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The State of Northwestern Basketball Two Games into 2011-12

It seems like every Fall in recent memory, it’s been a question of whether this is the year Northwestern basketball gets into the NCAA tournament.  Or at least the Men’s team.  Last year, probably should have been the year.  Alas, as so regularly happens, “The Dark Side” turned up last year in the form of John Shurna getting a lingering injury and never fully recovering.  That probably cost the team at least 2-3 games and a ticket to the Dance.

Is this the year?  Having watched the first two Wildcat games, I can say it’s a definite maybe.

The Texas Pan-American game is one you can just throw out.  Texas P-A is an undersized team.  While they were fairly disciplined, the size was an insurmountable obstacle for them .  Northwestern looked sluggish.  The defensive position was moderate at best.  The offense on auto-pilot.  Best to ignore it.

In fact, the first half of the LSU game was also on auto-pilot and Northwestern didn’t start looking like itself until the second half.  Fortunately, they didn’t dig themselves too much of a hole to climb out of… even with one of their patented 5+ minute score droughts.

Essentially, this year is out with Juice Thompson at the point and in with freshman Dave Sobolewski .  Yes, I know.  You’ve been hearing about how the new point guard was going to be Tre Demps, the moderately heralded son of Hornets GM Dell Demps.  That turns out not to be the case, at least thus far.  Demps appears to be more athletic, but more a slasher than a spot up shooter.  Sobolewski is a spot up shooter who will take the ball straight to the hole with purpose if he has a clear path.  Not much shake and back, but he plays with disdain for the other team and he seems to have a better grasp of the offense.  Defensively, he’s more of an irritant.  We’ll get back to that in a bit.  Are either of these guys going to replace Juice Thompson this year?  Not really.  I think they can get by with Sobolewski for now and we’ll see what happens when Demps has had more time in the system.

The other newcomer to the rotation is Reggie Hearn.  Hearn’s been starting, due to injuries to the 2/3 rotation of Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio.  Hearn’s also an old walk-on.  Essentially, he’s a glue guy.  Active defensive irritant who can hit an open shot.  Basically the old Bruce Bowen schtick, though not quite to that level.  Would you rather have Crawford/Cobb/Marcotullio on the court instead?  Sure.  But Hearn isn’t a glaring weakness ripe for exposure thus far.

Here’s what we’re looking at for rotation:

Point Guard: Sobolewski appears to be the clear starter at the point.  Demps saw some minutes in game one, Marcotullio was the back-up in game 2.  I suspect Marcotullio will see minutes here until Demps assimilates the offense a little better.

Shoot Guard/ Small Forward: pick two of Crawford, Cobb, Hearn and Marcotullio.  Expect Cobb to be starting over Hearn in a game or two.  Cobb played his first game after hip surgery against LSU and the rust is still coming off.

Power Forward: All John Shurna, all the time.  Maybe some Davide Curletti or freshman Mike Turner, in case of foul disaster.  In an emergency, Drew Crawford has the biggest biceps of the rest.

Center: Mirkovic backed up by Curletti.

Yes, the ‘Cats are really thin up front and that needs to be a recruiting priority.

Offensively, the really good news is that Shurna started showing some serious aggressiveness against LSU.  Last year, a big problem with the offense was the lack of a designated person to create his own shot if the offensive set doesn’t produce one.  Juice Thompson eventually stepped up and filled that role.  My best guess was that Crawford or Cobb would adopt that.  Now I’m thinking Shurna might be able to handle it himself.  Against LSU, Shurna was driving to the basket any time he was given any space.  That’s a good thing.  So was Shurna hitting for 37.

Northwestern’s points are likely to come mostly from jump shots and slashing.  Shurna does have some post moves, but that’s not his bread and butter.  Likewise, Mirkovic is much more of a finesse player offensively and tends to score in the paint more when he has a clear height advantage.  Fortunately, Crawford and Cobb are two of the most athletic players Northwestern has ever had and they are more than capable of attacking the basket and getting above the rim.  Shurna, Crawford and Cobb should provide most of the scoring and hopefully 2 of the 3 will be on the floor at all times.  Almost everyone on this team can hit the occassional 3-point shot, even Mirkovic and Curletti.

Defensively, Northwestern is all about a 1-3-1 and sending irritants at the ball handlers.  Who are the irritants?  When Cobb’s got the rust off, his long limbs and quick step make him look very disruptive at the top of the 1-3-1.  Crawford, when he woke up in the second half against LSU, was attacking the ball with relish when looking for steals or blocks.  Hearn, not the freakish athlete of those two, is more pesky and in the middle of the passing lanes.  Marcotullio seems to like getting in the face of the offensive player and I suspect Sobolewski will be the same.  Sobolewski doesn’t appear to be getting completely victimized on the back end of the 1-3-1, which is a danger for a 6’1” freshman.  That’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

With three of the main rotation players coming off injuries, there are some chemistry issues that need to be worked out, but this could be a nasty, turnover-inducing defense and there’s plenty of wing scoring.

So yes, the NCAA tournament is not a ridiculous thing to be looking for this year.

On the flipside, if anything happens to Shurna/Mirkovic/Curletti, Northwestern gets very small, very quickly and is probably good and hosed.  If you see one of those guys, feel free to help them cross the street and that they don’t get in front of a bus.

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