HOUSTON, Texas -- From the moment Northwestern arrived in Texas on Monday evening, the people of the city of Houston have worked hard to provide an unforgettable bowl experience for the Wildcats. On Thursday, 10 NU players took time out of their busy bowl game preparations to return the favor.
December 2011 Archives
The one, the senior, is the antithesis of the image that rules this Look-At-Me Age. He is self-effacing, reluctant to employ the pronoun I, and so unabashedly egalitarian that some question whether he can be killer enough, selfish enough, to carry a team. "That's been going on for three years," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody will say of his star forward, John Shurna. "I've been begging him to be greedy. 'This is not a democracy. No one thinks you're greedy.' There's other guys I've coached, people are, 'Aw man, that guy won't give it up.' He's not like that and you have to be. He's a real team guy, but I say that's not being a team guy. (Michael) Jordan was a team guy too and he made sure he got 26 shots up every game, or whatever it was. There is an 'I' in this team."
The other, the junior, is an admirable amalgam of athletic ability. He can score inside and out, off the bounce or the pass, rebound and defend the opponent's best player, yet he still struggles some with his consistency and settling for long jump shots. "I just want him to be involved in plays. You know, run around," Carmody will say of his blossoming threat, Drew Crawford. "He's a strong kid, runs and jumps pretty well, good kid. So just don't be floating out there. If you were playing and I were playing, we'd be floating out there in space. It'd be nice. But I want him to just get involved in stuff and then his athleticism'll show up. Just be in on a lot of plays."
The one, Shurna, sits down on a court side table in a near-empty Welsh-Ryan Arena and, inevitably, is asked if he can be a killer. "Coach has brought that up," he says. "I just want to win and I want to help the team win. So maybe that comes out just trying to help the team win. Trying to make plays to win the game, that's what I enjoy."
Let me ask it this way, we now say.
"You want me to say 'Killer,'" Shurna interrupts, and then he laughs.
We don't want him to say anything he doesn't want to say, we assure him. But then we tell him that North Carolina coach Roy Williams once said that Jordan, in the best sense, was the most-selfish player he had ever been around, that he recognized his value to the team and wanted the ball at the end. Can Shurna, we then wonder, be selfish enough?
"Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, I want to win. I want the ball in my hands. I just want to make plays and help the team win. So, yeah. Yes."
"Johnny does have killer in him. It just doesn't look like the killer in another person," Crawford will say minutes later. He has taken Shurna's spot atop that court side table and here he continues, "Kobe (Bryant) will go out and score 40 and will be growling at people. Johnny'll go out and be scoring 40 and having a great time, smiling, running down the court, skipping down the court. So he has the killer in him. It just looks different from other peoples'."
And Crawford himself, is he concentrating more on using his athletic ability rather than settling for jump shots?
"I think sometimes I do do that," he admits. "A lot of times, in our offense, I'm finding myself open for three-point shots, but I'd like to be able to get myself to the basket and get myself going and score around the basket. I'm capable of doing that. I need to do it more."
Is he then ready, for lack of a better analogy, to play Scottie Pippen to Shurna's Jordan?
"This year it's important for me to step up, especially not having Juice (Thompson). Juice was big in that role last year," he says. "So I really have to step up this year and play a bigger role on this team. I'm definitely working on that."
The real season, the Big Ten season, is now upon the 'Cats, who open up conference play Wednesday afternoon at Ohio State. They are 10-2, champions of the Charleston Classic (where they defeated LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall) and poised to make a run for their first NCAA tourney bid behind the estimable duo of Shurna and Crawford. Still, even with those positives tucked away in their resume, they (like all teams) are surrounded by questions as they begin their march toward March.
Ask Shurna the key to his team's success between now and then and he will say, "Consistency. In years past, we felt we could compete with the best teams. But we've had slip ups, we haven't come up with those plays we need at the end and things like that. Early on this year I think we've shown that we could handle adversity. I think that's a good sign for the rest of the year."
"The key for us to be successful this year is coming out with energy every night. That's going to be the main thing," says Crawford. "Every game that we play is a tough one, especially in the Big Ten. So coming out ready to play every game with energy. We're a high-energy team, so that's going to be important for us."
"In past years, depth has hurt us. That's what I think it is," Carmody himself will finally say to the same question. "You got to defend better, you got to do this better, you got to rebound better. No doubt those are ingredients also. But I just think depth is the thing. Last year, I thought we were onto something really nice. Then (sophomore guard) JerShon (Cobb) gets hurt. For the Big Ten season, that (injured) hip was worthless. Johnny had stitches, the concussion, never quite the same. This year I come in, our backcourt wasn't what I expected it to be."
That question of consistent energy, raised by Shurna and Crawford, well, that is an area they themselves can control. ("Being a four-year senior, it's my job to speak up and make sure everything's going well, everyone's bringing energy," says Shurna.) But those issues raised by Carmody are far gnarlier. He will, in hopes of defending better, now use a 1-3-1 zone more often than he has so far this season. He will, in hopes of rebounding better, continue to rotate centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti looking to find the hotter and more-active hand. His offense, bereft of a reliable inside game, will still feature a plethora of three-point shots ("I think the game's going that way," he says), yet there is no blueprint for solving his problem with depth.
Freshman guard Tre Demps is injured and out for the year. Junior guard Alex Marcotullio is just back from a toe injury. (He logged 17 minutes in their last game, a loss at Creighton). Cobb, who had hip surgery in April, rehabbed for over four months, returned, suffered a concussion and is only now working himself back into full shape. ("He's still not quite there, but he's ready to go," Carmody says of him.) That leaves the 'Cat rotation still in flux, which is why they now depend so heavily on John Shurna and Drew Crawford.
Last Thursday at Creighton, even while saddled with foul trouble, Crawford went 13-of-17 overall, 3-of-4 on his threes and ended with 34 points. "Drew's been underrated his whole career as far as basketball goes," Shurna says of him. "He always plays with a little chip on his shoulder. He wants to show people he can play and he's gone out and done that. He's been huge for us this year."
That same night, even while not shooting especially well, Shurna himself put up 18 points while also grabbing a team-high nine rebounds. "I know what he's capable of," Crawford says of him. "He's our leader out there. We really get on his back and when he's on, he's unbelievable, one of the best players in the nation."
"At the end of games, I want the ball in my good guys' hands, Shurna and Crawford," Bill Carmody himself will finally say. "That's what I want the other guys to recognize. Reggie (Hearn, the junior guard) took a baseline jumper off the bounce the other day, missed it, in his good game. And Sobo (freshman point Dave Sobolewski)took a fast shot when we're up one.
"No. I'm saying I want to win with Crawford and Shurna."
Recently Northwestern has taken strides to upgrade on-campus facilities, and the men's and women's tennis programs are among the first to reap the benefits. Beginning early this summer, construction and paving crews got to work on Northwestern's outdoor tennis courts in the Vandy Christie Tennis Center, before switching gears to resurface the courts in the indoor Combe Tennis Center by the time winter quarter rolled around.
"The primary objectives for the outdoor courts were to improve overall drainage and remove several cracks throughout the playing surface," said associate director of facilities, Jack Morelan. Other fixes included new fencing, net posts, nets and windscreens, while upgrades were made to the landscaping around the courts and existing grandstands. Three courts will include blended lines for QuickStart Tennis programs for youth tennis players, Morelan mentioned.
Just a few weeks ago, crews turned their attention over to the Combe Tennis Center to resurface the courts for the first time since it opened in January 2002. The improvements result in a much slower indoor court - but that's a good thing, according to both Northwestern coaches.
"The resurfacing of the indoor courts is great," women's tennis head coach Claire Pollard said. "With the upgrade, both courts are the same speed, so now we do not have a tough transition going from in to out," something that happens frequently in the spring months as the weather becomes more unpredictable.
For example, on May 13, 2011, the Northwestern women faced IPFW in the first-round of the NCAA tournament on the outdoor courts. In a matter of 10 minutes, the temperature dropped nearly 30 degrees down to below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point NCAA rules required a move to the indoor courts.
"It felt like two different matches for us," Pollard said at the time, "one indoor and one out. It was a strange set of circumstances, but we managed."
The transition will be "much easier for the varsity teams," men's tennis head coach Arvid Swan said. "The slower speed of the court will also allow the team to practice and compete on courts that are similar to the courts used for the NCAA championships."
While the already-pristine Combe Tennis Center didn't require all of the wear-and-tear upgrades like its outdoor counterpart, the indoor courts received a much-needed aesthetic enhancement with a nice purple and green duo-tone look to match Vandy Christie. Of course, fans of purple aren't the only ones who will be pleased about the color improvements, either.
"The change to a purple color on
the indoor courts will only enhance the aesthetics of the Combe Tennis Center
which is already the premier indoor collegiate tennis facility," Swan said. "We are very much appreciative of the significant efforts made to our outdoor and indoor courts."
"We're very excited to get out and play on the purple courts," Pollard added.
Both Northwestern tennis programs resume their seasons with their spring slates in January. the women will host the Wildcat Spring Classic in the Combe Tennis Center January 13-15, and men begin their season with a visit from Ball State and UIC on January 15, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.
Does he still feel himself getting better day-by-day?
In a study that looked at overall Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR) scores with regards to race, Lapchick said "Northwestern and Notre Dame would have played for the National Championship if there was a national championship game for Graduation Success Rate among bowl teams. Both teams graduated at least 94 percent of football student-athletes and at least 92 percent of African-American football student-athletes."
In the most recent data available from the NCAA, Northwestern owns a 94 percent GSR for its overall football student-athlete population. That number is inclusive of a 92 percent GSR for African-American football student-athletes and a 96 percent GSR for white football student-athletes.
Going further, Lapchick observed that "Northwestern and Rutgers would contend for the National Championship if there was a national championship for APR scores, with APR scores of 993 and 988, respectively."
The Lapchick study previously pitted Northwestern and Notre Dame in its GSR title game in 2010 while NU and Navy earned the Lapchick Bowl berths in 2009.
Drew Crawford missed a three a mere 23 seconds into the game and then, just under two minutes later, Reggie Hearn missed another. John Shurna was the next to toss up a three for the 'Cats and he missed from the top of the circle, and then there was Crawford missing one more three from the left corner.
Less than 48 hours earlier, in their rout of Mississippi Valley State, the 'Cats had buried 20 of their 39 three-point attempts, but on this Sunday afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena they were up against a different kind of animal in No. 7 Baylor. These Bears played a zone defense, that is true, but it was hardly the passive kind featured in old black-and-white movies.
They instead used their quickness to challenge the ball and their length to clog the air space and their overall athleticism to create havoc with the 'Cat offense. Never did that offense, as it often does, resemble that proverbial well-oiled machine. Instead, on this afternoon, it struggled to find a rhythm as desperately as that dancer cursed with two left feet.
"That's about as bad as you can play, offensively and defensively," Bill Carmody would say minutes after his 'Cats 69-41 loss to the Bears. "We weren't able to stop them and couldn't put the ball in the basket. They had a lot to do with that. We knew they would be playing zone and told our guys they would be getting shots that would be open, but they'd be from different spots. I think we did, I'll have to look at it, but not in the flow of thing."
"They were definitely the most-athletic team we've seen this season...," point Dave Sobolewski would soon add. "But starting out missing shots determined the outcome."
Just consider, for proof, these few factoids from the opening 20 minutes, which is when the 'Cats were effectively sent on their way to their first loss of the season. They would get their first field goal of the day at 18:17, but not get their second until 14:55. They would hit their first three of the day at 13:26 and their second at 11:33, but not hit another for the remainder of the first half.
Shurna would get his first field goal of the day at 14:55, but over six minutes would pass before he got another and then he managed just a single free throw for the remainder of the first half. The 'Cats would get a right wing jumper from Crawford at 5:45, but then manage just a trio of free throws for the remainder of the first half.
Only once in this half did the 'Cats score field goals on back-to-back possessions. Four times in this half they had shots blocked down low. Often in this half they were a step behind the Bears, who got 11 of their 16 field goals on either dunks or layups in these 20 minutes. Then, in the most-telling stats of them all, at the end of the half they were a frigid 8-of-28 overall (28.6 percent) and an arctic 2-of-13 on their threes (15.4 percent) and down 17.
"It's a good team. We ran into just a buzz saw ... They smacked us pretty good," Carmody would later allow, and that saw continued to buzz the 'Cats right to the end. Never would they get closer than they were at halftime and once, as this one limped toward its conclusion, they fell behind by 32. Never could they establish an inside game, ending with just a dozen points in the paint (where they also had nine shots blocked), nor could they stop the Bears in the paint, where they scored 46 of theirs. Never did they rediscover that touch they displayed on Friday, ending 14-of-58 overall (24.1 percent) and 4-of-26 on their threes (15.4 percent), and never did they catch up to the Bears, who simply ran away from them.
"('Cat football coach Pat) Fitzgerald always says just flush that," Carmody would say when this one mercifully closed. "I really don't like it. It's a little too graphic for me. But I think that's what we have to do with this one."
"We have to compete a little better," Crawford would then conclude. "We were expecting a fight out there, but we didn't compete like we needed to. Especially against an elite team, that's who we want to play, we just have to compete better."
By Skip Myslenski,
NUsports.com Special Contributor
He was an unimposing suburban kid whose age had just reached double figures, but there he was every weekend, traveling with a bunch of kids just like him into the big city so they could ball with the best. That is what they went up against in the gyms of Chicago, those noted incubators of high fliers and higher skiers, but not only did our fresh-faced kid and his mates never back down. "As time progressed," he remembers, "we started winning tournaments and getting tougher and tougher every week."
Some variation of that word tough always accompanies any mention of 'Cat freshman point Dave Sobolewski, who is still fresh-faced and physically unimposing, and his bit of reverie was inspired when asked about that fact. Now someone asks if he ever faced off back then with Anthony Davis, Kentucky's hugely touted freshman out of Chicago, and he starts laughing and say yes. "Actually," he then admits, "I don't remember playing him. But one of my friends brought up a video. It was pretty funny to see. I didn't know he was on that team back then. But, really, a lot of the top Illinois high school guys from the city we would see week in and week out in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I think that did a lot of good for me."
Was it a matter of self-preservation?
"I think so. Even back then I was the point guard, I had to do a lot of the ball handling for the team. Obviously you're still very young, but you've got quicker guards back then just like I do now. So you've got to find a way to offset that."
We ask Tavaras Hardy, the 'Cat assistant and primary recruiter, what he best liked about Sobolewski when he first viewed him. "That he's such a tough kid and he's a leader," he says. "People look at him and they think he's not going to be athletic enough or fast enough. But he's smart, he's tough, and he is fast, he is strong. So I think those misperceptions about him, he kind of has a chip on his shoulder and likes to prove them wrong. That's what I like about him."
"He's physically a pretty strong kid, and from the neck up he's pretty strong too. He's a competitor," says the 'Cat head coach, Bill Carmody. "I've said that altar boy thing about him, but maybe I should say something else. He looks like a young guy, a nice guy and all. But he's got an edge to him, which is good to see."
Hardy, by the way, calls the young point, "Bo Lewski."
"It kind of flows," he explains with a smile.
Dave Sobolewski has clearly flowed into his role with the 'Cats, who carry a 6-0 record into this weekend when they host Mississippi Valley State on Friday night and No. 7 Baylor on Sunday afternoon. He has started each of those games and, most remarkably, handed out 24 assists while committing just seven turnovers while averaging 33.8 minutes. He has also averaged nine points, but most importantly, says Carmody, "He's getting the ball to the right guys.
"He's been well coached. High school (Benet), AAU, he's been coached very well, and the things that are new to him he picks up very quickly. He's a competitor and he really just has to get the ball to the right guy, right now. Timely shooting certainly helps. But we've got guys who can put the ball in the basket, so just make sure things run smoothly. I think he's done a nice job of that."
"I've been lucky enough to come in with some really good upperclassmen who put a lot of trust in me, and with that I feel really good out there," says Sobolewski himself. "I'm sure it's not easy to just give the ball to a freshman in the games, but they've put a ton of trust in me and that's made it a lot easier on me."
So wasn't he sure he could do it coming in?
"Oh, yeah. I was confident I could do it. But you never know with older guys. With these guys, I couldn't have asked for a better group to walk into. They've been so accepting on the court, off the court. They've been really good to me in my transition."
The estimable Juice Thompson, of course, previously held Sobolewski's job, and it was that same Juice Thompson that he regularly worked with last summer. "At first he was kind of teaching me a lot of the footwork that comes with the Princeton offense," he remembers. "We would go through drills with shots that are common to get in the Princeton offense, just kind of getting my footwork down. And then we'd play a lot of open gym, and you just pick things up playing with such good players like that. You learn from what they do, and you watch them and watch them, and I've seen some videos of Juice. Just picking up some of his little techniques have helped me so far."
How about a specific?
"A big thing we worked on was footwork coming off screens in our offense. Our play call 'Point Screen Away,' the footwork you've got to get down on it and how you have to stop behind screens sometimes depending on the defense, he kind of laid it all out for me and showed me what I had to do in different situations. After thinking about it, then seeing it all fall and throughout the start of practice, it took awhile to pick it up. But I feel I'm getting a pretty good hang of it.
"Juice was great to me. Obviously, I really appreciated that. He's about the best guy you can learn from in the history of the program. Yeah. He was great to me, always looking to put in more work. I still talk to him a lot, actually. He watches all of our games over in Germany (where he's playing), stays up late to watch them, and sometimes he gives me feedback on what to look for and what to do. It's been really good to have him around."
When he was a senior in high school, countless high-priced spreads deemed 'Cat wide receiver Jeremy Ebert too small and too slow to succeed at their level. Their snubs put a permanent chip on his shoulder and drove him during his brilliant career. When he was recruiting Dave Sobolewski, countless high-priced spreads asked Tavaras Hardy why he was bothering with that unimposing suburban kid. "We got that a lot, especially losing Juice," he remembers. "Some of the guys in our league joked, 'There's a difference in speed. We're glad Juice is gone.' But we don't analyze things based on rankings, based on appearance. We try to find the right-fit guys.
"He's a great kid off the court. But to play at this level, you have to have that extra edge and he has it. He displays it in a lot of different ways, whether it's boxing out a big guy or handling the ball full court against the press. That's where it translates. He's been big for us, big for us all year."
"I just try to play tough as much as I can," says Sobolewski himself. "Obviously, the guards I'm going to be playing against, there are a lot of guards quicker than me, a lot of guards more athletic than me, so I try to make up for that with toughness and just playing gutty."
So the circle of this narrative closes as it began, on toughness and guts and just maybe a chip on the shoulder, and so we wonder about the effect of those who surely doubted this unimposing suburban kid along his way to this promising present. "There are always going to be doubters, no matter what level you're at," Dave Sobolewski finally says. "I've had it so much, you've just got to use it as motivation. That's exactly what I do use it as. I like to prove people wrong. Sometimes I don't listen to it. But sometimes I do and I take it to heart and prove them wrong."
In a contest that officially ended yesterday, NU's athletes and staff members collected and delivered more than 6,100 units of canned and non-perishable food items for donation to Family Focus. The total shattered the old record of 5,700 established during last year's SAAC food drive. This year's SAAC effort was spearheaded by board members Belinda Niu (women's tennis) and Levi Mele (wrestling) along with the rest of the board.
"The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee's annual food drive provides an opportunity for the entire Northwestern athletic department and the Evanston community to band together for a great cause," said SAAC co-president Jonathan Harris of men's soccer. "We at Northwestern realize how truly fortunate we are, and collecting food for those in need enables us to give back to our Evanston community.
NU's 19 varsity programs competed among themselves to see who could bring in the most donations while the Northwestern Department of Athletics staff also held a separate contest. The overall winner was the NU baseball team, which collected a whopping 2,470 units. The team delivered the haul in dramatic fashion, pulling up to the front doors of Anderson Hall 30 minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline with two pickup trucks and two SUVs packed to the gills with foodstuffs.
"It was exciting to see the thought process they put into the food drive this year," head baseball coach Paul Stevens said. "Our guys are so energized about making sure those who are less fortunate than them are taken care of all year long. Putting food on someone's table who otherwise might not be able to have it is pretty awesome."
In addition to staff and student-athletes, Northwestern fans had the opportunity to give at recent men's and women's basketball games. Some elected to bring in physical canned goods while others donated money to the cause. That money was used during a shopping trip to Sam's Club today that netted more than 100 additional food items.
"This year's drive was an absolute success," Harris said. "The competition between the teams and within the athletic department really brought out the competitiveness in everyone, which enhanced the giving spirit!"