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    The Weather Man Isn't Always Right

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    Snow is spitting from the sky and, down below, slush pockmarks the landscape. But this inconvenient reality does not matter. On the Kirby-Flanagan Indoor Practice Field inside the Nicolet Football Center, the 'Cats are about to wrap up their second spring practice of the winter. "It's awesome. It's great stuff. It's great to be in football in February," Pat Fitzgerald will say when it is finally over...

    A Look Ahead - Ohio State

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski previews the Northwestern men's basketball team's home game against Ohio State on Thursday.

     

     

    * The intellect of Holmes is not needed to analyze the 'Cats Thursday night meeting with Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan. To succeed, they must trust their offense. To succeed, they must make shots. To succeed, they must defend with vigor. To succeed, they must do the dirty work on the boards.

     

    Oh. And a decent start would help as well.

     

    * Sunday night at Purdue, for the third straight game, the 'Cats missed shots early and quickly fell into a hole. (In this case, 11 points.) Then, to the Scribbler's eye, they appeared to stray from their offense and looked to make that proverbial eight-point play that would quickly get them back into the fray. "Yeah. I felt the same way," point Dave Sobolewski said Wednesday when we mentioned this to him. "Whenever we get down, the only way we're going to get back in the game is with defense and running through our offense. We're not a one-on-one type team. We never will be with the guys we've got. So the only way we're going to score a lot of points is by running through our stuff, staying sharp, moving from one thing to the next, and making hard cuts. When we break out of our offense, things don't go well. So that's a focus here. I think that's been one of our problems the last few games."

     

    "Definitely," forward Kale Abrahamson added when the same thought was presented to him. "It's hard when you're down. Everyone wants to make a play right away, and the way the offense is structured, it's not structured score in the first five, 10 seconds (of the shot clock). It's almost like you have to calm yourself down. You're down that much, but you have to calm yourself down and play with the principles we've been playing with all year."

     

    "I agree with that. We talked about that after the game," Bill Carmody concluded when he heard that impression. "You had some nice looks early, you missed them, all of a sudden you're down early and you want to get back, so you take a quick shot. Now they get it again. So, yeah, I think that's exactly right on. You have to let the offense work for you. The game's not over in the first five minutes, so don't try to get it all back at one time."

     

    * The 'Cat defense, one of their calling cards early, has also been less that stellar during their five-game losing streak. This is why we wondered if it is effected when the offense is struggling so. "Yeah. I think definitely it effects your defense," said Carmody. "For one thing, their offense becomes better. They know, 'Oh, man, these guys can't score.' So there's less pressure on a shot being made or missed. They're combined. They're like pistons. If one's going good, then the other one goes good. Or bad, bad."

     

    Then your bad defense puts even more pressure on your offense.

     

    "Yeah. Yeah. It's one game. It's still one game. . . When you're missing shots, at all levels, you see it in the NBA, it's harder and harder to defend."

     

    * The 'Cats were last around at the end of a game during their Valentine Day visit to Columbus, where the Buckeyes didn't put them away until they closed with a late run. "I think we showed great toughness in that game. That's probably what's been missing the past whatever games since then," Abrahamson would say when asked what they could take from that performance. "Toughness and a will-to-win. There were only nine of us that game and 14, 15,000 people against us. So it was kind of us against the world. If we bring that same mentality, even though were playing at home, that'll help a lot."

     

    "We definitely need to get tougher," Sobolewski later agreed. "I think a lot of it is up to the individual as opposed to the, the coaches can't just make a guy tougher. It's up to the individual and his mindset and how he's going to attack the game. It's more mental the physical. We're not going to be able to go lift weights for a week and get tougher. It's a mental game right now. We know we've got to go get every rebound and not get pushed around."

     

    But is it possible the 'Cats are mentally worn out after combatting adversity for so long?

     

    "I wouldn't say we're mentally worn out," Sobolewski demurred. "It's definitely been a long season with a lot of ups-and-downs. But we've only got a couple weeks left here and hopefully we can push through that and come out with a couple wins and compete."

               

    *And finally, Sobolewski, on the 'Cats situation: "We've got nothing to lose, so we should really be having a lot of fun. There's no pressure on us for anything. So hopefully we can just go out there, give it our all and have some fun."

    Volunteer Assistants Make Full Time Impact

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    As I was going through the post-game high-fives with Tennessee this weekend in Palm Springs, I noticed a familiar face perched on the grass hill down the right field line. She was all decked out in her USSSA Pride gear, but I'd know her silhouette anywhere. It wasn't too long ago that I stepped on campus as a freshman 3,000 miles away from home, and Lauren Lappin was our volunteer assistant coach.

    A Look Ahead - Purdue

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look ahead at the Northwestern men's basketball team's game at Purdue on Sunday.


    * There is no secret to the 'Cats task Sunday when they visit Purdue and look to snap their four-game losing streak. "We're going to need to score. That's going to be a big key for us," says point Dave Sobolewski, defining it in simplest terms. "We gotta make more baskets to win. We haven't been scoring enough."

     

    * Last Wednesday, at home against Wisconsin, the 'Cats finished with 41 points. "Our offense was stagnant," guard Reggie Hearn would say later. Three days earlier, at home against Illinois, they would also finish with just 41 points. "Our offense was bad the entire night," their coach Bill Carmody commented after that one. But the game before that, in the hostile environs of Ohio State's Value City Arena, they finished with 59 points. Let's investigate.

     

    * In Columbus, in their first game after forward Jared Swopshire went down for the season, the 'Cats hit four of their first five shots, built themselves a little lead and ended the evening shooting 46 percent overall and 42.3 percent on their threes. But against both the Illini and the Badgers, they missed their first six shots, fell into holes they never escaped and ended these games with horrific shooting percentages (25 percent against Illinois, 29.4 percent against Wisconsin). These results are not coincidental.

     

    * Here is why. The 'Cats lack an inside scoring presence, which leaves the opponent's big man free to patrol the paint as a final defense against their back door layups. That, notes Carmody, is just what Badger center Jared Berggren did, and he was free to remain rooted there, he was free to ignore helping on screens since the 'Cats were shooting so poorly. But, he then goes on, "The Purdue center, that's what they did the last time (in a 15-point 'Cat win) and that got them in trouble. He didn't hedge on any screen and we made 'em all. They work together. You get some drives, you get some back door cuts, then they lay off you and you have (an open) shot. They start of playing you loosely, you've got to make some shots. It's very simple."

     

    * It is just that simple, only when it isn't so simple. Guard Alex Marcotullio, thinking back to when Drew Crawford was shut down for the season, explains. "It took us a couple weeks for us to get over the shock that we weren't going to have our leading scorer and one of the best players in the conference," he says here. "But we got over that, won a few games after that, and our confidence level was high again. So we have to do the same thing now with Jared (sidelined). He was a big contributor on both ends of the court, so it's been a big learning curve with him dropping out of the lineup. Both offensively and defensively we've had to make adjustments and put guys in situations they hadn't been in prior to him getting hurt."   

     

    "Since Swop went down, we haven't won without Swop," says Sobolewski. "So we need to figure it out. . .and do whatever it takes to win. Be it everybody hits another shot, everybody gets another rebound, defends better. Whatever it is, we need to figure it out and get a win. It's just time to pull one out. It's been awhile."

     

    * In their last win, which came against the Boilermakers back on Feb. 2, the 'Cats finished with 75 points. "Hopefully, that'll give us confidence, knowing that if we go out and play well and run through our stuff, then we'll be OK," Sobolewski says when asked about that afternoon. "We got a lot of back door layups that game. We ran through our stuff hard. We had a lot of back door cuts. We just flowed from one thing to the next and played hard. Regardless of the guys we have, if we do the same thing, we should be OK."

     

    * True. But here is the issue. In their last two games, in those 41-point productions against Illinois and Wisconsin, the 'Cats did not do the same thing, did not run through their stuff with the alacrity needed for it to produce baskets. Yes. They missed shots and maybe a few of them were open. But, more significantly, after each of those performances both 'Carmody and his players bemoaned the lack of rhythm in their offense, noted the lack of consistency in their offensive approach, which is a point we finally raised with Sobolewski. "I wouldn't say it was as bad (against the Badgers) in terms of getting out of our offense," he said here. "We did take some quick shots. They were within the flow of the offense, but we could have gotten better shots if we had held the ball for longer in the clock. 

     

    We now wondered if, knowing the urgent need of points, they had to guard against rushing, pressing, trying to score too quick?

     

    "I'd say so," he said. "We've got to focus on making sure that we get a great shot on every possession. We're not getting as many possessions because of the tempo we're trying to play at, so now more than ever we have to make sure we get a good shot every time down the court. Against Wisconsin, we didn't do a good job of that. We took some quick shots, some tough shots. We need to clean that up and make sure we get a great shot every time."

     

    Had human nature taken over, we wondered here, and were the 'Cats trying too hard and so working against themselves?

     

    "I agree that can happen," he said. "We just have to run through our stuff. It's one thing to take a tough shot in the last five, six, seven seconds of the shot clock. But anything earlier that that, we have to make sure it's a perfect one."

     

    So finally, we wondered, have the 'Cats been settling for shots they've been given rather than taking the shots they prefer?

     

    "I'd say so," Dave Sobolewski said.

     

    * And finally, Marcotullio, on the Purdue game: "They always come after you. So you have to really hold onto your guts, and play hard, play tough, and execute your game plan to the fullest."

    The Morning After - Wisconsin

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's game against No. 19/17 Wisconsin on Wednesday.

    * The 'Cats knew exactly what was coming Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. They knew Wisconsin would look to run their shooters off the three-point line. They knew Wisconsin would flat-hedge their screens and string out their offense. They knew Wisconsin would look to limit their lethal back-door layups. They knew, as a result of all this, they would have a bevy of 15-to-17 foot pull-ups available to them. They knew that full well, but here is what happened in the first half of their game with the Badgers.

     

    They made just a single two-point field goal, a jumper by point Dave Sobolewski from just beyond the free throw line with over 11 minutes gone. They would manage to convert three threes in those 20 minutes. Yet, when they ended, they were a mere four-of-20 overall (20 percent) and three-of-11 on their threes (27.3 percent); they had not a single player with more than one field goal to his name; they had only a dozen points; and they were down 16. "It comes down to our offense was stagnant, but a lot of it was just not making shots," guard Reggie Hearn would later say.

     

    "We knew we would have some fairly open mid-range jumpers, but aside from Dave hitting a few, I don't think anybody really hit those. Those are shots we practice, and those are shots we can make, and those are shots that would have keep us in the game. But we didn't hit those." 

     

     

    * The 'Cats didn't hit their first half-dozen shots and trailed, 9-0, when Hearn dropped a three at 14:31. They didn't hit another (a three by Alex Marcotullio) for nearly three minutes, and then over three more minutes would pass before Sobolewski's two. Just over two minutes later center Mike Turner would hit a three at 6:04, and now they would get just a free throw from Hearn before they headed to their locker room. "It didn't seem much different to me than the other night against Illinois," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would later say.

     

    "Got off to a slow start. Got down nine-nothing. Got to 17-11 (actually 18-11 after Turner's three). And then it just took off. We're just having a hard time putting the ball in the basket. And (our) rebounding, it's been anemic. . . They just dominated us inside. They were very productive down there."

     

    "What killed us was the backboards. You guys saw that. . .," echoed Sobolewski. "We've got to find a way to keep them off the glass. Fifteen offensive rebounds. It seemed like they scored every time."

     

     

    * The backboards were indeed the other major factor in what would be their 28-point defeat. The Badgers had 47 rebounds; the Cats, 22. The Badgers had 15 offensive rebounds; the Cats, five. The Badgers had 16 second-chance points; the 'Cats, two. The Badgers had 28 points-in-the-paint; the 'Cats, six. Jared Berggren, the Badgers' starting center, had eight rebounds; Mike Turner, who started at center for the 'Cats, had none. The Badgers had another player with eight, a third with seven and a fourth with five; five was the number grabbed by the leading 'Cat rebounder and that was Sobolewski, the diminutive point. "Like Dave said, they just killed us on the backboards in the first half," said Hearn.

     

    "Then, in the second half, they started throwing it down to the post. . .and pounding us, taking advantage of their size. I don't think they did anything real special with their swing offense. They just took advantage of their size and we didn't fight hard enough."

     

     

    * The Badgers' size, and their defense's denial of the backdoor layup, also forced the 'Cats to regularly settle for jump shots, which resulted in this last revelatory stat. Wisconsin went to the line 26 times, making 18. The 'Cats went to the line just five times, making three. "We've got to find a way to not only get to the line, but get to the hole," Sobolewski would say of this anomaly. "I don't remember many layups at all that we made. Everything was a jumper. We do shoot a lot of jump shots. But we've got to find a way to get back door cuts, get in the lane with our dribble, something. We've got to find a way to get inside as well as knock down open shots outside."

     

     

    * Those facts well-enough tell the story of Wednesday night. But now what? What now after a pair of 20-point-plus defeats at home and a Sunday game at Purdue on the horizon? "For me the motivation is to have guys like Reggie (a senior) leave on a good note," said Sobolewski, a sophomore. "They've been great to me since I got here and I want them to go out on a good note. That's my motivation and I hope the other guys on the team do that as well."

     

    "To go off of that, me and Al (Marcotullio) have four games left and the Big Ten tourney, and we're not going to go down without a fight," added Hearn. "It's obviously tough what we're going through right now. But there's not much time left in the season, and this is no time to be tired, no time to give up, no time to be down about anything. We just have to keep pushing through."

     

    "We've got to figure out not so much (what to do) about Purdue or the other teams down the road. Just what we're going to do to improve ourselves offensively. . .," concluded Carmody. "I don't know how many different options we have at this point. I just think the guys who are playing, it's their chance to play and just improve and that's what we're trying to do with our guys. You're showing the young guys the film, you're breaking it down for them individually and trying to see if they can get better. You just try to improve them all so as a team we can progress."

               

    * And finally, Carmody, when asked if he felt his 'Cats were frustrated: "I hope so. I hope they're a little frustrated. It's not necessarily a bad thing. I would say our guys are mad, and I'm glad of that."

    A Look Ahead - Wisconsin

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski chatted with the 'Cats prior to Tuesday's practice and offers up his preview of Wednesday night's game against Wisconsin.

     

     

    * The question had to be asked and here is why. Through the last two months, ever since that day Drew Crawford was shut down for the season, the 'Cats have confronted and combatted adversity. They did that willfully through much of that stretch. But then, last Sunday against Illinois, they were a half-step slow on defense and they were often taken out of their offense and they were eventually beaten by 21. So we had to wonder if, just maybe, their well-of-responses was running dry, if they were at last beginning to suffer from (for the lack of a better term) adversity fatigue.

     

    "I don't know. I don't know," said their coach, Bill Carmody, who at least entertained that idea. "We played decently against Ohio State and lost. Then we didn't play very well against Illinois. So I think it's really too early to tell. I don't think their physically worn out. Maybe mentally a little bit, a little tired, but probably just because we're talking about it a lot. Maybe Sobo (point Dave Sobolewski) is a little tired. Maybe  Reggie (guard Reggie Hearn) is a little tired. But those guys can overcome that. It's the young guys that I'm worried about."

     

    "I don't think we're ever done," demurred Hearn, dismissing that notion as inconceivable. "Sobo tweeted after the Ohio State game, 'We'll fight with whoever's left.' That's a very simple statement, but it's a very true statement. We have a lot of fighters on our team. There's only, what, five conference games left on the schedule and the Big Ten tourney. So this is the home stretch and we're going to give it all that we've got."

     

    "Us seniors, we have a lot left to give," echoed guard Alex Marcotullio. "We're not ready to go down yet. Same with the young guys. We're all ready and willing to fight. It's just a test of our will, like it has been all year."

     

    * This is not an idle concern for next up on the 'Cat schedule is No. 19 Wisconsin, which visits Welsh-Ryan Wednesday night. "It's a normal Wisconsin team. They're tough and physical," is how Sobolewski describes this challenge.

     

    "They're a hard-nosed, physical team," says Marcotullio, who is then asked how one combats the Badgers.

     

    "Mentally, you have to be tough," he says here. "They're a very mentally-tough team and you have to come back at them with the same mental toughness at both ends of the floor. They're going to play their game, play the way they want to play. So we're going to have to do the same thing and make them play our game as well."

    "Most of his (Badger coach Bo Ryan's) games are sort of grind-it-out games, not just against ours," concludes Carmody. "That's probably pretty good for us now at this stage. . . But they're playing very, very well. It's a veteran team. That's the thing that's scariest. They have three seniors and a junior starter. That scares me."

     

     

    * Clearly, then, the 'Cats well-of-responses must be replete to take on a foe that is tough and experienced, physical and mentally-strong and playing their best ball of the season. That is also a necessity if they are to crack the Badgers's gnarly defense, which is holding opponents to a Big Ten best 56.2 points-per-game. "Their strength," Sobolewski says when asked the key to that defense. "They're a strong team, they're physical, they'll be bumping all our cuts. We've got to make sure we don't get out of what we do. We need to keep cutting hard and make sure their bumps don't effect our back door cuts. . . We just have to stay within our stuff and run through our stuff much better than we did this past Sunday (against the Illini). If we cut hard enough and cut in the rights spots, we'll be OK."

     

    "I think they're just very disciplined," Hearn will say of that defense. "I've watched them and noticed a few different things that they do. But overall they're just very disciplined. They don't seem to make a lot of mistakes. So to beat them we're going to have to stay disciplined ourselves on offense, limit our turnovers and hit our open shots."

     

    And what about the bumping Sobolewski mentioned?

     

    "It's something a lot of teams try to do because a lot of them are scared of our back cuts, things like that," says Hearn. "We just have to be able to push through the cuts and stay in the offense. We can't them get us out of we want to do."

     

    Is that a physical challenge or a mental challenge?

     

    "It's a combination of both," Hearn concludes. "Obviously, there's the physical factor. This is the Big Ten. You've got a lot of strong guys in the league. But from the mental aspect, if they bump you a couple times, you can't let that get to you. You can't retaliate, things like that."

     

    To recap, then: The 'Cats must ignore the bumps and cut through them, the 'Cats must retain their discipline and stay in their offense. The 'Cats, in sum, must overcome any adversity fatigue they might be feeling and drink deeply from their well-of- responses.

     

     

    * Then there is this, which is not unimportant in the wake of their shooting struggles against the Illini: the Badgers like to run snipers off the three-point line and are holding opponents to just 29.9 percent shooting from that distance, which is second best in the Big Ten.

     

     

    * Here is one last reason the 'Cats need a replete well-of-responses, a toughness in their mentality, against the Badgers. "I think they're a good defensive team also because of their offense," Carmody says. "They take their time with their offense, take their time, and that puts a little more pressure on each opponent shot. If they go up 8-2, 12-5, or something like that, and you run down the court with them and shoot a fast shot and miss, then they come down and take 30 seconds, it becomes wearisome and a little more stressful for shooters."

    The Morning After - Illinois

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Sunday night's loss by the Northwestern men's basketball team to Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

     

    * Freshman forward Kale Abrahamson took the first 'Cat shot on Sunday night. It was a three from the right wing and it caught nothing but air. This was appropriate since it would come symbolize the type of evening they were about to endure at Welsh-Ryan.

     

    * A month earlier, in Champaign, the 'Cats buried five of their first six three-point attempts, built a 15-point halftime lead and cruised to a win while going eight-of-15 from distance (53.3 pecent). "They're really hard to guard now," Illini coach John Groce would say Sunday after his team had cruised to a 21-point win of its own. "They do such a great job. They're so unselfish. They move. They cut as hard as anybody in the country. They screen. They've got great spacing. Obviously, they're really-well coached. We felt like they carved us up in Champaign. They did. So guys took a little bit of pride in wanting to defend a little bit better, and I thought we defended a little bit better today."

     

    * In the final 6:32 of Sunday's game, the 'Cats went three-of-five (60 percent) on their threes. Before that, they went two-of-22 (9.1 percent). That is how much better the Illini defended here. "You've got to make shots. We weren't able to do that," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say both simply and accurately. "Their defense gets the credit."

     

    And what adjustments did that defense make to so stymie the 'Cats?

     

    "I don't want to give away anything. You never know. You can see these teams multiple times and I don't want to get too much into game planning," said Groce. "But obviously one of the things I will share with you is everyone knows their three-point production is 12th in the country coming into the game. If you let them get clean looks from the three, a lot of them, and they make them, it's on now. They missed some (open looks) tonight. I'm sure he (Carmody) feels that way. But I also thought we challenged them a little bit more, made them a little more difficult to get. That was one of the things."

     

    * A month earlier, in Champaign, the Illini were a step slow as they moved to cover those handoffs that are so much a part of the 'Cat offense. That left the 'Cat shooter unmolested. But on Sunday that was not the case and so, almost always, their was a defender in the face of that shooter. As a result, said Carmody, "Our offense was bad the entire night. It didn't seem to have any flow to it. They guarded us in a similar fashion that they did down in Champaign. Switching everything, which a lot of teams do. But they did it very effectively and seemed to have a little more pep in their step. We couldn't get too much going."

     

    "Sometimes people, when they think unselfishness, they immediately think almost exclusively of offense," picked up Groce. "But defensively right now we're in the right position more, we trust one another more, we cover for one another better. We understand we want five guys guarding the basketball, that it's not just about my man. We get that better."

     

    * Here is how effective the Illini team defense was Sunday. One second less than four minutes would pass before the 'Cats got their first field goal, and that would be just their first drought of the night. They managed only one field goal in the last 8:52 of the first half and did not get their first in the second half until 6:34 had elapsed. They were outscored 29-6 in this stretch of 15:26, and that was not all. "It was more than shooting," explained Carmody. "It was just the whole flow I didn't think was great either. We weren't sure whether to shoot or not to shoot or how the offense was running. As well as we did against Ohio State, in a loss, following the scouting report, knowing what to do, I don't think we handled it well tonight."

     

    "We were a little lackadaisical," guard Alex Marcotullio would admit minutes later. "It's not like we weren't playing hard. It was just, we didn't take care of the ball, we didn't follow our game plan, we didn't do things that we need to do to win basketball games."   

     

    What was that game plan and why wasn't it followed?

     

    "We really needed to control the game with the way we play," he said. "I think at times we got into a little bit of an up-and-down game. They had double-digit transition baskets and that was one of our keys, to limit them in transition. They definitely get going and get more confidence when they start making shots and they're out in transition and getting easy looks and layups."

     

    * The stats show, in fact, that the Illini got only 10 fast break points, which isn't many. But this is misleading and here is why. They also pushed the ball against the 'Cat defense, pushed it hard enough that the 'Cat defense often never got itself entirely set, and this created one-on-one situations that led to driving layups or fouls. "Coaches do a good job of letting us know in general what the other team is trying to do," guard Reggie Hearn would say when asked about that. "But they can't get down and guard a guy one-on-one. We got beat on a lot of plays like that tonight and that can't happen if we want to win."

     

    * The bottom line, in the end, was this: Hearn went three-of-11 overall and 0-of-four on his threes; Tre Demps went three-of-11 overall and one-of-five on his threes; point Dave Sobolewski went 0-of-six overall, 0-of-five on his threes and had two turnovers with no assists; and the 'Cats, as a team, went 12-of-48 overall (25 percent) and five-of-27 on their threes (18.5 percent) while committing 14 turnovers with only nine assists. "I don't think he's worn out or anything," Carmody would say when asked of Sobolewski's struggles. "He has some real good games and some other games. It's like a lot of guys. If you start out well, you play well the rest of the game. If you're not starting out well, that'll get to you. You've just got to overcome it, and he will."

     

    * But the final words here will go to Marcotullio, who said this: "We were a little out of rhythm sometimes. But the shots we got, we need to make. That's the bottom line. If we get open shots, we need to knock them down. That's how we're going to hang in games, that's how we're going to win games."

    A Look Ahead - Illinois

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski previews Northwestern's game against Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday.

     

    * Point Dave Sobolewski took to cyberspace shortly after the 'Cats inspired performance Wednesday night at Ohio State. "Essentially, no matter who's healthy, we'll play with whoever we've got," he said when asked just what it was he tweeted.

     

    And why did he feel he had to send out that message?

     

    "I know what people are thinking," he said. "We're going to fold with all these injuries, just like they thought when Drew (Crawford) got hurt. That's not the case. We'll be OK. We'll keep fighting, keep defending, keep playing hard. We're not going to back down. No matter who we've got, no matter who's healthy, who's hurt, we're going to continue to play 'til the final buzzer of the last game of the year."

     

    * Pick any of the familiar analogies. The wounded animal. The cornered prey. The disparaged performer who gets no respect. Each of those images now befits the battered 'Cats. Yet even after their loss to the Buckeyes, and even with streaking Illinois set to visit Welsh-Ryan on Sunday, there is about them that sense of defiance reflected in Sobolewski's tweet. Yes. They may not have Crawford, their senior leader. And, yes again. They may not have Jared Swopshire, who was playing at an inspired level when he blew out his knee at Iowa. And, yes a third time. They may not have seven of the players on their original roster of 16.

     

    Still, says guard Reggie Hearn, "We're playing like a team that has nothing to lose. We've had so many injuries, everybody knows that, but we still have a lot of fight left in us. I think ever since Drew went down, it took us a couple games to find our rhythm, but we found it and now--even with Swop going out, which was a big blow--I think we have our team identity.

     

    "We're a resilient team. Like I said, we've had these injuries. But we're not going to use that as an excuse. I just think, overall, we have the intangibles of heart and hustle. That's something you've got to have in this game, and that's something we'll continue to bring to the table every night. We're not going to give up. We're going to continue to work hard and push through any adversity and do everything we can to make this a good season."

     

    * 'Cat coach Bill Carmody is not given to histrionics or florid speeches. "I have a low pulse rate. I'm pretty calm about it. You go with what you're given. That's what you do," he will say when asked about his feelings during this injury-ravaged season. But later, when asked about Sobolewski's tweet and that attitude of defiance we sense in his team, he recalled his message to it before it faced the Buckeyes.

     

    "I told them, 'OK, you're not expected to win going to Ohio State. People think you're going to get crushed,'" he said here. "I said, 'Look, all the coaching staff has played a lot of basketball. All you guys have. You've all been in games in the playground, in the park, in high school, AAU, where you've been underdogs. Not quite David and Goliath. But no way. And you win. So what's different about this?' So I said, 'You gotta compete. That's all there is to it. You play hard. You have ability. That's all you've got to do. Compete. Then see where it ends up after 40 minutes.'"

     

    * True freshman Kale Abrahamson competed against the Buckeyes and nicked them for 13 points in his 34 minutes of work. Redshirt freshman Tre Demps also competed against them and finished with 16 points in 32 minutes. In a perfect world, a world full of healthy 'Cats, neither would have seen that much time. So one other point Carmody made a day after that game is worth noting as well. "These guys were recruited," he reminded here. "Even though we played three freshmen in the starting lineup, they were recruited to play. Now they're getting their chance and I think they played well."

     

    * The 'Cats, a month ago, played better than well when they defeated the Illini down in Champaign. They defended with purpose. They drained open shots. They built an early lead and controlled the game to the end. Illinois is playing at a higher level than it was back then. Still, if the 'Cats hope to sweep their in-state rival, they must again follow that formula. They must defend with purpose, drain their open shots and control the game's tempo with their offense.

     

    * Illinois is averaging eight three-point field goals a game, second best in the Big Ten. The 'Cats are averaging 7.8, third best. That is another Xs-and-Os area to watch on Sunday.

     

    * Carmody says center Alex Olah, who missed the Ohio State game after suffering a concussion at Iowa, "Doesn't have a headache and is feeling better." But he was not certain if he would be cleared to play against the Illini.

     

    * But, in the end, the playbook and healthy bodies are peripheral issues with these 'Cats. For now, with them, the bottom line is their intransigence, their refusal to buckle under all the adversity that has befallen them. "We've really made it a priority to come together and, through the adversity, to continue to play as hard as we can and come out each night and give it our all," says Sobolewski, who shall get the last word here. "(The Ohio State game) obviously didn't end up the way we would have liked. But we fought. We fought hard."

    A Look Ahead - Ohio State

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski previews Northwestern's Valentine's Day date with Ohio State on Thursday in Columbus.

     

     

    * He is still just a true freshman. But 'Cat forward Kale Abrahamson nailed it when he said this before their Wednesday practice. "It feel likes Survivor around here," he said. "I said that when we lost Drew (Crawford) too. But someone's getting thrown off the island daily, I guess. We need to get in the cold tub, do something. I don't know what the solution is. But we've got to keep fighting."

     

    "Iowa (Abrahamson's home state) isn't like one of those islands in the Pacific, is it?," Bill Carmody said when appraised of that comment, and then he chuckled ruefully. "I don't know. This is the way it is. You just have to keep going. I said this last week. I haven't gotten any sympathy cards from other coaches."

     

     

    * Sympathy Cards. Get Well Cards. Even one of those cheesy cards showing a cat clinging to a limb with the exhortation, "Hang In There." Any and/or all of them now befit the 'Cats, who travel to Ohio State for a Thursday night meeting with the No. 13 Buckeyes as embattled as that victim in a country song who has lost his wife, his job, his dog, his cat, his rifles, his car and all his friends. Their latest losses are forward Jared Swopshire, who underwent season-ending knee surgery on Tuesday, and center Alex Olah, who is out indefinitely while recovering from a concussion. That means, after starting this season with 16 players on their roster, they will appear in Columbus with a cast of nine, only seven of them scholarship. "(Losing) seven guys in a year is kind of crazy," junior guard James Montgomery III said Wednesday.

     

    "It was tough for me to see that happen to a guy like Swop. He's an amazing guy on and off the court," said senior guard Reggie Hearn. "Then, after thinking about what happened to him, I got to thinking about everything that's happened to the team this year. It's a little bit disheartening, of course, but we've got to keep moving on and come out and play hard tomorrow. We know what we're up against. So all we can do is go out and play. There's really not much to be said other than that."

     

     

    * The 'Cats will open play on Thursday with a starting lineup of Hearn, point Dave Sobolewski, guard Tre Demps, center Mike Turner and Abrahamson. For those of you without a program, they are (in order) a senior, a sophomore, a redshirt freshman, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman. On the bench, fit to spell them, will be the senior Alex Marcotullio, who is playing hurt (balky back); Montgomery, a walk-on who has totaled 43+ minutes and 11 points this season; junior forward Nikola Cerina, who is also playing hurt (the balky ankle he sprained back in mid-November); and sophomore guard Omar Jimenez, another walk-on who has totaled 28 minutes and one point this season. "Hopefully," said Hearn, "we're done with injuries for the year. I don't know how much more we can take."

     

     

    * It turns out that, on the road, Montgomery rooms with Hearn, himself a former walk on who has blossomed into one of the 'Cats steadiest performers. "To be honest, I see a lot of myself in James, kind of a similar story and everything, and I think he has a chance to help us out a lot," he would say Wednesday. "We've always talked. Even when he isn't expecting to play, he's asking questions. So he's ready and I think we'll see him contribute a lot tomorrow."

     

    And how about a scouting report on him?

     

    "First and foremost, it's got to start on defense," said Hearn. "He's a great defender. He has great foot speed. I think he'll help us out a lot in that area. He's also probably the fastest guy on the team, so you might see him get a few back door cuts, things like that. Really, just all around, he's solid."

     

    "He knows what he's doing," Carmody would echo when asked the same question. "He's a pretty athletic kid. He can run, he can jump, he's a pretty disciplined guy. Basically, he's been the scorer on the scout team this year. He can get shots off, and he enjoys getting shots off, you know. But now you go from a white shirt to a purple shirt, and we'll see what happens. But he's ready to go."

     

     

    * A Montgomery primer: Was recruited out of Santa Monica High School by UC-San Diego and a handful of mid-majors. But, he said Wednesday, "I wanted to play in one of the Big Six conferences and I wanted a really, really good education.". . . Was a practice player for the 'Cats women's basketball team as a freshman. Spotted then by former assistant Mitch Henderson, now the Princeton head coach, who recommended him to Carmody. Carmody, in turn, checked on him with Joe McKeown, his women's counterpart. "He said he was pretty good," he would remember. . . Asked Wednesday if Hearn was his inspiration, Montgomery said, "For me personally, yeah, a little bit. I learn a lot from him and he makes you realize what's possible. Just because I'm a walk-on doesn't mean I can't do what everybody else can do.". . . Asked what words-of-wisdom Hearn might have offered him, he said, "He told me I need to bring energy from the bench, and rebound. With Swop and Alex out, we lost a lot of rebounds. So if I can do that, that would really help the team.". . . Asked finally if his goal was to emulate Hearn and earn a scholarship, he said, "Most definitely. Anyway I can pay for my tuition, that's my goal. But I'm here because I love basketball. Freshman year, I wasn't on the team and it was rough for me. So I'm much happier just being on the team."

     

     

    * And finally, Carmody: "We've all been on teams, coaches and players, where it didn't look too good and you said, 'Oh, my Lord.' Then you beat somebody you're not supposed to beat. I think that's the attitude we have to have."

    BLOG: Weaving Through the History of Women in Sports

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    By Skip Myslenski
    NUsports.com Special Contributor

    National Girls & Women in Sports Day was Wednesday, Feb. 6, but Northwestern will celebrate this special event on Sunday, Feb. 10, prior to the NU women's basketball game vs. Ohio State. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at how opportunities for women in sports have grown over the years, speaking with NU head women's basketball coach Joe McKeown, a 20+-year coaching veteran, former NU women's basketball All-American Anucha Browne and NU senior shortstop Emily Allard.
     
    He was now back in Philadelphia, his hometown, and looking for work, any kind of work coaching basketball. This was the summer of 1980 and here he heard that over in New Jersey, over there across the bridge in the small town of Pemberton, both the men's and the women's job were vacant at a two-year school called Burlington County College. So he applied and an interview was arranged, but when he arrived for it this is what he heard. "We already filled the men's job," he heard. "Do you want the women's job?"
     
    "Sure," said Joe McKeown, now the head coach of the 'Cat Women.
     
    He smiles out from a chair in his office as he relates this tale, and that smile remains rooted there as he recalls this very different time. "We had five players," he is saying now. "We had a tryout. I don't think they had won a game the year before. So I was pulling people out of the hallways, saying, 'Hey, come play for us.' We had six players. But I had a girl in the middle of the season elope, get married. So we were down to five. I remember finishing games with three players. Players would foul out, we would run triangle-and-none defenses, box-and-none defenses. We won six or seven games, had a lot of fun.
     
    "I remember in practice, I would practice with them. We didn't have anybody else. We didn't have enough people to practice. We would play three-on-three all the time, or two-on-two, or run five-on-zero. Our biggest player was probably 5-foot-9. We'd have kids double-dribble all the time. We'd tell the refs before games, 'Don't call that today. Don't call double-dribbles. We didn't mean it.'"
     
    So the skill set of today compared to then?
     
    "The skill set today, the training that goes into it, the strength-and-conditioning, the treatment they get, the scholarship money-- I remember that team, we didn't have a budget. My salary was, I think, $400. The lady, I said, 'What's our budget?' She said, 'Your salary.' So we'd stop at diners around Philly and New Jersey, or go to McDonald's. If I had 20 bucks in my pocket, we'd feed the whole team. If I had 15, we'd stick with the dollar menu. That's how it was."
     
    ******
     
    In the fall of 1981, as McKeown prepared for his second season at Burlington, Anucha Browne began her freshman year at Northwestern. She had grown up in Brooklyn and, while in elementary school, had lost herself in figure skating. But she had sprouted to 5-foot-10 in the ninth grade and so then, at that borough's St. Saviour High School, she turned her attention to basketball and track.
     
    No, she recalls now, she was never criticized or ostracized for her involvement in sports, and then she explains why. St. Saviour was an all-girls school and at them, she goes on, "Girls are empowered to be who they are, to have confidence in their abilities, to have confidence in their talents. It was the best place I could be."
     
    Here she pauses, chuckles and then she goes on, "Being tall is probably what made me most uncomfortable. But when you become an athlete, you're surrounded by other athletes. You're comfortable with each other. You're comfortable being powerful. You're comfortable sweating. All of that helped, being in a positive environment relative to playing sports."
     
    It helped too that her mother, a former player herself, had supported and encouraged her participation, and that as a runner she was tutored by a man named Fred Thompson. He, in those days, was a legendary figure, a practicing attorney who espoused women participating in track; who founded and financed Brooklyn's famed Atoms Track Club; who produced Olympic medalists at that club; and who, finally, helped coach the U.S. women's track team at the 1988 Games in Seoul. "I do realize it was a lot different experience for other women," she will say now. "But I was always surrounded by strong, confident women."
     
    So she herself was that in that fall of 1981 and now she set off on her remarkable 'Cat career. She would be an All-American as a senior. She would twice be named the Big Ten's Player of the Year. She would set an NCAA record by scoring 30-or-more points in six straight games. She would, not insignificantly, be part of the 'Cat team that earned an invite to the 1982 national championship tourney, the first women's basketball tourney run by the NCAA. (Until then, the governing group was the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.)
     
    This is not insignificant since Anucha Browne is now the Vice-President of Women's Basketball Championships for the NCAA, the caretaker of that tourney that will kick off again come March. "When you talk about (the) 32 years (that have passed), women's basketball has grown by leaps and bounds," she will finally say, speaking from that perspective, and then she offers the numbers that support her claim. At that first tourney, she says, the total attendance for its 19 sessions was a mere 20,000. But at last spring's tourney, she goes on, that number was 200,000.
     
    ******
              
    A decade after the NCAA ran its first Women's Basketball Tournament, Emily Allard was born in the California town of Antioch. She was, from the start, drawn to sports, and at the precocious age of four she was already out on the diamond and playing softball. "I was the tomboy, or one of the boys, or the one who came home with grass stains on her pants, things like that. But I don't think it (her playing sports) was ever frowned upon, and I never let that (what was said) effect me," she remembers. "I just knew in my heart that this was what I was good at, that it was going to take me far, and that I loved doing it. So no one was going to stop me from that no matter what they said."
     
    She was free to dream, then, free to imagine possibilities unavailable to those from generations so-recently past. Women had begun playing full-court basketball just 21 years earlier. (Until then they had played a six-on-six game where three players stayed on one side of the half-court line as defenders and three stayed on the other side as scorers.)
     
    And Title IX, which opened up athletic opportunities for women, had been enacted just 20 years earlier. ("I truly am a product of Title IX," Anucha Browne will declare in our discussion, and then she shares these figures. At the time of its enactment, some 30,000 women were participating in intercollegiate athletics. Now there are 200,000.)
     
    And Ann Meyers had gotten the first athletic scholarship awarded by a Division I school (UCLA) to a woman just 17 years earlier. (The 'Cats now have women on scholarship in 11 different sports.)
     
     And just eight years earlier, at the 1984 Games of Los Angeles, women had finally been considered sturdy enough to compete in the Olympic marathon.
     
    But already all of that was ancient history and so, as her skills grew along with her body, Allard could hold onto her dream, could nurture her dream, could pursue her dream freed from many of the prejudices and handicaps confronted by her predecessors. There was, we wonder, never a discouraging word? "That's very true. I was very fortunate," says Allard, a senior, star and shortstop on the 'Cat softball team. "I think people understood the work I put in, and the potential I had, whether it was in athletics or in the classroom, and they just wanted to do anything they could to help me get where I was headed.
     
    "I do not come from a wealthy family. But my parents found the means necessary to get me where I needed to go, especially when I got older and started playing travel ball and that college scholarship was looming. I think they knew that I would ultimately save them hundreds of thousands of dollars by forking over $1,500 so I could play on the best travel team that I could. I think those sacrifices just made me appreciate what I had so much more, and in the end it really worked out. They haven't had to pay a penny and that's opened numerous doors for our family."
     
    ******
     
    Last Wednesday, for the 27th time, National Girls and Women in Sports Day was celebrated. On Sunday afternoon, before the 'Cat Women face Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena, that occasion will be observed at an event featuring ESPN's Sarah Spain, who will give its keynote address and lead a roundtable discussion. "People my age and in my generation have a lot to pay back to the people who came before us, especially the women who came before us," Allard will say during our talk.
     
    "I don't think we really understand what others had to go through and I think days like this, where they're honoring women and girls in sports, is kind of eye-opening for my generation. I don't want to say I'm oblivious to it. But I will never truly understand what other women did to pave the road to today."
     
    ******
     
    Today is surely not a perfect world for women in sports. It is, in fact, not a perfect world for anyone. Yet the road traveled by female athletes is long enough to stretch back to the Ancient Olympics, which are idealized even though women could not compete in them and married women could not even attend them. (If they did and were caught, they were thrown to their death off Mount Typaeum). Women were banned too when the Modern Games began in 1896 and they were not allowed to compete in track-and-field events until 1928; but that year, at the conclusion of the 800 meters, a number of competitors collapsed, controversy arose and they would not again run that far at an Olympics until the 1960 Games in Rome. Twelve years later, in Munich, they were finally considered strong enough to compete in the 1,500 meters, and then 12 more years would pass before the United State's Joan Benoit won the first marathon gold medal awarded to a woman.
     
    McKeown, in turn, was on a road of his own, driving his Burlington team to games in one of the school's minivans ("You just hoped you didn't run out of gas," he remembers), then driving again in the late '80s after he took over New Mexico State in his first head job. This time he would navigate a 15-passenger Econoline van, guiding it the 275 miles from Las Cruces to Tucson for a game with Arizona; then guiding it the 126 miles from Tucson to Glendale for a game with Arizona State; finally guiding it the 400 miles from Glendale back to Las Cruces and home. (Utah, Brigham Young, Wyoming and Colorado State were also on the team's schedule; on those occasions, they would fly to Salt Lake City, rent three minivans, drive to the various outposts and, he recalls, "Hope you didn't crash in the snow.")
     
    "We went undefeated and our motto was, 'We're going to Sizzler.' We went to Sizzler, for eight bucks you could feed everybody," he also says of those days, thinking back to one of his teams. But already, in his sport, a corner had been turned, and leading the advance were names of renown. Meyers, a four-time All-American at UCLA, had signed a contract and gotten a tryout with the Indiana Pacers in 1979. Cheryl Miller, a USC All-American and the sister of Pacer guard Reggie, had led the U.S. women to a gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Lynette Woodard, a former Kansas All-American, had become the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1985 and, a year later, Nancy Lieberman had become the first woman to play in a man's pro league when she joined the USBL's Springfield Fame.
     
    "I think those pioneers like Ann Meyers, Cheryl Miller, they had personalities. They understood how to get things done," McKeown says, thinking of those driving forces. "They didn't say, 'You have to give us.' That's what helped grow women's sports too. Not just making demands. You needed to know how to talk to people, how to deal with people, and I think a lot of coaches in our game in the '80s started to get better at that too. That really helped us."
     
    ******
     
    The Scribbler, some 42 years ago, was a young Sports Illustrated reporter assigned to do a story on a female distance runner at UCLA. He does not remember her name. But he does remember she told him this. She told him that her sorority sisters demanded that she use the back door when she returned from her runs; if she didn't, if she came in all sweaty through the front door, she would embarrass them in front of their dates.
     
    "Wow. Oh, wow. I can't imagine that," Emily Allard will say when that perspective is offered up to her. "That's hard. It's got to be hard. Especially when it's part of who you are. Man. I don't know. I don't know what I would have done. I've never faced anything like that."
     
    Allard, in fact, faces a far different reality, a reality that not only accepts a woman who sweats and strains and comes home with grass-stained knees. It can also, on occasion, view those pursuits as assets, which in her case was proven just last summer.
     
    She had to make a choice back then, a choice between accepting an invite to the U.S. national team tryouts and taking the internship she had been offered in the marketing department of Wilson Sporting Goods. "That was really big for me. It was something outside of sports, furthering my career," she says of the latter, and more was at work here as well.
     
    "I also had a couple nagging injuries, I guess you could say, and it was a decision to be ready for next season or play on the national team. My commitment has always been here to Northwestern and it was something I had to do for myself and my team and my health, not my own glory. . .  I never imagined turning down an invitation to play for my country. But it was something that had to be done. . . At the time, it was a very hard decision for me to make. But I think it was the right one."
     
    The internship, we wonder now, does she think her involvement in sports helped her land that job?
     
    "Yes," she says flatly. "Being an athlete, especially in softball, it helped me be more relevant to their company. That's what they are, a sporting goods company, especially for baseball and softball. So it all kind of fell into place and it was the most-incredible experience of my summer."
     
    "Women are now celebrated for being involved in sports. . .and they've shown to be better leaders and more effective effective in the workplace because of their team experiences," Browne will say days later. She offers this coincidentally, without prompt, with no knowledge of Allard's experience, and here she continues, "Companies very regularly reach out to universities and ask if they can point out graduating, high-potential student-athletes. They realize they have the core leadership skills needed at their companies."
     
    ******
     
    Joe McKeown is again smiling. He and his 'Cat Women now travel to away games on either chartered busses or planes, and his players' skills and experiences are as far removed from what he confronted at Burlington as their uniforms are from the floor-length dresses worn by the first women to play basketball. They now enter their sport at the earliest of ages, hone their talents with diligence and passion, and--when the time arrives--are recruited as assiduously as any of their male counterparts. Their roster is now complete enough to hold spirited practices, their productions are now mottled only rarely by double-dribbling, and now they eat not at a McDonald's or a Sizzler, but at a training table or a fine hotel restaurant.
     
    But, we wonder, does Joe McKeown ever think back to those old days, back to those days of cheap eats and endless van rides, and this is when he offers up that last,  final smile. Then, eyes twinkling, he says, "Everyday. Everyday, everyday, everyday. And especially when we're on a charter flight coming back from Ohio State or wherever."
     

    The Morning After - Purdue

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's convincing 75-60 victory over Purdue on Saturday.

     

     

    Dave Soboleweski delivered a three just 17 seconds in and then, 45 seconds later, Reggie Hearn hit a foul line jumper. Next up was Alex Olah, who dropped in a short hook from the left block, and now it was Hearn with a deep three from the left wing and Sobolewski with a backdoor layup off a Tre Demps' assist. Not even four minutes had passed here in the 'Cats Saturday matinee with Purdue, but already they were up 12-0 and on their way to a 15-point win.

     

    ******

     

    The previous Saturday, out at Nebraska, Reggie Hearn struggled through a nightmare, ending that game with just six points while going two-of-11 overall and missing all five of his three-point attempts. Four days later, at Michigan, he was little better, going two-of-eight overall and one-of-three on his threes while collecting only seven points. Yet, as he prepared to meet the 'Cats, those poor performances meant little to the Boilermaker coach Matt Painter. "We told our guys, 'He can make shots,'" he would say after his team's defeat.

     

    "We treated him as a big-time shooter. It might not have looked that way. But we treated him and Sobolewski as the two guys you don't want to leave and (let) shoot a rhythm shot. But whether it was a pin down off an out-of-bounds play, or whether it was a transition shot, or whether it was a piece of their offense, he (Hearn) was getting into a rhythm. You just can't allow that."

     

    ******

     

    On the dais now are Bill Carmody and, to his left, Hearn and Sobolewski. "I've been hard on him for awhile now," the 'Cat coach is saying of the former. "I just told him to relax. You know. I told him I'd never say you were a walk-on again (which Hearn was at the start of his career). But I had to mention it yesterday, two days ago. I said, 'This should be the best time of your life. You're here, you're at a Big Ten school, you're getting a Northwestern degree, but you look sad. What're doing? Just go out there and play. You don't even have to listen to me. Just do what you do. That's good enough.' He did that today"--and here Carmody, the comedian, paused for a beat--"The not listening part."

     

    That elicited chuckles from his listeners and a broad grin from Hearn, and now Carmody continued, "See that smile. It's important. He's a thoughtful guy. Sometimes smart guys think a little too much and you've just got to go out there and do what you've worked hard at for a long time."

     

    And why wasn't he relaxed?

     

    "I couldn't tell you," said Hearn himself. "Maybe I was pressing a little bit. There were times where I felt the last couple of games I wasn't finding my role in the offense and things like that. Like coach said, maybe I was just thinking a little bit too much. But today, I just kind of stayed within the offense and released it when I had my open shot."

     

    ******

     

    Through all of Saturday's first half, both Hearn and that 'Cat offense were resplendent. They delivered an array of threes, and they converted backdoor layups, and they simply eviscerated a Boilermaker defense that found itself trapped in a revolving door. "I've always said this about Northwestern," Painter would later say. "If you can't defend them, it's like you have a flashing light on top of your head when you're out there playing. They just pick on you. At times in the past, we'd hide one guy who had that flashing light. But when you've got four or five guys out there with flashing lights, that's a difficult thing."

     

    "We played well. The shots went in," said Carmody. "But they were good shots, shots that we practice off our offense. We knew their center would play off our center. So we really worked the last few days on taking one or two dribble pull-ups. We made a few of them. Like I said, we executed very well. There wasn't any tension on offense, that's how I would think about it. Guys weren't, 'What do I do?' There was a nice flow to it."

     

    That flow would continue through all of this one's first 20 minutes and, when they ended, this was the result. Hearn had 21 points while going nine-of-10 overall and three-of-four on his threes, and the 'Cats had a 14-point lead after shooting 68 percent overall (17-of-25) and 66.7 percent on their threes (eight-of-12). "I don't know that my shot ever felt that good for an entire half," Hearn would later say, thinking back to his performance here.

     

    "But, from the get go, I think coach mentioned, we knew their centers would drop off on the ball screens. So we were practicing that pull-up jumper the last couple practices. I got my first one to go in, my second one to go in, and after that you kind of get in a groove. It's really good to see your first shot go in. That really helped get me going."

     

    ******

     

    Hearn would return to earth in the second half, tacking on just five more points, and that was true too of the 'Cat offense, whose shooting cooled off considerably. They would also be battered on the boards through the final 20 minutes, getting out-rebounded by 15, but here is why their lead never dipped below a dozen. They were tougher than a Boiler program that prides itself on that quality, they were more disciplined than a Boiler program that is built on that virtue, and they were unflustered when the Boilers even hinted at making a run.

     

    That happened first with their lead at 21 and after an 80-second stretch that bordered the surreal. It went, in simplest terms, like this: A Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler three while 'Cat Alex Marcotullio was getting called for a foul under the basket. That gave the ball back to Purdue and now came a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler layup with the chance for a conventional three-point play, a Boiler offensive rebound off the missed foul shot, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler layup, a missed layup by Olah and a Boiler layup that cut their deficit to 12.

     

    Right here, with a little over 11 minutes remaining, the 'Cats were on their heels and looking endangered. But now, off a media timeout, Jared Swopshire calmly dropped a three from the right wing to steady them, and then it was Swopshire again some five minutes later. This time the 'Cats were in a lengthy scoring drought, and this time the Boilers had come back to within 14, and this time he hit a three from the left wing to bury any thoughts they had of a late rally. "We couldn't get stops to go with our runs," Painter would later lament, and then--not unimportantly--he added this.

     

    "With all that I said before, obviously you talk about your own team, I thought Northwestern was great. Bill's done a great job. They were clicking on all cylinders today from an offensive standpoint. He didn't even have to go to his 1-3-1 defensively. I want to give those guys credit. They played a good game."

     

    ******

     

    These final observations manifest well enough just how well that offense clicked this day. Hearn, Swopshire, Sobolewski and Demps all finished in double figures and Olah ended with nine. Then, even more significantly, the 'Cats had 24 assists on their 26 field goals. "That makes you feel good as a staff that guys are sharing the ball and doing the right things," Carmody would say of that last stat. "Everybody seemed to be on the same page on both offense and defense."

     

    "When we have numbers like that, it's great for us," Sobolewski finally said. "It means we're flowing from one part of our offense to the next, that we're flowing through things quickly. I think we did a good job today scoring in the last 15 seconds of the shot clock. The last couple of games, when we got down to 15, we were kind of stagnant and weren't getting good shots. But today we stayed in our stuff and scored a lot of points as the shot clock was winding down."

    A Look Ahead - Purdue

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look at the development of freshman center Alex Olah as the Wildcats get set to host Purdue on Saturday.

     

    We are discussing Alex Olah, the seven-foot freshman center who often does not play that tall. "He doesn't dunk the ball. What?" yelps 'Cat coach Bill Carmody. "'Well, I try to outthink.' 'Outthink? You're 275 pounds. You're seven-feet tall. Don't worry about outthinking anybody.' You know. I just think it's habits. He doesn't have the habits and that's what we're trying to instill."

     

    "He's still learning--he's very strong and really big and has a really high IQ--but he's still learning how to actually use his body. That's the whole point for him," adds Ivan Vujic, the 'Cat assistant who works with their big men. "He doesn't know how strong he is and what he can do with this type of frame."

     

    *****

     

    Last Wednesday, in the first half of the 'Cats loss at Michigan, Alex Olah played timidly. But then, while scoring six of their first eight points in the second half, he went on the attack. "He was very aggressive, especially on our pick-and-rolls. He was rolling to the basket hard," remembers the forward Jared Swopshire. "He's a big guy. So when he goes to the basket hard, he's going to score or get fouled every time. That's something the coaches have been working on with him, and he's been doing a great job making improvements in that area. I know what he can do. I go up against him each day in practice. When he's aggressive, he makes the team better."

     

    Why is it hard for him to be continually aggressive?

     

    "He's coming out of high school. He didn't have to do that in high school. He's bigger than everybody. Now you get on the college level and everybody's just as big, they're stronger, so you consistently have to be aggressive like that. It's just getting used to doing it."

     

    So it's a mindset?

     

    "It's definitely a mindset. It's getting that aggressive mindset that I'm going to do this every time, even when I'm tired."

     

    ******

     

    "Go hard to the basket! Go hard! Go hard!" That is what we hear 'Cat assistant Fred Hill bark at Olah as he runs him through post drills. But then, in games, we watch as he ignores that dictum, eschews a drive to the basket, and either passes or offers up a baby hook. "I don't know. DNA," Carmody will say when asked why it is hard for his center to maintain his aggression. "He's a kid who hasn't been exposed to this kind of competition. He was here for two years at a little Christian school. The competition was horrible. They had only five good guys on his team, so practices weren't anything. So here he has to learn to come everyday. It's all new to him. But I'm seeing improvement in his work, in practices and stuff. But to tell you exactly what makes one guy have an edge and another guy look like he's a smoothy, it's hard to tell."

     

    ******

     

    So the learning curve has been steep for Alex Olah all through this basketball season. For he had grown up in Europe (Romania), where the game is slower and more nuanced and much less physical than here, and had played in the States for a tiny Indiana school called Traders Point Christian Academy, where his mere size allowed him to dominate easily. It was not natural for him, then, to jostle and brawl and sacrifice his body, which are all bare necessities for survival in the Big Ten.

     

    "In high school," even he admits, "I didn't have much competition against centers. But in Romanian and European championships, I met players that are taller and bigger than me. That kind of gave me an idea of how the Big Ten was going to be. But here the centers are more physical, and stronger and more athletic."

     

    And what's been the hardest adjustment for him?

     

    "Maybe the physicality. When I came to the States I was 230 pounds. Now I'm almost 280, so I think I'm making progress. But, yeah, the physicality is the most important part over here. I just have to compete hard and work hard everyday and do extra work."

     

    "He's been working hard, the kid," Carmody will later say. "In the mornings, he's working on his foul shooting. He's working on rolling and catching it and dunking it, all sorts of things around the basket. He's going to get better. He's watching tape. He's becoming a student of the game, is what I would say. So we just keep working him. We keep going and going and going, and I know he's going to improve."

     

    ******

     

    Olah's next chance to show improvement comes Saturday at Welsh-Ryan, where he will be matched up against  the Purdue freshman center A.J. Hammons. Their numbers are disparate. Olah is averaging just six points and four rebounds a game; the seven-foot Hammons, coming off a 30-point night against Indiana, is averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-game. But, Vujic will finally say of his charge, "In practice, he's shown big improvement. Now can he translate it from practice to the game?


    "We are coaches. But what's really going on not only in his head, but in everyone's head, is a big question mark. But I know he cares and he wants to get better. He realizes now he's got to figure it out. We tell him what he needs to do. But eventually he's going to have to deliver and do it on his own."