Last Sunday night was not an easy one for 'Cat forward Drew Crawford. He had been resplendent through so much of this basketball season. But that afternoon, up in Minneapolis, he had suffered through a nightmare, making just two of his 10 shots and finishing with five points as his team fell to Minnesota by 23. "That night, you try to forget about it, which is impossible to do," he will say when asked how he responded to that nightmare.
"The whole plane ride home, when you're going to sleep, you're thinking about how terribly you played as a team, how terribly you played as an individual, and the next couple days it's the same feeling. But then you watch the film of the game and you break down and learn what you can do to improve. After that, you move on to the next game."
And what did he learn?
"We were taking bad shots at the beginning of the game. Coach (Bill Carmody) was saying our defense wasn't terrible in the beginning of the game, but they were getting too many offensive rebounds, they were getting to the line a lot, and down at our end we weren't knocking down shots because we weren't taking the best shots. We were taking quick shots, shots that weren't in our offense, and that really hurt us."
Two Saturdays ago, after enervating losses to Illinois (by one) and Michigan (in overtime), the 'Cats faced a crucible when Michigan State dropped by Welsh-Ryan Arena. They responded with their best and most-complete game of the year and upset the Spartans. Now, after consecutive blowout losses at Wisconsin and Minnesota, another crucible confronts them this Saturday when Purdue visits their playpen. "We've (just) played in two tough road environments, two games where we didn't play particularly well," John Shurna will say when asked about that date. "So I think we're all excited to have a home game."
"I think we're eager," Crawford will soon echo. "After a tough loss, we've kind of moved on from it, learned from it. Now we're eager for this Purdue game and the games that come after it as well. . . We need to get some momentum."
That the 'Cats most certainly need as the calendar rushes toward February and those games that will do so much to determine their postseason fate. They had it early, back before the holidays, but now it has not only abandoned them. They are also short-handed (sophomore guard JerShon Cobb is not expected to play against the Boilermakers); piling long minutes on their bell cows (Shurna, Crawford and freshman point Dave Sobolewski are each averaging better than 34 per game); and, as Crawford mentioned and was evident at Minnesota, a once-precise offensive machine that is suddenly wheezing, smoking and coughing.
Evidence supporting that last fact can be found with a glimpse at the 'Cat assist totals. They are, for the season, averaging just under 16 a game, and ran up 20 in their victory over Michigan State. But, against Wisconsin, they had only eight, and they followed that with just 12 against the Golden Gophers. "It's not the only thing (that has caused his team's recent struggles). But it's one indication that maybe the ball isn't moving around as much," Carmody will say with an eye on those numbers.
"We've had games where we've had 25 assists, I bet, where 75 percent of our baskets are off assists. But the last few games, that has not been the case. Eight, nine, 10. That's not good enough for us. You're not making them defend enough. It's not in the flow ... We've gotten out of our offense."
That offense, of course, could use a third contributor who scores with some consistency. The 'Cats have not yet found him this season. But, just as certainly, that same offense pivots around Shurna and Crawford, whose skills can produce incandescent interludes. That, finally, produces a juggling act the pair must master with their acumen as well as their physical talents. "They have to get the other guys involved more than they've been doing," explains Carmody.
"The ball has to move around a little bit from side to side. The ball has to go in, then out, then side to side. For some reason, those shots go in a lot more often than when you're just making a move and no one else knows exactly what you're doing. I think we've been doing a little bit of that, a little too much of that."
So you're looking for a balance, we suggest, where you ride them but they work within the offense?
"Yeah, yeah. I told them, 'The good guys know. If me telling you to take good shots scares you from taking a shot, I don't care if it's early or late, I really don't. If you're a freshman and I say that and you hesitate and think coach doesn't want me to shoot early, OK. But you guys know me, I know you, if you have a good shot for you, that's a good shot. So you can't use that as an excuse because we've never said hold the ball or anything like that. So just be smart.'
"That's what the good guys do. They know."
The fineness of this line cannot be exaggerated and can be best symbolized this way. Carmody, through much of Shurna's career with the 'Cats, has encouraged him to be selfish, has encouraged him to demand the ball, has encouraged him to ride the wave and take the shots if he is in a magical place. But the forward, a classic team man, is often reluctant to hog the stage (or the ball) and so sometimes defers when selfishness is indeed demanded.
Shurna, who is no dummy, clearly recognizes this, which he showed when asked to explain why this season he has followed bountiful stretches with stretches where he barely scored. "I have to continue to stay a little more aggressive," is what he said here. "I think sometimes I want to be a team player and help everyone out. But sometimes it's best for the team that I be a little more aggressive if I'm shooting the ball well. That's something I have to try and be better at."
We remember that the football 'Cats, after their October struggles, spoke of possessing a greater sense of urgency as the final portion of their schedule loomed. So here, with February on the horizon, we ask Shurna if the same is true with his team. "Every game's important," he says. "We win those close games we have, maybe it's a different story. But you can't look back too much. We just have to start winning some games. . .(and) I think we've shown bright spots, of what we can be. We put that together for a full game against Michigan State. But, besides that, you can definitely say there have been moments when we've been lacking, when we haven't played to our full potential, which is frustrating."
"That's really frustrating," Crawford will conclude minutes later. "Our team is capable of a lot and we all know that. So it's tough that we're not bringing that every night and winning the games we're capable of winning. So it's frustrating, and certainly something we have to work toward and try to put together so we're able to bring it every night."