* The 'Cats have 14 regular-season games remaining after they visit Michigan on Wednesday night. That means it is far too early to dust off old chestnuts like "crucial contest" and "must-win situation." Still, with Michigan State and Wisconsin up next after the Wolverines, they are most certainly entering a stretch where they can grab off some (to use another chestnut) "signature wins" that would not only enhance their standing in the Big Ten race. They would also burnish their (last chestnut, promise) NCAA Tournament resume.
"Those (teams) are all up there, right?" said their coach, Bill Carmody, when asked about that. "Those would all be significant -- I don't know signature or not -- but those would all be important wins for us. We have to get 'em.
"This is a big game, a really big game," echoed forward Drew Crawford. "One thing we've got to do is win on the road, and that starts tomorrow. These last two days of practice, we've really been preparing for them. We're excited for the game."
"It's obviously a really big stretch for us," concluded the freshman point, Dave Sobolewski. "We're playing a lot of highly-ranked teams, and I don't think we've beat a ranked team yet this year. We played (No. 23) Creighton tough on the road. But, yeah, this is a huge stretch for us, especially with the Big Ten season here."
* The 'Cats were last viewed at work last Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where they built a 10-point lead over Illinois, floundered offensively for 19 minutes, rallied furiously down the stretch, and fell by one. That performance mirrored, to an extreme degree, a pattern that had emerged in some of their earlier games, which too were mottled with stretches of offensive impotence. "Yeah, we've had some real bad times, minutes without scoring," Carmody agreed Tuesday when this was brought up to him. "Some of the games they've been pretty good shots. But the last game against Illinois, I didn't think the shots were as good. We've been working on our offense a lot the last few days, just trying to see if we can do a little bit better."
And what in particular have they been working on?
"Just the moving. It seemed our cuts (against Illinois), guys were holding us up a little bit, we weren't cutting as crisply and sharply, and when we were cutting we weren't really looking for the ball, so it doesn't put pressure on the next defender to help out so you get an open shot. So I think overall it just has to click better."
"One thing that is big for us is cutting hard, especially when a lot of Big Ten teams try to bump you while you're cutting," Crawford later added. "You've got to be able to cut through hard and be physical on offense. We've got to be consistently aggressive making hard cuts, that's always important for us, and not backing down when the other team picks up their physicality."
"We weren't moving the ball and running through our offense as quickly as we should have been," Sobolewski would then conclude. "We were kind of slowly going through the motions and, with our offense, a big part of it is running through things fast and moving the ball quickly. We just weren't doing that until the very end of the second half and that's when we went on that run. But for the first 17, 18 minutes of the second half, we weren't doing it."
Has that been a point of emphasis in the practices leading up to the Michigan game?
"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely. Absolutely."
* Not even John Shurna, who had just one field goal in the second half after going for 17 points in the first, was immune to the malaise that struck the 'Cats against the Illini, and so it was natural that Carmody was asked about him on Tuesday. "He's probably putting a little pressure on himself," he said of his star, who was not available for comment. "He came out against Illinois, that first half, he got to the basket two or three times, old fashioned three-point play, banged a three from the corner, hit a pull up jumper at the foul line. So he did a lot of nice things. Then in the second half those shots, some of them didn't fall. You know, you can't expect 17 both halves. So somebody else has to pick it up. It's a team. I just think overall we have to move the ball better and, when you get your open looks, knock them down."
Is he playing out of himself since he is feeling that pressure?
"John's good at staying within himself," said Carmody. "But I want him to hunt for his shots a little bit more, and he has done that. He's going after shots. Certain guys, if they just let the game come to them, all of a sudden the half's over and you have two shots, three shots. Against Penn State, Drew had two shots in the first half letting the game come to him. Those two guys, they've got to go after it a little bit and get their shots, the ones they can make, not forcing them. Your best players have to be able to take some bad shots. Then, after awhile, those bad shots, they start making them. Where other guys aren't capable of doing that, those guys are. So I try to give them a little freedom."
"Johnny's all about the team, that's what he really cares about," Crawford himself said when asked about Shurna. "He wants to do what's best to help the team win. That's always the biggest thing for him, and the rest of us too. We spent a lot of time talking and it's really about what we're doing as a team and what we can do to improve."
* Which brings us to Sobolewski, who missed all five of his field goal attempts against the Illini. "They just weren't going in. Then in the second half I just wasn't getting looks," he explained Tuesday. "But I didn't take a shot that I won't shoot tomorrow night. They weren't going in, but I'll shoot the same shots tomorrow night if they come my way."
* And finally, Sobolewski, on the 'Cats mood: "I think the whole team is confident. Just because we lost a few games, nobody's got their head down. We're ready to play again, we're excited to play again, and all of us are still confident in what we can do."