NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look ahead to the Northwestern men's basketball team's contest at top-ranked Michigan on Wednesday.
We're Number One...
THAT WOULD be Michigan, whom the 'Cats visit Wednesday night. "We should obviously get up for every game in this league with all the notoriety of the league," said point Dave Sobolewski. "But, yeah, playing the number one team in the nation'll be a lot of fun and it's a great opportunity for us."
"Sure. It's great," said his coach, Bill Carmody. "But I hate to say, 'This (is an) opportunity.' It seems like everybody we play, it's like it's an opportunity. It's not just Michigan. You're going to play Indiana or Ohio State or Michigan State. Those are all opportunities. I think we just have to take care of ourselves. How are we going to score? How are we going to put the ball in the basket? I think that's really important. It can't be just one guy. We have to get contributions, four guys in double figures for it to work."
FIVE GUYS finished in double figures the night of Jan. 17 when the 'Cats won at Illinois. Three guys finished in double figures and another finished with nine points three days later when they narrowly fell to Indiana. Just three guys finished in double figures three nights after that when they upset Minnesota, who had only one player reach that mark, and last Saturday only two guys finished in double figures when they lost at Nebraska, where they played their poorest game in three weeks. "I'd say it's a little bit frustrating, but we've got to keep our heads level," Sobolewski said of that unexpected defeat. "We all know, with such a long season, there's going to be a lot of ups-and-downs. So we've got to keep level heads and bounce back and be ready to play."
REGGIE HEARN, the senior guard and the 'Cats leading scorer, will certainly be looking to bounce back from his performance in Lincoln, where he finished with only four points while missing all five of his three-point attempts and going just two-of-11 overall. "They said he wasn't feeling too good," reported Carmody. "That was evident, if that was true. I never saw him play like that, to tell you the truth. I just hope it's an aberration."
Did he have the flu, something like that?
"I don't know. He didn't say anything to me. See. He throws up before a lot of games. I'm talking to the team and he's in there doing his thing, and he's had some great games. But this one, I think he wasn't feeling well, which I didn't know about until after the game."
THEIR FIRST GAME with Michigan was the last time the 'Cats had performed as poorly as they did against the Huskers. In that one, back on Jan. 3 at Welsh-Ryan, they quickly fell behind by 16, never threatened and eventually lost by 28.
AFTER THAT GAME, not insignificantly, Carmody altered the 'Cats approach. Now they would look to succeed behind a lockdown defense and a patient offense that bled the clock and so limited the opponents' touches. It was no surprise, then, that Sobolewski said this when asked how they would approach Michigan this time around. "We need to contest every shot," he said. "We really need to start well, especially on the road, and play as good a defense as we can and try to tempo the game with our offense."
"It's very hard to beat them going up-and-down. They'll wear you out if you do that," echoed Carmody. "So we definitely have to try and control things as good as we can. But it comes down to everything. You have to make shots. Ohio State beat them, they came out early just on fire. I think you need that kind of start if you're going to beat this team."
THE 'CATS, you may recall, came out on fire at Illinois and that propelled them to their upset victory.
ALEX OLAH, you may not recall, corralled four rebounds that night against the Illini. But since then the 7-foot center has gotten just one against Indiana, one against Minnesota and three against the Huskers. His sub, the 6-foot-8 Mike Turner, has been even more invisible over that stretch, getting no rebounds against the Hoosiers, one against the Gophs and one against Nebraska. Combined, then, that pair has grabbed just seven rebounds over three games in which the 6-foot-1 Sobolewski has gotten a dozen and the 6-foot-8 Jared Swopshire has gotten 32.
This is why we wondered if Carmody has thought of going small. "Yeah. Yeah, I have," he said.
ALEX MARCOTULLIO, the 6-foot-3 senior guard, has occasionally played center on offense already this season. He could do that again if Carmody does go small, and so could Hearn. "Those guys know what to do," the coach said. Then, on defense, the opponent's big man would be shadowed by Swopshire. "Definitely. If that's what coach needs me to do, I can definitely do that," the forward said.
A WILD CARD exists here and it is redshirt junior Nikola Cerina, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound transfer from TCU. He has played little since badly spraining his right ankle against Fairleigh Dickinson. But on that night back in mid-November he gave a glimpse of his promise by scoring five points and grabbing seven rebounds in just 10 minutes of work. "He can definitely help us, especially down low in the post," Swopshire said of him. "He's the strongest guy on this team, hands down. Hands down. So we can definitely use him."
So why hasn't Carmody used him?
"I just want him to play well in practice. Practice, practice, practice," he said. "I want him to play well in practice, then he can get in there. Clearly we can use him. But he's got to be ready to perform, and all I have to go on is how you play in practice."
And how has he played in practice?
"OK. Just OK. He shows some signs. Maybe you can put him in there for 10, 12 minutes and see what happens. That's not usually my style...but you can tell, just with that body, that he could be useful. He certainly could be useful for us, so I probably have to get him in there."
CERINA, who is listed as 6-foot-9, admitted that he is closer to 6-7. He also said, "I still feel consequences of the injury. I still have trouble sprinting and playing for long periods of time. Another thing is my physical conditioning. I'm a little bit out of shape."
Still. There radiates from him that kind of toughness the 'Cats could surely use, and there is in him a willingness to give it a shot. "I talked to my trainer," he finally said here. "He said you might not feel 100 percent until June. So it's day-to-day now. We'll see. I'm able to play right now. I still have pain. But I can push through it. That's no problem."