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    A Look Ahead - Big Ten Tournament

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up a look at this week's Big Ten tournament at the United Center. Northwestern faces Iowa in opening-round contest at approximately 8 p.m. Thursday.

     

     

    * Iowa began the eight-game losing streak the 'Cats carry into the United Center, where Thursday they face the Hawkeyes in the opening-round of the Big Ten tourney. Still, says point Dave Sobolewski, "We're playing better than we had previously, so I think we're ready. The morale should be OK. We've got nothing to lose and we should be ready to go."

     

    "I think the guys are in a pretty good spot, actually, considering that we've lost all these games in a row," echoes his coach, Bill Carmody. "They seem pretty good to me."

     

     

    * In that 14-point defeat, which came back on Feb. 9 in Iowa City, his guys were down just a pair when forward Jared Swophsire suffered the knee injury that ended his season. This was a brutal blow to the 'Cats, who were already without Drew Crawford (shoulder) and JerShon Cobb (suspension), and now again they had to adjust both their mindset and their style of play. Emotion carried them through their next affair, an estimable effort in a 10-point loss at Ohio State, but then reality took over and now came a 21-point loss to Illinois at home, a 28-point loss to Wisconsin at home and a 31-point loss at Purdue. "Those first couple of games after we lost Swop were tough," Sobolewski recalls when asked about the learning curve the 'Cats faced after he went down. "Having lost our third major contributor for the year was definitely a challenge for us."

     

    "Defensively is where we mostly had to learn," picks up Alex Marcotullio, the senior guard. "He was basically the anchor of our defense. He was a big-time communicator and he made plays for others. He helped out in different situations. He brought a toughness and mentality to the game. He brought a lot of leadership and character and experience after playing in the Big East for four years and under a great coach (Rick Pitino) at Louisville. That was another thing we missed. His toughness and energy and the little plays that he made."

     

    "I think a lot of it after Swop was learning how to fight, how to fight harder," concludes senior guard Reggie Hearn. "Obviously we're undermanned and a lot of times we have a size disadvantage, so we've got to make up for what we lack in the physical area with our heart, with our toughness. I think we're starting to do that. I really liked what I saw from the freshmen in the game against Michigan State (last Sunday). I really thought they played hard, showed a lot of fight, showed a lot of toughness, a lot of heart, a lot of grit. That really helped us out as a team and hopefully that'll carry us forward well into the tournament."

     

     

    * The Spartan game, a 10-point loss on the road that was closer than that, followed similarly narrow losses to Ohio State and Penn State at home. "I think guys are starting to understand what we need to do now to still be competitive," says Sobolewski, which is one reason he can realistically say the 'Cats morale should be OK. Another is the recent improvement of redshirt freshman Tre Demps and true freshmen Alex Olah and Kale Abrahamson. None, to be clear, is yet a finished product. But Demps did have 11 points in East Lansing despite hitting just one of his six three-point attempts. And the 7-foot Olah did have a dunk among the 10 points he scored that same afternoon. And Abrahamson not only had a team-high 16 that day. He also grabbed four rebounds to run his total to 17 over the last three games. "I've been trying to hit the boards a lot more in the last few games especially because I know we need rebounds," he will say when asked about that last stat. "We're pretty small and there's a lot of big teams in the Big Ten. So I'm trying to make up for those rebounds Swop got."

     

    "I liked the way we played Michigan State at their place, especially the freshmen," even Carmody will say. "They all played pretty nicely, which was good to see."

     

     

    *Here are two more reasons the 'Cats can feel OK about themselves. They collected one-more rebound than the Spartans, whose rebounding margin on the season is +6.8. (The 'Cats is -6.5.) And they stood up to the Spartans, who are always tougher than a cheap cut of beef. "It gives us a lot more confidence," Hearn will say of that performance against the No. 10 Spartans. "Back during that stretch when we had 20-plus point losses in three straight games, that's tough. That can wear on you mentally. The way we've fought back, even though we've lost games, we've been in some close games now, and to play against a team like Michigan State and play that well shows us that we still have something left in us, that we can still play with a lot of teams in the country. That gives us some confidence going forward in the tournament."

     

     

    * To go forward, of course, the 'Cats must first beat Iowa, which not only toppled them in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes also left Welsh-Ryan with a 20-point win back on Jan. 13. "They try to beat us up inside, which is a big focus of ours," Sobolewski says when asked why they have been so nettlesome an opponent. "We've got to match their physicality in there. We feel if we do that and rebound, we'll be OK."

     

    "Iowa's just a physical team, especially in their rebounding and their defense," adds Hearn. "They kind of chuck the cutters, they hit the boards really hard, and those are things we struggle with as a team from time to time. So we've got to expect that and push through it."

     

    "They do a lot of different stuff," concludes Carmody. "They'll play man, they'll play 2-3 zone, they press full court, three-quarter court, which caused us problems against Penn State. They throw a lot of stuff at you and you have to be ready for it and not have any possessions when you're a little screwed up and don't get the shots you want."

     

     

    * And finally, Hearn: "We feel we don't have that much to lose. That's dangerous, when you have a team like that."

    The Morning After - Penn State

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's Senior Night matchup against Penn State on Thursday.

     

     

    Alex Marcotullio will serve as the symbol for the 'Cats Thursday loss to Penn State. This was Senior Night, his final appearance at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and through so much of the evening he shone brilliantly. He put in 34 minutes, the most he has played in any game over the last two seasons. He dropped six of his nine field goal attempts, all of them threes, went four-of-four from the line, and ended his display with a game-high and a career-high 22 points. He, most memorably catalyzed his team in the belly of this affair's second half, hitting five-of-his-six shots in this span and carrying it from 12 down to one up in just over eight minutes.

     

    But there were also his five turnovers, one of them late and fatal to the 'Cats chances. "It's about time something started going in," he said later when asked about his 66.6 percent shooting. "I've struggled all year and it was nice seeing some go through the basket. But too many turnovers. I think that was the deciding factor in the game. Those are possessions lost and points lost. I blame myself. What did I have? Five? That's crazy."

     

    ******

     

    That was just the kind of night it was for the 'Cats, who were an inconsistent mix of good and bad. Once again they started poorly, falling behind by a dozen after committing five turnovers and missing all four of their shots in the game's first five minutes. "We knew they were going to press, a little three-quarter court press, and I just thought we were careless," Bill Carmody would say of the Nittany Lion tactic that bedeviled his team through this stretch. "We were throwing the ball to trapping spots right over half-court, which you don't want to do without moving the ball from side-to-side first. Give them credit. But I thought there was a little combination of that (Senior Night) emotion and a little carelessness."

     

    "We just didn't handle it well," echoed the senior guard Reggie Hearn. "We knew they were going to play that 1-2-2 trap and we didn't execute as we had in practice. We were careless with the ball."

     

    Still, starting with a three from the freshman Kale Abrahamson, they willfully began to scale this hole they had dug for themselves, and just three minutes later they were back to within one after Marcotullio hit the first of his half-dozen threes. But now, on consecutive possessions, came a turnover by Hearn, a turnover by center Mike Turner, a turnover by point Dave Sobolewski, and like that were were back down by seven. Now again they stirred themselves, forging a tie at 26 less than four minutes later, yet here they floundered once more and found themselves down four as this first half finally ended.

     

    "First half I could see. There was emotion to senior night. The second half, it wasn't good," Carmody would later say, and this is why. His team started that half as poorly as it had the game and, with just over five minutes of it gone, the 'Cats were  again down a dozen.

     

    ******

     

    The first one came from just this side of his team's bench and pulled the 'Cats to within nine at 14:32. The next, after a miss, was straight on and came less then two minutes later. Suddenly they were within five and Alex Marcotullio was afire, and here one came from the right wing and another from the right corner and the final one from the left corner that put his team up a point at 6:15. Now Nittany Lion guard D.J. Newbill was called for an offensive foul and here, with the ball, the 'Cats turned to Hearn. "We ran a nice, little cut. Reggie had a nice cut," Carmody would later recall. "The ball was delivered a little late by our center, he bobbled it, didn't get (the layup), they came down and scored. From then, we were never again able to quite get over the hump."

     

    From then, in fact, from that moment of Marcotullio's final three, the 'Cats were never able to find the basket, missing their next 10 field goal attempts before getting a meaningless layup from Tre Demps with four seconds remaining. Their defense buckled through this stretch as well, the Nittany Lions successfully attacking their zone down low, but still, still, their deficit was only six as Marcotullio handled the ball in front of his team's bench. Another three from him would halve that margin, but here he offered a pass to Sobolewski in the right corner that was picked by Newbill with 1:18 remaining. "We were trying to get a quick look for me, I guess," Marcotullio later explained. "I up faked and I thought the guy was going to run at me. He made a nice play and stuck in the passing lane."

     

    ******

     

    Earlier, after he had fouled out with his team down four and 3:07 remaining, Reggie Hearn was accompanied by a standing ovation as he walked slowly to the bench for the last time at Welsh-Ryan. "I was a little (teed) off, so I didn't give it a whole lot of credence to it," he would later say when asked about that moment. "I heard it in the back of my head and it felt good. But at that point. . .I was thinking of how we could pull it out. I'm sure I would have appreciated it more if I'd been going out on a good note and I'm sure it'll sink in after the game now and I'll appreciate what the fans did for me. But at the time, I was (teed) off."

     

    Now, after his turnover, the 'Cats began fouling and the Nittany Lions made their free throws and the game was lost, and so here Omar Jimenez replaced him and Alex Marcotullio also received a standing ovation as he made his own last walk to the Welsh-Ryan bench with 10 seconds remaining. "It hurts. I wanted to go out on top here and sadly that's not the case," he would soon say. "But I left everything out there, and so did Reg and everyone else. I'm just happy to be part of this great program and university."

    The Morning After - Ohio State

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up his look back at Thursday night's contest between Northwestern and No. 16/15 Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

     

     

    They had never led through a languid first half and now, just over a minute into the second, the 'Cats were down 11 to No. 16 Ohio State. They looked here like a contender whose knees had been buckled by a champ's quick flurry, yet they kept their feet and regained their balance and not only refused to go down. They also responded with a flurry of their own.

               

    The first punch came from point Dave Sobolewski, who dropped a three from the left wing, and the second came from freshman forward Kale Abrahamson, who shot faked, got his defender in the air and drove the lane for a layup. Now came a Tre Demps three from the right wing, a Demps backdoor layup off a pass from center Alex Olah and a pair of Demps free throws that pulled the 'Cats to within two at 15:30.

     

    They had been battered in their last three outings, losing each by at least 21, but they had fight in them yet on this Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan, where now it was suddenly game on. The Buckeyes would go up four, would go up six, but back came the 'Cats, taking their first lead of the night after a layup by Demps and a layup by Reggie Hearn and an off-balance, falling-away three by Abrahamson just before the shot clock expired.

     

    "I liked the way we battled back, went ahead," Bill Carmody would later say, but now it was Ohio State's turn to do that and 88 seconds later they were up four. Yet again the 'Cats kept their feet, yet again the 'Cats regained their balance, yet again the 'Cats not only refused to go down. They also responded with another flurry of their own. First came an Abrahamson tip of an Olah miss. Next came a conventional three-point play from Olah. Then finally came a Hearn three from the left wing that pushed his team up one at 4:13.

     

    ******

     

    When this one opened, everyone knew what the 'Cats must do if they hoped to succeed. They would have to start better than they had in their last three defeats. They would have to shoot better than they had in those defeats. They would have to run their offense better than they had in those defeats, and rebound better than they had all season.

     

    This was asking a bunch from a group so battered by adversity for so long. But on this night they ignored the long odds against them and, from the start, offered a far different vision than they had over the previous 11 days. They did fall behind the Bucks by as much as 11 in the first half. "But," Sobolewski later said, "the good thing was we didn't let it spiral out of hand. We kept it under 10 and, whenever a game's under 10, you never know what might happen. We hit some big shots, we rebounded, we defended and just went from there. As long as we can keep it close, that's what we need to do at the start. We can't let it get out of hand like we have been."

     

    They did trail the Bucks by seven at first half's end. But in their locker room, Carmody would recall, "We said we think if we stay with our stuff, we can get shots we want. It might be with eight seconds left, or 12 seconds (on the shot clock), but you're going to get some pretty good looks. We went with a couple pet plays (at the start of the second half), got some open looks, knocked them down."

     

    They did get out-rebounded by the Bucks in the first half. But the margin was small, just 18-14. They did not shoot particularly well in the first half. But they dropped four of their 10 three-point attempts and that was enough to keep them close. They did not get much from the bottom part of their lineup in the first half. But--and this was not unimportant--that would change in the final 20 minutes.

     

    Abrahamson was certainly transformed in those minutes, which he infused with energy, grit, all of his nine points and six of his game-high nine rebounds (three of them offensive, which was more than any Buckeye collected). Olah, too, was more active in the second half, and ended his night with nine points and five rebounds and a team-high four assists. Then always there were Demps (14 points) and Sobolewski (13), a pair with motors that roared through the night and never tired even as they played huge minutes (36 for Demps, 38 for Sobolewski). "A lot of different guys contributed, which was good to see," Carmody would later say.

     

    ******

     

    It was a lot of guys, in fact, who helped push the 'Cats to their late one-point lead,  but again Ohio State came back, this time with a three from Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Now the ball was in the hands of the 6-foot-4 Hearn, who was doubled by a pair of 6-foot-7 Buckeyes, and one of them, Sam Thompson, kicked it loose, and suddenly they were up four after a foul line jumper by Aaron Craft. One more time the 'Cats set up their offense and one more time they committed a turnover, Smith picking off a Demps' pass to Olah.

     

    This one was not damaging, Thompson missing a pair of free throws in its wake. But then, for the third straight possession, the 'Cats turned it over, Scott Shannon stripping Olah from behind and feeding Thomas for the layup that pushed the Bucks' lead to six at 1:58. "Shannon Scott (who finished with four steals) was tremendous tonight," his coach, Thad Matta, would later say. "He was reading things, timing it up. We felt like we knew where they were going and that was probably the difference. We were able to turn them over 15 times (on the night)."

     

    "Their defense," echoed Carmody, "anticipated some stuff, got steals and run outs. The steals weren't just steals and possessions, but steals and fast breaks or run outs at the other end. We just turned it over a few times at the wrong time."

     

    Time, now, would finally run out on the 'Cats, who only now could not find a response. They were instead forced to foul and the Buckeyes made their free throws and eventually escaped with a misleading 10-point win. "We hadn't been playing competitive basketball, so it was certainly time," Carmody would later say when asked about his team's performance. "I think the effort's there and the guys are trying and I think they'll get better. It was good to see."

     

    "It was a lot of fun to play in a competitive game, but that's not what we play for," Sobolewski soon concluded. "We come into every game trying to win and we didn't do that tonight. I think we played all right. We played a lot better tonight than we have been, which is nice. But we didn't win."