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    Purple Pride Abounds in Jacksonville

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    WATCH: Postcard from Jacksonville #6 | Gator Bowl Press Conference (Free)

    On the eve of a New Year and of the 2013 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Northwestern and its tremendous fan base enjoyed a busy day in Jacksonville.


    * Monday morning presented the Wildcats with their first opportunity to step inside the site of their Gator Bowl competition and the home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, EverBank Field. The north end zone in the 67,164-seat stadium already was filled with Northwestern purple, complete with the distinctive 'Northwestern stripe' featured in both Ryan Field end zones.

    NU donned their home purple jerseys and filed into the stands for a team picture, an annual tradition at each bowl destination. In what might be considered a break from tradition, however, the 'Cats announced Monday that they will sport special matte black helmets when they take the field tomorrow, similar to those worn twice during the regular season but with a new twist:


    * Following the quick trip to the stadium, most Wildcats returned to the hotel while seniors Brian Mulroe, Brian Arnfelt and David Nwabuisi joined head coach Pat Fitzgerald for the final Gator Bowl press conference. The quartet fielded questions from Chicago, Mississippi State and Jacksonville media, reflecting on their season, experiences this week and the significance of a potential win on New Year's Day.


    * The last public item on the agenda for the squad was the Coaches Luncheon at Jacksonville's Prime Osborn Convention Center, a chance to bring together both teams and their supporters to celebrate their seasons and selections to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Northwestern's standout left tackle and two-time first-team Capital One Academic All-American Patrick Ward was honored by the bowl as a Scholar-Athlete Award recipient, while former Gator Bowl participants and longtime contributors to the sport of football Don Orr (referee) and Corky Rogers (high school football coaching legend) were inducted into the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame.

    As he has been known to do, Coach Fitzgerald fired up the crowd with his address to the group, giving special recognition to the wives of the Northwestern coaching staff for all they do to support the success of their husbands and the program at large.


    * As temperatures climbed into the upper 60's under sunny Jacksonville skies, Northwestern fans took to the streets in droves to watch the Gator Bowl parade. The route began at EverBank Field and covered the nearly three miles to the popular Jacksonville Landing location. The Northwestern University Marching Band made its first appearance of the week and rallied the NU faithful.

    Check back later today for more photos and tweets as well as a recap of the upcoming pep rally at Jacksonville Landing! Go 'Cats!

    Wildcats Take Timeout For a Good Cause

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    Two days before its TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl showdown against Mississippi State, several members of the Northwestern football team and spirit squad made time to make a difference in the Jacksonville community.

    Following a morning practice, the Wildcats and their counterparts from Starkville paid a visit to the Wolfson Children's Hospital in downtown Jacksonville to bring some excitement and holiday cheer to young people enduring a difficult time. It was obvious by the end of the 90-minute visit that both the 'Cats and the patients at Wolfson were greatly affected by their positive interactions.

    Representing the Wildcats were: WR Drew Moulton, SB Evan Watkins, LB Roderick Goodlow, OL Shane Mertz, P/PK Matt Micucci and DL Ifeadi Odenigbo.

     

    In each room, the Wildcats and spirit squad members managed to find a connection with the youngsters, chatting with them about their favorite sports and teams they root for, video games they play, foods they like to eat and other activities that make them smile. And of course, sometimes there is little need for conversation when a young person is taking in the presence of an imposing 6-foot-8 offensive lineman for the first time.

    * New Year's Eve Day will be a busy one for the Wildcats and Northwestern fans alike, with a slew of items on the agenda from morning till night. To kick it off, the entire team will head to EverBank Field for the first time in order to snap a team photo in the venue, home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. After that, Pat Fitzgerald and his team captains meet the media for the final time before kickoff and then join the rest of the team at the Coaches Luncheon and Gator Bowl Hall of Fame induction.

    The afternoon slate features a lengthy parade featuring marching bands and spirit squad members from both schools as well as a Northwestern-only pep rally at the Jacksonville Landing. While many in the city and around the world will be staying up late to ring in the New Year, the Wildcats will be enduring their usual "Friday" routine of meetings, movies and final pre-game preparations.

    BLOG: 'Cats Cut Loose at Latitude 30

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    Latitude 30 Photo Gallery

    WATCH:Postcard from Jacksonville 12/27 | D. Nwabuisi Post-practice Interview | Q. Williams Post-practice Interview

    Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern teams have gained a reputation for putting on a good show in each of their postseason bowl game destinations and, after Thursday night in Jacksonville, that reputation may soon extend to the pre-game festivities as much as to what goes on between the white lines.

    The Wildcats took advantage of the hospitality offered by Latitude 30, an entertainment complex in Jacksonville offering bowling, arcade games, food and, as the 'Cats found out, a karaoke stage. After a quick meal, the Wildcats grabbed the mike and didn't let go for the duration of their two-hour stay at the facility, offering impressive renditions of everything from Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" to Justin Timberlake's "Gone" to Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" and even some "Sexual Healing" as performed by running back Tyris Jones. After building a strong audience at Latitude 30 over the course of the 15-plus songs they performed, the 'Cats finished strong by showing off their dance moves to "Put a Ring On It" and "Gangnam Style" before leaving the stage to a standing ovation.

    Check out the accompanying video and photo gallery (yes, visual evidence!) to get a taste of what the Wildcats brought to Jacksonville Thursday night.

    Also, special shoutout to senior defensive lineman Bo Cisek, who went where no Northwestern student-athlete has gone before by live-tweeting the event from @NU_Sports, the official Twitter handle of the Northwestern Athletics department. Bo did a great job capturing the energy of the evening. If you enjoyed his witticisms, give him a follow on his personal account, @DaDoze55.

    * Friday Practice Notes

    * Northwestern staged its second practice on site at Jacksonville University Friday, going full pads for the final time before next Tuesday's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Mississippi State.

    * In attendance Friday was former Northwestern men's tennis great and World No. 4-ranked, Todd Martin. A native of Hinsdale, Ill., Martin reached the finals of the 1994 Australian Open as well as the 1999 U.S. Open and now resides in Florida.

    * Following practice, the entire Northwestern squad made the short trip to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, enjoying a beach picnic, volleyball and bags competitions, and a chance to rest under the sunny Florida skies. Temperatures today crept into the upper 60's -- a welcome setting considering the Northwestern campus in Evanston received its first significant snowfall of the winter over the last few days. Can't wait for all the Wildcats faithful to join the fun in sunny Jacksonville!

    The Gator Bowl, Local Perspective

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    WATCH: Postcard from Jacksonville Dec. 27

    Coach Fitz Post-practice Interview | K. Colter Post-practice Interview


    Our football team just wrapped up its first Bowl Week practice session down in Jacksonville and we have officially been on the ground in Gator Bowl country for more than 24 hours. So far the committee and our hosts have been tremendously welcoming and we've picked up a few bits of knowledge that we'd like to pass along to you in this blog!

    If you don't follow us on Twitter (@NU_Sports), do so! Tonight, we will be turning over the handle to one of our student-athletes as the team visits Latitude 30, which features activities like bowling, billiards and arcade games. Should be a fun night for the team!

    The B1GCats Have Arrived in Jacksonville!

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    Northwestern Football's official travel party left Evanston early Wednesday morning, Dec. 26, to travel to Jacksonville, Fla., for the official start of Gator Bowl Week. In each of the days leading up to the New Year's Day Gator Bowl, we'll have blogs in this space updating you on all of the activities our team and staff are enjoying.

    In addition, check out our new Gator Bowl Facebook Tab, now available on our page at Facebook.com/NorthwesternAthletics. In this tab, we will have an updated video from each day down in Jacksonville as well as a regularly updated "Photo of the Day" and the ability to read our most recent Gator Bowl blog entry. Keep up with the #B1GCats conversation on Twitter from Facebook, as well, with an embedded #B1GCats twitter feed.

    The Morning After - Brown

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Northwestern's 63-42 victory over Brown on Sunday to close out the Wildcats' nonconference portion of their schedule.

    FIRST, AN UPDATE: Senior guard Reggie Hearn, the 'Cats leading scorer who twisted his ankle during their Friday night loss to Stanford, sat out their Sunday win over Brown. "But I'm sure he'll be back. Friday, we'll be back for practice and they seem to think he'll be OK," Bill Carmody said after that 21-point victory.

     

    COLOR THEM RUST, NOT BROWN: The Bears were coming off exams and playing their first game in 15 days. "That's not easy. You've got to acknowledge that," said Carmody, but it certainly made the 'Cats task easier. They hit five-or-their-first six three-point attempts as their opponents reoriented themselves to competition, and led 15-0 with just over four minutes gone. From here that lead would never be less than eight and would once swell to as much as 33.

     

    THE STOPPER: Brown guard Matt Sullivan, a Loyola Academy grad, entered this affair averaging 15.7 points-per-game, the best in the Ivy League. But at Welsh-Ryan he could never escape 'Cat forward Jared Swopshire, who attended him as ardently as a mom does her new-born babe. Sullivan, as a result, missed his first six shots; got his only basket of the day on a back-door layup at 8:22 of the second half; and then fouled out with just those two points a little over a minute later.

     

    Swopshire's work here represented the work of the entire 'Cat defense, which held Brown to just 30.6 percent shooting overall, to 28.6 percent shooting on its threes and to 21.5 points below its season average. "I thought, overall, our defense was pretty good," Carmody later said. "It seemed every 10 minutes they got 10 points. You win a lot of games if you do that."

     

    REASON TO BELIEVE: The 'Cat offense, this season, has occasionally sputtered and appeared out-of-sorts. But Sunday, even without Hearn and (of course) Drew Crawford, it often hummed, which is why it ended with 48.9 percent shooting overall, with 54.2 percent shooting on threes, and with 21 assists on 23 field goals. It produced only one double-figure scorer, point Dave Sobolewski, who ended with 14. But, not insignificantly,  Tre Demps and Kale Abrahamson and Alex Marcotullio each finished with nine, and Swopshire and Alex Olah each finished with eight. "I thought we ran through our stuff nicely and our shots went in, our shots went in," Carmody said of his offense at one point. "Usually that happens. Nobody was breaking plays, they were executing like they do in practice. That was good to see."

     

    At another point, not insignificantly, he also said, "I think we actually learned a lot tonight, I really do. If you execute--you've still got to make the shots on offense--but if you execute, you're going to get the kind of looks we think we can make."

     

    HE LEARNED: Sobolewski missed all six of his field goal attempts last Friday against Stanford and, on Sunday, he also missed the three he took in the first half. He finally dropped a three from the right wing at 17:43 of the second and, in that half, he would go five-of-six and collect all of his team-high points. "Sobo, he's had a rough time," Carmody later said of his performance. "I think I told him in one of the time outs, he's a bulldog, So-bo-lew-ski. He's a hard guy, drops his shoulder, puts his elbow out on anybody. I told him he has to be a little bit more like a French poodle, but not quite that. Shooting off the bounce. If there's space, shoot it. You have to be a threat. Just don't go in there and hope for the best. He hit some big shots out there today. I think that's going to help his whole game."

     

    "I know what he's saying," Sobolewski himself would say. "I don't always have to be, like he said, a bulldog trying to get into the lane and finish with a foul sometimes. Maybe it's a floater, maybe it's a pull-up, a little 10-to-15 foot pull-up. I agree. If I could add that part into my game, I think that would be a big help."

     

    THEY MUST LEARN: At one point in the second half the five 'Cats on the court were the sophomore Sobolewski; the redshirt freshmen Demps and Mike Turner; and the true freshmen Abrahamson and Sanjay Lumpkin. There was a reason for that. This was the 'Cats final game before Big Ten play, and Carmody was looking to feed his youngsters that experience they will need in the withering conference battles to come. "Everyday you're teaching. Everyday you're teaching because you've got new guys," Carmody said of working with a group that now has only three players experienced in his system (Marcotullio, Sobolewski and Hearn).

     

    "So everyday I'm on Kale's tail. 'You've got to do better. You've got to do better.' You want them to play, all right? We have good freshmen, I think, very talented young guys. We played the other night against Stanford and that kid from Bishop Gorman, 6-8, Rosco (Allen), he was one of the most-highly recruited guys in the country. But he's not quite there yet, some nights you don't notice him. That's what happens with freshmen. It takes time, all right. It takes time. But the more playing time they get in games, in different kinds of games, the better they're going to be."

     

    "Everyday is more-and-more experience for them, which gets us better and better," Sobolewski would later add. "Everyday in practice, I think some of these freshmen need to learn we get on them because they need to start picking it up. They're doing a great job of it. But the more we tell them what they're doing wrong, the more they'll learn. There's definitely still room for improvement. At this time last year, I had a lot of room for improvement in terms of knowing the offense. As coach said, we just have to get better with it, and all this experience they're getting now is huge for us. We see it everyday. They're starting to pick more things up and starting to make better reads on the court, so I think they're coming along well."

     

    And just how far as he come, Abrahamson was now asked.

     

    "A long way," he said with a smile. "You should have seen me the first day of summer school. I was getting beat back door. I was messing up every second. Pretty much the whole summer, I didn't really improve. But at this point it's gotten a lot better and it's the same with everybody. I can see steps each day."

     

    SO, IN THE END, THIS WAS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE: "It's huge. It's huge to not only get the win, but to come out and play well," Sobolewski would finally say when asked the significance of this win. "It was tough not having Reggie out there. Regardless of the opponent, he wasn't ready to go. We think, we're pretty sure we'll have him back for January. But it was great coming out and playing well. As coach said, I think we learned a lot today. We communicated the best we have all year on defense in terms of talking out there, switching when we needed to switch, fighting over screens when we needed to do that. So especially on the defensive end, we learned what it takes to shut people down."

    The Morning After - Stanford

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    Despite a close loss to Stanford on Friday night, NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski writes that the Wildcats got some much-needed contributions from a pair of players off the bench.


    Every team needs a performer like Tre Demps, who can create a shot in a time of need. The modern game demands that now, as did the 'Cats Friday night game with Stanford, and so it was no surprise that the ball found its way to his hands as this one rushed toward its conclusion. The 'Cats were now down two and less than 10 seconds remained and here he drove from the right side into a thicket of bodies. "We were trying to penetrate, have a couple good shooters in, Sobo (Dave Sobolewski) and Jared (Swopshire), to get in the lane a little bit and then find (either Demps or Alex Marcotullio)," Bill Carmody would later say. "But they handled that pretty well. Then Tre found an opening."

     

    "I just tried to get in the lane and penetrate, maybe to find somebody," explained Demps himself. "But I knew things were getting kind of mixed up a little bit, and I knew the handoff was coming my way. I saw the switch, and I knew I could get by (Cardinal defender) Dwight Powell."

     

     

    ******

     

     

    Every team needs a performer like Alex Marcotullio, who can provide leadership and that proverbial spark popping off the bench. The unpredictable flow of games demands that now, as did the 'Cats Friday night game with Stanford, and so it was no surprise what occurred when he entered that fray at 7:23 of the first half and his team switched into its 1-3-1 zone. He is the head of that defense, the one who plays up top, and in that role, says he, "I'm just trying to take them out of their comfort zone. That's my job at the top, to get the start of their offense off-balance and just to create a little havoc out there."

     

    Until this moment at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the only thing off-balance in this game had been the 'Cats themselves. They had led it 2-0 just 23 seconds in, but then went down one 13 seconds later and now slowly, inexorably, slipped into a hole deeper than space. There was little hop to their step, there was little amp in their energy, and their offense was best symbolized by what occurred on the plays just before and just after Marcotullio entered here. First, far out on the court, Mike Turner shot a simple pass toward Kale Abrahamson, but Abrahamson cut as the pass was made and the ball ended up in the Cardinal bench. Then, less than a minute later, Turner sent a back-door pass toward Sobolewski, but the point's way was blocked and he aborted his cut and this ball too ended up out of bounds.

     

    That helps explain why the 'Cats had scored just 14 points in this game's first 14 minutes, helps explain why the 'Cats trailed by 18 with under six minutes remaining in the first half. But here, at 5:25 of that half, Marcotullio hit a three from the left side; the defense he headed began to create the desired havoc; and suddenly, unexpectedly, they exploded into an improbable run. "I don't know if our offense got that much better. I think it did," Carmody would later say. "But we certainly got some steals and changed the tempo of the game with our defense. I felt we were running our offense much better. I felt we were settling in the first 10, 12 minutes, trying to do too much too quickly, but after awhile we got some things that we actually work on and they were effective."

     

    "We started to come up with those loose balls and started to score some easy buckets," said Marcotullio himself. "I think that helped our offense flow a little better. We were getting from one thing to the next. We were scoring inside, and now that we were scoring inside, we were getting looks for the three."

     

    Now, just a little over three minutes after his defense and his three started this run, Marcotullio stripped Cardinal Chasson Randle and finished a break with an old-fashioned three, with a layup and a foul shot. Then, after a Cardinal miss, he fed Reggie Hearn and Hearn drove the left baseline and kissed in a reverse layup, and now these were the facts. After scoring just those 14 points in this game's first 14 minutes, the 'Cats had scored 17 in just four. And after allowing Stanford to scorch them for 32 points in this game's first 14 minutes, they had shut them out in those four. And after trailing by 18 at the end of this game's first 14 minutes, they had closed that margin to just one.

     

    A Cardinal three just before the buzzer would leave them down four at the half. Still. Now, finally, the game was afoot.

     

     

    ******

     

    Every team needs a performer like Tre Demps, who can create a shot in a time of need. The modern game demands that now, as did the 'Cats Friday night game with Stanford, and so it was no surprise that his presence was felt when he reentered this fray with 11:20 remaining. "Tre has a knack for getting in the lane and stuff," Carmody would say of him. "He really hasn't played that much, you know, so he's just feeling his way around things. But certainly in the last few games he's played he's done extremely well, and helped us come back."

     

    The 'Cats here were in need of help. Sobolewski, their resilient point, was struggling with his shot, finally ending this affair with just a single point after going 0-of-6 from the field. Swopshire, their versatile forward, was scuffling to get shots, finally ending with six points on only six of them even as he did so much else so well (seven rebounds, five assists and a steal). Then there was Reggie Hearn, who had been a force in the first half, scoring a team-high 14 points and collecting a team-high six rebounds. Just under three minutes into this second half, on a drive to the basket, he collided hard with Randle, came up limping, and exited the game for good 90 seconds later.

     

    Still, when Demps entered it four minutes after that exit, the 'Cats were down only four, and here he threw them onto his shoulders. He hit a short, running hook from the right side and then, after a free throw by Alex Olah, a back door layup off a Swopshire pass. He aired his next two floaters, but then dropped a three from the left side and a runner in the lane to tie this one up at 61 at 6:34. Another three, this one at 1:50, tied it at 67, and when this game finally ended, these were the facts. In its last 11:20, he went five-of-10 from the field and scored all of his dozen points, and the rest of the 'Cats went two-of-six from the field and contributed seven points. "I felt a little rhythm, a little pep in my step," he said later when asked about this outburst. "But I wanted to keep the team in mind. It seemed we were having trouble getting into the lane, and I just wanted to get in the lane and make some plays."

     

    Now, in the lane again and trying to make a play, Tre Demps offered the shot that would push this game into overtime, and for a heartbeat the ball posed there on the rim. "A very good shot," Carmody would call it, but here it fell off the rim and toward a skying Swopshire. He seemed set to corral it, but from behind it was knocked away and into Sobolewski, and then it bounced out-of-bounds to the Cardinal and this one was over.

     

    "Yeah, I thought it might bounce in," Tre Demps would soon say. "I tried to give it a little touch. But it didn't fall."

    Before You Go...

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    Skip Myslenski chats with Kain Colter and Pat Fitzgerald following the team's final practice before dispersing for the holidays. The team will reconvene on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 25.

    * Often, during this season, Pat Fitzgerald and any number of players have talked positively of this team's chemistry, of this team's cohesiveness, of this team's resilience and leadership. Quarterback Kain Colter would do that again Thursday when asked how this bowl experience, his third, differs from his first. "I think this team is a lot different, the dynamic of this team, all the athletes we have, how close we are, how everybody gets along," he said here. "Every year, we've been real close and I feel this year we have the most talented team we've had in a long time. So we're going to keep working on that, keep building on that, and hopefully we'll get this W."

    Making comparisons to the past can be a sensitive matter. But when pressed to specify differences, he did say, "Those guys last year worked their butt off and they wanted it bad, just as bad as this team. But I think the difference between this year's team and last year's team is our confidence level. You look back at this season, we've dominated almost every game, and the games that we lost, we let it slip. So our confidence level is high, that's the biggest thing, so even when we're down, we know we can play better, we know we can play with any team that's on the field that Saturday and strap it up and play well. Like I said, it's our confidence. Guys last year, they wanted it too. But we had a rough season last year, and here we're building and our confidence is up and guys are eager to make plays."

    Wildcats Size Up Bowl Significance

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    He has long dreamt, he said often this season, of playing college football. But not until he viewed the 2006 Rose Bowl did 'Cat true freshman superback Dan Vitale appreciate the special nature of the postseason. That affair matched Texas and quarterback Vince Young against USC and running back Reggie Bush, and even now Vitale will say, "I remember that game perfectly and how it finished up. That's when I got into the whole bowl-season thing as a young kid."

    And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?

    "It's a cool feeling, seeing that on TV and knowing that I'm there now and, as a true freshman, being able to go to a different state and play in a game like this. It's crazy, especially at this school where we haven't had a bowl win in a while. It's crazy knowing that we get that shot (to end the drought) and I get to be part of that."

    For Dean Lowry, the true defensive end, the postseason epiphany came later, came as he watched the 'Cats do battle with Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl. "That's the one that stuck out for me," he remembers. "After that, I was really interested in Northwestern. (I liked) the way they played and the intensity they had, that never-give-up mentality. So that game definitely sticks out for me."

    And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?

    The Morning After - Texas State

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on the Northwestern men's basketball team's late comeback Monday night that led to a 74-68 home win over Texas State.

    The 'Cats were scuffling and struggling and already down four, and now Texas State forward Corey Stern accepted a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk and grabbed the rim and celebrated by doing a pull-up. Immediately, he was hit with a technical. "I think it was major. That was major," Bill Carmody would say when asked of that call. "It quiets things down from a dunk, that momentum from a dunk, something positive and sometimes very emotional, to we're shooting fouls and (get) the ball."

     

    "It was huge for us," added his point, Dave Sobolewski. "Just knowing we had a chance to get two free throws and have possession afterward was a nice mental boost for our group. That was definitely a big play for us."

     

    "That," concluded guard Reggie Hearn, "would have been a big momentum play for them. But it kind of shifted it our way. It was a huge momentum shift for us."

     

    ******

     

    This was Monday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats played for the first time this year without their senior star Drew Crawford. He is headed toward season-ending surgery on his damaged right shoulder, and now his minutes would be spread among guys like true freshman Kale Abrahamson and true freshman Sanjay Lumpkin and redshirt freshman Tre Demps.

     

    Abrahamson, who got the start, would end this evening with nine points but only two rebounds in his 23 minutes. Demps, an explosive scorer, would get a dozen in 14 minutes before limping off with a twisted right ankle. Lumpkin would get little time, but the biggest point was made when Sobolewski was asked where the 'Cats would most miss Crawford. "Just his senior experience, his scoring and, defensively, his length and athleticism," he began, and then his response hit that point.

     

    "I don't know if you guys can notice. The freshmen are still kind of trying to figure things out a little bit. There's a difference between when there's some freshmen in there and when there's only older guys in there. Obviously, it's great for them that they're getting these minutes. Soon enough you won't be able to tell the difference. So obviously we're going to miss Drew immensely throughout the year on both ends of the floor. But at the same time it's good for these young guys to get these minutes."

     

    ******

     

    A 'Cat calling card this season has been their defense, which was allowing opponents an average of just 59.1 points-per-game as they took on Texas State. But in this one's opening 20 minutes, the Bobcats shredded it for 39. They were quicker to the basket, quicker around the basket, quicker overall, and when the first half ended they were up a pair. "They were scoring too easy," Sobolewski would say. "I don't know how many points in the paint they had. (It was 16 in the first half, 32 for the game.) But it was way too many. We just weren't defending as well as we needed to."

     

    That defense tightened some early in the second half and now, in its first seven minutes, Abrahamson hit a three and Jared Swopshire hit a three and Hearn hit a three and Abrahamson it another three and Sobolewski hit a three that put the 'Cats up eight at 13:10. But here, in short order, Sobolewski picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench at 12:19; the 'Cat offense stagnated in his absence and put up just five points in the six-and-a-half minutes that he sat; and the Bobcats went up by four.

     

    Sobolewski himself stanched the tide with a foul shot with just over five minutes remaining, and now the 'Cats switched from man and rolled out their 1-3-1 zone defense. On their first possession against it, the Bobcats' Stern got a layup. On their second possession against it, the Bobcats' Matt Staff turned the ball over. On their third possession against it, Stern accepted a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk and grabbed the rim and celebrated by doing a pull-up. "Our guys recognized, 'OK, we're back in this thing,'" Carmody would say, once more looking back to this moment. "Then some of the older guys took over."

     

    ******

     

    Just 3:31 remained as Swopshire prepared to shoot the technicals with his team down six. This would not be a good evening for the 'Cats at the line, where they ended just 14-of-25, and so here it was no surprise that he made only one of his two. But on the court now were their older guys, and here these veterans showed the value of experience. First up was senior Alex Marcotullio. He drove hard and kicked to senior Hearn, who made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Next up was redshirt freshman center Mike Turner, who was on the court instead of true freshman center Alex Olah. He stripped Staff before the Bobcats could get off a shot.

     

    Then it was the turn of grad student Swopshire. He delivered a beautiful backdoor pass to sophomore Sobolewski, who made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Now Swopshire rebounded a Staff miss and here, at 1:45, Sobolewski hit a deep three from the right side that put the 'Cats up a pair. This would be their only field goal in the game's last 11:32, yet it proved to be the proverbial dagger. For here Hearn followed it with a steal, which led to a pair of free throws by Marcotullio, which led to some panic by the Bobcats, who would go scoreless after Stern got slapped with his technical.

     

    On a 12-0 run. That is how the 'Cats ended this game. That is how the 'Cats escaped with their six-point win.

     

    ******

     

    Later, in the interview room, the absence of Crawford hung in the air, which was understandable. He had been the 'Cat ballast. But understandable too were the attitudes of the older guys on hand here. "I think everybody has to score more," said Hearn when asked if he felt he had to do that now. "He has 1,400 points over his career, this year he's averaging 14 a game. I personally am not going to start averaging 14 more points a game. So everybody has to step up."

     

    "It's huge for us," said Sobolewski when asked about winning even with Crawford absent. "I told the guys coming in that even though Drew's not going to be able to play the rest of the year, we still have a lot to play for ourselves and every guy who comes in and takes his minutes is going to have to perform. I was telling Reggie sitting in the room over there (awaiting the press conference's start), that was a game that could have gone either way and we made some big defensive plays and some hustle plays and we made a couple shots down the stretch.

     

    "So that's just a huge win for us moving forward."

    Contemplating Crawford

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski caught up with Northwestern senior forward Drew Crawford and head coach Bill Carmody on Saturday, following Friday's announcement that Crawford would miss the remainder of the 2012-13 season to undergo shoulder surgery.

     

     

    The problem had lingered since that January night in Iowa back in 2011. That is when Drew Crawford, then the 'Cats sophomore forward, went up for a rebound, got undercut, threw out his right arm to brace himself for the fall and, on impact, dislocated his shoulder. "That's when it first popped out and I think that's when the damage was done," he recalled Saturday. "Then it's continually got worse."

     

    Still, even as it got worse, he played on. He played on all through last season, averaging 16.1 points-per-game on 48.4 percent shooting, and he played on through the first 10 games of this season, averaging just 13.5 points in them on 40 percent shooting. Between then and now, he would surmise on Saturday, that shoulder would pop out five more times, yet still he wanted to play on. "That was my goal at the beginning of the year," he said.

     

    "I've been playing with this for a couple of years now. It's always been bothering me a little bit. But that's what I wanted to do, play through it. But when it continually bothers you, that's tough to do. It's just one of those things that wasn't getting any better. It keeps holding you back. It gets tough to play with things like that."

     

    "He tried for a few games. But it's so limiting, you can't do what you normally can do. So," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody soon said. So the decision was made to shut Crawford down for the rest of this year, and to seek a medical hardship waiver that will allow him to return next season after he undergoes surgery for a torn labrum.

     

    "It was just one of those tough things," Crawford would say of that decision. "Obviously, I would have loved to finish this season with my team because I think we're a great team, that we're capable of a lot. But it got to the point where I didn't think I could help my team in the best way, and I didn't want to put them through that and I didn't want to myself through that. So that was the decision we had to make."

     

    And just what was it that he couldn't do?

     

    "Probably the biggest thing is the physicality around the basket. When a shot goes up, I'm turning to box out, I got big guys coming behind me, I'm trying to hit them with my arm, and that's popping my shoulder out, and then it's like searing pain. Then it's sore, sore for days after that. It was tough."

     

    Was there a certain moment when he realized he couldn't go on?

     

    "I don't think there was one specific time. It was just something that was continually wearing on me. It didn't seem to really get much better, and I felt like I wasn't helping my team the way I needed to. It's tough. But it's something you have to deal with. . . I knew I was going to have to have surgery eventually. But at the beginning of the season, I was hoping I could finish the year and fight through it. But it continually got worse, and I wasn't able to do that."

     

     

    QUICKLY NOTED: A player is granted a medical hardship waiver if he plays in less than 30 percent of his team's regular-season games. The 'Cats have 32 games on their schedule, making the total 9.6 contests. Crawford has played in 10 games, which is still allowable as the total is able to be rounded up to the next number. So, when asked if he's certain he will be granted the waiver, Carmody said, "We're fine. We did our homework on that.". . . Freshman Kale Abrahamson is likely to start in Crawford's place in the 'Cats next game, which is Monday night at Welsh-Ryan against Texas State. "But I think it's just an opportunity for a bunch of guys," said Carmody, who then mentioned freshman Sanjay Lumpkin and Texas Christian transfer Nikola Cerina as well as Abrahamson. . .  Lumpkin has appeared in only one game after being sideline by mono, but is expected to be available Monday. But Cerina, who sprained his ankle in his only appearance of the season, is still hobbled and, said Carmody, "probably a week away (from returning).". . . "Everyone recognizes the loss," Carmody said when asked how Crawford's decision effected the team, then he went searching for an analogy. "But, again, a few years ago, our football team had this guy, a good quarterback, he got hurt in the last game, they went to a bowl game, they put a new quarterback in, he got about 205 yards rushing."

     

    Kain Colter, someone suggested.

     

    "No. This big guy."

     

    Mike Kafka, someone shouted, thinking of that day he replaced C.J. Bacher and ran wild not in a bowl game, but against Minnesota.

     

    "One of those big guys came in there," Carmody finally said. "I don't want to go Wally Pipp stuff and all. But this is a chance for all these guys to get in there and play. So. They feel bad for him. But now you move on and you go on."

     

    (Scribbler's note: Wally Pipp, a Chicago native, was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees from the start of the 1915 season through June 1, 1925. But the next day, June  2, he arrived at the stadium with a splitting headache and removed himself from the lineup with the approval of his manager, Miller Huggins. "Wally," he told him, "take the day off. We'll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow." But that was the day Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse, started his streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, and so Pipp never did get back in there.)

    Catching Up With The 'Cats

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    THE PLAN: The 'Cats practiced Saturday for their Jan. 1 date with Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. They treated it as a game-week Tuesday. On Tuesday, when they regroup next, they will work as if it was a game-week Wednesday, and then their Thursday practice will simulate a game-week Thursday. "So we'll have everything (the game plan) in by the time the guys go home (for their holiday break)," explained Pat Fitzgerald.

    LIVE AND LEARN: This is the fifth straight year Fitzgerald has guided the 'Cats into the postseason, a streak that began with their appearance in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. "I'm a little more comfortable in the routine," he said when asked the difference in him between then and now. "My first one, like a lot of things, the first time you do it, you look back and go, 'What the heck was I thinking there?' So we've definitely tweaked our plan as I look at what we did initially. It's probably a little bit jaded by what I experienced as a player. Barney (Gary Barnett) had us doing two-a-days. That stunk. That stunk."

    In Pasadena or here, we asked with an eye on the '96 Rose Bowl?

    "Here. I wasn't practicing. (He was sidelined by an injury.) I was on the steak-and-chicken tour. That was ridiculous. But my senior year, Tennessee (in the Citrus Bowl), we're watching Peyton (Manning) and the Vols in helmets, and we're going two-a-day practices. We almost had a mutiny. So we're going to have fun. Especially with playing on Jan. 1, that gives you, number one, a lot of time to develop the young guys. Then number two, from what we've learned, we hope we have a plan to peak on game day. Not do too much too soon, and really have fun in what we're doing."

    Finding His Niche, And Quickly

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    Now his name is tied to that of the acclaimed Drake Dunsmore, the accomplished superback whose 'Cat career ended just a fall ago. Despite rumblings of this connection throughout the year, it was solidified one Saturday at Michigan State when true freshman Dan Vitale caught nine passes for 110 yards, running his rookie reception totals to 21 catches for 206 yards to outstrip Dunsmore's numbers (11 for 141) when he was so young. But, as Pat Fitzgerald likes to remind us, stats are for loser, so let us search elsewhere for links that bond this pair. "There's a lot of similarities," superbacks coach Bob Heffner helpfully says.

    "The main two things are what good people they are and how much they like playing football. Those are similarities right there. After that, yeah, there's some differences. Drake did certain things, Dan does certain things. But the bottom line is they have those two qualities, and if you get a good person and football is really important to him and he likes playing ball and likes being coached, then your job's pretty easy."

    The Morning After - UIC

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Northwestern's 50-44 defeat at the hands of UIC on Saturday.

    * There were the turnovers, 16 turnovers in all. "That's just too many. That's just too many (against an opponent) that's picking you up at the top of the key. There's no pressure, no real pressure," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say.

     

    There were the Arctic field-goal shooting percentages, just 34.9 overall (15-of-43) and an even worse 25 on threes (four-of-16). "We were getting decent looks tonight," forward Drew Crawford would say. "But like coach said, some of the shots we normally hit as a team, they just weren't falling tonight. That's tough because we were playing good defense."

     

    There were, finally, those continuous failures at the free throw line, those 10 misses on 20 attempts. "Free throws are just mental," point Dave Sobolewski would say. "Everyone's just got to get in the gym and start taking more and more."

     

    There, in the proverbial nutshell, are the reasons the 'Cats fell by a half-dozen to UIC Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. "Our shots weren't falling and if you have turnovers in the 'teens, it's not a good night," Sobolewski would also say with succinct accuracy.

     

     

    * But nothing, of course, is really that simple, and so here let us recall a comment Carmody made after his team lost to Maryland last Tuesday evening. "We've been struggling a little bit to get what I call the pulse, the tempo of the game," he said that night when considering his team's offense. Then Saturday, on the same subject, he avowed, "I think they know it. They learn it, they have it. It's not that. The guys know what to do. But some of the passes are late, behind guys."

     

    The 'Cat offense, in fact, is very much a work-in-progress right now. At its best, when it is functioning smoothly, it is filled with sharp cuts and hard screens and brisk ball movement, and calls up memories of a beautifully-choreographed dance. But recently, against both the Terps and the Flames, it more resembled (to mix metaphors) a  powerful engine with a couple blown spark plugs. "We definitely need an injection of offense," even Carmody would admit on Saturday. "Maybe (freshman forward) Kale (Abrahamson) can do that. Maybe we can do some thing. They're smothering these two guys"--and here he nodded toward Crawford and Sobolewski, who were sitting next to him on the interview stage--"and we need somebody else out there to take away some of the heat. They're both competitors, and I think they both feel it's on their shoulders. Which I like, OK. But I've got to give them some help."

     

    "Yeah, just because we're the guys with experience," Crawford would later say when asked if he did indeed feel it was on his shoulders. "We've been there before. We've been in a lot of tight games. So, yeah. That's how we want it. There's a lot of pressure on us as guys who have played a lot of minutes. Sometimes it's tough, but you have to grind through it and make plays when you need to."

     

    And does he feel smothered, as Carmody noted?

     

    "A little bit. UIC did a good job. They're a pretty tough and sound defensive team. So we've just got to get everyone going. Everyone's got to be on the same page."

     

     

    * Last Tuesday, against the Terps, the 'Cats shot early (in the shot clock) and often (25 threes) from the outside. On Saturday, at the start, they worked inside-out, hoping to get some help from 7-foot freshman Alex Olah. "We wanted to see if we could get our center to be more aggressive. So we put a few things in there for him and threw it down to him, and I thought he was. He became a little more aggressive in there," Carmody would explain. "It's going to take time with Al, but I saw some pretty good things. He got a few rebounds, blocked a couple shots. We just have to get him to where he's really comfortable down there and aggressive because people are playing our guys pretty tight, these two guys especially, and there's room for somebody to do something down there and not just be a facilitator."

     

    Olah would do a little something down there, grabbing six rebounds and hitting three of his seven shots for six points in his 28 minutes. But MIke Turner, his replacement, had two turnovers and one rebound and no points in his dozen minutes, and there was also this. The usually-reliable Jared Swopshire, the grad student transfer from Louisville, missed the only four shots he took and ended with a bagel; the 'Cat bench, so recently thought to be one of its strengths, chipped in only one field goal (a three by Abrahamson); and through this game's last 13:45, the only 'Cat to score a field goal was the indomitable Crawford.

     

     

    * Still, despite all the turnovers and missed free throws and errant shots, the 'Cats were down just two with under 2:30 remaining. Now Crawford, who had carried them, missed a turnaround jumper from the left elbow and then Swopshire missed a three from the left wing. Underneath, in the scrum, 'Cat Reggie Hearn had prime position, and after he was fouled on the rebound by Flame Daniel Barnes, he made a pair to tie this one up at 44 at 2:09.

     

    Sobolewski, whose will is palpable, now forced a Flame turnover, and if there was one interlude on which this game finally turned, here it came. It began with Crawford facing off against Marc Brown, his nemesis all day; with Crawford working him patiently and intelligently and purposefully; with Crawford finally rising for a 12-foot jump shot from along the right baseline that looked to be good before rimming out. But again, down low, there was Hearn with position, and here he grabbed the rebound and went back up clean for a layup and missed. "At the end there, Drew had one hanging on the rim, Reggie got a nice rebound, put it over. So we're playing with a little bad luck, I think," Carmody would later rue.

     

    Now it was the Flames chance to grab the lead and they went for it with a three, which missed. But the player with position now was Josh Crittle, their center, who grabbed the rebound and made his layup, and after Olah missed a short hook to tie, this one was effectively over. For now the 'Cats started to foul and the Flames, who would end the day 14-of-15 from the line, made their free throws.

     

     

    * Minutes later, when he walked into the interview room, Sobolewski was grim faced. The skin under his right eye was red, as if it had just absorbed a series of stiff jabs. Crawford, too, was tight-lipped, his own face a mask of disappointment. When he sat down he rolled his head, as if he were trying to wake himself from a bad nightmare.

     

    Both would soon answer the questions asked of them. But their portraits spoke louder than any of their words.