time at NU. He wasn't just a scorer either, he pulled down a team-leading seven rebounds and dished out four assists. Shurna doesn't just put points on the board, he makes others better as well.
As the second half rolled around, other NU players started to give Shurna some help. The Princeton Offense was run to perfection a number of times, as the 'Cats scored on a bunch of back-door cuts.
Junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson and Senior shooting guard Jeremy Nash were named to the All-Tournament team for good reason. They each tallied double figures in the finale against Iowa State, and Juice was unstoppable at times against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Nash's defense at the top of the 1-3-1 was a wonder to behold versus the Fighting Irish.
Speaking of defense, Iowa State handled both the 1-3-1, and the 2-3 zone defenses pretty well, so NU head coach Bill Carmody did something you don't often see: he instructed the 'Cats to play man to man.
It worked. During a 12-minute span in the second half, the Cyclones tallied exactly ONE field goal.
The X-factor on this team, and the man who gives me great hope for this season is freshman shooting guard Alex Marcotullio. Not only does he shoot the lights out from outside, he plays terrific defense as well. He made some excellent defensive plays against the Cyclones, leading NU with three steals. He tallied 13 points against Notre Dame, including two dagger threes, and chipped in 8 points versus ISU.
But what impresses me most about the freshman is not necessarily his stats. It's his attitude. The kid WANTS the ball in crunch time, and he's tenacious on defense. His body language on the court just exudes confidence. Plus, his high socks are just plain baller.
NU's performance in the Chicago Invitational was very impressive to be sure, but there was some significant room for improvement.
First and foremost, they have to get SOMETHING out of 6'11 Luka Mirkovic and 7'0'' Kyle Rowley. Both showed flashes of competence last year as freshmen, but as of now they've seemingly regressed this season.
Rowley turned the ball over three times in nine minutes against ISU, while Mirkovic looks very confused and nervous whenever he gets the ball. He had a nice game against Notre Dame, but struggled against Iowa State.
Both were so bad on Saturday that Carmody went to reserve big man Davide Curletti, who didn't even play against Notre Dame. The sophomore made the most out of his opportunity though, draining a huge three from the top of the key and dishing out a couple of assists.
Right now I'm holding out hope that at the very least Mirkovic can get back to last year's form, but as of now, there's a big void in the middle.
Drew Crawford continues to be a bit of an enigma. The freshman has tremendous athleticism and I love his contributions on the boards, but he looks uncomfortable in the Princeton Offense. He's very streaky too, after a huge game against Liberty, he went scoreless against Notre Dame.
He came back and played OK against ISU, tallying four points and pulling down four rebounds while blocking two shots. But they need more from him. I'd like to see Crawford average about 10 points per game. If he can, he provides another option for NU on offense, and they become even more dangerous.
Besides that, I'm very pleased with where NU is at right now. They have a big road test coming up on December 1 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge as they take on North Carolina State. If they can pull out a win there, the only remaining potentially tough non-conference game is when Stanford comes to town on December 19.
They have a brutal start to the Big Ten schedule, as they take on a bunch of NCAA tournament teams right off the bat. They must avoid the 0-4 start that made their climb towards the NCAA bubble quite the uphill journey last year.
If they do, we could be in for one wild ride towards Selection Sunday as the season rolls along.