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."