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."