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    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."

    A Look Ahead - Michigan

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look ahead to the Northwestern men's basketball team's contest at top-ranked Michigan on Wednesday.

     

     

    We're Number One...

     

     

    THAT WOULD be Michigan, whom the 'Cats visit Wednesday night. "We should obviously get up for every game in this league with all the notoriety of the league," said point Dave Sobolewski. "But, yeah, playing the number one team in the nation'll be a lot of fun and it's a great opportunity for us."

     

     "Sure. It's great," said his coach, Bill Carmody. "But I hate to say, 'This (is an) opportunity.' It seems like everybody we play, it's like it's an opportunity. It's not just Michigan. You're going to play Indiana or Ohio State or Michigan State. Those are all opportunities. I think we just have to take care of ourselves. How are we going to score? How are we going to put the ball in the basket? I think that's really important. It can't be just one guy. We have to get contributions, four guys in double figures for it to work."

     

    FIVE GUYS finished in double figures the night of Jan. 17 when the 'Cats won at Illinois. Three guys finished in double figures and another finished with nine points three days later when they narrowly fell to Indiana. Just three guys finished in double figures three nights after that when they upset Minnesota, who had only one player reach that mark, and last Saturday only two guys finished in double figures when they lost at Nebraska, where they played their poorest game in three weeks. "I'd say it's a little bit frustrating, but we've got to keep our heads level," Sobolewski said of that unexpected defeat. "We all know, with such a long season, there's going to be a lot of ups-and-downs. So we've got to keep level heads and bounce back and be ready to play."

     

    REGGIE HEARN, the senior guard and the 'Cats leading scorer, will certainly be looking to bounce back from his performance in Lincoln, where he finished with only four points while missing all five of his three-point attempts and going just two-of-11 overall. "They said he wasn't feeling too good," reported Carmody. "That was evident, if that was true. I never saw him play like that, to tell you the truth. I just hope it's an aberration." 

     

    Did he have the flu, something like that?

     

     "I don't know. He didn't say anything to me. See. He throws up before a lot of games. I'm talking to the team and he's in there doing his thing, and he's had some great games. But this one, I think he wasn't feeling well, which I didn't know about until after the game."

     

     

    THEIR FIRST GAME with Michigan was the last time the 'Cats had performed as poorly as they did against the Huskers. In that one, back on Jan. 3 at Welsh-Ryan, they quickly fell behind by 16, never threatened and eventually lost by 28.

     

     

    AFTER THAT GAME, not insignificantly, Carmody altered the 'Cats approach. Now they would look to succeed behind a lockdown defense and a patient offense that bled the clock and so limited the opponents' touches. It was no surprise, then, that Sobolewski said this when asked how they would approach Michigan this time around. "We need to contest every shot," he said. "We really need to start well, especially on the road, and play as good a defense as we can and try to tempo the game with our offense."

     

     "It's very hard to beat them going up-and-down. They'll wear you out if you do that," echoed Carmody. "So we definitely have to try and control things as good as we can. But it comes down to everything. You have to make shots. Ohio State beat them, they came out early just on fire. I think you need that kind of start if you're going to beat this team."

     

    THE 'CATS, you may recall, came out on fire at Illinois and that propelled them to their upset victory.

     

    ALEX OLAH, you may not recall, corralled four rebounds that night against the Illini. But since then the 7-foot center has gotten just one against Indiana, one against Minnesota and three against the Huskers. His sub, the 6-foot-8 Mike Turner, has been even more invisible over that stretch, getting no rebounds against the Hoosiers, one against the Gophs and one against Nebraska. Combined, then, that pair has grabbed just seven rebounds over three games in which the 6-foot-1 Sobolewski has gotten a dozen and the 6-foot-8 Jared Swopshire has gotten 32.

               

    This is why we wondered if Carmody has thought of going small. "Yeah. Yeah, I have," he said.

     

    ALEX MARCOTULLIO, the 6-foot-3 senior guard, has occasionally played center on offense already this season. He could do that again if Carmody does go small, and so could Hearn. "Those guys know what to do," the coach said. Then, on defense, the opponent's big man would be shadowed by Swopshire. "Definitely. If that's what coach needs me to do, I can definitely do that," the forward said.

     

    A WILD CARD exists here and it is redshirt junior Nikola Cerina, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound transfer from TCU. He has played little since badly spraining his right ankle against Fairleigh Dickinson. But on that night back in mid-November he gave a glimpse of his promise by scoring five points and grabbing seven rebounds in just 10 minutes of work. "He can definitely help us, especially down low in the post," Swopshire said of him. "He's the strongest guy on this team, hands down. Hands down. So we can definitely use him."

     

    So why hasn't Carmody used him?

     

     "I just want him to play well in practice. Practice, practice, practice," he said. "I want him to play well in practice, then he can get in there. Clearly we can use him. But he's got to be ready to perform, and all I have to go on is how you play in practice."

     

    And how has he played in practice?

     

     "OK. Just OK. He shows some signs. Maybe you can put him in there for 10, 12 minutes and see what happens. That's not usually my style...but you can tell, just with that body, that he could be useful. He certainly could be useful for us, so I probably have to get him in there."

     

    CERINA, who is listed as 6-foot-9, admitted that he is closer to 6-7. He also said, "I still feel consequences of the injury. I still have trouble sprinting and playing for long periods of time. Another thing is my physical conditioning. I'm a little bit out of shape."

     

    Still. There radiates from him that kind of toughness the 'Cats could surely use, and there is in him a willingness to give it a shot. "I talked to my trainer," he finally said here. "He said you might not feel 100 percent until June. So it's day-to-day now. We'll see. I'm able to play right now. I still have pain. But I can push through it. That's no problem."

    The Morning After - Minnesota

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on the second win over a ranked opponent in a seven-day span for the Northwestern men's basketball team which defeated No. 12/14 Minnesota on Wednesday.

     

    Last Sunday afternoon, even after his team fell to then-No. 2 Indiana, 'Cat coach Bill Carmody declared that it was making progress, that it was forming an identity, that it was learning how it must play to win. Late Wednesday evening, after it had upset No. 12 Minnesota, we wondered just how that was. "It starts with our defense. Our defense has really been able to generate offense for us," said the forward Jared Swopshire. "Then offensively, playing at the pace we want to play at."

     

    Guard Reggie Hearn, who was sitting next to him, now echoed those thoughts, but then--not insignificantly--he added this. "It's overall being a scrappy team that doesn't go away, a team that other teams don't want to play," he added.

     

    Moments later it was Gopher coach Tubby Smith who was behind the microphone and, when was asked about that scrappiness, his blunt answer not only sharply defined the difference between the two teams that had just faced off. It also described the foundation of the upset the 'Cats had so recently authored. "They always play hard. They're going to go after you. They're going to scratch and claw and be physical," he began. "If you're not careful, they'll get you out of your game.

     

    "Then you start complaining. That doesn't help anything. There's no excuses. But we have a tendency to take ourselves out of the game with our attitude. 'They're hitting me.' 'We're being pushed.'. . . You start complaining about something. Maybe somebody didn't do something. When you're losing, people point the finger. That's the way it starts. Instead of, it's my fault, you look at the ref, you look at the coach, someone's not doing something. That's what losers do."

     

    ******

     

    The 'Cats, even in defeat, have never looked like losers. Their offense may have struggled. Their shots may have failed to fall. Their roster may have been depleted by injury. Even their effort may have wavered on occasion. But always they have remained a cohesive whole, a virtue that was much displayed on this evening when any number of them took star turns.

     

    There was Swopshire, a bit player when he was at Louisville. He kept them in the game early with his shooting, continually jousted with the taller Gophs on the board and ended his 39 minutes of work with 16 points and eight rebounds and a pair of steals. "You know, he was a role player at Louisville and a good one," Carmody would later say of him. "So it's been hard for him-- from day one we've been telling him to be aggressive. You have to do more here. He can dribble, he can pass, he shoots, rebounds. But you can't just be one of the guys. You have to be a little more than that. I think he's recognizing that. I think he's playing batter and better because he's recognizing what's expected of him here."

     

    Has that been a hard adjustment, we wondered.

     

    "It hasn't been that tough," said Swopshire, a small smile decorating his face. "I wasn't a role player before college, so it's kind of getting back to old habits, I guess."

     

    There was Hearn, who ended with 13 points and five rebounds and two steals and a block, and the point Dave Sobolewski, who not only finished with five points and five rebounds and five assists and two steals. He also finished with no turnovers in his 37 minutes of choreography. There was the guard Tre Demps, who chipped in 10 points and buried a monster three during the run that won this one for the 'Cats, and there was the guard Alex Marcotullio, who not only made half of his four three-point attempts. He also picked up three steals while catalyzing the 1-3-1 zone that so baffled the Gophs. "Al has always been great at the top," Hearn would say of him.

     

    "He's always creating havoc and getting steals and getting his hands on balls, which led to some fast break points for us tonight. As you guys know, that isn't really our forte. But it was big for us tonight and Alex was the spark that made the 1-3-1 go."

     

    ******

     

    There were some glaring anomalies on the stat sheet handed out after this game. The Gophs had 20 offensive rebounds to only 10 by the 'Cats, which looks fatal. Yet the 'Cats ended with 12 second-chance points to only 10 by the Gophs. The Gophs also ended with eight blocks, which would indicate the 'Cats could do no work inside. Yet they ended with 20 points in the paint, the same as the Gophs. The 'Cats also survived despite some horrendous foul shooting (they finished just 17-of-32 from the line) and succeeded despite making only four of their dozen three-point attempts (they entered averaging 8.1 makes on 21.7 attempts).

     

    But then there were these numbers that hinted at the reasons for their success. They had nine steals. They turned the Gophs over 15 times. They held the Gophs to 33.3 percent shooting overall and 26.3 percent on their threes. And they allowed the Gophs not a single, fast-break point. As Swopshire would say, "It starts with our defense."

     

    ******

     

    The 'Cats trailed by seven with 15 minutes remaining. But now, in quick order, Swopshire dropped in an eight-footer after grabbing an offensive rebound, the Gophs missed a three, Marcotullio made a three and the 'Cats rolled out their 1-3-1. "It helped us a lot. It forced some turnovers, and I think that sort of made them a little flat-footed," Carmody would later say.

     

    "I think they were frustrated with the 1-3-1," said Hearn. "They couldn't seem to figure it out and they resorted to trying to beat us up on the boards, like they'd done in the first half. But thanks to Swop, we didn't allow that in the second half."

     

    "They do a good job in their 1-3-1," said Smith. "It's just, I'm disappointed we didn't get better. We didn't play very smart."

     

    His Gophs didn't play smart, and the 'Cats played like Mensa members, and now--with the 'Cats down five with 13 minutes remaining--this is what occurred. A steal by Swopshire that led to no points. A steal by Marcotullio that led to a Hearn layup off a Sobolewski feed. Another steal by Marcotullio that led to another Hearn layup and a foul shot off another Sobolewski feed that tied the game at 37. A Goph dunk behind the zone. A missed three by Swosphire. A Goph turnover. A Marcotullio three that put the 'Cats up one, a score that wouldn't change for two minutes. A Demps' three off a cross-court pass from Sobolweski as the shot clock neared zero. A missed Goph jumper. A pair of free throws by Demps.

     

    That is what occurred in just under seven minutes and, when this interlude ended, these were the numbers. The 'Cats had turned the Gophs over four times. The 'Cats had held the Gophs to one-of-six shooting. The 'Cats had outscored the Gophs, 13-2. The 'Cats had gone from five down to six up.

     

    ******

     

    The Gophs would linger through this game's last six minutes. But never again would their deficit be less than four. The 'Cats would continue to struggle at the line. But never would they lose that cohesiveness that has defined them this season. The Gophs would never exhibit any cohesiveness this night, which Smith alluded to again while explicating the work of the zone that undid his team. "We played from sideline to sideline instead of attacking the basket," he disconsolately said here. "They did a good job of making us pass around them, and they were aggressive on the ball. I think that's what makes them so effective, they really get in those passing lanes. If you're not patient; or if you're throwing up quick shots, which we did; or if you turn it over, which we did, it's going to lead to easy baskets. It's real demoralizing when you turn the ball over."

     

    But the 'Cats, that (to quote Hearn) scrappy team that doesn't go away, was never demoralized, which Carmody made clear when he finally said this. "That zone made the difference, all right," he finally said. "We got out and we just felt confident that we could stop them, and that helps our offense all the time."

    The Morning After - Indiana

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    Northwestern battled back against second-ranked Indiana in the second half on Sunday but came up a little short in the end. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back.

     

     

    The 'Cats have finally found a rhythm, and now they are down only five, and that playpen called Welsh-Ryan is alive and jumping and crackling with electricity. An upset is suddenly a real possibility, an upset of No. 2 Indiana, and here they set up in their 1-3-1 zone, which finds the 6-foot-1 point Dave Sobolewski under the basket. He is there now as Hoosier Cody Zeller makes his move and begins his drive, there as the center offers up a layup, there on the ground after the seven-footer barrels into him and sends him sprawling.

     

    Immediately, the referee Ed Hightower blows his whistle.

     

    ******

     

    The 'Cats knew exactly what was required of them entering their Sunday matinee  with the powerful Hoosiers. They had to control the game's tempo and they did, regularly bleeding the shot clock to the end. They had to limit their turnovers and they did, finishing with only a half-dozen. They had to keep Indiana from running and they did, surrendering only three fast-break points. They had to quell Indiana's explosive offense and they did, holding it to a mere 67 points (18.4 below its season average). They had to trust their own offense and they did, rarely straying from it to go off on individual forays.

     

    But to reach this moment when Hightower's whistle blew, to reach crucial moment when they were down only five with 6:20 remaining, they had been forced to climb a steeply-pitched mountain. They missed shots early, that was the reason, missed countless open shots through all of this game's first half. Jared Swopshire missed an open three just over three minutes in and then missed another a mere 32 seconds later. Sobolewski missed one more three some two minutes after that and on it went to half's end, which found the 'Cats seven-of-23 overall (30.4 percent), one-of-nine on threes (11.1 percent) and down 14 (31-17).

     

    ******

     

    As Sobolewski and Zeller collect themselves and rise from the floor, Hightower makes his call. The Hoosier got his shot off before he collided with the point and so his basket is good. But he also did charge on the play and so the 'Cats will get a pair of free throws. "I really couldn't tell. But the officials, I really didn't have a problem with them," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody will say when asked about that call.

     

    But was it a big call?

     

    "Yeah. Very big."

     

    "I think it was the right call," says Sobolewski himself. "He got the ball off before I stepped in there for the charge. So the call was fine."

     

    The call also changes the momentum of the game for here is what happens now. Sobolewski makes one of his two free throws and the Hoosiers, after a miss late in the shot clock, get an offensive tip from Zeller to go up eight. Then Sobolewski misses a jumper from the foul line and, at 4:52, the Hoosiers go up 11 when Victor Oladipo buries a three from the left wing.

     

    ******

     

    Zeller, the All-American, bedeviled the 'Cats throughout this afternoon. He scored 21 points while their centers, Alex Olah and Mike Turner, combined for only four. He grabbed 13 rebounds while that pair got but one. ("That's scary. They played 35 minutes and got one rebound. That's not acceptable," Carmody said of that reality.) Then, just as importantly, he ignored his 'Cat counterpart when he got the ball away from basket, stayed home to patrol the middle and defend the rim, and so prevented the 'Cats from turning to the backdoor layup when their outside shooting was so frigid.

     

    "You have to take that away," Hoosier coach Tom Crean would later say of his team's defensive ploy. "They're not going to be in the midrange much. Today, they actually did get some midrange shots. I don't know how he coaches. I know what their results are and how they get their baskets and you never see them taking a lot of midrange shots. It's the cuts, it's the back cuts, it's the drives to the rim, it's the threes. We did a pretty good job on that."

     

    They certainly did a good job of that in the first half, but early in the second Sobolewski dropped the three that signaled the 'Cats were frigid no longer. They would go five-of-10 from that distance in these 20 minutes, make enough from that distance to linger in the Hoosiers' shadow, and then finally--down 13 with 9:52 remaining--they caught a wave and rode it up to their heels.

     

    Reggie Hearn, a a force and presence all game, began this journey with a pair of free throws and then Swopshire, revitalized, dropped a three from the left side. Now Zeller missed a dunk, and Olah converted a layup off a pass from Hearn, and Hearn made a free throw, and the 'Cats were down only five when Hightower blew his whistle.

     

    ******

     

    Hearn, his 'Cats suddenly down 11 after that momentum-shifting whistle, steadies them with a jumper from just beyond the foul line and then, after a Hoosier basket, he draws a foul while taking a tough three. He drops all three of his free throws to cut their margin to eight at 3:24 and here, after a Zeller turnover, Swopshire hits a three from deep in the right corner and that margin is five at 2:31. Now Zeller makes a pair of free throws and Swopshire gets a backdoor layup off an Olah pass, Hoosier Jordan Hulls makes a tough runner and, at 1:17, Sobolewski offers up a three that can pull the 'Cats to within four. It looks sure, it looks true, it looks good. But it is long, and it caroms out off the back rim, and the Hoosiers grab the rebound, and the 'Cats start to foul, and the Hoosiers preserve their eight-point win by going seven-of-eight from the line.

     

    "I think we had a chance there, a couple shots," Carmody will later lament. "Sobo had a nice one. I think we were down six (seven, actually) and he had a nice little three there that could have gotten us there (to within four). Then you don't know if they make foul shots. There wasn't quite enough pressure on them to see if they'd make them if they had to make them."

     

    ******

     

    There is, in the cruel-and-real world of Big Ten basketball, no such thing as a moral victory. But this day was not a total loss for the 'Cats. "If we defend, we'll be OK," Sobolewski would explain when asked what they could take away from this game. "If we defend, our offense will figure itself out. We'll be OK on that end."

     

    "I think," Carmody would finally say, "we're starting to get some kind of identity, who we are, how we play, how we're going to play to win. That's what every team has to do. It seems to me we're making some steps. They may be incremental in some ways, but I don't think so. I think we're getting better."

    A Look Ahead - Indiana

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks ahead to the Northwestern men's basketball team's home game against second-ranked Indiana at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday.

     

     

    What is past is prologue.

     

     

    * SHAKESPEARE claimed that in The Tempest, and now the 'Cats must prove him correct if they are to take down No. 2 Indiana in their Sunday matinee at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

     

    * TO EXPLICATE, let us look at the week just past. A Sunday ago, in a late afternoon game at Welsh-Ryan, the 'Cats appeared generally disconcerted, shot 29.4 percent overall and 19.2 percent on their threes, and fell to lowly Iowa by 20. But four days later, in the hostile environment of Illinois' Assembly Hall, they appeared profoundly proficient, shot 47.2 percent overall and 53.3 percent on their threes, and ran away to a 14-point win over the No. 23 Illini.

     

    Obviously, then, their effort and execution and efficiency were hugely different in those two affairs, which we wondered about when we sat down with point Dave Sobolewski on Friday afternoon. "We just came out ready to play and knew we were going to win the game on the defensive end," he said, referring to the Illini triumph. "if Illinois was going to score 70 or 80 points, we had no chance of winning. So we made that a big focus of ours, to try and take them out of what they do and and to make sure we kept them out of their tendencies. We did a great job of that early on. We took them out of their game plan."

     

    How can you guarantee that same effort is there every game, we now asked.

     

    "It's just a focus issue, I think," he said. "Against Iowa, I don't think everybody prepared mentally the way we need to. But leading up to the Illinois game, we had some great practices, a lot better than the practices entering Iowa. So we need another two good practices here and then everybody needs to understand what we need to do to win, like we did last night."

     

    As a team leader, we now asked, is it his job to make sure everybody does understand?

     

    "A little bit. But I think it falls on everybody. Everybody's got to find their own ways to mentally prepare to play a game. It's not the same for every person. It's different for me than everybody else. So i think that falls on everybody individually to find whatever way it is to get ready to play a game. They just have to care of their business."

     

    "I think every single guy, something has to come from within himself," senior guard Reggie Hearn echoed when we later asked him that final question. "But as far as me being a leader, I have to provide that example. That's something I did not do well in the Iowa game, and who knows? It might have had an effect on some of the younger guys. Me not coming to play may have adversely effected them also. So I have to make sure I'm bringing 100 percent to each and every game. Hopefully that will filter down to some of the younger guys."

     

    * MENTAL PREPAREDNESS is certainly part of any formula for success. For a team that is not ready to play has no chance for a victory. But there was also a very concrete, pragmatic difference between the 'Cats performances against the Hawkeyes and the Illini, and it can be simply described this way. In the former game, they bled the shot clock, effectively paniced, got out of their offense, and ended up taking either rushed shots or bad shots. In the latter game, they bled the shot clock, retained their composure, kept running their offense, and ended up getting either open threes or backdoor layups. (The numbers reflect their efficiency in Champaign. For of their 68 points, 24 came on threes, 26 came at the line and 16 came in the paint. That accounts for all of them but two.)

     

    "We started every possession (against Illinois) with a little five-to-eight second delay to make them play some extra defense," Sobolewski would explain. "After that, we were just playing our normal game. That was part of our game plan and we executed it perfectly."

     

    So might we see the same plan against the Hoosiers?

     

    "I think so," said 'Cat coach Bill Carmody. "I just have to get across to our guys, we scored 68 points away from home last night. That's OK. You win games getting 68 points. So even if you're taking a little time, we were taking time against Iowa, but with 15 seconds left we broke down and didn't continue to run our offense. Then we sort of went one-on-one or ball screens, and it wasn't effective. So we're just trying to get across to them, you can score late in the clock with the stuff you're running. Stick with it."

     

    Is that why they got more layups than usual against Illinois?

     

    "I think we just, you know, it's hard to say," Carmody said. "But I think we had a plan going into the game, let's stick to it, let's not alter things midway through the shot clock. Let's stick with it and see where it goes. We had some early success, then we said, 'Oh, this stuff might work.'"

     

     

    * JARED SWOPSHIRE, the grad student transfer from Louisville, must be mentioned here, and this is why. In the 'Cats 11 wins this season, he has shot 48.8 percent overall, 44.1 percent on his threes and averaged 11.9 points. (Against Illinois, those numbers were 57.1, 66.2 and 12.) But in their seven losses, he has shot 30 percent overall, 15.8 percent on his threes and averaged just 4.6 points. (Against Iowa, those numbers were 16.6, 00.0 and two.) Obviously, then, he is an integral part of their offense, which is different from his days down South, where he was nothing more than the ultimate role player. "No doubt," Carmody said when we asked if that was a big adjustment for the forward.

     

    "I've talked to him a lot about that, and that was one of the reasons he came here even. He identified us as a place where he could do some more stuff instead of just stand in the corner and dribble, dribble, dribble. If he got the ball, someone passed it to him reluctantly. Here, I want you to score, I want you to rebound, I want you to handle the ball. So it has been a big adjustment for him. But I think he's got it now."

     

    * OBVIOUSLY, THEN, the 'Cats hope their Illinois past is the prologue to the performance they put on Sunday against Indiana. For that is the way they can pull off their upset, by controlling the tempo and caring for the ball and playing gnarly defense and operating with a cool efficiency. "We know they're a very dangerous team, offensively and defensively," Hearn will say. "So we're going to have to be disciplined, limit our turnovers and maintain the tempo of the game that we want to have. We're going to have to keep trying to impose our will with the tempo. . .and maintaining the pace of the game is about limiting their possessions. If we limit their possessions, we have a pretty good chance."

     

    "I think it's going to be very similar to the Illinois game in that we're going to win the game ultimately on the defensive end," Sobolewski will finally say. "We can't let them go crazy. We've got to hold their guys under their averages. They can score a ton of points and so, like Illinois, we've got to keep the game low, and hope it's close down the stretch, and be able to pull out a win."

    WATCH: Gov. Quinn's Proclamation

    WATCH: Gator Bowl Celebration Highlights

    While in town this morning to announce a $1 million Gigabit Grant to the City of Evanston, Illinois governor Pat Quinn also gave Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald a special proclamation declaring Friday, Jan. 18, "Northwestern Wildcat Football Day" in the state of Illinois.

    The Morning After - Iowa

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up his look back at Northwestern's contest against Iowa on Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.


    * Let us begin with Fran McCaffery, the Iowa coach. "I'm typically more concerned with their three-point shooting than their back door layups," he would say early Sunday evening, shortly after his team's 20-point win over the 'Cats. "They usually get you with one or the other or both. We've had trouble with them making multiple threes over the years. Ten, 11, 12, 13, 14. The first time I coached against them in this league, they made 14 in that game. That just blows the game open. So. We were up, we were up pressuring, and that makes it hard for the passer. Even if the back door cut's open, it's hard to make that pass. But what's hard to do against that offense is to sustain it the way we did. To me, that's what's most impressive. You can lock it up for short periods of time. But, normally, eventually they'll get you. Today they didn't."

     

    * Now let us turn to Bill Carmody, whose 'Cats put up just 15 first-half points against the Hawkeyes, just 50 points in the game. "I thought they defended very well," he said at one point.

     

    "We're having a hard time putting the ball in the basket," he said at another.

     

    "We're having a hard time figuring out who's going to score," he said at a third.

     

    "Our offense is really lacking, to tell you the truth," he said at a fourth.

     

    "We're doing too much dribbling, if you watch out there," he said at a fifth. "Sobo's (point Dave Sobolewski) dribbling around too much. Al's (Alex Marcotullio) dribbling around too much. Reggie's (Reggie Hearn) dribbling too much. We have to pass the ball and cut and share the ball more, then usually good things happen. Then tonight, that first half, we had some open looks. We missed about four layups (that were) sort of contested. But stuff you have to make if you're going to win."

     

    * The Hawkeyes, from the start on Sunday, did challenge the 'Cats defensively. They met the ball high, out beyond the three-point arc, and rarely did they surrender either an open look or the room needed for that entry pass that leads to an easy, back door layup. Still, with 9:33 left in the first half, the 'Cats went up 10-9 after Hearn dropped in a jumper.

     

    Yet they were shooting poorly, and their offense lacked rhythm, and it evidenced none of those hard screens and sharp cuts and crisp passes it needs to be effective, and so the inevitable now occurred. The 'Cats suffered a drought that produced this: one-of-10 shooting through the rest of the half and a 10-point Hawkeye lead when the break finally came.

     

     

    * At that break, the 'Cats were five-of-24 overall (20.8 percent) and one-of-11 on their threes (9.1). At game's end, those numbers were 15-of-51 (29.4 percent) and five-of-26 (19.2). "Tonight, it was just stagnant," Carmody also said of the offense that produced those figure. "But, again, I don't want to dwell on this, just our offense. It's been a problem now for awhile."

     

    * But, more than once, Carmody would allude to his veterans, who collectively struggled against the Hawkeyes. There was Sobolewski, who missed all five of his three-point attempts, finished just four-of-11 overall, and had nearly as many turnovers (four) as assists (five). And there was Hearn, who missed all three of his three-point attempts and finished two-of-six overall. And there was Marcotullio, who put up five threes and made but one. And there was Jared Swopshire, who missed all three of his three-point attempts and finished but one-of-six overall. "The veterans have to come through for us," Carmody would say. "I've been trying to tell our team, the veterans have to do it. Anything we get from our younger guys, right now it's gravy. It has to be your veterans, and I didn't think our veterans did enough today to make us win."

     

    "Coach is expecting a lot out of us, as he should be. We have to step up," said Marcotullio. "We just have to do more. That's the bottom line. We have to get more rebounds, knock down shots, of course. Do things that help the team win. That's the most-important thing."

     

    * This is important to note as well. The Hawkeyes opened young with a starting lineup of three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. But off the bench they brought sophomore Josh Oglesby and juniors Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe, and together they contributed 32 points on 13-of-22 shooting. "Their veterans won the game. Those guys had really good games," Carmody said of them.

     

    "The beautiful thing about bringing experience off the bench is you're doing exactly that. You're bringing in guys off the bench who have been there before," said McCaffery. "They've played against Big Ten competition. The other thing is, Zach, Melsahn and Josh can all score. So we're bringing in experience and scoring off the bench. That helps tremendously."

     

    Off the 'Cat bench, in turn, came Marcotullio and the redshirt freshmen Mike Turner and Tre Demps. They combined for 20 points on six-of-20 shooting.

     

    * One last notation. The Hawkeyes scored 40 points in the paint and the 'Cats, just 18. "I thought Al would come along, that if he got the ball inside, he'd be able to score a little bit," Carmody would say of freshman center Alex Olah, who had just one field goal and three points. "But he's shying away from stuff and not going up and dunking it, trying to avoid contact and he has to push through it."

     

    "We have to score more inside," said Marcotullio. "I think that'll open up our shooting lanes and we'll be able to drive-and-kick a little more, and get more cleaner looks out of the offense."

     

    * Those are some of the snapshots that help explain this 'Cat loss. But their underlying problem, their fundamental issue, was best explicated by Carmody when he was asked about Sobolewski, a point who is now looking to score as much as he is to feed. "I think he's feeling now, 'Who am I going to pass to?' That's where we are right now," he said here. "I don't think he's happy dribbling around so much and flying through there and all. But he's a competitor and someone has to help him out a little bit. It's all tied together. It's not this guy or that guy. That's how we talk to our team. Individually, we try to help them along. But we have to do it collectively."

    BLOG: Still Learning

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    There is certain bittersweet feeling that is reserved solely for a specific type of person: an athlete in her or his last year of competition. To those that have experienced this milestone in their athletic careers, no explanation is really necessary, and to those who have not, no explanation would be possible.

    I sensed this feeling creeping up on me the second I stepped foot back on campus. Walking into Patten Gymnasium for the "last" first time this year solidified my fear that my time at where I can honestly claim to be the Best Place in the World is coming to a close.

    Like any athlete, I knew this year would come, but I never really thought it would be here. And like any athlete, I stepped back into the gym with my sights set on making it the best year yet. What athlete doesn't want to go out in a blaze of glory.

     

    Little did I know that I would be doing something with my senior season that I had not once experienced in all 15 years of my athletic career- I would be watching at least part of it from the sidelines.

     

    Injuries are a tricky thing. You spend countless hours as an athlete training your body to do exactly what you want it to do and then all of a sudden you have no say in the matter. Injuries can bring out the best in an athlete and they can certainly bring out the worst. Most importantly, injuries can bring into focus lessons that were maybe never fully learned.

     

    The collegiate sport of fencing is scored much like tennis or wrestling whereby individual victories come together to result in a win for the team. Thus, fencers are always caught in a certain limbo, unsure of whether they are competing for themselves or for a greater team good. After three years of competing alongside a spectacular team, I thought I had finally gotten the whole "teamwork" thing down. Little did I know that by being taken completely out of the game, I'd learn what it meant to dedicate yourself to a group of people; to make their hopes and dreams your priority. I'd finally understood what it meant to want the best for your team, to want the wins, the glory and the happiness for your team, even if it meant watching it from the side of the strip.

     

    With all of this in mind, I'd like to dedicate my last first blog post to the 24 other girls I'll be sharing my last season with. But more specifically, to my foil squad and an amazingly impressive group of freshman that have more than risen to the occasion. I once came across a quote that stuck with me; "The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will."

     

    My last season ever will surpass any hopes I had for it if we can make your first season ever completely legendary. Good luck to the girls as they open up the season this weekend in California, and Go 'Cats!

    Penn State Primer

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    The 'Cats left early Wednesday evening for their Thursday night game at Penn State. Some notes and quotes gathered shortly before their departure...

     

     

    * Forward Jared Swopshire, the grad student transfer from Louisville, said the obvious. "This is a very important game for us," he said. "We're 0-2 (in the Big Ten) right now, so we definitely want to get a win."

     

    "I think it's huge," echoed true freshman forward Kale Abrahamson. "It's definitely a game we have to win and I think everyone feels that way. Now we've got to go and do it."

     

    * Last time out, on Sunday at No. 9 Minnesota, the 'Cats tried to grab off an upset win with an offense that bled the clock. That kept them close through the first half, which they ended up down only three (17-14), but then the Gophers exploded to run off to an 18-point win. "I don't want to play getting 14 points in a half," Bill Carmody said Wednesday when asked about the future.  "But somewhere between that and getting in the 80s is where we're going to win. In the 60s is where we're probably going to win some games."

     

    * The 'Cats managed only 51 points against the Gophs, 15.5 below their season average. But, interestingly enough, they did put up their normal volume of shots. Consider. In their previous five games, their field goal attempts totaled 55, 55, 56, 47 and 59. Against Minnesota, that number was 52. And again. In their previous five games, their three-point attempts totaled 24, 27, 13, 24 and 28. Against Minnesota that number was 23.

     

    We note this since, on Wednesday, Carmody also said, "I just think we have to forget that we've shot the ball pretty well the last few years, and in high volume too. We took a lot of threes. I think we probably have to take fewer and just be wise about the tempo in the course of the game and in who we're playing. But I definitely think we're going to be a little more cautious."

     

    Because of his team's youthfulness?

     

    "It's mostly youth. We're shooting probably 38 percent on threes, something like that, which is good. But it's when to do it, when not to do it, the time, the score. The young guys have to keep getting their minutes and improve."

     

    So will the offensive tempo change depending on the opponent?

     

    "It definitely changes. You run more at home probably. You recognize certain teams it's not the wise thing to do to go up-and-down. There's a game plan for every team in the conference. Very few teams say we're just going to play our game without considering the other team."

     

    * The 'Cats other Big Ten loss came at home against No. 2 Michigan. Still, when asked about starting his first conference season against a pair of Top Ten opponents, the freshman Abrahamson said, "I think it's been fun. You open the schedule with the No. 2 team in the nation and the No. 9 team in the nation. That's what you kind of dream about as a kid. When you commit to the Big Ten, that's what you signed up for. So I was really excited."

     

    * Still. That insouciance of youth is no substitute for experience, which Abrahamson is picking up as he goes. He moved into the starting lineup just five games ago, after Drew Crawford was shut down for the year, yet is now a major cog in the intricate offense run by the 'Cats. "Just how much information is thrown at you each day," he will say when asked the most-difficult part of his adjustment. "Carmody likes to put in new stuff based on what he sees. Especially with a new opponent, he'll watch film and he'll see where he thinks a weakness is and he'll put in a set to try to counter that and you have to learn that in one practice. That's the hardest part."

     

    Does he sometimes find himself thinking too much instead of just playing?

     

    "Definitely. That was my biggest transition coming in. I was used to not running as much offense in high school, kinda just doing my own thing and really just playing how I knew I could play. But now I gotta to really adjust to what Carmody wants us to do. So I've been trying to find that balance between playing my game and thinking out there."

     

    * Abrahamson is one of the seven true or redshirt freshmen on the 'Cats, a stat we throw out as a preface to this exchange with grad student Swopshire. "The attitude is, we're positive," he began. "Everybody's upbeat. We're just trying to keep working hard. We realize we're right there. It's just little things, you know. We've got young guys, and we're just trying to get them to come along."

     

    What's the biggest thing the young guys have to learn?

     

    "They just have to stick with what they're good at, and realize that it's not too much pressure on them, that no one's expecting them to do a whole, whole lot. Just go out there and play hard, stick to the scouting report, everything else will take care of itself. I think they've been doing a pretty good job of that."

     

               

    Then what's the toughest thing for them?

     

    "I'd say, defensively, remembering your assignments, remembering the little points of the scouting reports, whether it be we're switching ball screens, or we're hedging ball screens. Little things like that. Strategic wise, there are things you have to do that cause you to think a little bit on the go."

     

    Can that slow them down?

     

    "It can. You're thinking about what do I do here, what do I do there, and you can be kind of hesitant. As you mature, you comprehend all that stuff and go with the flow basically."

     

    * Carmody had an interesting take when asked the hardest thing for a freshman to get, to master. "Just practice with me everyday. I'm trying to make them accountable for what they're doing," he said. "Yesterday (true freshman center Alex) Olah was terrific for the first 45 minutes. I mean, really good. Then it started going downhill and declining. But for a whole practice, you have to be good, and then for a whole game. So I told him, 'Everyday try to be focused for 10 minutes longer. Then in two weeks, you have a whole practice.' He really looked sort of special yesterday, changed, but then he wore down. I think as much from the neck up, focus, mental attentiveness.'

     

    "If we had our normal lineup, they'd (the frosh) be coming in, not playing as many minutes and be able to give more of an all-out effort and be focused a little bit more," Swopshire had already said, presaging his coach's observation. "But you're playing more minutes and your mind can kind of wander a little bit and you feel like, 'Man, I'm tired.' We're just trying to keep those guys encouraged."

     

    * There was this bit of news Wednesday: JerShon Cobb, suspended for the season for a violation of team rules, is back practicing with the 'Cats and having an effect. "He's stepped up the level of intensity on the scout team, so we really have to play a different level of defense in practice," Abrahamson noted.

     

    "He's looked good in practice. He's brought a competitive spirit to practice, so it's been a good boost for the team," added Swopshire.

     

    "Certainly, with the injuries we've had, now (assistant) Coach (Tavaras) Hardy doesn't have to get in shape. That's one thing," concluded Carmody. "No. He's a scorer and the scout team is looking so much better. It's more real. He makes it more game like. So it helps us all the way around."

     

     

    * And finally, Carmody, on his freshmen-laden roster: "I don't want to keep saying this youth, youth, youth. I'm getting tired of it, to tell you the truth. We've played 15 games. That's a lot of games. (Sophomore point Dave) Sobolewski last year, first game we played LSU, he banged a three out of the corner than stole the ball to win the game. Go out there and play. You're getting opportunities, so now some of these guys have to start taking advantage of that."

    The Morning After - Michigan

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    NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on Thursday night's contest that saw Michigan show why it's ranked No. 2 in the nation with its victory over Northwestern.


    * Reggie Hearn, the senior guard, tested his tender ankle in warmups before the 'Cats faced Michigan Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. But then, just like Drew Crawford, he spent the game as a spectator. This meant they took on the second-ranked team in the country without their leading scorers and most-experienced performers. "I really feel bad that Northwestern's been hit with so many injuries," Wolverine coach John Beilein would say after his team ran off to a 28-point win. "While they certainly have good young talent, Hearn, Crawford, those are huge losses. If we lost people like that, we'd have the same issues they have. Inexperience playing in this Big Ten."

     

    * This affair was the Big Ten opener for both teams, and it needs little dissection. The Wolverines scored at least a point on each of their first nine possessions and rolled to a 20-4 lead with just over six minutes gone. Now, no matter the kind of defense they faced, they continued their offensive pyrotechnics, and at first half's end the numbers were these. They had shot 57.6 percent overall, had buried eight-of-their-12 three-point attempts (66.7 percent) and had put up 51 points, which were more than five teams had scored against the 'Cats in an entire game earlier in this season. Their lead here was, not surprisingly, a healthy 21, and it wouldn't slip below 17 in the half yet to come.

     

    "We just got off to such a terrible start. . .and weren't really able to stop them the entire evening," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later said.

     

    "I think we're going to be OK offensively. We'll make adjustments from that standpoint," said guard Alex Marcotullio. "But defensively is where we really have to improve. We have to learn everyday. We have to compete, and in that first half I think we didn't really compete for the first 10 minutes or so. When shots aren't falling, it's kind of deflating. But there're going to be game where shots aren't falling, and we have to play a grind-it-out-battle game. So we have to get stops. That's the main thing."

     

    * Not even their oft-stifling 1-3-1 zone could get stops for the 'Cats on Thursday. They switched into it on the Wolverines sixth possession of the evening, but here Michigan guard Trey Burke calmly dropped one three and then another. "He just creates problems," Carmody would say of him. "Even when we went to the 1-3-1, he was getting in there, which is bothersome. It didn't slow him down. Usually, that thing will slow down fast, penetrating guards. But he found guys and they were able to knock down shots. So we certainly have to work on that."

     

    "We keep messing up on the same things," echoed 'Cat point Dave Sobolewski. "We keep harping on it in practice, and eventually we have to start doing things the coaches get on us about. We keep messing up the same things in the 1-3-1. We keep missing assignments. We keep falling asleep on defense. A lot of it will come down to heart, how bad we want it."

     

     

    * Crawford, of course, is out for the season. Hearn, in turn, has not practiced since turning his ankle against Stanford on Dec. 21 and is uncertain for the 'Cats next game, which is Sunday at No. 9 Minnesota. So there, as their Big Ten grind continues, big minutes will go to true freshman forward Kale Abrahamson (28 against Michigan) and redshirt freshman guard Tre Demps (24), to true freshman center Alex Olah (18) and redshirt freshman center Mike Turner (19).  "What we have to do as a staff is coach these young guys and coach them hard. Everybody," Carmody, already looking ahead, would say Thursday night. "I just think we have to improve ourselves, get better at everything. Coach 'em hard in practice, see if we can do better than we did tonight.

     

    "I think some of the older guys, we've told them the last few days at practice, it's on the older guys. The younger guys, what they give us is going to be gravy. We've got about five young guys out there, freshmen or redshirt freshmen. It's hard. But Al and Dave and Swop (grad student Jared Swopshire), Reggie when he comes back, they're going to be the ones who make us win. Their work in practice is going to have to rub off on some of the younger guys so they can get better individually and we can improve as a team."

     

    * It seems appropriate here to recall an observation variously attributed to a pair of legendary characters, the late Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and the late Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire. The best thing about freshmen, both observed, is they become sophomores. But Carmody, his team physically battered, does not have the luxury of waiting for their maturation, and so now he will not only look to improve them in practice. He will also look at his team's style of play and adjust it to its current condition. "We may have to change the way we play, slow it down a little bit," he would say Thursday, hinting at what lies ahead. "The last four or five years we've been going up-and-down the court, scoring a lot. We've had a lot of drills where that's what we did, shot the ball quickly. I thought we had the team to do that. But right now, I don't know if that's the case. In fact, I know it's probably not the case. So we might have to change things a little bit."

     

    Will it be hard for him to go back to a slowdown style?

     

    "I don't know if I ever played slowdown. But I just know we can't go up-and-down the way we have been. Again, you have to go back to your older guys (and know) that they recognize you're playing to win. So how are we going to win? Especially tonight, it was probably my fault. We probably should have done it for this game. Being down a little bit without Reggie, we probably should have held things out a little bit more. A little more high-post stuff. I think we're going to have to go high post, bring them out a little bit, then go into low post, make guys guard us a little bit more before we take the first shot."

     

    "I trust what he's going to do and I think that's a good option here," Sobolewski would say when asked about that. "We took a lot of quick shots that we didn't need to take. Not necessarily bad shots. But in the context of the game, they weren't good shots by any means. If the clock had been 20 or 25 seconds later, they would have been decent. But you can't just start jacking shots up if we seem to be open."

     

     

    * Change, then, is both imminent and necessary for the 'Cats. For Thursday, as Carmody would finally say, was "A tough night for us."