February 2012 Archives
HE WILL CONFRONT
the emotions of Senior Night. He will confront No. 10 Ohio State. He will
confront the challenge of leading the charge to keep his team's NCAA Tournament
hopes alive. 'Cat forward John Shurna will face all of that at Welsh-Ryan Arena
on Wednesday night, but late Tuesday afternoon his mood could best be described
as buoyant. He joked with inquiring minds. He peppered his answers with laughs
and giggles. He betrayed, quite simply, no signs of nerves. "We have two games
left and we're right in the hunt here. So it's got to be a fun time," he would
say in explanation. "You've got to have fun with it. If you get stressful, I
don't think it would be good for the team.". . .
BILL CARMODY, his
coach, was neither surprised nor disappointed when told of his star's relaxed
attitude. "That's the way he plays," he said instead. "He has a refreshing
personality. I don't think he felt pressure when he made those foul shots the
other day (to beat Penn State). He just has this boyishness to him. He's
different from a lot of guys who seem really serious about it, like coaches for
instance. He just has a certain, not naive, but.". . .
HE PAUSED HERE,
searching for the right word, and as he thought someone suggested it might be
optimistic. "Yeah," he then said. "I hate that word, but.". . .
BUT CAN THAT
attitude be contagious, he was asked. . .
"YEAH, I THINK SO," Carmody answered. "When
he's feeling good and smiling out there, I always tell him to do that. I tell
him, 'Even if you're not feeling good, do it to help the other guys.' But most
of the time, he does it anyway. That's just the way he is.". . .
THE WAY IT HAS
BEEN for the 'Cats this last month is surely familiar to all who follow them.
They have won some crucial games and have lost some that tore at their bellies,
and always, always they have been surrounded by chatter centered on their NCAA
tourney hopes. They are the bracketolgists' favorite pet, the thoroughbred
looking to break its maiden, the debutante hoping to finally find her way into
the ball, and now the buzz around them is as insistent as that around a wasps'
nest. But, guard Reggie Hearn would say on Tuesday, "We've only got a couple
more weeks to hear about it, especially if we take care of business against
Ohio State and Iowa (on Saturday) and at the Big Ten Tournament. In the next
week or so, we can squelch that. We're definitely embracing (that situation) as
a team. We know we have a chance to make history. For each of us to be part of
that would be really special. So we're looking forward to making that happen.".
WE NOW ASKED
HEARN, with a smile on our face, how it feels to have the whole world watching
the 'Cats. "I don't think the whole world is watching us," he demurred. "I
think we're just a very small part of what's going on with March Madness. We're
just one story amidst many. So, like I said, knowing that, we know there is
some pressure on us and we embrace it. But as long as you go about things the way
you always have, then things will kind of fall into place and it will be just
like another game.". . .
THIS STANCE BY
HEARN was another attitude Carmody embraced on Tuesday. "That's a good way to
put it, embracing it," he said in explanation. "If you just go about it, you're
not nervous about it, you know what you have to do, they've been doing this all
their lives, playing ball. So I'd say embracing it is a positive way to put it.
. .(and) I think it's great they're involved (in the moment). We haven't been
in this situation too often and now we are, and I don't know if it necessarily
adds more pressure. All these other teams that go (to the tournament) every
year, they listen to SportsCenter too and they seem to do OK.". . .
THE 'CATS, of
course, did less than OK when they met Ohio State in Columbus, where they fell
by 33 way back in late December in their Big Ten opener. But that result, just
like the momentousness of their imminent rematch, is just one more reality that
left Hearn unfazed. "I think we're a completely different team than we were at
the start of Big Ten play," he would say in explanation. "I think me and Sobo
(point Dave Sobolewski) were still trying to get used to our roles with the
team. I think we've really grown offensively. I think our offense is flowing
better now. The last half of the Big Ten season our offense has been flowing
really well. So we're a much changed team, and we're going to use that loss as
fuel to go out and win this game.". . .
WITH THAT GAME
NOW IMMINENT, we wondered what Carmody liked best about his team. "I think we
can put five guys out there and I think they can all put the ball in the
basket," he replied. "I think that they're playing at a decent level, to tell
you the truth. They're sharing the ball nicely. Looking at that Penn State
tape, offensively, the ball looked great. It was moving around so nicely at
different times. Defensively, we need some work and I don't know how much
correcting we can do. But on offense, I like the way the guys share the ball.".
we wondered what worried him most about the Buckeyes. "They're all good.
They're just all good," he said with a rueful chuckle. "It's a real nice team,
they're well-coached, they've been there before, they're a very good defensive
team. It's hard to get good shots against those guys. They don't give you too
many good looks.". . .
BUT LAST YEAR,
when Ohio State was ranked No. 1, the 'Cats lost to them by a point at home and
in overtime at the Big Ten Tournament. So, here, we finally wondered if he
might dust off those old games plans for Wednesday night. "I think we
controlled both games last year, we really did, and I think that's what we have
to do, control the game with our offense," he said. "Now, that isn't easy to
do. Then last year, in both games we played, we made a lot of shots in the last
seven seconds of the shot clock. That's what we have to do. That's how we can
beat Ohio State, if we're sort of in control with our tempo.". . .
HE WILL CONFRONT
the emotions roiling through his players on Senior Night. He will confront the
harsh reality of No. 10 Ohio State. He will confront the challenge of coaching
a team striving to keep his team's NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Bill Carmody
will face all of that at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night, but late Tuesday
afternoon his mood could best be described as unruffled and realistic. "I don't
even think about it. I don't really think about it," he would finally say in
explanation. "I think everyone knows what the situation is. We're going to have
to win a few games here, and we have a good opportunity against a very good
team tomorrow night. So it's a good chance for us."
Earlier this month, Northwestern inducted the class of 2011-12 into its Athletic Hall of Fame in an on-campus ceremony. As part of the festivities, the five inductees sat down to discuss the honor, reflect on their time at NU and share how being a Wildcat helped shape and prepare them for life after college.
For more on the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame and its 2011-12 inductees, click here.
* Forward Drew
Crawford, who sat out the last 12 minutes of the 'Cats overtime loss to
Michigan on Tuesday night, appears good-to-go for their Saturday visit to Penn
State. "The trainer told me he was fine," said his coach, Bill Carmody. "He'll
be a little sore, but when he loosens it up, he'll be OK."
"It's feeling better. But it's one of those
things that it takes a little bit of rest to get better," Crawford himself said
on Thursday afternoon. "It's a little sore right now. But it should be good in
a couple of days."
* Crawford came
up with the injury early in the Wolverine game when he collided with their Evan
Smotrycz. "I was cutting through the
lane there, and kind of went (Smotrycz's) knee to (his right) quad," he
recounted. "His knee hit my quad and I got a dead leg. It hurt a little bit
when it happened, and it continued to get worse throughout the game. It
stiffened up and I wasn't able to move real well. Being on the court, I was
slow. I couldn't contribute as much as I would have liked to. It was slowing me
* 'Cat star John
Shurna, surprisingly enough, also didn't contribute much in that game's last 25
minutes, scoring just four points in the second half and overtime. That led
Carmody to later opine that he appeared "Reluctant to do anything. He had some
pretty good looks and he passed them up to go to the next thing, the next
thing. It was a day he had to take over, I thought."
So, on Thursday,
we wondered if Carmody had talked to Shurna about that.
"No, because I've
had that discussion with him for two years now. He knows how I feel, so we
didn't have any discussion about it. No."
"I don't know. I
think maybe I was trying to let the game come to me a little more than I should
have," Shurna himself said when asked about his coach's Tuesday night comment.
"But you can't look in the past too much. You've got to learn from it and get
ready for Penn State."
* Shurna, of
course, has not only played big minutes while carrying the 'Cats through much
of this season. He was also, more recently, the center of much attention as he approached
and then topped his school's career scoring record. Could all of that effort
and hoopla left him less-than fully energized against the Wolverines? "He's a little worn out, I think. He looked a
little tired to me," said Carmody.
"I've been trying
to treat every game as a normal game," Shurna himself said when asked if recent
events had tired him. "So, no. I was just going out there and trying to play my
game and trying to help the team win."
* That Tuesday
evening, when his team faced Michigan, Welsh-Ryan was a hot house filled with
folks who witnessed an affair mottled with roiling emotions. This was a game
the 'Cats desperately wanted to gild the resume that will be studied by the
NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, which is why the defeat was so enervating
for them. "Yeah. It definitely was real emotional. It was a tough loss to
handle, especially right after the game," admitted Crawford. "But like all
losses, we have to move on from it. There's nothing we can do about it now."
emotionally spent, deflated? I don't know about that," said Carmody. "We've had
a few of those games this year and we seemed to be OK afterward. So I'm not
that worried (about that). I just worry about our overall play. I certainly
care about how they feel, their mindset, keeping them up and stuff. But we lost
a few games earlier in the year there, and we came back."
* There is a very
simple reason for them not be deflated now and to mount one more comeback. They
have three regular season games and their conference tourney yet remaining,
which is opportunity enough to make an impression on that Selection Committee.
"That's basically what we said (in the locker room after the Michigan loss).
'We still have a great chance here,'" said Crawford. "It was a tough game, one that we could have
won. We've just to be able to move on from in and continue to play with energy
and play with heart. We're a hungry team. We've just got to finish strong now."
* The only fan
who doesn't know the 'Cats have never appeared in the NCAA tourney is an alien
who just dropped in from some distant planet. So, always, they are surrounded
by that reality and by the chatter that accompanies it and by the weight that
this history delivers. Still, said Carmody, "I don't feel, like I said the
other night, the seniors, they've won 17 and 20 and 20 (in their three previous
seasons at the school). So they know
history, they know what's come before them, and they feel part of that, the
thread that binds. But they also know they've done pretty well here. That link
isn't on them like some miasma hanging over their head or something like that."
would most-honestly add, "Right now, we're focusing on Penn State, although the
tournament looms in the back of our head a little bit, I think. We don't talk
about it a whole lot. But in the back of our heads we know what the
implications of each game are. We go out knowing each game is extremely
important. It would be an historical thing. It would mean a lot to the school
and the program. So it's our goal."
* Still, in the
present, the primary concern is now the Big Ten cellar-dwelling Nittany Lions,
whom the 'Cats beat by a dozen way back on Jan. 1. That suggests this could be
pleasant visit for them, but don't be fooled. This is one of those
ever-dangerous trap games and here's why. Penn State, in conference, is 0-8 on
the road, but 4-3 at home. Penn State, at home, has defeated Purdue by 20 and
Illinois by two and Nebraska by 16 and Iowa by five. Penn State, in its last
four home games, has held opponents to an average of just 54.8 points while
limiting them to 37.6 percent shooting overall and 30.4 percent shooting on
their threes. Penn State, on the road, is averaging 55 ppg, but at home that
number jumps to 67.5, and Penn State, on the road, is shooting 35 percent, but
at home that number jumps to 42. "So," said Carmody, "they've got that good
feeling, or whatever it is, when we talk about home-court advantage. They
definitely play at a higher level at home."
* There is one
more thing as well. The 'Cats last won at Penn State on Feb. 16, 2002.
* So much, then,
is now in play for the 'Cats, everything from those ever-popular
bracketologists to this road trip to a playpen that has been unkind to them.
But, in the end, their reality is simply that one defined by Crawford when he
said, "The only thing we can do now is go out and try to win every game. That's
the only thing we can control, so that's what we want to do. Win every game."
After finishing up the regular season with NU Duals, most of the team enjoyed a relaxing weekend off at home in Evanston. However, six of our freshmen stayed on their grind and traveled to Salt Lake City for the Junior Olympic Fencing Championships! Since my weekend consisted of an extended Always Sunny marathon and staring bewilderedly at my biogeography homework, I thought I'd hand over the blogging reigns for this post. Check out foilist Mary Spohn's recap of the freshmen's exciting weekend out West!
Salt Lake City, Utah: Home of Skiing, Mormons, and... fencing? Yes, fencing. On February 16th, Sarah Bruhl and I departed from Patten Gym at 3:30 in the morning to make the trip to JOs. Upon arrival, we persuaded our coach to allow a quick nap (translation: 3 hours), got our equipment checked, and prepared for competition the next day. The competition on Friday was exciting and proved to have many ups and downs. In the end, I finished 52nd and Sarah finished 69th, out of a field of 141 fencers.
The next day our epee 'Cats competed, and once again freshman Courtney Dumas earned some hardware with an impressive 8th-place finish! Freshman Rose Semmel followed in 22nd, and Sonali Patel in 74th, out of a strong field of 151 fencers. Claire Carson, our only representing Sabre fencer, drew a difficult first round, but fenced well and showed a good fight. Then, in perhaps what was the highlight of the trip, our epee squad proved its dominance by tearing through the competition in the epee team event. The girls fought all the way to a Bronze medal for the 'Cats!
All in all, I would say that it was a solid weekend of fencing for the freshmen 'Cats in Salt Lake City. Even better was the support all my teammates displayed, cheering each other on in between bouts. We also had the pleasure of seeing our future Wildcat teammates, all decked out in Northwestern gear already (little do they know they will soon be spending the majority of their lives in purple...). The soon-to-be 'Cats finished with strong results as well and cheered us on every step of the way. While it was a memorable weekend and we were sad to leave the sunny weather and scenic view of the mountains, we are glad to be back on campus and preparing for our final competitions of the year!
We're all extremely proud of our freshmen and future Wildcats for representing Northwestern so well this weekend! And while breaks are nice, I know I'm already itching to get back out on the strip. This Saturday, our travel squads will be heading back to New York City to compete in the National Squad Championships- a relay style tournament with the best of the best in attendance. It's sure to be an extremely intense weekend, so check back next week for what I predict to be some exciting results!
- D (and Mary)
More than nine years ago, Rich Nassif joined the Northwestern men's soccer program as a last-minute walk-on goalkeeper.
Today, after nine seasons as a player and coach, the Northwestern chapter of his career comes to a close as he is set to become the new men's soccer head coach at Benedictine University.
Nine years ago, Rich Nassif was not even on head coach Tim Lenahan's radar. Lenahan and his squad were conducting preseason training at Lakeside Field when an unfortunate accident left the Wildcats with just one healthy goalkeeper.
NU's goalkeeper at the time, Justin Pines, suffered an injury in practice during the second week of the season. Jeff Mills had an idea. His high school teammate at Palatine, Rich Nassif, was already admitted into Northwestern and would be on campus in a few weeks. Mills suggested the coaching staff contact Nassif to fill in as a backup goalkeeper.
"The option to bring in a goalkeeper from the club team was not possible since school was not in session," Lenahan said. "I literally said to my assistant coach 'I wish there was a goalie store where we could just call and order one' when Jeff Mills spoke up. The ironic thing is that Jeff Mills was a very, very quiet guy and he kind of piped in saying, 'There is a kid from my high school who is not bad.'"
Nassif joined the team late in the preseason, beginning what would end up being a successful nine-year career as a player and member of the coaching staff at Northwestern.
Nassif's player bio does not do him justice. It lists him playing just 17 total minutes in his career, which mainly came when the 'Cats were winning or losing by a sizable amount. He also suited up at center forward for Senior Day.
"One of the highlights of Rich's career was at the Marquette Spring Tournament in spring of 2004," Lenahan said. "Injuries left Rich as the ONLY goalie. That day, Rich pitched two shutouts and we garnered three wins. This 'sweep' that ended the spring season in 2004, served as a springboard for our NCAA Tournament season the next year. When Rich jumped in goal during our training the last few seasons and made a big save, I would shout out 'Marquette Tournament!'"
Nassif is in the record book as being a part of every single NCAA tournament appearance in program history, either as a player or member of Lenahan's coaching staff. Despite limited playing time, he had the leadership skills necessary to be selected team captain of the 2006 squad, which went to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
"Rich is a great example to guys coming out of high school that you don't have to be a starter or the best player to have a positive impact on the program," Lenahan said. "Richie was the captain of the team that made the Elite Eight his senior year because his teammates loved his work ethic, personality and trusted him unconditionally to do what was right for the program."
It is the stats that are not officially recorded that count the most in Nassif's tenure at Northwestern. Rich has spent countless hours as a vocal leader on the sidelines and as a teacher and mentor to the student-athletes. He has worked closely with two of the best goalkeepers in program history, guiding Misha Rosenthal to two-time All-Big Ten accolades and Tyler Miller to first-team all-conference and freshman All-America honors.
Rich also did little things off the field to keep the team motivated throughout the grind of a college soccer season. For example, prior to every big match this year, Nassif made a highlight video (to the soundtrack of Flo Rida's "Good Feeling") to pump up the squad. Two Big Ten titles later, the team may be sick of hearing Flo Rida, but will never forget the memories thanks to Nassif's highlight videos.
There is no question Rich Nassif will be missed by everyone at Northwestern but it was only a matter of time before he landed a head coaching position. We wish him the best of luck at Benedictine University and thank him for everything he did, whether it was filling in for Justin Pines in net or coaching on the sidelines, during his nine-year tenure with the Northwestern men's soccer program. He came as a last-second, injury-replacement walk-on and leaves as one of the most influential players and coaches in Northwestern history.
Northwestern athletics and Medill co-sponsored a panel on college sports and the media Wednesday in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum. Dubbed "Beyond the Box Score: Covering College Sports in 2012 and Beyond," the panel featured journalists Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated
, Pete Thamel of The New York Times
and Northwestern Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald. The panel was moderated by ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols.
Click in the video player below to view excerpts of the discussion, or watch the entire event on the Medill website. More information on the event is available on NUsports.com.
Storify Social Media Recap
The fans were up
and the joint was rocking and this beauty of a basketball game between the
'Cats and Michigan was tied at 49 and roaring toward its conclusion. Out of a
time out they came, the 'Cats with the ball and 1:25 remaining, and here there
was one pass, then another, some eight passes in all, and finally, with one
minute left, John Shurna rose up along the right baseline and offered a
15-footer. It missed, but his teammate Reggie Hearn collected the offensive
rebound and now came more passes, a plethora of passes, and then Hearn was
driving. "We wanted him to drive it," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later said.
"Reggie's been successful with that before. But he just didn't think it was
"The play was for
me to drive the baseline," said Hearn himself. "But one thing Michigan was
doing pretty well all night was forcing middle. I thought (Wolverine guard
Zack) Novak had a good angle on me and going baseline wouldn't have been
advantageous. So I just tried to make something out of it."
He did that by
kicking out to JerShon Cobb on the left wing and from there, with the shot
clock at two, the sophomore guard put up a three. He too missed, just as Shurna
had before him, and here Wolverine Trey
Burke grabbed the rebound and was crowded by 'Cat Davide Curletti and started
to teeter out-of-bounds and just managed to call time out before committing
Now 24.3 seconds
remained and here, after the Wolverines burned all but 4.7 of them and with one
to give, 'Cat Alex Marcotullio fouled Burke. Michigan coach John
Beilein called a time out, then Carmody did the same, and finally Burke had the
ball again, this time three steps out from the top of the arc. "We wanted Trey
to turn that corner and make something happen," Beilein would later say, but he
couldn't do that with Cobb right in his grill. So he pulled back and Hearn,
arms high, jumped out toward him, and Burke threw up a three and it was an air
ball and this one went spinning into overtime.
There were no
small stakes on the table Tuesday night when No. 11 Michigan dropped by
Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was looking to stay in contention for the Big Ten title,
the 'Cats were looking to gild their NCAA Tournament resume, and that promised
an evening filled with fury and emotion and surges that carried its audience on
an exhilarating roller coaster ride.
That, in fact, is
just what occurred, the Wolverines surging first and going up a half-dozen, the
'Cats then switching from man to their 1-3-1 zone and clawing back into a tie.
This all unfolded in the game's first 13 minutes and already this one had
transformed into a cerebral chess match as well as a physical fray. For here
were the Wolverines, so defensively sound, closing down the 'Cats three-point
game, and there were the 'Cats, so able to adapt, attacking the post more than
"You've got to make choices with them,"
Beilein later said, explaining his strategy. "Their three-point game is as good
as anybody's, and we try to learn from each time we play them. It's such a
challenge. We try to learn from the way they play and try to make some
adjustments. I don't think I'm going to share anything in particular except
make 'em make twos. Make 'em make twos."
everything, but other teams do that also," said Carmody, when asked why it is
so difficult to get an open three against the Wolverines. "I thought they did a
pretty nice job of it. It think that was it. It also seemed, early on, John
(Shurna, his star), the whole game he was reluctant to do anything. He had some
pretty good looks, and he passed them up to go to the next thing, the next
thing. It was a day he had to take over, I thought. I don't know. They switched
and they switched well."
So the 'Cats, who
average 23.2 three-point attempts per-game, did not have their weapon of choice
available to them. They would, in fact, try just seven of them in the first
half and 16 of them in the game and make only three (for an 18.8 shooting
percentage). But here their counter was effective, Hearn posting up or driving,
Curletti working the blocks and attacking, and as the first half unfolded their
lead slowly built, built until it was seven at halftime.
Early in that
first half, just over two minutes into it, play was stopped after 'Cat Drew
Crawford emerged from a scrum in obvious pain. He would here leave the game,
return less than 60 seconds later, play 17 of this half's 20 minutes and 10
more in the second. But at 6:57 of regulation he sat down and never returned.
"They just told me he couldn't go," explained Carmody, who did not know the
severity of the forward's injury. (Neither Crawford nor Shurna was later
brought out for interviews.)
That was one reality that turned
this game and another was a change the Wolverines made to blunt the inside
attack that had served the 'Cats so well. "I think they were a little more
physical," explained Hearn, who did not miss a shot all night and finished with
11 points and 11 rebounds. "You saw at the start of the second half, I posted
up, tried to go baseline and stepped out of bounds. They were just physical.
You've got to give some credit to their defense."
defense, which Shurna had dented for 10 first-half points, now smothered him as
well, shutting him out for over 17 minutes and holding him to just four points
after halftime. "Our defense on him was good. We had multiple guys guard him.
We did some different things we feel you have to do," explained Beilein. "I had
the kid (Kevin) Pittsnogle (when he coached) at West Virginia, tremendous
player, tremendous teams, and you cannot do certain things. They're just too
good. They'll just knock it in. So we really tried to do some things that would
not allow him to feel comfortable even in the NBA range."
All of that
combined to pull his team back into this game, but still, still, the 'Cats went
up two at 3:38 when Hearn buried a flat-footed three from the right of the arc.
Then they were up four when Shurna got his first second-half basket at 2:42,
and up three when he answered a Wolverine three with a 10-footer that fell as
he hit the deck. But here, at 1:41, Wolverine Tim Hardaway Jr. buried a three
over the zone from the left corner, which produced the tie that would remain
unbroken through regulation's last frenzied seconds.
The 'Cat 1-3-1
zone can flummox less-schooled foes, but it is a defense Beilein used when he
coached at West Virginia and so he is well attuned to its nuances. "Knowing
that zone, it's really tough to drive the ball to the basket," he would later
explain. "What you have to have, it's not schematic. It's a bunch of guys who
can see the floor and can all pass and are going to be selfless in their game.
We had to spread the floor and rely on them to play basketball. We've got a
good enough shooting team that we can make those shots eventually."
Now, in overtime,
his Wolverines did make those shots. They got a three from Burke after a Shurna
miss. They got a three from Novak after a Cobb miss. They got a three from Stu
Douglass after another Shurna miss. They got those threes in less than three
minutes, and now the 'Cats were desperate and reduced to fouling and on their
way to again losing to the Wolverines in overtime. Still, Reggie Hearn was soon
saying, "I think we'll be fine. We still have a lot to play for, definitely.
"This is a tough
loss. But we're going to look at it as we fought hard, we lost to a good team,
we had a chance to get a resume-building win, we didn't get it. But there's
still a lot left to play for."
HE CATALYZED the
'Cats to a much-needed win over Minnesota and, along the way, replaced Billy
McKinney as his school's career-scoring leader. But later that Saturday night
John Shurna did nothing more than visit with his family, return to his
apartment, respond to some text messages and watch Creighton play on TV before
crawling under the covers. There was, for him, no celebration. "I was," he
explained Monday, "pretty tired from the game.". . .
and just minutes after Shurna's record-breaking moment, point Dave Sobolewski
was asked if it was one of those proverbial moments he would long remember.
"Looking back on my career when I'm older," he said, "I'm sure I'll be telling
people I played with the leading scorer. It's been great playing with John,
it's definitely been a good year. But we're not done yet. We've got to keep
taking care of business.". . .
JOHN SHURNA, on
Sunday morning, awoke and wasted not a moment thinking of what he had
accomplished the night before. He instead got back to business, joining his
teammates at Welsh-Ryan Arena for a little practice. "So I haven't soaked it
all in," he would say, speaking of his record. "I'm just getting ready for
Michigan. They had a big win and now both teams are playing for a lot
tomorrow.". . .
morning the 'Cats first watched some tape of their victory over the Gophs and
then turned their attention to the Wolverines, who drop by Welsh-Ryan Tuesday
night fresh off a win over Ohio State. Then, for some 25 minutes, they walked
through some stuff on the court before disbanding without, again, any
reflection on or celebration of the previous night's events. "They know what's
in front of them still," explained their coach, Bill Carmody. "They're pretty
level.". . .
THAT WAS CLEARLY
reflected both by Shurna's demeanor following his special night and by
Sobolewski's recognition that the 'Cats still have some unfinished business. "I
keep saying this, but there are so many teams that are in the same position as
us across conferences," said Carmody, defining that business. "Some of the
smaller conferences, it's their tournament they have to win. Some of the bigger
conferences, it's all those teams that are in the area we are. At this point,
you've just got to get wins. So we have the opportunity and it's good. We're
down to the last two weeks and we're playing for something.". . .
THEY ARE PLAYING,
of course, to improve their chances of receiving an NCAA tournament bid. So,
continued Carmody, "You know it's a big game just like you knew Minnesota was a
big game. I think it was you who asked if it (Minnesota) was a must game. I
don't know. If we lose tomorrow, we're not out of it. And if we win tomorrow,
we're not in it. So it can't be a must win or loss. But you want to win it
because it's at home against a ranked team.". . .
JUST SHORT of six
weeks ago, on the road against a ranked Michigan team, the 'Cats lost by two in
overtime after failing to score on the final possession of regulation. But,
when asked what he remembered of that evening, Shurna mentioned not that
possession, but the offensive rebounds they gave up as the game roared to its
conclusion. "With such a talented team, they're going to take advantage of that,"
he then said.". . .
THAT NIGHT, in
fact, Michigan grabbed off 17 offensive rebounds, the same amount the Gophs did
while falling on Saturday at Welsh-Ryan. "It's just going and getting it.
Rebounding's a lot of effort," Shurna would say when asked how the 'Cats can
prevent those second chances. But more is at work here as well and that is
their 1-3-1 zone, a deployment that often makes it harder for them to get one
of their bodies on an opponent's body. "I think (that has an effect)," agreed
Carmody. "But you think about it, you weigh it. They (Minnesota) had (19)
turnovers. So if you play man, maybe you can do a little better boxing out than
in a zone. I get that. You're going to have some dunks and crazy emotional
things against a 1-3-1 zone. That's going to happen, it happens every once in
awhile. But it's two points. Keep going. Everyone says zone defense makes it a
little bit harder to rebound. But at this point, it's just going and getting
it. Rebounding's a lot of effort. I don't think there are any box-out drills
you can do. I think probably the effort, it's from the neck up. You've just got
to do it every time, every time, every time.". . .
THAT ZONE, as
Carmody mentioned, did flummox the Gophs into 19 turnovers and five of them
came on steals by JerShon Cobb, whose season had been mottled by injuries. That
Saturday night he started in place of Alex Marcotullio, and even though Carmody
had some concern that his presence might disrupt the rhythm of a 'Cat offense
that had purred through February. "A little bit, yeah, yeah. I took a little
shot there," he admitted Monday. "But I felt even if he's not doing too much
(offensively), he steals balls. What can I tell you? He has a lot of steals for
the time he's played. Someone said on the teleconference this morning, you
didn't get much offensive output from him. Well, he stole four balls and two of
them led to layups. That's offensive output. But I was concerned a little bit,
but felt, 'Let's try it.' Al's still going to play 25 minutes probably. And I
thought the shots JerShon took were really good shots. They were right there.".
THE NAKED EYE
TEST, in that Goph game, felt the quicker-and-lankier Cobb was a
more-disruptive force atop the zone than either Marcotullio or Reggie Hearn.
"But last year, he wasn't," said Carmody with a small chuckle. "It's funny.
Last year, Al was the guy. You say, he's longer, he's this, he moves a little
faster. But Al got all the steals last year. He didn't get any steals last
year. Now this year, he seems a lot better. It's crazy. But he made a
difference the other night, definitely.". . .
BUT THAT NIGHT,
as all the 'Cats know, was over as soon as it was over, and now Michigan is at
hand, more business is at hand, another of those games Shurna so openly enjoys
is at hand. "All the games are fun," he would finally say on Monday. "I feel
I'm pretty fortunate just to be playing Big Ten basketball. So you just go out
there and give it your all. That starts again tomorrow with a tough game
against Michigan. That's fun. This is what you play for. It's fun and exciting.
It's just going out there, us against them, and see who wins."
the Minnesota guard, threw his crosscourt pass toward Rodney Williams, but here
came John Shurna for the interception. Until this moment, which came just over
16 minutes into their Saturday night meeting at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the 6-foot-9
'Cat forward had been frustrated, had been elbowed, had been jostled and held
scoreless by a rotating cast of Gopher defenders that included both the
6-foot-11 Ralph Sampson III and the 6-foot-11 Elliott Eliason. But here, on the
run, he took that interception the distance, getting his first points of the
evening on a breakaway dunk. "Usually that kind of thing picks you up. It
probably did with him," his coach, Bill Carmody, would later say.
"It's nice to get
a layup to see the ball go into the basket," said Shurna himself. "But I was
really focused on (the team) scoring points. Everyone was playing well. Dave
(Sobolewski, the point) was hitting shots. Drew (Crawford, the other forward)
was hitting shots. We got key contributions from everyone."
Later, after the
'Cats had finished off their 11-point win and Shurna had replaced Billy
McKinney as his school's career scoring leading, Gopher coach Tubby Smith was
asked if his players had felt the pressure surrounding this game that carried
huge implications for both teams. "I hope they felt the pressure," he fairly
spit out. "That's what the game's about, what sports is about. It's measuring
yourself against pressure. The great players, they want more pressure. The good
players, they want the challenge. They seek it. They embrace it. . . They (his
players) were told what the implications were and we didn't rise to the
Now, after his
dunk, John Shurna took all of the pressure surrounding this evening and simply
embraced it, coddled it, treated it like it was nothing more than his personal
plaything. It did not matter that both teams were playing with their NCAA tournament hopes very much on the line. Nor did it matter that the hot glare of
the klieg lights bore down on him as he sought the record. He was immune to all
that and to the frenzy in the stands, following his dunk with a three from up
top and then a driving layup. Next came another three, this one set up by a
pretty screen from Sobolewski, and finally, after his 12-footer in the lane
went in-and-out, he got an easy layup after a steal and assist by JerShon Cobb.
flurry, he had missed a 15-footer, a three and had a layup attempt blocked. But
here, in the final 3:42 of the half, he had gone five-of-six, scored all of his
team's dozen points and staked it to an eight-point lead as it headed to the
locker room. "That's a credit to my teammates, just knowing I had the hot hand
going for a little while there," he would (characteristically) say when asked
about this explosion. "They were finding me in areas to score. I think it's
just the flow of the game."
There were other
stories for the 'Cats on this evening as well and one of them was Sobolewski,
the freshman point whose scoring carried them early. He would finish with 22
points, would go six-of-10 overall and four-of-five on his threes, and would
commit just a single turnover in 35 minutes. "I was very impressed with how he
ran the offense, the way he shot it," Smith would say of him. "We were trying
to pressure him. But he's a very talented player and we had no answer for him."
great," echoed Shurna. "I think his role continues to grow each game and that's
huge for us. That's definitely what you want out of a freshman point guard.
He's poised, and able to take and make big shots for us. He's been huge for
Huge too, in a
less obvious way, was the sophomore Cobb, who coming off injuries got his first
extensive minutes (24) since Jan. 4. He missed the three shots he took, but was
a disruptive force atop the 'Cats 1-3-1 zone and picked up five steals. "He
gives us another guy out there who's long, who helps you defensively," Carmody
would say of him. "He had a few shots there, they were all right there. He
didn't pull the string on them or anything. I thought two of them were going
down. They didn't, but he gave us a nice lift there."
They got a lift
too from Crawford, who finished with 11, and an even bigger one from their
defense, which not only forced the Gophers into 21 turnovers. It also limited
them to just seven second-chance points even though they collected 17 offensive
rebounds. "We just couldn't finish around the basket," Smith would later say of
that second fact. "Seventeen offensive rebounds, you would think you would have
a bunch of scoring from those, but we're not very physical and we just didn't
make any shots. We had opportunities, but I thought they did a good job
defending us at the basket. They really challenged us and we didn't go through
them to the basket like we should have and draw the fouls. Then even when we
drew fouls, we didn't shoot them well (his team ended six-of-13 from the
"We had a tough
time attacking the 1-3-1," he said of the first fact. "The turnovers did us in,
but it was because of their defense. They gave us all kinds of problems. . . We
didn't really share the ball well. We didn't really move the ball well. We had
people dribbling, trying to create their own shots. But that's what that zone
will do to you."
The Gophs, down
13 with 12 minutes remaining, switched into their own zone, got a stop, a three-pointer and were now within
10. Patiently, on the perimeter, the 'Cats worked the ball and finally it found
its way to Shurna, who was up top and three steps outside the arc.
That morning he
had received a call from McKinney, the holder of the record he here pursued.
"It was a really good surprise," he would later relate. "He didn't have to do
that, so I think it shows what kind of person he is to go out of his way to
call me. It wasn't a long conversation. But he was really nice to me. He said
just go out there and have fun. He said go out there and win."
Now, before any
Gopher could close on him, Shurna rose and offered a three and it found only
net and the record was his with 10:48 remaining. "I thought I was open, so I
shot it and it went through. Just trying to help the team win," he would
laconically say of this historic moment, but the reaction that greeted it was
hardly as restrained. The fans rose, all of them, some waving his number,
others waving blowups of his face, and here a warm wave of adulation washed
over him, bathed him, warmed him, and then came the chant, "Shur-Na! Shur-Na!
crowd went nuts, which they should have," Sobolewski would later say, thinking
back to this moment. "So, definitely, that got us all pretty excited, and we
pushed through to the end."
The game now just
played out to the end, Minnesota never again getting any closer than eight, and
later all the chatter centered on John Shurna's record. But his work this
night, as it often does, included much more than just his scoring, and it
showed just why he is always described as the quintessential teammate. For
here, when it would have been easy for him to think only of points, he also had
a team-high five rebounds and a team-high five assists and a team-high three
blocks and a team-high (along with Cobb) four steals.
an honor," he himself would later say of the record he now holds and then, most
tellingly, he added this.
added: "But I think it was more important tonight that we defended home court
against a good Minnesota team."
you know Michelle Batts, you know that she's one of the most outgoing,
charismatic people you'll ever meet. She's the life of the party and thrives in
social situations; and on the field, her bat talks just as loudly as her
THE 'CATS, who next play in the comfort of home, are one of
four Big Ten team's with a 5-8 conference record. Minnesota, which visits
Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday, is another in that quintet, and that is why we
wondered if it was fair to call it a must-game for them and their hopes for an
NCAA Tournament bid. "Yeah, I think so. I think it is. It's a game we really
need to get," said their one forward, Drew Crawford. "Yeah, I think so," agreed
John Shurna, their other forward. "You could say every game is a must-game from
here on out. But especially going against a team we're tied with in conference.
Every game's a dog fight. But especially defending home court, this is important
for us.". . .
BUT THEIR COACH, Bill Carmody, would initially demur just a
bit when confronted with that question. "Well, you know, we have five games
left and to get to .500 (in conference), we have to win four of them," was what
he said here. "You've got to win four-out-of-five. Three-out-of-five, I still
think you're in the mix (for getting an NCAA bid). But four-out-of-five, I
think we'd solidify it. And it's a home game, so. I think it's an important
game certainly.". . .
THE GAME, then, is obviously the thing come Saturday night.
But also in the spotlight that evening will be the self-effacing Shurna, who
needs just 17 points to pass Billy McKinney as the 'Cats career scoring leader.
"People have e-mailed me about it, yeah," he said when asked if he was even
aware of his imminent ascension. "But to be honest, the only record that
matters at this point is wins and losses.". . .
THAT SENTIMENT, of course, reflected both his character and
personality, which have been on constant display in his team's locker room
through his long tenure as a 'Cat. "I know how Johnny feels about it. He just
wants to win," said Crawford, attesting to that fact. "That really just shows
what kind of teammate he is. He's a great guy, a great teammate, and he
honestly couldn't care less about the record. He really just wants to win and
achieve our goals this season. Being the leading scorer in school history is a
huge accomplishment. But what's really impressive is that it doesn't matter to
him. He just cares about the win column.". . .
BUT STILL that record looms, as inevitable as a new day, and
so we wondered if he might have trouble focusing on that win column with it so
very near. "I don't think so," said Shurna himself. "I'd like to say I've never
really focused on individual goals from the start, so it's not really a big
deal to me. If I don't score for the rest of the season and we win the rest of
the games, I'd be even more happy. I just want to go out there and win games.".
CARMODY, MINUTES LATER, would echo his star's feelings.
"Generally speaking, I'd say he doesn't like to be the center of attention. He
sort of deflects it a little bit.," he said here. "That's why he's such a
likable guy. So I don't think it will effect him once the game starts. But,
now, Minnesota did a good job on him last time. I'm sure that's in his head
more than his scoring record.". . .
MINNESOTA, IN FACT, did a good job on all the 'Cats when
they met up there in late January, eventually winning that game by 23. Shurna,
that night, did manage 21 points, but he missed 13 of his 21 field goal
attempts and received little help from those around him. "They jumped out on
us. I thought they really outplayed us, I really thought they outplayed us,"
Carmody said Friday, thinking back to that game. "In all aspects, we have to do
a better job. I don't think we were as prepared as I thought we were going in,
so I think everything. Offensively, defensively, backboards, everything. But it
seems like it was a long time ago. Right now we're playing pretty decently.". .
THAT IS especially true of Shurna himself, who over his
team's last five games is averaging 25.6 points while shooting 60.3 percent
overall and 46.7 percent on his three-point attempts. "I'm just trying to leave
it all out on the floor and trying to help the team win," he will say when
asked to explain this surge. "I think I'm playing similarly (to what he was
earlier in the season). I'm just trying to step up when the team needs me, and
just try and go out there and make plays.". . .
THAT STATEMENT, like those he made concerning the record,
was another reflection of his self-effacing nature. But clearly, throughout
this month of February, he has been heeding the advice of Carmody, who has long
urged him to assert himself, to take over, when the moment calls for just that.
"Yeah, he is. He's doing that. Now we've got to win," agreed the coach. "But
he's taken it upon himself to put points on the board, and I still think he's
doing a pretty good job overall rebounding, passing and doing stuff. But when
he sees the opportunity, he's going for it. He's a little more focused that
way.". . .
THIS FOCUS, in turn, has refuted those many who once
wondered if Shurna was just too nice, too self-effacing, to have that
assassin's heart that defines someone like Kobe Bryant. "Johnny definitely does
have a killer instinct like I said to you before," Crawford also said, adding
another bit of refutation. "It just looks different from other people's. He
just has fun while doing it, and the last few games he's been playing great.
That shows it's coming out toward the end of the season.". . .
THE END OF THE SEASON, especially with an NCAA bid on the
line, can obviously deliver a special sense of pressure. But, Carmody would
insist, "I don't see any tension. Nah. I don't see any tension. The guys, they
know what's ahead of them. You have five teams looking pretty good in
conference (for bids), then four teams 5-8 in conference. But right now, you
have five games left.". . .
WITH THE FIRST of those five on Saturday against Minnesota,
which is one of those 5-8 teams along with the 'Cats. So at last, to conclude,
Carmody will finally say, "Getting back to the question, 'Is it a must-game?'
Probably as close to it as you can say a game is."
last half-century, just three men have been able to claim the title of the
leading scorer in the history of the Northwestern men's basketball program.
Back in the
era when freshmen weren't eligible to compete on the varsity team, Jim Burns
surpassed Joe Ruklick late in his senior season of 1966-67. Burns completed his
three-year varsity career with 1,368 points in 70 games played. The total
out-distanced Ruklick's mark of 1,315 points which took him 66 games to amass
and Ruklick were prolific scorers prior to the advent of the 3-point line. The
pair scored in different ways as Ruklick was a 6-foot-9 center who did most of
his work in the post, while Burns was a 6-foot-4 guard. Ruklick earned
All-America honors as a junior in 1958, while Burns earned the accolade
following his senior year.
Each of them
averaged over 17 points per game in each of their three seasons in a
Northwestern uniform. To this day, Ruklick is still NU's career leader in
scoring average at an impressive norm of 19.9 points per game, just ahead of
Dale Kelly (1968-70) who averaged 19.8 points per contest. Burns ranks third in
Wildcat history with a career average of 19.5 points per game.
top single-game effort came in the final game of his junior year when on March
8, 1958 he posted a then-school-record 40 points, making 17 of 26 field goal
attempts in an 88-72 win over Illinois. Burns notched a personal-best 38 points
in the penultimate game of his junior year on March 5, 1966 in a 105-92 shootout
loss at Michigan. Ironically, though, he wasn't the game's high scorer as
Cazzie Russell set a Michigan record that still stands with 48 points in the
after Burns earned the top spot on NU's career scoring list, 6-foot guard and
Zion, Ill., native Billy McKinney made the mark his own. In the final home game
of his junior year during the 1975-76 season, McKinney tied Burns with 20
points against top-ranked Indiana. He would post the record-breaking points on
March 6 at Michigan when he netted the first basket of the game 33 seconds in
the contest, though the Wildcats would go on to drop a close 80-77 decision to
the 11th-ranked Wolverines.
would go on to tack on another 516 points as a senior during his four-year
career to comfortably be in first place. He got his revenge on the Wolverines
and his nemesis, All-American guard Rickey Green, on Jan. 29, 1977 when he
scored 29 points to lead the 'Cats to a 99-87 upset win over second-ranked
highest-scoring game of his career came during his sophomore campaign when he
posted 37 points Dec. 4, 1974 at No. 13 Notre Dame, connecting on 17 of 23
field goal attempts. However, just like Burns, he wasn't even the high scorer
in the contest as the Fighting Irish's Adrian Dantley posted 44 points in the
game, including 32 in the first half.
In the 35
years since McKinney completed his collegiate eligibility, no one seriously
threatened his mark. Only Evan Eschmeyer (1996-99) came within 100 points of
the record as he finished with 1,805 points with his 112 games played being 10
more than McKinney played in his prolific career.
us to the present.
stepped into the Northwestern starting lineup right away as a freshman during
the 2008-09 campaign. The Glen Ellyn native averaged a modest 7.3 points per
game in his first season. Though he only showed glimpses of the 3-point shooter
that he would become (he hit just 26 that year), it was a shot against Ohio
State on Feb. 18 that served as his highlight that season. In a tie game,
Shurna took a feed from Michael Thompson and launched a deep triple from the
right wing that found nothing but net with 3.3 seconds remaining to give
Northwestern a 72-69 victory.
game-winner would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. It didn't take
long to realize that Shurna would take his game to another level. After scoring
25 points in a semifinal win over No. 23 Notre Dame in the semifinal round of
the Chicago Invitational Challenge, Shurna scored 23 the following night
against previously unbeaten Iowa State to lead the Wildcats to the tournament
title. Due in large part to his efforts, NU started the season 10-1 and earned
its first Associated Press national
ranking in 41 years.
Big Ten foes
had little answer for Shurna as well as he topped 20 points in a conference
game eight times during the season while posting 19 on two other occasions.
Shurna led the Big Ten in total points scored in conference play, though the
league's scoring champion is considered the individual who boasts the top
scoring average. A 31-point effort in the Big Ten finale at Indiana left him
with an average of 20.111 points per game. Evan Turner of Ohio State, who
appeared in two fewer games, averaged 20.125 points to be considered the
conference's scoring champ, preventing Shurna from becoming the first NU player
to earn the title since Ray Ragelis in 1951. With merely one more point, Shurna
would have earned the accolade.
Shurna's 619 total points in 2009-10 bested the Northwestern single-season record
of 585 by Eschmeyer in 1997-98. For his efforts, Sporting News named Shurna the nation's Most Improved Player.
nonconference portion of his junior year, Shurna was playing as well as anyone
in the nation. He scored at least 20 points in eight of the team's first nine
games, including a 31-point effort in the season-opener at Northern Illinois in
which he scored 25 points in the second half. Shurna was closing in a
triple-double against Mount St. Mary's in the final game before the start of
Big Ten play Dec. 23 when he went down with a severe high ankle sprain. The
injury limited him throughout conference play, though he came close to
regaining form late in the season as three straight 20-point games late in the
season helped Northwestern advance to the NIT quarterfinal round as the
Wildcats recorded a school-record 20 wins for the second consecutive season.
healthy as a senior, Shurna has once again fully displayed his scoring prowess.
In just the second game of the year, he scored a career-high 37 points in a
comeback victory over LSU. Against Eastern Illinois, Shurna tied Craig Moore's
school record by knocking down nine 3-pointers en route to a 32-point game. As
recently as this past week, he tallied 30 points at Purdue - including 21 over
the final eight minutes of play - and followed it up with 29 at No. 18 Indiana.
heading into this Sunday's home game against Minnesota, Shurna sits just 16
points shy of McKinney's record that has spanned six U.S. presidencies.
to knowing how to put the ball in the basket, another common thread between
Ruklick, Burns and McKinney is the postgraduate success that they have each
gone on to enjoy.
member of the Northwestern Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984, Ruklick's brief
stint in the NBA was most made famous for the fact that he assisted on Wilt
Chamberlain's basket that gave him 100 points when the duo were teammates on
the Philadelphia Warriors. He then went on to work for the National Merit
Scholarship Corp., and has worked as a freelance journalist as well as for the Chicago Defender newspaper.
Burns had a
brief professional basketball career, playing for the Chicago Bulls as well as
the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA. He would earn his law degree from NU and
served as a U.S. Attorney and ran for both lieutenant governor of Illinois as
well as governor. He is currently the Illinois Secretary of State Inspector
McKinney, he has enjoyed a distinguished NBA career on a variety of levels. He
played seven seasons for Kansas City, Utah, Denver, San Diego and Chicago
before moving on to front office positions with Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit and
Seattle. He also served as an NBA broadcaster and is currently the Director of
Scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks. Every year since his graduation, Northwestern
has given the Billy McKinney Award to a graduating NU male senior student-athlete
in any sport based on leadership and constant effort.
Not a bad
lineage to follow if you're John Shurna.
ASSEMBLY HALL can be a hot house for any opponent, a hell hole for any visitor,
and that was just the harsh reality that was driven home earlier this season
when No. 1 Kentucky and then-No. 2 Ohio State both fell there to the Hoosiers.
Now, on Wednesday, the 'Cats must wander into that daunting den, yet thinking
of that only brought a smile to the face of forward John Shurna. "I think it's
a fun place to play," he would say Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, Indiana has
such a rich basketball history and their fans are passionate and they have a
great team this year. So it'll probably be even louder than it has been in
years past, which is fun. It's always exciting to play in an environment like
that.". . .
THAT KIND of
environment, in fact, is just the picture he drew up in the long ago, back when
he was a kid and visualizing himself on center stage bathed by the klieg
lights. "I just think, I feel when you imagined plays in your head and things
like that, you imagined a packed crowd, a packed house," he said, explaining
why he finds it fun to operate in a place like the Hoosiers' playpen. "When
it's for you, it's obviously great. When it's against you, I think that's fun
as well just because people are passionate about basketball and everyone's
coming to watch your game. You just want to go out there and help your team
win.". . .
ONE PLAYER who
has done little to help the 'Cats win this year is sophomore guard JerShon
Cobb, who has missed a dozen games due to injuries. The first was an
after-effect of his off-season hip surgery, and the second was a back issue
that arose in their game with Illinois back on Jan. 4. "When I used to run,
pain went down my leg," he would say on Tuesday, explaining the consequences of
the latter. "It's kind of like a disc thing, but I don't think it's as bad as a
disc. It's better now. Now it's just getting back in shape, getting in rhythm.
But the pain is gone.". . .
HE HAS, Cobb also
said, gone through full practices for two weeks now and is, when it comes to
his health, good to go. "Obviously, it's the coach's decision (when he gets
back into the rotation)," he then added. "But I'm ready to play whenever he's
ready to put me in. Hopefully, it's Indiana. If not, the next game.". . .
BUT EVEN NOW, he
finally said, he is not yet in game shape. "There is a little rust there
because of conditioning and catching the rhythm," he allowed. "The guys are in
a good offensive rhythm right now. So for me, it will be just coming in, moving
without the ball, not trying to take the most shots and things like that. Just contribute
to their rhythm.". . .
THAT RHYTHM, in
fact, was evident even during the 'Cats
Sunday loss to defensive-minded Purdue, whom they hit with 77 points. "Our
offense is flowing really nicely," noted point Dave Sobolewski. "We're really
enjoying ourselves on the court and playing really unselfishly, moving the
ball, hitting open shots. We've been playing a little looser in the last few
games, which is really good for us." To which the forward Drew Crawford added,
"We are playing a little looser now because we're playing well. When you string
together a few games where you play well offensively, it opens things up and
you feel comfortable with your offense and with the shots you're taking. But
that's one thing that you have to work on to do every game. You can't be
uptight playing basketball.". . .
THAT RHYTHM and
its effect were two reasons there were no dour visages as the 'Cats refined
their preparations for the Hoosiers. The
third reason for that, explained Sobolewski, was "We've still won three of our
last four, and obviously that's always going to be good in the Big Ten to win
three of your four games. So, nah. Nobody's down about the loss. We're ready to
move forward and ready for the stretch ahead of us. We're excited for the
opportunity.". . .
BUT THE 'CATS, to
make the most of that opportunity, must certainly belly up on defense against
the Hoosiers, who lead the Big Ten in scoring while averaging nearly 80 points
per game. "We have to stop them in transition," said Shurna, providing a
mini-scouting report. "They like to fly the ball up the court, they have a lot
of talented players, they have a big man who runs, and coach mentioned they're
the best three-point shooting team in the conference. Obviously they have a lot
of different ways they can score, so limiting them in transition's going to be
big for us. It's going to be important to make them take contested shots, not
give them any easy looks. Especially at home, it's important we have a
defensive presence early on.". . .
ASSEMBLY HALL, where the Hoosiers have lost just once this season (to
Minnesota), that is both an imperative and a daunting task. But again, noted
Shurna, "It's February in the Big Ten, everyone wants to win, it's going to be
fun. It's competitive. That's the way we like it." To which Crawford finally
added, "It definitely is fun. It's always fun anytime there's an enthusiastic
crowd. Sometimes it is fun having 10,000 people cheering against you,
especially when you can win. It's a game with high stakes, so we're excited
Hey Wildcat Nation!
First and foremost, I want to apologize for my lack of recent bloggage. It's been a hectic time as we've been in the process of closing out our regular season. In addition, it didn't help that my laptop had a showdown with the pavement of Sheridan Rd. (pavement won, unfortunately). But as my coaches have always taught me- "no excuses, just results" and luckily, I have plentyyyyyy of results to share with everyone as well!
Our regular season dual meets closed out with the 'Cats finally getting to stay a little closer to home. First, we traveled to the always-lovely town of South Bend, Indiana to compete in the Notre Dame Duals. The day began on a high note and stayed that way, as we worked our way through 8 straight wins over teams such as Lawrence, Florida, Iowa, and Wayne State. It was then time for the match-up of the day: Northwestern vs. the defending national champions- Notre Dame.
Due to the recent addition of NCAA fencing to ESPN broadcasting, it was decided that the match would be filmed as a promotional segment for March's NCAA National Championships. With one of the biggest crowds we've ever fenced for in attendance, we took on the Irish one squad at a time. The Sabre squad fell to the Irish with a score of 1-8, but the Foil squad brought back momentum by defeating their top-ranked foil squad with a score of 5-4. Epée fought hard next, but ultimately a 4-5 loss gave the Irish an overall 17-10 win.
Some great video footage of each squad's match can be seen on the Notre Dame Athletics website here
The last couple of weekends we've enjoyed the luxury of back-to-back home meets- a great feeling after five consecutive weeks on the road. Being able to fence on campus and in front of our friends and family is always an awesome experience. The installments of the NU Duals didn't disappoint- a 15-2 finish for the 'Cats, Coach Laurie picking up his 1,100th win in the process, and of course our traditional Senior Recognition ceremony. So much excitement just reminded again me how truly special it is be a part of this team. Congratulations to Coach, and special thank you to everyone that came out to support us!
We've officially wrapped up the regular season, and are looking forward to two weekends of fun competition before the chaos of postseason action picks up in March. I know this team has great things in store for Conference Championships, Regionals, and NCAA Nationals- thank you for following along!
P.S.- To Juice Thompson, if you're reading this right now- our girl Tina Umanskiy wants to know if you'd like to be her Valentine this year....? Thanks!
Sobolewski got the first 'Cat basket in their Thursday night meeting with Iowa
at Welsh-Ryan. It was a three from the right wing and came with just over two
minutes gone. John Shurna got the second, another three, 63 seconds later, and
then it was the turn of Drew Crawford, who converted a fast break layup off a
Hawkeye turnover. Next up was Reggie Hearn, who went up then under Roy Devyn
Marble before spinning in a reverse layup, and finally came Alex Marcotullio,
who got his own fast break layup off another Iowa turnover. All this took place
in the game's first 7:30 and augured the 'Cat approach to this evening, which
ended with each in that starting quintet in double figures. "As you guys know,"
Marcotullio would later say, "teams have been keying on John and Drew all year.
So it's just time for other players to step up.". . .
REGGIE HEARN, two
days before this evening, recalled their preparation for their previous game,
their upset victory at Illinois last Sunday. It included the observation that
the Illini would indeed be concentrating their defense on Shurna and Crawford,
so he and Sobolewski and Marcotullio would have their shots. "Before every
game, you have to weigh your options," Marcotullio said Thursday when asked if
there had been a similar observation before they met the Hawkeyes. "Like I said
before, Drew and John are getting keyed on every game. They're at the top of
the other team's scouting reports. So I guess it was said that we could step up
and hit some shots.". . .
SHURNA HIT enough
shots to put up 17 points and Crawford did the same while scoring 11. But both
those totals were below their season averages, so the key here was their
supporting cast (to dust off a phrase popular back when the Bulls were Michael
Jordan and Scottie Pippen and three other guys). Marcotullio, averaging 4.4,
finished with 13 while going four-of-eight overall and three-of-seven on his
threes. Hearn, averaging 6.8, finished with 16 while going five-of-eight
overall and three-of-five on his threes. And Sobolewski, averaging 8.4,
finished with a team-high 23 while going seven-of-eight overall and
three-of-three on his threes. "Just a nice team victory, I thought. A lot of
guys did some nice things out there," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later purred. . .
especially true of Sobolewski, the fresh-faced freshman who dropped 20 on Penn
State back on Jan. 1 in just his second Big Ten game. But then he faded,
faltered and floundered, finally reaching the nadir at Minnesota just short of
three weeks ago when he missed all five of his shots and failed to score a
point. He only reclaimed his mellow nine days ago while scoring 15 against
Nebraska, and then he followed that with 14 at Illinois and these 23 against
the Hawkeyes. "I don't know," he would say when asked the reason for his
resurrection. "I think a little bit of it is being more aggressive, a little
bit is the other teams focusing on John and Drew. Juice (Thompson, the former
'Cat point whom he talks to often) and I have been joking about people saying I
hit a wall (since he plays so many minutes). You use that kind of stuff for
motivation.". . .
CARMODY, who has the fine eye of a jeweler, saw something else as his young
point struggled. "I think he was getting too serious, he was getting a little
tight," he explained. So did he tell him to relax, to just play ball? "No, because
I don't think he'd fall for it. He's a pretty sharp kid, so let it go, let him
work it out himself. But, you know, you coach him hard because he is a
freshman. You can coach him hard and he snarls at you every once in awhile and
all that. But in a good way. He's a competitor and he listens. We're talking
all the time about what do you think we should be calling now. On offense what
should we be doing? If you see what they're trying to do, how do we stop it?
He's got a good basketball mind.". . .
THE MINDSET of
all the 'Cats was acute against the Hawkeyes, who this season had already
beaten Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota (twice). "Basically, it was just,
not take quick shots, but push the ball. If you have good looks, take them, but
if you don't have something you really feel good about, run the offense,"
Carmody would say of their offensive approach in this game, and the 'Cats did
just that. They pushed quick enough to get 13 fast break points, but also ran
their offense well enough to shoot 56.3 percent overall and 52 percent on their
threes. Their 1-3-1 zone, on the other end, often flummoxed the Hawkeyes, who
in its face committed 18 turnovers that led to 20 more 'Cat points. "They had
some turnovers there, yeah," said Carmody. "But more importantly, I just
thought they felt a little uncomfortable against it.". . .
HIS TEAM'S lead,
less than two minutes into the second half, was a still-uncomfortable nine, but
if there was a pivot on which this game turned, it popped up here. It popped up
when, on a single 'Cat possession and in the space of just 48 seconds, Iowa
picked up its third, fourth, fifth and sixth team fouls of the half. "That was
a big impact. It's tough. You guard a lot of stuff," Hawkeye coach Fran
McCaffery later said, but now they could not guard it too aggressively since
their next foul would send the 'Cats to the line. "I don't think they backed
off at all. At halftime, their coach was harping on picking up defensive
pressure," Sobolewski would first say when asked about that. But then, after a
breath, he would add, "We got them to commit some early fouls and, yeah, maybe
they did back off a little bit. They were in the bonus real quick. Knowing
that, you can't really pressure the same. So, yeah, that was really good for
us.". . .
THE 'CATS, in
fact, were shooting the bonus with a yawning 16:39 remaining in the game and,
on their next two possessions, got a back-door dunk from Crawford and a layup
by Shurna. Now the Hawkeyes switched to a zone, not the preferred defense for a
team trying to force the action and rally, and here the 'Cats not only built a
nine-point lead up to 15 over the next seven minutes. They also played
bleed-the-clock. "Once they got into the zone," explained Sobolewski, "we
wanted to work at least 20 seconds off of the shot clock. In the zone, they
don't pressure as much. Yeah, we did a really good job once they went back in
the zone. We moved the ball really well and got a lot of good, open shots.". .
SHOTS would build the 'Cat lead to as much as 24, would produce a 'Cat win by a
comfortable 19, would finally send the 'Cats soaring off on a mini jaunt that
lands them at Purdue on Sunday and at Indiana on Wednesday. "I think we've
played decently the whole year, to tell you the truth," Carmody would then say
when asked about his team's three-game winning streak. "Now we've had some
rough games on the road and we've lost some real heartbreakers. But I think
it's a good team. Now we have to go play two games on the road, so we'll see.
We've lost two games at home and won one game on the road, at Illinois. Now
we've got to get back that other home loss. You win your home games and steal a
couple on the road, that's what you have to do. Fred Hill, the assistant coach,
after the Illinois game, he had on the blackboard, 1-0. It's the start of the
second half (of the Big Ten schedule) here, and now it's 2-0. So we just have
to go on a little run here."
I could've somehow frozen that moment in between fly balls, I would've. That
moment when I stood in centerfield and gazed around at the rest of my teammates
scattered throughout the field in front of me. That moment when I could turn my
head and see smiling fans to my right and smiling fans to my left, dozens
decked out in purple and wearing the same logo across their chest as was across
JOHN SHURNA and
Drew Crawford are their studs. But, as the 'Cats prepared for last Sunday's
visit to Illinois, their concentration was elsewhere. "The coaches (then)
talked about how guys like me and Sobo (point Dave Sobolewski) had to be ready
to shoot," remembers the junior guard Reggie Hearn. "With Johnny and Drew being
the first and fourth leading scorers in the Big Ten, they're probably going to
focus on them. So I knew going in, I'd probably have a few open shots.". . .
delivered by the coaches not outlined the Xs and Os of a game plan. It also
buoyed Hearn, who just two seasons ago was a little-used and lesser-known
walk-on. "I think it really helped me," he says. "I think that's the kind of
player I've always been. When I know a coach has confidence in me, I have a lot
more confidence in myself and that really helps out on the floor.". . .
REGGIE HEARN, at
that game's start, did indeed find himself open. "But as open as I was," he
remembers, "I did not expect to be that open. I'm just glad I was able to knock
them down.". . .
HE KNOCKED his
first three-pointer at 15:28 and his second, at 14 minutes even. He knocked
down his third at 12:10, his fourth just 50 seconds before halftime, and ended
that half six-of-six overall and four-of-four on his threes and leading his
team with 16 points. "Three of the four I was pretty positive as soon as I let
it go," he recalls. "One of them, I was, 'All right, cool. I guess I'm feeling
it.' So, yeah. For the most part, I was feeling good.". . .
arrives when an athlete finds himself in that place we call the zone and then,
often, he will describe how time now seems to slow down and the basket looks as
big as an ocean. "I don't know if I could say anything like that," Hearn
himself will say of his time in that zone. "All I can say is it felt really
good. I wasn't really thinking about it. As soon as I caught it, if I was open,
I was going up in one, smooth motion, which is the way it should always be. I
was just really feeling good about my stroke. I was feeling good about
myself.". . .
THIS WAS far
different from the way he often felt during his first two seasons, which were
mottled by those practices when he (by his own admission) did not labor
full-bodied or at all well. "Some of the days were frustration, not being able
to play, feeling that I didn't have a chance," he will say, looking back on
them. "Some days had to do with maybe not feeling well physically. Some days it
was just mentally, school, things going on in my head, knowing that when I was
done I had to go home and was going to be up all night writing a paper, things
like that. It was just a combination of things that I think pretty much all the
guys go through, not just here, but all around the nation. It's about trying to
have a mindset that when you come here and step on the floor, it's an outlet
for all the other things going on. I think I've progressively gotten better at
that and now try to give it my all each and every practice.". . .
IT NEVER did get
so bad that he hated the thought of coming to practice. "I wouldn't say I
dreaded it," he goes on. "I think I thought of it as an outlet somewhat,
especially scout team. I enjoyed playing scout team a lot, being able to be
some of the best guys in the Big Ten at that point. (Demetri) McCamey for
Illinois or E'Twaun Moore for Purdue. Those were really fun times for me. But I
admit there were times where it was frustrating when the scout team was playing
defense for a half-hour, an hour in practice when the starters were working on
offense. But, you know, that's part of the gig. That's part of what comes with
playing basketball.". . .
NOR DID it get so
bad that he thought of quitting the game all together. "No, no, no. I never got
to that point," he concludes. "There were times before I got here when I
thought, 'Do I want to pursue basketball in college?' But since then, there's
never been a sense of quitting. There's been times, going through droughts,
where you're just not feeling the passion for the game. But all that
accumulated and led up to the point where I am now, where I'm really enjoying
the game and feeling the passion for it.". . .
BUT THAT memory
of Reggie Hearn not giving his all, that old snapshot of Reggie Hearn beaten
down and frustrated, those realities do stand in stark contrast to Reggie Hearn
at Fort Wayne's Snider High School, which he not only led his team to its first
ever state championship game appearance. It is also where, as a senior, he was
the IHSAA's Mental Attitude Award Winner, a winner acclaimed for his mental
attitude, his scholarship, his leadership and his athletic ability. "Well. I
think playing here in college was a lot tougher than in high school, especially
not being able to play the first couple years," he will say when the dichotomy
of those images is pointed out to him. "But I think you're right. It definitely
took a toll on that attitude I supposedly had in high school. But. You know.".
HE SIGHS, then
thinks for a moment and now, finally, says, "I think that's what it's all about
sometimes. You've just got to get through the hard times. . .(and) I think the
first couple of years really tested me. But I, I don't want to make it sound
like there were times when I was going to quit or was being negative or wasn't
being part of the team and wasn't filling my role. I think in saying there were
times I was frustrated and things like that, I was just trying to describe the
usual ups-and-downs I think pretty much every player has.". . .
BUT NOT many
players have the experiences that then festooned Reggie Hearn, who back home
coached at the YMCA and tutored elementary school students and taught Sunday
school classes at his church and was involved in Youth Leadership of Fort
Wayne. Often, as he struggled through those first two years, he would look back
on those involvements and remember. "Definitely," he says. "Some of those
things, the Y ball coach, the leadership, even Sunday school leader in my
church, I was sitting there, I was tutoring these kids on things like working
hard and working through things, then here I was myself kind of struggling with
that. So I kind of remembered that I was trying to teach those principles to
the kids, and I was in essence reminding myself of those things. I was like,
'You're teaching these kids you have to work hard and stick to things and get
through ups-and-downs. Well, you need to do that yourself. Practice what you
preach.'". . .
ultimately did just that, he practiced what he preached, and last Sunday in
Champaign he missed just one of the eight shots he took and finished with a
career-high 20 points and was an important player in the 'Cats upset of the
Illini. Now, as they prepare to host Iowa on Thursday, he is a walk-on no
longer. He is a starter and an integral part of that puzzle that is any team.
Still, says he, this does not mean he now feels any more part of the whole than
he once did. "There really hasn't been that much of a change," he says instead.
"A lot of the guys here, coaches included, everybody's pretty inclusive. It was
more about me getting in the right mindset and continuing to work hard.". . .
BUT, IN REALITY,
there has been a change. For now, to conclude, Reggie Hearn will offer up a big
grin and finally say, "It's always more fun when you play. Definitely."
A couple quick
notes: (1) Often, during his four years, 'Cat coach Bill Carmody has pushed
John Shurna to be selfish, to demand the ball, to realize that he is his team's
best weapon and to not be afraid to take over. That is just what he did in the
second half against the Illini, though (true to his nature) he still has
trouble owning up to that fact. "Kind of," he would say when we asked if that
happened. "But, you know, I got subbed out real quick, then came back in and
just kind of thought we were struggling to find a basket. Fortunately, I was
open and my teammates found me in spots to score." But, we asked, it's not
conscious on your part? "I realize now it's February and this is it," he said
here. "So just lay it all out there."
And (2) there is,
as we've noted before, this reality in any sport: When a team wins a number of
close games and finds itself in another, it collectively wonders just how are
they going to pull this one out. But when it loses a number of close games and
finds itself in another, it can collectively wonder about how they are going to
blow this one. So, after the 'Cats dropped three close ones, we wondered how
they skirted that trap to topple the Illini by four. "I think a lot of that, I
was actually thinking about this during the game, kind of toward the end of the
Illinois game," answered Drew Crawford. "Instead of thinking about ways to keep
yourself from losing, you've got to think about ways to win and really know
you're a capable team, you're capable of making plays down the stretch. That's
what's expected of you and that's what you should do. That's the mindset we
have to have, find ways to win the game and not ways not to lose it."
Were the 'Cats,
we asked, playing not to lose in those earlier games?
"Ah, maybe a
little bit, a little bit. We were struggling to make those plays down the
stretch, and on Sunday we were able to do that. That's huge for us. Being able
to close out games is big, and that's the right mindset to have. Think about
ways to win the game."
Most games are
mottled with surges and lulls, with interludes of brilliance and interludes of
drought, with displays of proficiency and displays of virtual paralysis. So it
was Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats rushed to a 15-point
halftime lead over Nebraska and then frittered most all of that lead away.
They frittered it
away first at the second half's start, which opened this way. Drew Crawford
missing a running baby-hook and Reggie Hearn missing a put back, and a Husker
layup. Hearn going one-of-two from the line, and another Husker layup. Alex
Marcotullio missing a three, and a Husker three. Crawford missing an 18-footer,
a 'Cat stop, Crawford missing a layup and Hearn missing a three, and a pair of
Husker free throws. Dave Sobolewski missing a three, and a Husker three.
Now, less than
four minutes into that second half, the 'Cats were up only four and confronting
their first crucible of the evening. They didn't blink, here forcing a turnover
and getting a three from Crawford and eventually building their lead back up to
eight. But then, once again, the Huskers responded, and when the clocked ticked
just below 11, their guard Brandon Richardson tipped away a pass John Shurna
sent toward Crawford, collected it on the run and drove coast-to-coast for the
layup that pulled them to within one.
now confronted the 'Cats and this one looked even more dire than the first.
The three was the
thing through this one's first 20 minutes and during them the 'Cats responded
to their fans' shirts, those shirts that demand they "Make Shots." Hearn, from
the right wing, hit the first one just 35 seconds into the game and then
Marcotullio, a mere 43 seconds later, hit another that set the tone on how it
would now go.
The 'Cats, in
fact, would take 11 of their first 12 shots from out deep, and never would they
stop that sniping from afar, ending this opening half 10-of-21 from beyond the
arc. Shurna was three-of-five from that range and Crawford, two-of-three. Hearn
was 1-of-2 from that range and Sobolewski (on five attempts) and Marcotullio
(on six) each had a pair from there as well. "We knew they would play off guys
on the weak side and sort of challenge Sobo and a few other guys to shoot the
ball," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody said later when asked if he would have preferred
a more balanced approach.
sometimes we were shooting a little too quickly, but when you get an open
20-footer at this level, you've got to make it. Which we did, so. That's what
was there. If you drove, you had to throw it out to a guy. That's what you were
going to get. You want to get what you want. But sometimes you've got to take
what they give you."
handoff and a ball screen, bottom line, and we're going to chase it," said
Husker coach Doc Sadler when asked about his team's vulnerability to the three.
"We wanted to chase them. But we went underneath it, they stop, they shot it,
they made 10 threes in the first half. It is what it is. You've got to make
teams like that, in my opinion, they're averaging seven threes a game, we give
'em 14 (on the night). So. You know. On top of that, 50 percent (shooting on
"I don't know
that they got a backdoor layup, did they? (The 'Cats did not.) The backdoor to
Northwestern is like a dunk to other people, and I thought we did a great job
from the backside, coming in there and taking away the lane. So we took that
away. But you ought to be able to take both of them away, and it was in the
ball screen that we messed up on and we never got it corrected for 40 minutes.
We did not guard the ball screens correctly, so give them credit. They
definitely attacked it."
But now, with
just under 11 minutes remaining, it was his own Husker team that was on the
attack and the 'Cats who were searching out a response. They, of course, had
often found themselves in similar situations in the weeks just passed, had
found themselves confronted by crucibles at home against Illinois and on the
road at Michigan and again at home against Purdue. Each time they had failed to
pass their test, falling by one to the Illini and by two in overtime to the
Wolverines and by two to the Boilermakers, and so here they were facing not only
a momentum-fueled foe. They also were facing a harsh reality of sport.
simply put, is this. When a team consistently wins close games, when it is
familiar with consistent success, its mindset at moments like these centers on
wondering just how it is going to pull out a victory this time. But when a team
consistently loses close games, when it is familiar with consistently coming up
just short, that mindset is less annealed and oft wonders just how it is going
to screw it up here.
That was the
other danger now threatening the 'Cats, but here they ignored their nightmares
past, bowed their spines and retaliated. First there was Shurna, on a play
designed to get him to the basket, finding his way blocked and kicking out to
Crawford, who calmly dropped a three from up top. Then there was Davide
Curletti, an energizer all night who also ended with eight assists, creating a
turnover that resulted in a three offered by Sobolewski, who missed. But
Shurna, even with his jersey clutched by Husker Brandon Ubel, put in a tip, got
the call and completed the three-point play. "I was just trying to be
aggressive, trying to get rebounds," he later said of this moment.
"There was an
aggressiveness there that I liked," said Carmody. "I just saw that hand go up
and tip it in. A lot of times you tip those things and you don't get them. But
that was a big play. That was nice to see."
Nice too for the
'Cats was the defensive stop that followed, and now Hearn dropped a three that
put them up 10 just 85 seconds after their lead had dwindled to one. "It's a
good sign, guys coming through when they have to," Carmody would later say when
looking back on those seconds. "Maybe you come out (with a big halftime lead)
feeling, 'We'll just get through this.' A normal human element comes into play.
So it was real nice, and it was three different guys who scored. It was nice
"I think it
really showed we were able to handle adversity," said Crawford. "Basketball is
always a game of runs. Teams are going to maker their runs when they're down.
So I think it was good. They made a great run, they were knocking down shots,
and we were able to stay composed and get through it."
after some late (and uncharacteristic) turnovers by Sobolewski and Crawford,
would claw back to within three at 1:33. But now, after those nine quick
points, this game belonged to the 'Cats, who salted it away by making seven of
10 free in the final 51 seconds. (On the night, they would go 24 of 29 from the
line.) Shurna would end with 28 points and Crawford with 21, but they also got
15 from Sobolewski and nine from Hearn and seven from Marcotullio and four from
Curletti along with those eight assists. ("The other guys beside the two main
dudes, what'd they get?" Husker coach Sadler later wondered, then he took a
look at a stat sheet. "Seven threes. That's 21 points.)
"It's good to get
a win," Carmody would say, his sense of relief palpable. "So little separates
wins from losses, certainly the last few weeks with us, actually the whole
conference. It's just incredible. So it's really nice to get the win. . .(and)
now you have to move on. You win, you move on. You lose, you move on. So. Just
"It felt really
good to get this win especially considering we've had tough games this season
when we weren't able to close out the game," Crawford finally said. "So I think
it was really important for us to show ourselves we can close out games like
this and come out with a victory. Hopefully, this will get us on a roll."
* This Wednesday is a day of hope, a day of optimism, a day of superlatives and hyperbole, of exaggerated expectations and prodigal promises. It is, officially, football's National Letter of Intent signing day, that day when every recruit is a human highlight film capable of turning some lucky program around. That, in any case, is how it appears on the blogosphere and over the airwaves of hyperventilating TV networks. But, in reality, it is merely this: