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    Collins Takes the Reins

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  Special Contributor Skip Myslenski was on hand Tuesday as new Northwestern head men's basketball coach Chris Collins was introduced to the media.



    The father, as a player, had performed always with a fire burning in his belly, and it remained there still even after he retired and was doing little more than facing off against his young son in their family's driveway. He would roughly jostle the boy there in their games of one-on-one, he would mercilessly drill the boy there in their games of H-O-R-S-E, and never, ever, would he concede and let the boy win.


    "But you're supposed to let me win," the boy would whine after many of those games.


    "Your first instinct as a parent is to protect your son," the father would once say, thinking back on those moments. "But life's not that way. You get bumped. You fall down. And the measure of a man is how you handle hurdles in life."


    The boy, even then, was undaunted by life's many hurdles and so he stayed after his dad, stayed after him ardently and finally beat him when he was a blossoming 14 years-old. "I was trying to hold him. But my (once injured) leg (which ended his career) wouldn't go," the father, Doug Collins, would remember of that moment.


    "It was fierce," remembered the boy, new 'Cat basketball coach Chris Collins. "He wasn't about to give over the reins. There were some elbows thrown. It was pretty ugly. It was a great moment. He was pretty mad. . . But I'm glad (he raised me that way). I think that just made me real competitive as a young kid, and ever since then I've loved challenges. Some people have said, 'He can't do this.' 'He's too small.' 'He's too slow.' 'He can't really jump.' I look at all those things as challenges, but I've always been pretty confident in my own abilities. Not to the point of being cocky. But I've always believed in my ability to do things. I just try to go out and not prove people wrong. But to show people I can do it."






    Those memories were offered up over a decade ago, back when Chris Collins was a callow freshman guard at Duke. Yet they aptly explicate the foundation of the 38-year old man who was officially introduced as Bill Carmody's successor on Tuesday at a press conference at Welsh-Ryan Arena. "The guys will find out, it's going to be tough work," he said there at one point, testifying to that truth. "We're going to get after it on the court. Anyone who knows my personality knows that's who I've always been as a player and as a coach. We're going to have to step up and compete. We're not going to back down."


    "I understand there's a lot of work to be done," he more tellingly said at another point. "I'm not afraid of that. I'm a competitor. When I went to Glenbrook North (where he was named Illinois Mr. Basketball as a senior), they'd never done anything in basketball. People wanted me to go to other high schools because they didn't think I could win there. We started a culture there and it became one of the best basketball programs on the North Shore and still is to this day. Certainly when I went to Duke it was already established. But I had to go through tough times there as well. My junior year, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) got sick (and didn't coach the second half of the season) and we went from the national championship game to last place in one year. Then my senior year, we had a group of guys, we had to dig down and get the program going again.


    "So I'm not afraid of the work that needs to be done. I'm ultra-competitive. I'm passionate about what I do. To me, in life, if you love doing something, you want people to know about it. I know when I played, I was real energetic on the court, and some people liked it and some people didn't. But I always wanted the world to know I loved what I was doing. It's no different in coaching. I love coaching. . .(and) we're going to build a winner. I'm confident. I'm excited. But I also know it's going to take work. I'm not afraid of the work I'm going to have to do to get this thing going. I'm in it for the long haul."






    His experience stretches beyond Duke, where he was an assistant for the last 13 years. That is one thing to remember about Chris Collins, who also played in Finland, assisted Nancy Lieberman in the WNBA and served on Krzyzewski's staff while the latter guided the U.S. men to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics. That explains why, on Tuesday, his father would say, "He's ready. He's ready to roll. He's been ready for awhile. If you guys had the chance to see him with the U.S. Olympic team and see him coaching the pros, and the opportunities that Coach K has given him-- the thing that Coach K has done along the way, not only has he developed these guys as men, but as an assistant coach, you coach. You don't just recruit. You're on the floor coaching. That sometimes gets lost in the, 'Well, he's never been a head coach.' Well, nor was I when I came to Chicago at 36 (to take over as coach of the Bulls). Somebody's got to give you your first opportunity. Dr. (Jim) Phillips (the 'Cat AD) and Mr. (Morty) Shapiro (the school president) have given him that opportunity, and I know he's going to run with it."


    He is also a realist. That is one more thing to remember about Chris Collins, who knows full well that many have opined that the 'Cat facilities have hampered their quest for basketball success. "My goal for Welsh-Ryan is let's make it a heck of a home-court advantage," he would say Tuesday. "Let's get these seats packed. Let's get everybody wearing purple. Let's see what it's like when you have 8,000-plus people in here going crazy for Northwestern basketball. . . If you walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke's playpen), no one goes in there and talks about how state-of-the-art it is. You talk about the atmosphere because of the people that are in it, and the hunger of the crowd, and the excitement. That's what we have to build. We have to put a product on the floor the people are going to be excited about."


    He is, in addition, a pragmatist. This is one more thing to remember about Chris Collins, who was taught by the master basketball minds of both his father and Mike Krzyzewski. "One thing I believe about coaching is you should tailor what you do based on your personnel," he would say Tuesday, echoing the approach of those mentors. "I will create a system that I feel is going to benefit the pieces we have. I don't believe in having a strict system you plug guys into year-after-year. That's not how I coach. I want to showcase my star players, my best players. I want to put them in a position to be successful, and then complement them with the right pieces."


    He is, finally, just where he wants to be. That is the final thing to remember about Chris Collins, whose emotions were palpable enough on Tuesday that his voice sometimes cracked as he answered questions. "It's a dream come true," he said at one of those moments. "To be in basketball my whole life and to now be sitting up here as the head coach of Northwestern of the Big Ten, the highest level of college basketball, it's pretty overwhelming-- in a good way. I just think how hard I've worked to get here. It's a special day, for sure. . .


    "You may all talk about going to the NCAA Tournament and those things and, sure, that's going to be a great milestone when we get there. But my goal is to build a top-notch basketball program. I want to be here for a long, long time. It's exciting for me to put my imprint on this university, on this school. It's an exciting day. It's a good day. It's a good day. I'm really excited to be here and I can't wait to get to work."






    The father, on Tuesday, is reminded of those games they played so long ago on the family's driveway, and he smiles. "He's a competitor. He's been around a competitive dad. He's always been in a competitive environment," Doug Collins then says. "I never let him beat me in horse or any of those games. To me, that's false praise and to me false praise sometimes is much more deadly than the truth. Because kids start thinking this is the way it is when the truth is, 'You know what, you've got a long way to go.' I mean, if Chris were afraid of challenges, he never would have gone to Duke. Everyone said he would never play at Duke. But he went down there, scored a thousand-something points, started on a Final Four team, became the bridge with the other guys when Coach K got sick to get them back to the NCAA Tournament, and then sat next to Coach K for 13 years. So he's been around competitiveness, and that's what this is about."


    The son also smiles when reminded of those games. "It made me the competitor I am," Chris Collins then says. "He never let me win at anything. That was a lesson. So you know when you win, you've earned it. So even though I didn't know it, and I was crying a lot and was upset, it feels that much better when you win because you know nothing was given to you."


    And did those games help prepare him for his new challenge here?


    "Absolutely," he finally says. "I feel, I've been so fortunate my whole life to be around basketball and great coaches and players, everything I've learned has prepared me for this day. Now it's on me to take it and run with it."

    A Look Ahead - Big Ten Tournament

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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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  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."

    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

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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."

    A Look Ahead - Purdue

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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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  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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  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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  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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  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 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. 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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  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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  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

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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 - 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. 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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  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."

    The Morning After - Iowa

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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."

    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

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks 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."

    The Morning After - Brown

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Northwestern's 63-42 victory over Brown on Sunday to close out the Wildcats' nonconference portion of their schedule.

    FIRST, AN UPDATE: Senior guard Reggie Hearn, the 'Cats leading scorer who twisted his ankle during their Friday night loss to Stanford, sat out their Sunday win over Brown. "But I'm sure he'll be back. Friday, we'll be back for practice and they seem to think he'll be OK," Bill Carmody said after that 21-point victory.


    COLOR THEM RUST, NOT BROWN: The Bears were coming off exams and playing their first game in 15 days. "That's not easy. You've got to acknowledge that," said Carmody, but it certainly made the 'Cats task easier. They hit five-or-their-first six three-point attempts as their opponents reoriented themselves to competition, and led 15-0 with just over four minutes gone. From here that lead would never be less than eight and would once swell to as much as 33.


    THE STOPPER: Brown guard Matt Sullivan, a Loyola Academy grad, entered this affair averaging 15.7 points-per-game, the best in the Ivy League. But at Welsh-Ryan he could never escape 'Cat forward Jared Swopshire, who attended him as ardently as a mom does her new-born babe. Sullivan, as a result, missed his first six shots; got his only basket of the day on a back-door layup at 8:22 of the second half; and then fouled out with just those two points a little over a minute later.


    Swopshire's work here represented the work of the entire 'Cat defense, which held Brown to just 30.6 percent shooting overall, to 28.6 percent shooting on its threes and to 21.5 points below its season average. "I thought, overall, our defense was pretty good," Carmody later said. "It seemed every 10 minutes they got 10 points. You win a lot of games if you do that."


    REASON TO BELIEVE: The 'Cat offense, this season, has occasionally sputtered and appeared out-of-sorts. But Sunday, even without Hearn and (of course) Drew Crawford, it often hummed, which is why it ended with 48.9 percent shooting overall, with 54.2 percent shooting on threes, and with 21 assists on 23 field goals. It produced only one double-figure scorer, point Dave Sobolewski, who ended with 14. But, not insignificantly,  Tre Demps and Kale Abrahamson and Alex Marcotullio each finished with nine, and Swopshire and Alex Olah each finished with eight. "I thought we ran through our stuff nicely and our shots went in, our shots went in," Carmody said of his offense at one point. "Usually that happens. Nobody was breaking plays, they were executing like they do in practice. That was good to see."


    At another point, not insignificantly, he also said, "I think we actually learned a lot tonight, I really do. If you execute--you've still got to make the shots on offense--but if you execute, you're going to get the kind of looks we think we can make."


    HE LEARNED: Sobolewski missed all six of his field goal attempts last Friday against Stanford and, on Sunday, he also missed the three he took in the first half. He finally dropped a three from the right wing at 17:43 of the second and, in that half, he would go five-of-six and collect all of his team-high points. "Sobo, he's had a rough time," Carmody later said of his performance. "I think I told him in one of the time outs, he's a bulldog, So-bo-lew-ski. He's a hard guy, drops his shoulder, puts his elbow out on anybody. I told him he has to be a little bit more like a French poodle, but not quite that. Shooting off the bounce. If there's space, shoot it. You have to be a threat. Just don't go in there and hope for the best. He hit some big shots out there today. I think that's going to help his whole game."


    "I know what he's saying," Sobolewski himself would say. "I don't always have to be, like he said, a bulldog trying to get into the lane and finish with a foul sometimes. Maybe it's a floater, maybe it's a pull-up, a little 10-to-15 foot pull-up. I agree. If I could add that part into my game, I think that would be a big help."


    THEY MUST LEARN: At one point in the second half the five 'Cats on the court were the sophomore Sobolewski; the redshirt freshmen Demps and Mike Turner; and the true freshmen Abrahamson and Sanjay Lumpkin. There was a reason for that. This was the 'Cats final game before Big Ten play, and Carmody was looking to feed his youngsters that experience they will need in the withering conference battles to come. "Everyday you're teaching. Everyday you're teaching because you've got new guys," Carmody said of working with a group that now has only three players experienced in his system (Marcotullio, Sobolewski and Hearn).


    "So everyday I'm on Kale's tail. 'You've got to do better. You've got to do better.' You want them to play, all right? We have good freshmen, I think, very talented young guys. We played the other night against Stanford and that kid from Bishop Gorman, 6-8, Rosco (Allen), he was one of the most-highly recruited guys in the country. But he's not quite there yet, some nights you don't notice him. That's what happens with freshmen. It takes time, all right. It takes time. But the more playing time they get in games, in different kinds of games, the better they're going to be."


    "Everyday is more-and-more experience for them, which gets us better and better," Sobolewski would later add. "Everyday in practice, I think some of these freshmen need to learn we get on them because they need to start picking it up. They're doing a great job of it. But the more we tell them what they're doing wrong, the more they'll learn. There's definitely still room for improvement. At this time last year, I had a lot of room for improvement in terms of knowing the offense. As coach said, we just have to get better with it, and all this experience they're getting now is huge for us. We see it everyday. They're starting to pick more things up and starting to make better reads on the court, so I think they're coming along well."


    And just how far as he come, Abrahamson was now asked.


    "A long way," he said with a smile. "You should have seen me the first day of summer school. I was getting beat back door. I was messing up every second. Pretty much the whole summer, I didn't really improve. But at this point it's gotten a lot better and it's the same with everybody. I can see steps each day."


    SO, IN THE END, THIS WAS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE: "It's huge. It's huge to not only get the win, but to come out and play well," Sobolewski would finally say when asked the significance of this win. "It was tough not having Reggie out there. Regardless of the opponent, he wasn't ready to go. We think, we're pretty sure we'll have him back for January. But it was great coming out and playing well. As coach said, I think we learned a lot today. We communicated the best we have all year on defense in terms of talking out there, switching when we needed to switch, fighting over screens when we needed to do that. So especially on the defensive end, we learned what it takes to shut people down."

    The Morning After - Stanford

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    Despite a close loss to Stanford on Friday night, Special Contributor Skip Myslenski writes that the Wildcats got some much-needed contributions from a pair of players off the bench.

    Every team needs a performer like Tre Demps, who can create a shot in a time of need. The modern game demands that now, as did the 'Cats Friday night game with Stanford, and so it was no surprise that the ball found its way to his hands as this one rushed toward its conclusion. The 'Cats were now down two and less than 10 seconds remained and here he drove from the right side into a thicket of bodies. "We were trying to penetrate, have a couple good shooters in, Sobo (Dave Sobolewski) and Jared (Swopshire), to get in the lane a little bit and then find (either Demps or Alex Marcotullio)," Bill Carmody would later say. "But they handled that pretty well. Then Tre found an opening."


    "I just tried to get in the lane and penetrate, maybe to find somebody," explained Demps himself. "But I knew things were getting kind of mixed up a little bit, and I knew the handoff was coming my way. I saw the switch, and I knew I could get by (Cardinal defender) Dwight Powell."






    Every team needs a performer like Alex Marcotullio, who can provide leadership and that proverbial spark popping off the bench. The unpredictable flow of games demands that now, as did the 'Cats Friday night game with Stanford, and so it was no surprise what occurred when he entered that fray at 7:23 of the first half and his team switched into its 1-3-1 zone. He is the head of that defense, the one who plays up top, and in that role, says he, "I'm just trying to take them out of their comfort zone. That's my job at the top, to get the start of their offense off-balance and just to create a little havoc out there."


    Until this moment at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the only thing off-balance in this game had been the 'Cats themselves. They had led it 2-0 just 23 seconds in, but then went down one 13 seconds later and now slowly, inexorably, slipped into a hole deeper than space. There was little hop to their step, there was little amp in their energy, and their offense was best symbolized by what occurred on the plays just before and just after Marcotullio entered here. First, far out on the court, Mike Turner shot a simple pass toward Kale Abrahamson, but Abrahamson cut as the pass was made and the ball ended up in the Cardinal bench. Then, less than a minute later, Turner sent a back-door pass toward Sobolewski, but the point's way was blocked and he aborted his cut and this ball too ended up out of bounds.


    That helps explain why the 'Cats had scored just 14 points in this game's first 14 minutes, helps explain why the 'Cats trailed by 18 with under six minutes remaining in the first half. But here, at 5:25 of that half, Marcotullio hit a three from the left side; the defense he headed began to create the desired havoc; and suddenly, unexpectedly, they exploded into an improbable run. "I don't know if our offense got that much better. I think it did," Carmody would later say. "But we certainly got some steals and changed the tempo of the game with our defense. I felt we were running our offense much better. I felt we were settling in the first 10, 12 minutes, trying to do too much too quickly, but after awhile we got some things that we actually work on and they were effective."


    "We started to come up with those loose balls and started to score some easy buckets," said Marcotullio himself. "I think that helped our offense flow a little better. We were getting from one thing to the next. We were scoring inside, and now that we were scoring inside, we were getting looks for the three."


    Now, just a little over three minutes after his defense and his three started this run, Marcotullio stripped Cardinal Chasson Randle and finished a break with an old-fashioned three, with a layup and a foul shot. Then, after a Cardinal miss, he fed Reggie Hearn and Hearn drove the left baseline and kissed in a reverse layup, and now these were the facts. After scoring just those 14 points in this game's first 14 minutes, the 'Cats had scored 17 in just four. And after allowing Stanford to scorch them for 32 points in this game's first 14 minutes, they had shut them out in those four. And after trailing by 18 at the end of this game's first 14 minutes, they had closed that margin to just one.


    A Cardinal three just before the buzzer would leave them down four at the half. Still. Now, finally, the game was afoot.





    Every team needs a performer like Tre Demps, who can create a shot in a time of need. The modern game demands that now, as did the 'Cats Friday night game with Stanford, and so it was no surprise that his presence was felt when he reentered this fray with 11:20 remaining. "Tre has a knack for getting in the lane and stuff," Carmody would say of him. "He really hasn't played that much, you know, so he's just feeling his way around things. But certainly in the last few games he's played he's done extremely well, and helped us come back."


    The 'Cats here were in need of help. Sobolewski, their resilient point, was struggling with his shot, finally ending this affair with just a single point after going 0-of-6 from the field. Swopshire, their versatile forward, was scuffling to get shots, finally ending with six points on only six of them even as he did so much else so well (seven rebounds, five assists and a steal). Then there was Reggie Hearn, who had been a force in the first half, scoring a team-high 14 points and collecting a team-high six rebounds. Just under three minutes into this second half, on a drive to the basket, he collided hard with Randle, came up limping, and exited the game for good 90 seconds later.


    Still, when Demps entered it four minutes after that exit, the 'Cats were down only four, and here he threw them onto his shoulders. He hit a short, running hook from the right side and then, after a free throw by Alex Olah, a back door layup off a Swopshire pass. He aired his next two floaters, but then dropped a three from the left side and a runner in the lane to tie this one up at 61 at 6:34. Another three, this one at 1:50, tied it at 67, and when this game finally ended, these were the facts. In its last 11:20, he went five-of-10 from the field and scored all of his dozen points, and the rest of the 'Cats went two-of-six from the field and contributed seven points. "I felt a little rhythm, a little pep in my step," he said later when asked about this outburst. "But I wanted to keep the team in mind. It seemed we were having trouble getting into the lane, and I just wanted to get in the lane and make some plays."


    Now, in the lane again and trying to make a play, Tre Demps offered the shot that would push this game into overtime, and for a heartbeat the ball posed there on the rim. "A very good shot," Carmody would call it, but here it fell off the rim and toward a skying Swopshire. He seemed set to corral it, but from behind it was knocked away and into Sobolewski, and then it bounced out-of-bounds to the Cardinal and this one was over.


    "Yeah, I thought it might bounce in," Tre Demps would soon say. "I tried to give it a little touch. But it didn't fall."

    Before You Go...

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    Skip Myslenski chats with Kain Colter and Pat Fitzgerald following the team's final practice before dispersing for the holidays. The team will reconvene on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 25.

    * Often, during this season, Pat Fitzgerald and any number of players have talked positively of this team's chemistry, of this team's cohesiveness, of this team's resilience and leadership. Quarterback Kain Colter would do that again Thursday when asked how this bowl experience, his third, differs from his first. "I think this team is a lot different, the dynamic of this team, all the athletes we have, how close we are, how everybody gets along," he said here. "Every year, we've been real close and I feel this year we have the most talented team we've had in a long time. So we're going to keep working on that, keep building on that, and hopefully we'll get this W."

    Making comparisons to the past can be a sensitive matter. But when pressed to specify differences, he did say, "Those guys last year worked their butt off and they wanted it bad, just as bad as this team. But I think the difference between this year's team and last year's team is our confidence level. You look back at this season, we've dominated almost every game, and the games that we lost, we let it slip. So our confidence level is high, that's the biggest thing, so even when we're down, we know we can play better, we know we can play with any team that's on the field that Saturday and strap it up and play well. Like I said, it's our confidence. Guys last year, they wanted it too. But we had a rough season last year, and here we're building and our confidence is up and guys are eager to make plays."

    Wildcats Size Up Bowl Significance

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    He has long dreamt, he said often this season, of playing college football. But not until he viewed the 2006 Rose Bowl did 'Cat true freshman superback Dan Vitale appreciate the special nature of the postseason. That affair matched Texas and quarterback Vince Young against USC and running back Reggie Bush, and even now Vitale will say, "I remember that game perfectly and how it finished up. That's when I got into the whole bowl-season thing as a young kid."

    And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?

    "It's a cool feeling, seeing that on TV and knowing that I'm there now and, as a true freshman, being able to go to a different state and play in a game like this. It's crazy, especially at this school where we haven't had a bowl win in a while. It's crazy knowing that we get that shot (to end the drought) and I get to be part of that."

    For Dean Lowry, the true defensive end, the postseason epiphany came later, came as he watched the 'Cats do battle with Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl. "That's the one that stuck out for me," he remembers. "After that, I was really interested in Northwestern. (I liked) the way they played and the intensity they had, that never-give-up mentality. So that game definitely sticks out for me."

    And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?

    The Morning After - Texas State

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on the Northwestern men's basketball team's late comeback Monday night that led to a 74-68 home win over Texas State.

    The 'Cats were scuffling and struggling and already down four, and now Texas State forward Corey Stern accepted a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk and grabbed the rim and celebrated by doing a pull-up. Immediately, he was hit with a technical. "I think it was major. That was major," Bill Carmody would say when asked of that call. "It quiets things down from a dunk, that momentum from a dunk, something positive and sometimes very emotional, to we're shooting fouls and (get) the ball."


    "It was huge for us," added his point, Dave Sobolewski. "Just knowing we had a chance to get two free throws and have possession afterward was a nice mental boost for our group. That was definitely a big play for us."


    "That," concluded guard Reggie Hearn, "would have been a big momentum play for them. But it kind of shifted it our way. It was a huge momentum shift for us."




    This was Monday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats played for the first time this year without their senior star Drew Crawford. He is headed toward season-ending surgery on his damaged right shoulder, and now his minutes would be spread among guys like true freshman Kale Abrahamson and true freshman Sanjay Lumpkin and redshirt freshman Tre Demps.


    Abrahamson, who got the start, would end this evening with nine points but only two rebounds in his 23 minutes. Demps, an explosive scorer, would get a dozen in 14 minutes before limping off with a twisted right ankle. Lumpkin would get little time, but the biggest point was made when Sobolewski was asked where the 'Cats would most miss Crawford. "Just his senior experience, his scoring and, defensively, his length and athleticism," he began, and then his response hit that point.


    "I don't know if you guys can notice. The freshmen are still kind of trying to figure things out a little bit. There's a difference between when there's some freshmen in there and when there's only older guys in there. Obviously, it's great for them that they're getting these minutes. Soon enough you won't be able to tell the difference. So obviously we're going to miss Drew immensely throughout the year on both ends of the floor. But at the same time it's good for these young guys to get these minutes."




    A 'Cat calling card this season has been their defense, which was allowing opponents an average of just 59.1 points-per-game as they took on Texas State. But in this one's opening 20 minutes, the Bobcats shredded it for 39. They were quicker to the basket, quicker around the basket, quicker overall, and when the first half ended they were up a pair. "They were scoring too easy," Sobolewski would say. "I don't know how many points in the paint they had. (It was 16 in the first half, 32 for the game.) But it was way too many. We just weren't defending as well as we needed to."


    That defense tightened some early in the second half and now, in its first seven minutes, Abrahamson hit a three and Jared Swopshire hit a three and Hearn hit a three and Abrahamson it another three and Sobolewski hit a three that put the 'Cats up eight at 13:10. But here, in short order, Sobolewski picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench at 12:19; the 'Cat offense stagnated in his absence and put up just five points in the six-and-a-half minutes that he sat; and the Bobcats went up by four.


    Sobolewski himself stanched the tide with a foul shot with just over five minutes remaining, and now the 'Cats switched from man and rolled out their 1-3-1 zone defense. On their first possession against it, the Bobcats' Stern got a layup. On their second possession against it, the Bobcats' Matt Staff turned the ball over. On their third possession against it, Stern accepted a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk and grabbed the rim and celebrated by doing a pull-up. "Our guys recognized, 'OK, we're back in this thing,'" Carmody would say, once more looking back to this moment. "Then some of the older guys took over."




    Just 3:31 remained as Swopshire prepared to shoot the technicals with his team down six. This would not be a good evening for the 'Cats at the line, where they ended just 14-of-25, and so here it was no surprise that he made only one of his two. But on the court now were their older guys, and here these veterans showed the value of experience. First up was senior Alex Marcotullio. He drove hard and kicked to senior Hearn, who made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Next up was redshirt freshman center Mike Turner, who was on the court instead of true freshman center Alex Olah. He stripped Staff before the Bobcats could get off a shot.


    Then it was the turn of grad student Swopshire. He delivered a beautiful backdoor pass to sophomore Sobolewski, who made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Now Swopshire rebounded a Staff miss and here, at 1:45, Sobolewski hit a deep three from the right side that put the 'Cats up a pair. This would be their only field goal in the game's last 11:32, yet it proved to be the proverbial dagger. For here Hearn followed it with a steal, which led to a pair of free throws by Marcotullio, which led to some panic by the Bobcats, who would go scoreless after Stern got slapped with his technical.


    On a 12-0 run. That is how the 'Cats ended this game. That is how the 'Cats escaped with their six-point win.




    Later, in the interview room, the absence of Crawford hung in the air, which was understandable. He had been the 'Cat ballast. But understandable too were the attitudes of the older guys on hand here. "I think everybody has to score more," said Hearn when asked if he felt he had to do that now. "He has 1,400 points over his career, this year he's averaging 14 a game. I personally am not going to start averaging 14 more points a game. So everybody has to step up."


    "It's huge for us," said Sobolewski when asked about winning even with Crawford absent. "I told the guys coming in that even though Drew's not going to be able to play the rest of the year, we still have a lot to play for ourselves and every guy who comes in and takes his minutes is going to have to perform. I was telling Reggie sitting in the room over there (awaiting the press conference's start), that was a game that could have gone either way and we made some big defensive plays and some hustle plays and we made a couple shots down the stretch.


    "So that's just a huge win for us moving forward."

    Contemplating Crawford

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks Special Contributor Skip Myslenski caught up with Northwestern senior forward Drew Crawford and head coach Bill Carmody on Saturday, following Friday's announcement that Crawford would miss the remainder of the 2012-13 season to undergo shoulder surgery.



    The problem had lingered since that January night in Iowa back in 2011. That is when Drew Crawford, then the 'Cats sophomore forward, went up for a rebound, got undercut, threw out his right arm to brace himself for the fall and, on impact, dislocated his shoulder. "That's when it first popped out and I think that's when the damage was done," he recalled Saturday. "Then it's continually got worse."


    Still, even as it got worse, he played on. He played on all through last season, averaging 16.1 points-per-game on 48.4 percent shooting, and he played on through the first 10 games of this season, averaging just 13.5 points in them on 40 percent shooting. Between then and now, he would surmise on Saturday, that shoulder would pop out five more times, yet still he wanted to play on. "That was my goal at the beginning of the year," he said.


    "I've been playing with this for a couple of years now. It's always been bothering me a little bit. But that's what I wanted to do, play through it. But when it continually bothers you, that's tough to do. It's just one of those things that wasn't getting any better. It keeps holding you back. It gets tough to play with things like that."


    "He tried for a few games. But it's so limiting, you can't do what you normally can do. So," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody soon said. So the decision was made to shut Crawford down for the rest of this year, and to seek a medical hardship waiver that will allow him to return next season after he undergoes surgery for a torn labrum.


    "It was just one of those tough things," Crawford would say of that decision. "Obviously, I would have loved to finish this season with my team because I think we're a great team, that we're capable of a lot. But it got to the point where I didn't think I could help my team in the best way, and I didn't want to put them through that and I didn't want to myself through that. So that was the decision we had to make."


    And just what was it that he couldn't do?


    "Probably the biggest thing is the physicality around the basket. When a shot goes up, I'm turning to box out, I got big guys coming behind me, I'm trying to hit them with my arm, and that's popping my shoulder out, and then it's like searing pain. Then it's sore, sore for days after that. It was tough."


    Was there a certain moment when he realized he couldn't go on?


    "I don't think there was one specific time. It was just something that was continually wearing on me. It didn't seem to really get much better, and I felt like I wasn't helping my team the way I needed to. It's tough. But it's something you have to deal with. . . I knew I was going to have to have surgery eventually. But at the beginning of the season, I was hoping I could finish the year and fight through it. But it continually got worse, and I wasn't able to do that."



    QUICKLY NOTED: A player is granted a medical hardship waiver if he plays in less than 30 percent of his team's regular-season games. The 'Cats have 32 games on their schedule, making the total 9.6 contests. Crawford has played in 10 games, which is still allowable as the total is able to be rounded up to the next number. So, when asked if he's certain he will be granted the waiver, Carmody said, "We're fine. We did our homework on that.". . . Freshman Kale Abrahamson is likely to start in Crawford's place in the 'Cats next game, which is Monday night at Welsh-Ryan against Texas State. "But I think it's just an opportunity for a bunch of guys," said Carmody, who then mentioned freshman Sanjay Lumpkin and Texas Christian transfer Nikola Cerina as well as Abrahamson. . .  Lumpkin has appeared in only one game after being sideline by mono, but is expected to be available Monday. But Cerina, who sprained his ankle in his only appearance of the season, is still hobbled and, said Carmody, "probably a week away (from returning).". . . "Everyone recognizes the loss," Carmody said when asked how Crawford's decision effected the team, then he went searching for an analogy. "But, again, a few years ago, our football team had this guy, a good quarterback, he got hurt in the last game, they went to a bowl game, they put a new quarterback in, he got about 205 yards rushing."


    Kain Colter, someone suggested.


    "No. This big guy."


    Mike Kafka, someone shouted, thinking of that day he replaced C.J. Bacher and ran wild not in a bowl game, but against Minnesota.


    "One of those big guys came in there," Carmody finally said. "I don't want to go Wally Pipp stuff and all. But this is a chance for all these guys to get in there and play. So. They feel bad for him. But now you move on and you go on."


    (Scribbler's note: Wally Pipp, a Chicago native, was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees from the start of the 1915 season through June 1, 1925. But the next day, June  2, he arrived at the stadium with a splitting headache and removed himself from the lineup with the approval of his manager, Miller Huggins. "Wally," he told him, "take the day off. We'll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow." But that was the day Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse, started his streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, and so Pipp never did get back in there.)

    Catching Up With The 'Cats

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    THE PLAN: The 'Cats practiced Saturday for their Jan. 1 date with Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. They treated it as a game-week Tuesday. On Tuesday, when they regroup next, they will work as if it was a game-week Wednesday, and then their Thursday practice will simulate a game-week Thursday. "So we'll have everything (the game plan) in by the time the guys go home (for their holiday break)," explained Pat Fitzgerald.

    LIVE AND LEARN: This is the fifth straight year Fitzgerald has guided the 'Cats into the postseason, a streak that began with their appearance in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. "I'm a little more comfortable in the routine," he said when asked the difference in him between then and now. "My first one, like a lot of things, the first time you do it, you look back and go, 'What the heck was I thinking there?' So we've definitely tweaked our plan as I look at what we did initially. It's probably a little bit jaded by what I experienced as a player. Barney (Gary Barnett) had us doing two-a-days. That stunk. That stunk."

    In Pasadena or here, we asked with an eye on the '96 Rose Bowl?

    "Here. I wasn't practicing. (He was sidelined by an injury.) I was on the steak-and-chicken tour. That was ridiculous. But my senior year, Tennessee (in the Citrus Bowl), we're watching Peyton (Manning) and the Vols in helmets, and we're going two-a-day practices. We almost had a mutiny. So we're going to have fun. Especially with playing on Jan. 1, that gives you, number one, a lot of time to develop the young guys. Then number two, from what we've learned, we hope we have a plan to peak on game day. Not do too much too soon, and really have fun in what we're doing."

    Finding His Niche, And Quickly

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    Now his name is tied to that of the acclaimed Drake Dunsmore, the accomplished superback whose 'Cat career ended just a fall ago. Despite rumblings of this connection throughout the year, it was solidified one Saturday at Michigan State when true freshman Dan Vitale caught nine passes for 110 yards, running his rookie reception totals to 21 catches for 206 yards to outstrip Dunsmore's numbers (11 for 141) when he was so young. But, as Pat Fitzgerald likes to remind us, stats are for loser, so let us search elsewhere for links that bond this pair. "There's a lot of similarities," superbacks coach Bob Heffner helpfully says.

    "The main two things are what good people they are and how much they like playing football. Those are similarities right there. After that, yeah, there's some differences. Drake did certain things, Dan does certain things. But the bottom line is they have those two qualities, and if you get a good person and football is really important to him and he likes playing ball and likes being coached, then your job's pretty easy."

    The Morning After - UIC

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Northwestern's 50-44 defeat at the hands of UIC on Saturday.

    * There were the turnovers, 16 turnovers in all. "That's just too many. That's just too many (against an opponent) that's picking you up at the top of the key. There's no pressure, no real pressure," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say.


    There were the Arctic field-goal shooting percentages, just 34.9 overall (15-of-43) and an even worse 25 on threes (four-of-16). "We were getting decent looks tonight," forward Drew Crawford would say. "But like coach said, some of the shots we normally hit as a team, they just weren't falling tonight. That's tough because we were playing good defense."


    There were, finally, those continuous failures at the free throw line, those 10 misses on 20 attempts. "Free throws are just mental," point Dave Sobolewski would say. "Everyone's just got to get in the gym and start taking more and more."


    There, in the proverbial nutshell, are the reasons the 'Cats fell by a half-dozen to UIC Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. "Our shots weren't falling and if you have turnovers in the 'teens, it's not a good night," Sobolewski would also say with succinct accuracy.



    * But nothing, of course, is really that simple, and so here let us recall a comment Carmody made after his team lost to Maryland last Tuesday evening. "We've been struggling a little bit to get what I call the pulse, the tempo of the game," he said that night when considering his team's offense. Then Saturday, on the same subject, he avowed, "I think they know it. They learn it, they have it. It's not that. The guys know what to do. But some of the passes are late, behind guys."


    The 'Cat offense, in fact, is very much a work-in-progress right now. At its best, when it is functioning smoothly, it is filled with sharp cuts and hard screens and brisk ball movement, and calls up memories of a beautifully-choreographed dance. But recently, against both the Terps and the Flames, it more resembled (to mix metaphors) a  powerful engine with a couple blown spark plugs. "We definitely need an injection of offense," even Carmody would admit on Saturday. "Maybe (freshman forward) Kale (Abrahamson) can do that. Maybe we can do some thing. They're smothering these two guys"--and here he nodded toward Crawford and Sobolewski, who were sitting next to him on the interview stage--"and we need somebody else out there to take away some of the heat. They're both competitors, and I think they both feel it's on their shoulders. Which I like, OK. But I've got to give them some help."


    "Yeah, just because we're the guys with experience," Crawford would later say when asked if he did indeed feel it was on his shoulders. "We've been there before. We've been in a lot of tight games. So, yeah. That's how we want it. There's a lot of pressure on us as guys who have played a lot of minutes. Sometimes it's tough, but you have to grind through it and make plays when you need to."


    And does he feel smothered, as Carmody noted?


    "A little bit. UIC did a good job. They're a pretty tough and sound defensive team. So we've just got to get everyone going. Everyone's got to be on the same page."



    * Last Tuesday, against the Terps, the 'Cats shot early (in the shot clock) and often (25 threes) from the outside. On Saturday, at the start, they worked inside-out, hoping to get some help from 7-foot freshman Alex Olah. "We wanted to see if we could get our center to be more aggressive. So we put a few things in there for him and threw it down to him, and I thought he was. He became a little more aggressive in there," Carmody would explain. "It's going to take time with Al, but I saw some pretty good things. He got a few rebounds, blocked a couple shots. We just have to get him to where he's really comfortable down there and aggressive because people are playing our guys pretty tight, these two guys especially, and there's room for somebody to do something down there and not just be a facilitator."


    Olah would do a little something down there, grabbing six rebounds and hitting three of his seven shots for six points in his 28 minutes. But MIke Turner, his replacement, had two turnovers and one rebound and no points in his dozen minutes, and there was also this. The usually-reliable Jared Swopshire, the grad student transfer from Louisville, missed the only four shots he took and ended with a bagel; the 'Cat bench, so recently thought to be one of its strengths, chipped in only one field goal (a three by Abrahamson); and through this game's last 13:45, the only 'Cat to score a field goal was the indomitable Crawford.



    * Still, despite all the turnovers and missed free throws and errant shots, the 'Cats were down just two with under 2:30 remaining. Now Crawford, who had carried them, missed a turnaround jumper from the left elbow and then Swopshire missed a three from the left wing. Underneath, in the scrum, 'Cat Reggie Hearn had prime position, and after he was fouled on the rebound by Flame Daniel Barnes, he made a pair to tie this one up at 44 at 2:09.


    Sobolewski, whose will is palpable, now forced a Flame turnover, and if there was one interlude on which this game finally turned, here it came. It began with Crawford facing off against Marc Brown, his nemesis all day; with Crawford working him patiently and intelligently and purposefully; with Crawford finally rising for a 12-foot jump shot from along the right baseline that looked to be good before rimming out. But again, down low, there was Hearn with position, and here he grabbed the rebound and went back up clean for a layup and missed. "At the end there, Drew had one hanging on the rim, Reggie got a nice rebound, put it over. So we're playing with a little bad luck, I think," Carmody would later rue.


    Now it was the Flames chance to grab the lead and they went for it with a three, which missed. But the player with position now was Josh Crittle, their center, who grabbed the rebound and made his layup, and after Olah missed a short hook to tie, this one was effectively over. For now the 'Cats started to foul and the Flames, who would end the day 14-of-15 from the line, made their free throws.



    * Minutes later, when he walked into the interview room, Sobolewski was grim faced. The skin under his right eye was red, as if it had just absorbed a series of stiff jabs. Crawford, too, was tight-lipped, his own face a mask of disappointment. When he sat down he rolled his head, as if he were trying to wake himself from a bad nightmare.


    Both would soon answer the questions asked of them. But their portraits spoke louder than any of their words.

    Maryland: The Morning After

    | No Comments | No TrackBacks Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's 77-57 loss to Maryland on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

    Let's delve in analogy to start and think of Maryland, which visited Welsh-Ryan on Tuesday night, as the heavy hitter, that boxer who can reach back and load up and deliver that blow that separates his opponent from his senses. The 'Cats, in contrast, should be viewed as that clever will-o-the-wisp, the slick tactician with the style and the guile and the means of spinning that heavy hitter, of frustrating that heavy hitter, of cutting up that heavy hitter, of robbing that heavy hitter of his legs and finally leaving him gasping for air.


    "We knew coming in they were going to be big. We knew they were bigger than us. That was a focus of ours," 'Cat guard Reggie Hearn would say, and that was not all. The Terps also led the ACC in rebounding margin (+15.2) and blocked shots (5.8 pg) and featured Alex Len, a 7-foot-1 center from the Ukraine who himself was averaging 15.6 points and 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.


    "But I thought if we ran through our stuff, we'd get some easy baskets," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would say. "I thought if we made them guard us for extended periods on the clock--not that we were going to slow it down or anything--but make them guard us. They had some guys I thought we could take advantage of with some movement, and I don't feel we did that. I just thought we were a little too quick on the trigger."


    So the 'Cats, to wrap of this allegorical foray, chose to punch it out with the heavy hitter, which is always a mistake for a will-o-the-wisp dependent on wiles. That was emphatically proven when they fell to the Terps by 20.






    Stats never tell the whole story. But they can provide a broad outline, and so let us consider a few. The Terps corralled a dozen offensive rebounds to the 'Cats four, the Terps collected 47 total rebounds to the 'Cats 19, the Terps finished with a dozen second-chance points to the 'Cats seven. "It all goes back to rebounding and it doesn't all fall on the bigs. It falls on the guards just as much," point Dave Sobolewski would later say. "The guards have to stick their nose in there and see if they can pull out some long rebounds or rebounds that hit the floor. It was just a horrible effort on the boards by the whole squad."


    Their inside dominance is even more pronounced when parsing just how the Terps put up their 77 points. Fourteen of them came at the line, 15 of them came on three-point shots and a full 44 of them came down low, in the paint. Add those numbers up and you see they had just two other field goals, field goals that came on mid-range jumpers.


    Then there was the 'Cats own offense, which is so dependent on that mantra to make shots. Here they did not, finishing just 34 percent overall (18 of 53) and 24 percent on three-point attempts (six-of-25). "We didn't take advantage of our speed and make them work on the defensive end," Hearn would say, echoing his coach. "If those shots go in, it's a different story. But they didn't, so it probably would have been better if we'd run our offense more and make them work on the defensive end."


    "We're at our best when we're moving from one thing to the next, and our offense is moving, and we're cutting hard," picked up Sobolewski. "I felt that in the middle part of the game we got a little stagnant. We weren't cutting as hard as we should have been, and that's when it all went downhill."


    "I just thought we were shooting the ball too quickly," Carmody said once again. "We tried to address that a few times, but it didn't really take. When you have a pretty decent shooting team and you're open, you feel pretty good about that. But they just weren't going down."






    It was an especially-painful evening for the senior forward Drew Crawford, the 'Cat leader who finished with only 10 points while going four-of-14 overall and just one-of-five on his threes. He was not made available afterward in the interview room. But when asked if his star might be struggling to live up to his billing as the 'Cats man, Carmody said, "There might be something to that. He's definitely pressing. He's a good player. He'll break out of it. But right now he's definitely pressing."






    Still, despite all of that, the 'Cats were down only two when the second half opened, and when Crawford drove the right baseline for a layup just 15 seconds into it, this one was tied at 28. But now their defense, which has been their calling card this season, buckled as the Terps attacked it down low. They got a layup and then, after a Crawford miss, another layup. Now came an offensive rebound by Jared Swopshire and one more Terp layup, a Sobolewski three and a Terp dunk.


    Here the pattern had been set and, when the first TV time out came at 14:21, this was the result. The Terps had scored on nine straight possessions, and every one of their baskets had come on a dunk or a layup, and like that their two-point halftime lead was up to 13. The 'Cats tried to slow them here, tried to do that by switching to their 1-3-1 zone out of the time out, but in the next five minutes the Terps shot them out of it with the work of Logan Aronhalt, who drained three threes over that stretch.


    After the last of them, at 9:44, the Terps were up 17, and never again would the 'Cats get closer than 16. "Give them credit," Carmody later said. "They came in here, pretty much an even game the first half, then they really stuck it to us in the second half."






    It is still November and this was just the seventh game on the 'Cat schedule. But later, in the interview room, Sobolewski was asked if it had been one of those proverbial statement games, one of those games that allows his team to get a measure of itself. "No it wasn't," he quickly said, bringing a measure of reality to the moment. "It was a November game against an ACC team. It's not the end of the season. We've got a lot of work to do, for sure. We're not going to stop working. If anything, this will make us hungrier to improve everyday in practice. So. It was nothing more than a loss in November."

    Upon Further Review: Illinois

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    Some seven minutes still remained in the 'Cats' Saturday dismissal of Illinois when Stacy Fitzgerald, Pat Fitzgerald's wife, prepared a chili dog and exited her box high above Ryan Field. Unfolding below her was a rarity for a group nicknamed the Cardiac 'Cats, who routinely find themselves involved in tension-filled cliff hangers, and now she was going to help celebrate a rout, which her husband's staff has come to call "hot dog games." She would celebrate it by going to that box holding the 'Cat coaches and delivering that chili dog to defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, who was free to relax as this affair meandered toward its end.

    Later, after he had descended from his perch and jogged out to the field, Brown was stopped and asked about the moment. He smiled broadly and then he said, "Yeah, I had a little snack."

    Bo Cisek, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior best known as the protector on the punt team, got two carries at running back. He fumbled once and netted a negative three yards. Redshirt freshman Doug Diedrick, a reserve superback, got three carries at running back. He picked up a dozen yards. Redshirt freshman Zack Oliver, the third quarterback on the depth chart, entered the game with more than eight minutes remaining, and five minutes later he was relieved by P.J. Carollo, a walk-on. "We tried to get everybody in," Pat Fitzgerald would later say. "I don't think we accomplished that. It drives me crazy at the end of games (since) you try and make sure everybody plays in games like that. But that's a very, very good problem."

    Those are some other snapshots that help explain just how thoroughly the 'Cats manhandled their in-state rival on Senior Day.

    Illinois -- and Senior Day -- Friday Primer

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    On the sideline, he high-fives his players and body-bumps his players and reflects a roiling torrent of emotions. That is why we found the following exchange revelatory. It belies that public image and gives a glimpse at the inner-workings of Pat Fitzgerald, who was asked this about his team's Saturday meeting with Illinois at Ryan Field. Since it is Senior Day, since the opponent is their in-state rival, since the game itself has bowl implications, must he do something to make sure his players are not too amped up? "Nah, because I think when the ball goes in the air all that stuff doesn't matter. All that false bravado, that's all it is," he began in response.

    "The guys have been pretty even-keeled now. We've played a lot of big games here this year, and some we've played really well in. They've all been big games. We're the only school that played three BCS nonconference opponents. Those are big games. Two of those teams are bowl eligible. So we've been in a lot of games and this team's grown up and matured. I see a kind of calmness to them that I like. It's a little bit beyond their years. I think it's because of the seniors. They've done a nice job."

    Is that business-like approach something he wants?

    Upon Further Review: Michigan State

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    * Running back Venric Mark sat out the second half of the 'Cats' Saturday win over Michigan State and quarterback Kain Colter was just a part-time combatant in that affair. But Monday, while looking ahead to his team's imminent fray with Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald said, "We expect both Venric and Kain to play. We'll see how it goes practice-wise. But we expect them to play this week."

    But he was not as optimistic when it came to corner Nick VanHoose, who has missed the last three games. "I'd say right now the answer would be no, I don't expect him to play," he said. "But we'll see as the week progresses. He's close. He's real close. We'll see."

    * Fitzgerald did not divulge the injury that sidelined Mark. But he did say the decision to sit him was collectively made by him and his coaching staff. Then he went on to tell this tale: "I talked to him (Mark) at halftime. I said, 'Listen, I want you to take your stuff off. I want you to take a shower. In the best interest for you not only this week, but long term, I'm going to shut you down for the game.' He wasn't very happy. But his response in the second half was unbelievable. He was ridiculous. I had to push him back on the sideline. We gave him our Twelfth Man Award for his juice and passion on the sideline on Saturday. I'd much rather see him scoring touchdowns, don't get me wrong. But I thought the way he responded was pretty spectacular. This morning I said to him I'm going to be asked if you're going to play, and he's like, 'Absolutely.' Take that for what it's worth."

    Michigan State Friday Primer

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    "WE'RE CLOSE:" Pat Fitzgerald has offered this assurance often this season. He did it again last Monday, some 46 hours after his team's enervating loss at Michigan, and he did it once more on Tuesday, just after his 'Cats completed their morning practice. It was then that we asked, "To what?"

    "Being a championship team. That's what we're close to," he said with no hesitation. "We're going to win football games. I'm not worried about that. But we're close to being a championship team, and that's our expectation. I'll keep saying it until we get there. And then, when we get there, I'll say we've got to start back over. That's what our expectations are. That's what we aspire to be. Gone are the days of maybe-we'll-win, gone are the days of maybe-we'll-play-in-the-post-season. Our internal expectations are to be champions.

    "That's not necessarily going to happen for us this year in the Big Ten. But when I say that, that's what I mean. We're close. Do you get tired of saying it? Yeah, you do. But it's a journey, it's a grind, and I think we're building it. We appreciate the support of the administration giving us the time to build it. We appreciate the effort and the fight our young men are giving to get us there. Got to coach them better. We've got to get over the hump and break that door down. You know. I think there's 12 teams that have the same kind of goal set. If it was just about us, it'd be a lot easier. But it's not."

    Through the Eyes of the 'Cats

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    Checking in with. . .

    . . .DANIEL JONES, the young corner who was all over Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree last Saturday as the 'Cats' game with the Wolverines rushed toward its conclusion. Now here came the Hail Mary pass from Devin Gardner and, Jones would recall, "I was just trying to knock the ball down. After that play, I think there would have been six seconds left on the clock. So I was just trying to knock the ball down and live to play another play and end the game."


    "It was another of those luck-of-the-bounce type plays. I thought I was in great position. I was the first guy up. I actually hit the ball and, in my mind, I'd just made the play that ended the game. But it happened to fall into his arms. It was just an unfortunate bounce for us."

    And when he saw the ball in Roundtree's arms?

    "I couldn't believe he caught it. Like I said, I thought I did everything right. I was on top of the route, the first guy up in the air and hit the ball. I just thought, 'That's the way the ball bounces sometimes.' Lucky bounce for them, and we just have to play and finish from there."

    That bounce, of course, set up the Wolverines field goal that sent the game into overtime, where they would close out the 'Cats. So, Jones was finally asked, would he do something differently if he had a chance for a Mulligan?

    "I would be more aggressive and try to catch the ball as opposed to trying to knock it down," he said. "I would just be more aggressive to the ball, and just get the ball back, and assure the game's over."

    Marching On To Michigan State

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    * Flush it. That is one of Pat Fitzgerald's standing orders. Exult for a day or grieve for a day following a game, and then put that one behind you and look ahead to the next. That is what he constantly tells his 'Cats. But how do you do that, just how do you do that after suffering a defeat as wrenching as the one they absorbed Saturday in Ann Arbor? "It's rough," center Brandon Vitabile admitted early Monday afternoon. "You just trust. You know the guys are out there battling. It's a war. You see it in everyone's face, how down everyone is afterward. You don't even want to talk about it afterward. You listen to coach right after the game and hear what he has to say. But the bus ride home is just silence. There's no one talking, there's no one joking around. That's what it should be. You should really hurt from it.

    "Yesterday, you come in, watch film with everyone, there's some positivity going on. We were right there. We played a lot of good football on Saturday. We did a lot of things well. We did some things not so well. But it's good to see that. That the work we do put in pays off and maybe we're a step away, a block away, a catch away. So just keep working as hard as possible. People understood we fought hard and we just weren't able to come out with it. So we've got to keep fighting and hopefully we'll come out with one this week."

    The Time For Talk Has Passed

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    The dozen players on the 'Cats' Leadership Council settled around the table for their weekly Monday meeting with Pat Fitzgerald. These are normally 20-minute sessions and, during them, those involved discuss what's good with their program, what's bad with their program, what things could be done differently, what's important in the days ahead, even what uniform they wish to wear the following Saturday. But on this Monday, the first Monday of November, Fitzgerald simply walked into the room and said, "How's everybody doing? Any questions? Anything that I need to know that I don't know? Great. See ya tomorrow."

    "I don't think I need to tell them a whole lot," he would later explain. "I think they get it."

    "That's exactly what happened," quarterback Kain Colter, one of the Council members, soon avowed. "We all realize the opportunity that we have in front of us with these last three games and a chance of maybe even going to a BSC bowl if we win out and some things go our way. So we realize how big of a moment we're in right now and we're all going to try and make the best of our opportunity and keep going."

    A Brief Respite, Now Back To Work

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    * The 'Cats, after a bye, return to the arena Saturday at Michigan, and so Monday Pat Fitzgerald held his regular, weekly press conference. "The week off was one that was needed by us," he would say in his opening statement. "We needed to get healthy, needed to work on some things in areas where we've not been consistent enough in. And then, at the same time, continue to accentuate the areas where we've been playing very well."

    That led us to later ask if he would enumerate those areas in which his 'Cats had been inconsistent.

    "Do I have to? I'd really prefer not to," he said with both a smile and soft chuckle. "You know we self scout each week. But then, as you get to the bye week, last week, Monday, Tuesday, I went on the road (recruiting) along with the majority of our coaches. But our coordinators stayed back. I kinda gave them a couple of things that I wanted them to do, along with our support guys. We wanted to critically look at ourselves first. We then wanted to obviously look at our upcoming opponent. So. There's some things that, without -- quite frankly -- talking about them, that we need to improve on and hopefully we'll play better in those areas as we move forward."

    Checking In: On Bye Weeks and Big 'Cats

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    One day last offseason, offensive left guard Brian Mulroe dropped by the football offices to chat with Adam Cushing, his position coach. It was then, as they kicked around life, that the senior mentioned that his group wanted to be different from those that had preceded it, that it wanted an identity distinct from the past and unique to itself. "So we thought, 'Hey, let's come up with something new. Let's let this group be able to be its own group,'" Cushing remembered late Thursday morning.

    So he talked to superbacks coach Bob Heffner, himself a former O-line coach, and learned that years ago he had called one of his groups the Big Cats. Then he talked to Al Johnson, the football performance coach who works closely with the O line, and learned that he was already using that term in the weight room. Now center Brian Vitabile, as well as Mulroe, were talked to, and soon enough this season's group had its handle. No longer would the line play with Hog Pride, which had been its cry for so long. Now it would simply be the Big Cats.

    "Hogs go to slaughter," Cushing would also say on Thursday, further explaining the change. "But big cats rule the jungle, rule anywhere they are."


    Skip Myslenski's Minnesota Primer

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    BEEN THERE. LET'S NOT DO THAT: The linebacker David Nwabuisi is not only a much-experienced senior. He is also a captain, a leader, a ballast of this year's 'Cats, who now find themselves heading to Minnesota off their first defeat of the season. A fall ago that first defeat sent them spinning into a five-game losing streak and so here, with his stature in mind, we asked Nwabuisi just what he was doing to make sure a similar fate did not befall this team. "It's important to realize, one, you can't go back and change the result of that game. All you can do is push on forward," he began.

    Upon Further Review: Penn State

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    * Last year, in the wake of their first loss of the year (to Army in week three), the 'Cats were enveloped by a miasma and dropped four more in a row before emerging from their funk. Now, a fall later, they have just suffered their first loss of this season (on Saturday at Penn State) and here looming in front of them is a rigorous road test at 4-1 Minnesota. So, we wondered Monday, just how do they make sure they do not reprise the struggles that beset them a year ago.

    "It's all about just refocusing," answered senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, who is one of their captains. "It's on our (list of) values. Respond. How do we respond? I don't think we necessarily took the right attitude last year. But I don't think with this year's group that's going to be an issue at all. I think we have a group of character guys who are willing to answer, who are willing to put in the work during the week, the film study, the practice, the reps, the grind, in order to get the results on Saturday. So I don't think that will be an issue...

    Upon Further Review: Indiana

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    * Nick VanHoose did no dance and minced no words early Monday afternoon. He, instead, simply owned up. "I had a lot of mental mistakes and a couple coverage mistakes," the redshirt freshman corner said here, thinking back to his performance Saturday in the 'Cats win over Indiana. "This week was probably my worst game mentally. With the coverages, it was probably my worst game. But got it fixed today in film and I'll go talk about things to (defensive backs) Coach (Jerry) Brown later."

    Skip Myslenski's Indiana Primer

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    Some two months ago, back on Media Day for the on-rushing season, Pat Fitzgerald took time to laud the running back Venric Mark. "What I like most about V so far is his attitude has been tremendous," he said then. "He's like a kid in a candy store. He's having fun. I told him the other day, 'You're a junior now.' He just kind of rolled his eyes. It's going fast for him, but he really invested this summer. He's in great shape."

    "As I think about it now, yeah, it has really gone fast," Mark himself would say minutes later. "I remember when I first got here and I can't believe I'm going into my third year ... It gives you a sense of urgency. Coming into your junior year, it's bar none. You've got to make plays. We're all hungry for that. We really are."

    This And That With the Wildcats

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    LOOKIN' BACK: There were any number of reasons we wanted to check in with offensive tackle Patrick Ward. There was, first of all, his selection as the 'Cats offensive player of the South Dakota game. There was, in addition, that one minus he had received for his performance last Saturday, that negative blip he got for his work on -- of all things -- a quarterback sneak. Finally, and not unimportantly, there was the homage paid his mental acuity by Pat Fitzgerald, who had noted in awe that Ward was a straight A student except for a single A-minus.

    "There were a couple A-minuses. Unfortunately," he admitted when we did check in with him.

    Eyes of NU Football Fixed Firmly Ahead

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    * Here's a rarity. As their offensive player of the game in Saturday's win over South Dakota, the 'Cat coaches selected left tackle Patrick Ward. "He had one 'minus' the whole game. He was pretty close to that perfect game you can throw as an offensive lineman," Pat Fitzgerald said Monday.

    * Here's the kicker. Adam Cushing, the 'Cat offensive line coach, gave Ward his single minus on, of all things, a quarterback sneak. "I beat Cush up about it today. I made fun of Adam," Fitzgerald revealed. "I told him, 'Pat Ward came to me and said it was the worst coaching performance he'd ever seen. [Cushing] had to nitpick to give him a minus.' It was actually on a quarterback sneak. That was the funny part of the whole thing. 'C'mon, Cush. Give me a break.'"

    Skip Myslenski's South Dakota Primer

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    HELLO: Last Saturday, on the first play of his college career, true freshman Traveon Henry ripped down Ryan Field with the rest of the 'Cat kickoff team. Then, Pat Fitzgerald says with a chuckle, "He got his lips knocked off. He got double-teamed, lifted off his feet and knocked on his can, and he gets up and gets in on the tackle. That's kind of exciting for a puppy."

    Hand-to-Hand Combat Key for NU D-Line

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    They did grip work. They did wrist extensions. They stuck their hands in a bucket filled with rice and pushed through it. They grabbed onto numerous plates of weight and just held them as long as they could. "Building that strength in all those tendons, those fibers, those muscles," explains Jose Jose Palma, a member of the NU Football Performance Staff.

    Competing With Opponents, And Themselves

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    * Early Saturday evening, after the 'Cats had defeated Boston College, quarterback Kain Colter was one of the players who appeared in the interview room. He had, as usual, split time that afternoon with Trevor Siemian, and so here it was only natural that he was asked if he felt he was in a competition for the starting job. "You're always in competition," he said bluntly. "Nothing in this program is set. If a guy's doing a lot better than you, then he'll play. The coaches are competitive. They want to win. They're going to put the best 11 players on the field. So you're always in competition."

    NU's Floridians Flourish Against Vanderbilt

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    Late Saturday night, after his team's victory over Vanderbilt, Pat Fitzgerald lamented his 'Cats offensive inconsistency in that game. On Monday, after viewing the film, he was more specific in his critique.

    Northwestern 23, Vanderbilt 13: A Retrospective

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    * Let's get this out of the way first. "Yeah. Absolutely," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald said late Saturday night when asked if Kain Colter was still his team's starting quarterback. That was true even though Trevor Siemian, Colter's backup, had just catalyzed the 'Cats to a comeback win for the second week in a row.

    BLOG: Skip Myslenski's Vanderbilt Primer

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    * Last Monday, at his weekly press conference, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald tore into the performance of his kicking team against Syracuse ("We stunk"), and then dropped in this declaration. "I don't like stinking. And I don't like when guys don't execute what they're coached to do. So we're going to make personnel changes. We made a bunch of personnel changes in the game. We played 44 guys. We're not going to go through what we went through last year. We're going to find the best 11 and get them on the field."

    And what, we later asked him, did he exactly mean by "We're not going to go through what we went through last year"?

    BLOG: A Lot to Digest

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    The 'Cats, once up by 22, were now down six and desperately needing a classic two-minute drive to rescue their season opener at Syracuse. This was just the kind of moment savored by any competitor, just the kind of burden a true leader wants on his shoulders, just the kind of situation a swashbuckling quarterback relishes. Kain Colter is all of those things, a competitor and a true leader and a swashbuckling quarterback, but here he proved himself to be something even more impressive than all that. He proved it my putting his team above himself.

    BLOG: It's About Time

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    Watch Coach Fitz's Press Conference: Full Version (All-Access) | Free Preview

    Game Notes and Depth Chart -- Week One at Syracuse (PDF)

    * Often, during his Monday press conference, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald would spice his comments about a player or a position group with the word "fun" or the phrase "enjoy the moment" or the exhortation to "have some fun." This all seemed counter-intuitive just days before his team's Saturday season opener in the hostile dome out in Syracuse. But then, near the end of his time on stage, that all made sense when he offered up this. "We've been practicing now since January in some way, shape or form," he offered up, "either in the weight room, or conditioning, or spring ball. Then the guys worked their tails off this summer, we feel strong our our chemistry, then through the grind of camp. So I'm looking forward to going and playing. I'll know a lot more (about his team) next Monday. It's kind of like waiting for your baby to be born. 'Hey. It's got ears. It's got a nose.' So here we go. Let's see what we look like."

    BLOG: Treyvon Green Bounces Back

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    The play, a run, is simply called Inside Zone, and when it was called for him early Tuesday afternoon, Treyvon Green slipped through a crease and gained a tidy six yards. He, later, would not remember who hit him and brought him down. But he would remember that, after he picked himself up off the field, he thought, "OK, I'm back. That setback I had, it's time for me to get back and get ready for the game and help my teammates."

    BLOG: Building Blocks at Wide Receiver

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    They are now, an hour into Wednesday's practice, off by themselves, isolated from their 'Cat teammates at Camp Kenosha. Here, at one corner of the field, it is just the wide receivers and Dennis Springer, their position coach, and for long minutes they take turns pairing off in front of his watchful eyes. At his first whistle, one in the pair will chop step. At his second whistle, that same one will half-block the other. After his third whistle, there is almost always some instruction.

    BLOG: Who Is Where, and When, For NU Football

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    Notes, quotes and observations from Practice One of Day One at beautiful Camp Kenosha, where a light drizzle failed to stop the proceedings. . .

    * Sophomore running back Treyvon Green, who took a hard hit at last Friday's practice and was later taken to the hospital, accompanied the 'Cats on their journey north. He did not work out on Monday morning. But later coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "Trey's doing great. He's doing great. We fully expect him to be back for the opener.

    BLOG: Skip's Media Day Nuggets

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    Quick hitters from that annual ritual called Media Day, when all teams are undefeated, all players are relatively healthy and all is right with the world. . .

    * The 'Cat offensive line, in seasons past, talked often of having Hog Pride. "But what Coach (Adam) Cush(ing) said is, 'Hogs get slaughtered,'" guard Brian Mulroe would say early Wednesday afternoon. "So now we're The Big Cats, The Cats of the Jungle. We're going to pride ourselves on our athleticism, and also just being smart and quick. It's given us a good, new outlook."

    BLOG: Back Where They Belong

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    It was the 17th period of the 'Cats' first practice for the 2012 season when running back Mike Trumpy accepted a handoff from quarterback Zack Oliver. There was nothing special about this play. It was a simple dive over right tackle, where Trumpy found a crease enough to gain five yards before getting tripped up. But later, with a soft smile on his face, he would recall, "It was nice. Obviously, all my stuff is a little rusty, but each day I'll improve and grow. Still, I'm just so happy to be out here."

    BLOG: A Pre-Media Day Blitz, Part II

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    They will be the 'Cat players on display Thursday at the Big Ten's annual football Media Day in Chicago. But Wednesday morning, in the lobby of the Nicolet Football Center, quarterback Kain Colter and linebacker David Nwabuisi and tackle Brian Mulroe loitered in casual disarray and chatted with Special Contributor Skip Myslenski, who wondered first about the players' decision to break down huddles not with the familiar cry of "Go 'Cats." They instead chose to do that with the declaration, "Big Ten Champs."

    BLOG: A Pre-Media Day Blitz, Part I

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    On Thursday, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald will meet with the nation's press at the Big Ten's annual football media day. But before fulfilling that obligation, he sat down with Special Contributor Skip Myslenski, who began their discussion by reminding him of a comment he made last spring. "You look back at those games (his 'Cats dropped last season during their five-game losing streak) and you go, 'Gosh, you know, we're not that far away. But to make up that far, what do we need to do, how do we need to adjust?,'" Fitzgerald had said then, which prompted Myslenski to ask this. Did he come up with any answers between then and now?

    A Wildcat's Inspiration: The Tanouye Family Legacy

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    Editor's Note: In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, is proud to present the story of Isao Tanouye and his family. Isao is the grandfather of Northwestern sophomore softball standout Marisa Bast and the brother of Ted Tanouye, a World War II Distinguished Service Cross and, posthumously, Medal of Honor recipient. As told by Special Contributor Skip Myslenski, this story begins several generations ago and is an important chapter in the history of our country.

    BLOG: Catching Up with Coach Hankwitz

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    Photo Gallery of Misericordia Visiting Thursday's Spring Football Practice

    It is a fine Thursday morning and the practice has gone well. Ahead of the 'Cats now is a Saturday scrimmage, which will put the punctuation mark on their labors of spring. But even here, under the sun, there are memories of last season, a season in which their defense surrendered an average of 27.7 points and 407.7 yards per game. This is proven when, to start our chat, we toss out a general question to Mike Hankwitz and the defensive coordinator replies, "I like our attitude and our effort. We talked about last year and we're moving on. We've looked at everything, we've evaluated, and now it's about solutions. We've given them solutions and they've worked their tails off to work on them. I like where we're at. We've got a good mix of veteran guys and young, eager guys, kind of like four years ago. So we've made a lot of progress, but we've got to keep making it. That's the key."

    When they looked at last season, what did they see?

    "We were inconsistent. We didn't execute well enough. We gave up too many explosion plays because of that. Part of that lack of execution was communication, part of it was discipline to do your job. When those things break down, you give up big plays and you're not going to play good defense. There were times when we did, and we got it going, started playing a lot better at the end. But it wasn't as good as we need to be."

    We tell him now that, two Saturdays ago, the defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."

    Here Hankwitz smiles and chuckles ruefully.

    Does he feel the same, we then ask.
    "Well, yeah. We work our (butts) off, you know, and when you're not as good as you want to be, it hurts your pride. But we're going to do something about it. We're glad Arnie's back. We were hoping we'd have him last fall, but he never got back until the very end of the year (because of injury). He had a great spring going, we were excited, but unfortunately that happened at a number of positions where guys got hurt, missed time. But it's going to happen, so we're trying to develop our depth so if it does happen again, it won't have the same impact."

    Another point made on that Saturday by Arnfelt, who was talking after a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense, was this. "The offense really got after us on Thursday and we just kind of said in our position meetings throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things (on film) that could trickle into what happened last year."

    "He's probably partly right," says Hankwitz.

    And what did Arnfelt see on film that made him think that way?

    "I don't know exactly. We've got a lot of young guys playing with the second team and they made some mental mistakes and gave up plays. Probably that's what he's referring to. But, yeah. We had a good first five practices, then we had a two-week break, came back, went three practices out of four days, the third practice being the Thursday he's referring to, and we didn't have the same energy and intensity. But since then, we have. So I'd like to think we've taken a big step and learned from that. But we've got to continue on that same path."

    Learned what? That you have to always play with intensity?

    "You have to have intensity on defense. Offenses keep changing, tweaking, spreads, this and that, spreading the field, you've got to have intensity on defense. Defense is passion and effort and intensity. If you don't have that, you're not going to be a good defense, I don't care how good you are. You can watch Alabama and they have all this great talent. But they play hard, and they play with intensity. It doesn't matter what your ability level is. You've got to have that ingredient."   

    Our impression this spring, we now say, is that Arnfelt has emerged as one of the defensive leaders intent on making sure that the intensity is always there.

    "I think he has, yes. Quentin (Williams, the defensive end) and him and Ib (safety Ibraheim Campbell) and Bus (linebacker David Nwabuisi), some of the older guys are taking more of a leadership role. That's part of Coach Fitz's (Pat Fitzgerald's) Leadership Council principle. We're trying to teach them how to become leaders and take things upon themselves. But they still have to do it, and I think those guys have stepped up more than normal this spring. That's exciting to see."

    Another guy who has been singled out this spring by Fitzgerald, we tell him, is the defensive end Tyler Scott, whom he says is ready to make that step that will deliver him some national recognition.

    "I would agree. He was playing extremely well last fall, and then he got hurt and missed three games or so. When he came back, he wasn't quite the same, and then he started getting better and better. This spring, he's taken up from the best he was playing and gone a little beyond that. So, yeah. We're excited about him."

    Does he have one characteristic that makes him so good?

    "I think it's a combination. He's a good athlete. He was a linebacker, so he's got athleticism. And he's smart, and he plays very hard, he plays with great effort. Now that experience he's accumulated, he's starting to put it all together."

    Speaking of experience, we mention that offensive coordinator Mick McCall recently said, "All those kids, they don't get everything the first time through or the second time. The third time, it starts to come." Is there a similar learning curve on defense?

    "Oh, yeah. There's an old saying, there's no substitute for experience, and you don't experience everything in one fall, especially if you're a young guy and learning the opponent's defense (on the practice squad) and stuff. You just can't see everything. Yeah. In a perfect world, everyone would learn from everybody else's mistakes and what happened to them. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you've got to be there and it's got to happen to you. You've got to make the mistake before you understand what you've got to do, or why it's important you do what you're supposed to do. And experience isn't just what happens to you. It's also what you learn from it. Sometimes you have to have it happen to you before you realize, 'Oh. Now I know why I'm supposed to do this like coach said.'"

    With that in mind, are there any younger kids who this spring have shown that they've got that understanding? We're thinking here especially of the line, where big reps have gone to players like junior (in the fall) Will Hampton and sophomore Chance Carter and redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson.

    "Deonte's impressed us with his wherewithal, his awareness. Chance, we've seen the potential in him and Will. Another guy who's had a good spring is (sophomore tackle Sean) McEvilly. Then (redshirt freshman) Drew Smith has done a lot of nice things at backer. Collin (Ellis, a sophomore who started last fall) is getting more experience all the time. Chi Chi (Ariguzo, another sophomore who played last fall) is now a little more comfortable, then we've got excellent competition in the back part. Nick (VanHoose, a redshirt freshman corner) has done some good things, shown some good things, as has D.J. (sophomore corner Daniel Jones) at times, and Doogie (senior corner Demetrius Dugar). So we've got competition and hopefully, it is making them all better. Then Davion (Fleming, a junior safety) is healthy and he's a little older, so he's competing, him and Hunter (Bates, a senior). Ibraheim is building on his experience, then (sophomore safety) Jimmy Hall's gaining a lot of valuable experience. So there's a lot of young guys that have shown good things. But the key is they've got to keep improving, keep learning."

    How does a coach feel when a redshirt sophomore, Campbell, is his most-experienced backer?

    "Well. If you look, Hunter and (junior safety Jared) Carpenter (who sat out the spring) and Davion, they've all played and they've been here two, three years. So they're a little more experienced than you might think. But it is what it is. We're just going to have to execute with what we've got. I think we'll be fine."

    We know Damien Proby, who ended last season as the starting middle linebacker, is another who has been held out this spring. But has Hankwitz decided how he will utilize him and Nwabuisi, who started last season in the middle?

    "No. But Bus played both Mike (middle) and Will, and that's a big strength for him, his ability to play both. It gives us more depth back there. So we have some flexibility there."

    And Collin Ellis has been moved?

    "We moved him to Will (from Sam), put him in the box. He's a physical player, it's more natural for him in there. So he's going through a little learning curve, but he's done some nice things."

    And Chi Chi's at Sam?

    "Him and Drew Smith, two athletic guys. Chi Chi's getting more confident out there. We like his and Drew's athleticism."

    Which they need since they play in space?

    "Yeah. They're more of the wide side (of the field). Will has to play some in space, but he's on the side of the field where there's a little less room and he can attack."

    That covers the players and so, finally, what about Hankwitz himself, whom many blamed him for last season's defensive deficiencies. Does he hear that talk? Does he take it personally?

    He chuckles softly and then says, "There's always going to be critics, but I know we've played damn good defense for most of three years. Yeah, when Dan (Persa) got hurt two years ago, yeah, it affected us. But prior to that, I'll stand by what we did. Now (what happened) last year, yeah, my pride's stung too. I take pride in what I do. I'm probably harder on myself than anyone else is. I don't care what they say. I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated. But I'm going to do something about it. I'm not going to dwell on it, and worry about that. I've been doing this long enough to know what we're capable of and what we need to do to get better. I'm not going to worry about the criticism. That's always going to happen. My goal is to get us better." 

    BLOG: Catching Up with Coach McCall

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    Tuesday's was the penultimate practice before the 'Cats close out their spring labors with a Saturday exhibition at Ryan Field. So we felt it time for a chat with offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who began our conversation with an overview of that unit he directs. "I think we have really, really good chemistry with the quarterbacks and the receivers and the running backs," he said here. "I think they've got really good chemistry and work together, which they can build on in the summer and into fall camp. I think the line is working at it. We've got some guys dinged up a little bit. But we're really, really athletic. Now we've got to figure out how and why we do certain things that make sense so they don't have to think about it."

    BLOG: Sky Team

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    THE FACTOID: The Sky Team. That is now the handle of the 'Cats defensive backfield. "It's the nickname we gave ourselves," explains one of them, senior corner Demetrius Dugar. "We feel if we're going to reach that championship level (as a team), it's got to start by taking over the sky. We've got to control the air. We gave up a lot of big plays last year through the air. So the thing this year that we're focusing on is knocking that all out. So we're The Sky Team. We're going to control the sky, get the ball, not let those receivers have the ball. We're going to do our part. That's the identity we're going to build on."

    THE REALITY: The rear view recalls those fatal explosion plays surrendered last season by the 'Cat DBs, and the stats reveal that they gave up more passing yards per-game (230.4) than any other group in the Big Ten. That was, most certainly, bad. But a closer look at the numbers also shows they were singed for only 16 touchdown passes, which were fewer than those surrendered by a half-dozen conference teams (including Michigan State and Ohio State), and that their 12 interceptions were fifth best in the league. This, on the other hand, was not so bad.

    Still, in the wake of that season and throughout this spring, this group has been perceived as its team's underbelly, that proverbial chink in the armor that could again scuttle its drive to success. "To our great fans who are talking negative about our defensive backs, please continue to do that. You're adding fuel by being masters of the obvious," Pat Fitzgerald would say Thursday, recognizing that fact. "They love it. They can't thank you enough for your loving TLC and support. This is the time in the spring that I'm sprinkling a few of the things that some of those great fans are saying. I'm letting them hear it, so it ticks them off. Then in the fall, I won't let them listen to any of those people who don't know what they're talking about anyway."

    "That does (tick) us off," Dugar says when his coach's comments are relayed to him. "It's easy to say don't let what happens on the outside effect you. But at the same time you're a man, and if somebody's coming at your pride, you want to step up and prove them wrong. That's what we want to do. We take it personal."

    THE PERSONNEL: At practice on Thursday, the first unit corners were Dugar and redshirt freshman Nick Van Hoose and the first unit safeties were sophomore Ibraheim Campbell and junior Davion Flemming. But this is spring, and the competition here is rampant, and in the mix too were (at corner) sophomores Daniel Jones, Mike Eshun and redshirt freshman Jarrell Williams and (at safety) senior Hunter Bates, sophomore Jimmy Hall and redshirt freshman Matt Carpenter. "I don't know. It's up to the young men," Fitzgerald will say when asked how long he thinks this DB competition will last. "But I'll tell you this. These guys are competing their tails off. We've got a pretty good receiver corps, and they're competing their tails off."

    A FEW WORDS: "The attitude in our room is that we've got to be the best," Dugar says. "Last year we felt like we took a lot of the blame for a lot of the things that went on on the field, so this year we want to make sure we come out on top. We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten, one of the top secondaries in the nation. We're just trying to get to that championship level."

    How do they remain friends while competing for the same jobs?

    "We're fighting for the same job, but we're also fighting for the championship. That's the bigger picture," he says. "We try to do what we have to do to get that championship. It's more about team than the individual. So at the end of the day, we're all going to step it up if our number is called. The idea is to just be ready. So we're all going to come out and compete against each other. But at the same time, we're still boys, we're still the defensive backfield, we're still The Sky Team. So we're going to keep working with each other."

    Is the competition stress or motivation?

    "It's definitely motivation. Sometimes you come out here, you get in the grind of spring ball, you may come out here and your mindset might be a little off. So it can be a little stressful. But at the same time it's motivation because you know these guys are going to fight everyday to get the same spot that you're trying to get. So it's motivation."

    FLASHBACK: The '09 'Cats, who would end their run in the next year's Outback Bowl, had a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Mike Kafka) and an array of defenders with singular personalities (Corey Wootton, Quentin Dave, Brad Phillips, Brian Peters, Brendan Smith). The 2012 'Cats, who are still in their formative stage, have a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Kain Colter) and an array of defenders hell bent on rehabilitating their unit's image (see Dugar's comments above and recall that tackle Brian Arnfelt said just last Saturday, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."). It was no surprise, then, that Fitzgerald recently said his current group reminds him of the former.

    "I thought the '09 team had a spirit about them that was player run," he said Thursday when asked to expand on that comment. "You think about some of those guys on that defense who were dynamic personalities. The Woottens, that whole group, and I'm starting to see that here. Then on offense, we have guys who can make some plays. I'm starting to see that. So a lot of similarities in that spring prior to that season to what I'm seeing right now. But talk is cheap. We've got a lot of work to do."

    And just what is he seeing?

    "I just see a lot of guys with a lot of passion, and through that I think you just work  diligently to get better. I've been impressed with our attitude. I've been impressed by the way we've worked. We've got a lot of things to get so much better at. But at least they're working at it, which is all we can ask."

    "I definitely see the similarities," Dugar will finally say when appraised of his coach's comparison. "One thing about that '09 team is, they had a lot of team camaraderie, they had a lot of characters on that team and everybody embraced each other. That's kind of the same mentality we've been working on. That'll definitely make us a better team."

    AND FINALLY: Saturday's practice is closed, so we won't be back at you until Tuesday. Until then.

    Blog: Do Not Overlook The Linemen

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    THE FACTOID: It all starts with the line. Despite the kinetic skills of quarterback Kain Colter; despite the promise of running backs Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green; despite the scorching speed of Tony Jones and Venric Mark; despite that collection of wide receivers as combustible as a bad marriage; despite each of those promising facts, it all starts with the line. For if it does not open holes and provide precious seconds of protection, the 'Cat offense is nothing more than so much fish food. "We know we have play makers all around," says one in that line, the senior guard Brian Mulroe. "So it's on us. We have to be the most important group."

    "We think that all the time," Adam Cushing, its coach, will soon add. "But, certainly. We look around, and we graduated some pretty good players. But you look around the team, there's a bunch of good players. As an offensive line, you go execute, you've got a chance to be a pretty special offense."

    Its goal now, as it has been in recent season's past, is to play with Hog Pride. That, in fact, is the banner under which it operates. Hog Pride. "It is," says Mulroe, explaining what that means, "just having a nasty attitude and playing as one."

    INTRODUCTIONS: Its members are more anonymous than Deep Throat was back in the days of Watergate, and so here we pause to put some flesh on their numbers. At right tackle there is Chucky, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior Chuck Porcelli, at right guard there is Neal Daddy, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior Neal Dieters. "Obviously he's been around the program a long time and has played a couple positions," Cushing says of Dieters. "His advantage, he kind of knows the tackle position so he knows what's going on out there. A huge guy. With both he and Chuck, it'll be kind of the same thing, just playing with a consistent pad level. When you're six-seven, six-eight, whatever those two guys are, playing with your pads down is the most difficult thing to get done. Then Chuck's a guy who's been around and been playing the backup role for us. A year ago, he was our third tackle on both sides. He was by no means waiting his turn. But now that it's his fifth year, I think he's excited for the opportunity. He's having fun playing football. That's one of those fun things to see, when he's cutting it loose and having fun on the field."

    Next, at center, there is V Tabs, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Brandon Vitabile, who started last season as a redshirt freshman. "He's got to focus on just trusting himself," Cushing says of him. "At times, he's a very good football player and he plays very naturally with his feet apart. At times, he tries to do a little more than what his job is and that's the only time he gets himself in trouble. He tries to do everything rather than just his job. But that's a good problem to have. You can fix those."

    To his left, at guard, is Muls, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior Mulroe, and at that tackle there is the 6-foot-7, 310-pound senior Pat Ward, who started last season on the right ("Pat doesn't have a nickname," explains Mulroe. "But if he had one, it would be genius or bookworm or something like that."). "It's a slight adjustment to move to the other side," Cushing says of that latter. "But that's what he played in high school, so he's comfortable in a left-handed stance. For him, it's simple fundamentals he has to concentrate on. He's played a lot of football for us, so we have a lot of confidence in him. But he's got to continue to develop those very basic things. Then Brian's probably the best athlete we have up front. Tremendous feet. Plays with leverage well. There's a few basic things they all need to work on. Brian, throughout his career, has been gaining the weight to be a full-fledged O-lineman. I used to give him a lot of guff about it. But he's done a great job of now playing at that Big Ten weight."

    BUT SEPTEMBER IS FAR AWAY: That quintet has appeared regularly this spring with the first unit, yet that is no guarantee the cast won't change by the fall. For in the mix too are the 6-foot-5, 285-pound sophomore Jack Konopka, the former superback who is pushing Porcelli at right tackle; and the 6-foot-5, 280-pound redshirt freshman Geoff Mogus, who is pushing Dieters at right guard; and, on the left side, the 6-foot-8, 295-pound redshirt freshman Shane Mertz ("He's an aircraft carrier out there. The USS Mertz," Pat Fitzgerald says of him) and the 6-foot-6, 295-pound sophomore Paul Jorgensen.

    "It'll probably be ongoing all the way through," Fitzgerald will say of the competition on the line's right side. "I think between the ones and twos, with both guys, I think we have a chance to have a starter there. For the first time, we might rotate some guys a little bit. We've got that much competition. We've got some pretty good depth there."

    "He's very-naturally talented, but it's a different position all together," Cushing says of Konopka, the former superback who is in the middle of that competition. "There's a million different things that go on in the offensive line. That's going to be the challenge for him, catching up to the minutiae of the game in there. When he does that, he's going to be good. His athletic ability is tremendous."

    PAUSE FOR A FLASHBACK: In 2001 Trai Essex was the tight end on the Big Ten's All Freshman team, but then-coach Randy Walker switched him to left tackle. He would go on to start 37 games for the 'Cats at that position and then be selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who gave him a $460,000 signing bonus and won two Super Bowls in his time with them. So Konopka has a precedent he can regard, and a success story to try and match.

    BACK TO THE PRESENT: Fitzgerald, as all 'Cat fans know, covets competition, and when asked the mood of his room, Cushing will say, "It's an attitude of competition. There is some good competition." So that is a benefit. But then, a sentence later, he will add, "Whenever there's competition, it's a strain for everyone to gel together, so that's what we're working on the most right now. Making sure the communication's there. Making sure the camaraderie's there, and that the trust is there with each other." So, as Hamlet famously noted, "Therein lies the rub."

    They appear, to the naked eye, to be nothing more than a bunch of Brobdingnagian bodies bashing away at the defenders confronting them. But in truth, on each snap, the offensive linemen are dance partners who must work as one to achieve their goals. Their feet, their hips, each of their moves must mesh, and to achieve the kind of synchronicity needed for success, they must know each other intimately, they must trust each other totally, they must communicate with each other nonverbally. That is why a line is better the longer it is together. That is also why, with its final makeup still uncertain, the 'Cat line is now nothing more than a work in progress. "It's growing," Mulroe will admit when asked if his group has its choreography down yet. "We haven't all played together. But it's going to keep continuing to grow and we're going to need that. We need to solidify that."

    But how do you solidify that once spring practice ends and months separate them from the opening of fall camp?   

    "They do a little bit of position work on their own through spring and summer," explains Cushing. "Very simple fundamentals. You don't want them to do too much because they might develop some poor habits. But they do some drills where they work together, just two-man combinations, so they trust the guy to their right or their left. And they hang out a lot. Spring and summer, there's a push to get together off-the-field as well. That trust from off-the-field carries over. So we get them together, we have dinner including me at times so we can all develop that trust together."

    AND FINALLY THIS, from the late futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book I Seem To Be A Verb: "We should look on our society as we look on the biological world, where the fungi, the manures and the worms make an extraordinary contribution. . . We tend to applaud the football player who makes the touchdown and overlook the lineman who does the heavy blocking. We should not only applaud the flower, the fruit and the ball carrier."

    BLOG: One Cold March Day

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    THE FACTOID: The 'Cats scrimmaged Saturday for the first time this spring in gray, raw, November weather. The session lasted some 85 plays and later, when asked what he got out of the exercise, Pat Fitzgerald most notably said, "We've got some passion. We've got some fire in our belly. I think we're a physical football team. A lot of little things we've got to clean up. . . But I like the attitude of the ball club."

    THE DECISION GOES TO: The dominant unit Saturday was the defense, which held the offense without a touchdown until (if you will) the fourth quarter of the scrimmage. This was significant for two reasons. The first, quite obviously, are the memories of those defensive breakdowns last season that so damaged the team's chances for success. The other is that, just two days earlier, the offense dominated the defense in practice. "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption," senior tackle Brian Arnfelt would later explain. "We looked at the film (of last season) and just said, 'You've got to strive to be the best you can. You can't accept mediocrity.'

     "So we were doing great before the break, we came back, the offense really got after us on Thursday. We just kind of said in our position meeting throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things that could trickle into what happened last year, so we came out here with an attitude today that we're going to get after it. I'm really proud of how everyone responded. Everyone came out juiced. Yeah, sassy. A real attitude."

    And just what did they see on that Thursday tape that could lead to a repeat of last season?

    "You see people accepting just-do-your-job, real internalized, don't get excited about anyone else, don't really get excited when anyone else makes a play. You can see when people start to get tired, we practice real fast, you see when people start to get tired things break down. Things are going to happen on offense, this is a high-potent offense league. So things are going to happen, but the key to a great defense is how you respond. Last year, looking at the film, we didn't have that. We didn't have it Thursday. But we showed we had it today."

    "They're doing a good job. They're doing a very good job," Fitzgerald said later when Arnfelt's observations were passed along to him. "They're gaining on it. They've got an attitude about them. You know, spring ball, you're going to have that ebb and flow. The offense is going to have a good day, and they did. They kicked the hind butts of our defense on Thursday. But snapshot on the field, the shoe's on the other foot right now."

    IN PARTICULAR: "I thought I saw some stuff from our defensive line that I was hoping to see, especially with a young man like (redshirt freshman end) Deonte Gibson," Fitzgerald also said. "I thought he made an impact today. You go in and watch the video. But he's a guy who jumped out to me. I saw (redshirt freshman tackle) C.J. Robbins make a play. I see Brian Arnfelt really leading that group. (Sophomore tackle) Chance Carter's really coming on along with (junior tackle) Will Hampton, and (junior end) Tyler Scott to me is on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally.  He's got some special qualities. I like that group."

    A SUBTLE CHANGE: Somewhere in the (again, if you will) third quarter of the scrimmage, quarterback Kain Colter got flushed from the pocket, rolled left, rolled back right, resisted the urge to bolt and finally hooked up with Tony Jones for an apparent 43-yard touchdown pass that was erased by a penalty. Two plays later, on second-and-nine, his pocket again broke down, and here he stepped up, stayed put once more and found Rashad Lawrence for 23 yards and a first down.  

    "I noticed that last year, a lot of times I scrambled to run," he would say when his patience in the pocket was mentioned to him. "I watched (Eagle quarterback) Michael Vick a lot, I watched film of a lot of quarterbacks in the league, and one thing I noticed from them is they scrambled to throw first. Michael Vick a lot of times will make an amazing move and break the pocket, and he has his eyes downfield. That's where a lot of big plays comes from because sometimes the defense breaks down or bites up on you on the run. So one thing I've been focusing on is, once I get out of the pocket, keep my eyes downfield and hopefully make some plays."

    But isn't not-running against his instinct?

    "It is. But I feel as a quarterback, especially with all these play makers around me, my job is to just manage the game and get the ball to these guys because they're going to make big plays, they're going to boost my stats when I get them the ball. You know, maybe in high school I felt I had to run, I had to be the guy to make the play. But now that I've got all these great athletes around me, I can just break the pocket, dump it down and let them go make a play. That's something I'm going to focus on."

    Now the apparent touchdown to Jones is remembered.

    "That's something we're going to develop with me, Tony, Kyle (Prater), Rashad. That's something we work on. A lot of times protection's going to break down and, with a mobile quarterback, you've got to be ready to make a move and go. I feel that's where a lot of big plays happen. I came to the sideline after that, I said, 'Be ready when I scramble out to get open and make a play. I'm going to look for you.' It's tough for a DB to cover more than 10 seconds. So if you're out there, you drop back for five seconds, now you're scrambling, it's going to be tough to stay with them."

    THE MINDSET: Colter, as we have noted along the way this spring, has grasped the mantle of team leader and pinned it securely to his shoulders. He again touched on that fact Saturday, explaining: "I feel as a quarterback, when things go wrong, or things aren't going the way you want, you have to be the one that raises the level and gets the guys going again. I'm happy to be the guy that the offense and the team looks to when things are going down. I want to be the guy that goes out there and makes the game-changing play or helps the team get momentum back. I feel that's the biggest thing I learned from Dan (Persa). He did that all last year and his junior year. I learned a lot from him."

    NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Wide receiver Kyle Prater, the Proviso West grad and highly-regarded transfer from USC, produced no highlight moments on Saturday. But later he did meet the cameras and the microphones for the first time since he officially joined the 'Cats last Monday. Some outtakes:

    *On his appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility: "I don't really know the status of what's going on. I'm just worrying about what's going on (here). That's helping my team get better and focusing on the task at hand. That's me getting better and studying the playbook and comprehending everything."

    *On Colter's comment earlier in the week that he has to prove himself to his new teammates: "When you're a freshman, you have to prove yourself off the top. So I feel I'm doing that again by coming in as a transfer. But as long as I come out here and earn my teammates' respect and have fun and show them that I'm a great character, everything's going to be all right."

    *On how he plans to earn that respect: "Just being me. I'm not different from them. I'm just coming out here and staying humble and making everything about us. It's not about me. It's always going to be about the team, and I'm going to keep it that way."

    *On practicing for the first time last Monday: "I wasn't much nervous. I was anxious. I was just ready to get back on the field. I'd been gone for so long, I was just ready to get back out there."

    *On getting clocked by safety Jimmy Hall, whose hit after a Prater catch left the receiver on all fours and in need of ministration: "Coach Fitzgerald joked around with me and said, 'Welcome back.' No. That was a great play by Jimmy. That was a great hit by him. But sometimes you've got to go up and make those plays. That's the type of player I am. Fearless. So I'm going to go make those plays."

    *On having to master a new offense in a new environment: "I like to get thrown into the fire and working under pressure. You can learn better that way. So the mistakes I make, I'm going to learn from them. I never make the same mistake twice."

    *On the expectations surrounding him: "I'm always optimistic. I always set the bar high for anything I do."

    AND FINALLY: The 'Cats exited Saturday's scrimmage with no apparent injuries.


    BLOG: Spring Fever

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    THE FACTOID: The 'Cats practiced in full gear Thursday morning. "It's great to be back playing football," Pat Fitzgerald later said. "Having two weeks off (for exams and spring break), we talked about it as coaches yesterday, we can't wait to work through these next two days with the good and the bad and just teach and coach. I think we're in pretty good cardio shape. We're not in calloused football shape yet. . . Hopefully by this time next week we will be."

    THE PLAN: On Saturday, for the first time this spring, the 'Cats will scrimmage. Fitzgerald's hope is that it goes for 100 plays.

    SIGHT SEEN: Kain Colter delivered the pass toward wide receiver Kyle Prater, the highly-regarded transfer from USC. This was some 90 minutes into Thursday's practice and now here came sophomore safety Jimmy Hall, who just drilled Prater in the sternum. Down the receiver went, down on all fours, and when he rose long seconds later and after administration from a trainer, there behind him were some remnants of his breakfast. But here he jogged back to his teammates, got a smile and a high five from Fitzgerald, and for the rest of the morning showed no ill effects as he took his normal reps.

    "They ran a little Cover Two and he got around the corner and, well, it's one of those throws you're probably gonna have to take a little shot," Colter later said when asked about the play. "But he made the catch. Hopefully (in the future) I'll get it on him a little more back shoulder. But he made the catch and got the wind knocked out of him a little bit. But he popped right back up."
    "I think it's just wonderful for Kyle to play football," Fitzgerald said with a big grin. "I made fun of him. 'First time you've been hit in about 48 months.' Good. It was great. I'm really happy for him to experience those things. He's learning how to be a football player again. It's been a long road for him."

    THE QUARTERBACK: He is, by virtue of his position, the most important of all the 'Cats, and so the eyes are interested and follow Kain Colter as he moves through practices. Here, in one scene, running back Cermak Bland busts a draw play for a touchdown, and there is Colter dashing 40 yards down the field to congratulate him with a series of head slaps. Here, in another scene, Trevor Siemian is choreographing the offense, and there is Colter 10 yards behind him and staring intently. Here, in one last scene, the action is momentarily paused, and there is Colter slaloming among his offensive lineman and exchanging words with those men who protect him.

    We cannot recall similar scenes from last fall and so we wonder later about this change, which clearly reflect Colter as a leader-in-action. "Last season," he will say, "Dan (Persa) was here and I kind of had to take a back seat and fit in where I could, whether it was receiver or running back. This time, Dan, Drake (Dunsmore, the superback), Jeremy (Ebert, the wide receiver), all those guys are gone and it's time for me to step up in the leadership role and take the team over."

    So he feels freer now that Persa has graduated?

    "I don't know if it's so much me feeling more free. But I felt you had a guy who was All Big Ten, a guy who had been here five years, and I didn't want to overstep my territory. There is just something about being the starting quarterback, you can control the whole offense, and the whole team for that matter. Everybody looks to you, whether you realize it or not, everybody's looking to you about where to go. Dan did a great job with that and me stepping in as a freshman and sophomore, I was still trying to learn my way around things. But I was able to pick his brain a little bit and as I came into this season I was able to feel like I'm going to be the starting quarterback and have control of the offense and have guys looking up to me. Now, as far as having football knowledge, I can help them out. I'm just trying to lead by example. If a guy sees me working hard, I feel that might give him a better chance to work hard and do the right things."

    So he's consciously paying more attention now to doing those things a leader must do?

    "I think so. I think as a freshman and sophomore, I'm paying a little bit of attention to me and doing what I can do. I'm trying to make the plays I can make and to show I can get on the field. Now that I've gotten on the field and shown I can make plays, I can try to help these young guys along and show them what to do and help them get better and focus on them a little bit more."

    NO SURPRISE HERE: Colter's new demeanor is mentioned to Fitzgerald and immediately he says, "I've noticed that with every one of our quarterbacks. As the incumbent or the previous quarterback matriculates out of the program, there's just that next step that happens. Kain has always had, I think, a belief system about himself. He has a confidence, a belief in himself. But he's always been very, very respectful of Dan. Now that Dan's matriculated out of the program, he looks at it as it's his role to be that guy. And he should be. And he is."

    And just how important is it that he assumes that role?

    "It was happening last year from the standpoint of, when he got thrust into the starting role, it happened. He assumed it, but he was just very respectful to Dan, if that makes sense. If you were to poll our entire football team and say, 'Do you have 100 percent confidence and belief that Kain Colter can lead us to a Rose Bowl championship?' it would be 100 percent yes. So he's got that kind of respect. That natural progression just happened. It happened when C.J. (Bacher) took over, when Mike (Kafka) took over, when Danny took over. Now Kain."

    QUICKLY NOTED: Siemian, Colter's backup, rode into the conversation on the coattails of that observation, and of him Fitzgerald said, "He's just growing. He's in the mix now. Last year, when all of a sudden he got thrust into the action when Danny was out early, I think that sweet taste of experience really motivated him. He did a great job in the winter. You can see his physique is completely different from when he showed up here as a pencil neck as a freshman. He looks so much better. He's more fluid running. Mechanically, he's using his lower body so much more when he's throwing. Leadership wise, he's just gaining more confidence. When you get more confidence, you're willing to step out a little bit, be the bell cow. He's gaining on that.". . . This time of year, Fitzgerald is normally (and understandably) reticent when asked to single out individuals who have impressed him with their performances. It is, after all, still early. But Thursday, when asked just that when it came to his defense, he mentioned linemen Tyler Scott and Brian Arnfelt; the linebacking trio of David Nwabuisi, Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo; and safety Ibraheim Campbell. Asked specifically if redshirt freshman corner Nick VanHoose, who has looked good, has a shot at a starting job, he said, "Sure. Anyone of those guys does right now. It's open competition."

    AND FINALLY: Last year Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten title game behind quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred in as a post-graduate from North Carolina State. Now the Badgers have signed on Danny O'Brien, a post-graduate from Maryland, who will be eligible immediately while pursuing a master's in a program not offered by the Terps. "If I were Bret (Bielema, the Badger coach), I'd do the same thing. I have no problem with that," Fitzgerald said when asked about this, and then he smiled. "I'm actually going to see him tonight at the Wisconsin High School Coaches Clinic. I'll congratulate him on his free agent pickup."

    BLOG: Creating 'A New Beast'

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    THE FACTOID: One of moviedom's most memorable lines is that spat out in Cool Hand Luke by the Captain, that dictatorial prison warden played by Strother Martin. Says he to Paul Newman, his most intransigent inmate: "What we've got here is (a) failure to communicate."

    BLOG: Back From Break

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    THE FACTOID: The 'Cats returned to practice Monday after 16 days away for final exams and the ever-popular spring break. Many were noticeably tanner than they were when last viewed.

    SIGHT SEEN: The person-of-interest here was the 6-foot-5 wide receiver Kyle Prater, the Proviso West grad who transferred in after spending two seasons (one as a redshirt) at USC.

    The Morning After - Northwestern vs. Akron

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    This was surely familiar territory for the 'Cats, who had spent so much of their season accompanied by Close Game. They were now best buddies, fast friends, constant companions, and this Tuesday night that pair was together again at Welsh-Ryan as the 'Cats dueled with Akron in an opening round game of the NIT.


    Through the last 10 minutes of this affair no more than four points would ever separate these teams and now, with 4:22 remaining, the Zips' Quincy Diggs dropped a three from the left wing over Alex Marcotullio that put his team up a point. JerShon Cobb, a 'Cat force all night, immediately responded with a 16-footer, and when John Shurna tipped in Marcotullio's missed layup, they were up three at 2:28.


    Now, for one of the few times this evening, they settled into their 1-3-1 zone, which slowed the Zips. But at 2:10 Drew Crawford committed one foul that gave them a new shot clock and then, at 1:49, he committed another as Brian Walsh put up a three that missed from the left wing. Walsh would not miss his trio of free throws, which tied this one up for the seventh time, but just 16 seconds later Shurna offered a three from up top that kissed the front of the rim before bleeding over and through. "We want the best shot for the team," he would later say, thinking back to this moment. "But being a senior, it's our final games. So I do want the ball in my hands then."


    Now the ball was again in the hands of Walsh, a 45.5 percent three-point shooter on the season, and here he tried to answer Shurna with one of his own from the left wing. It was short and was collected by Marcotullio and down came the 'Cats with a chance to pad there lead. But Shurna, driving the lane, lost the ball, and now it was the Zips on the attack, the Zips' Alex Abreu missing a layup, the Zips' Walsh missing one more three (he would finish one-of-seven from that distance), the Zips finally fouling Dave Sobolewski and sending him to the line for a one-and-one at 12.1.


    He missed the front end and, one last time, Akron moved up the court with a chance to tie.






    The 'Cats, of course, did not want to be playing on this Tuesday night in the NIT. Their goal had been the NCAA Tournament, but once again they had been denied admission to that dance. The same was certainly true of the Zips, the regular season champs of the Mid-American Conference. But they had lost by a point in their tourney final to Ohio, so here they were faced off against a Big Ten opponent for just the 24th time in their history.


    They had not defeated a team from that league since they topped Penn State way back in the '37-'38 season, and their streak of futility appeared certain to continue through the first 18 minutes of this Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan. "I thought we really came out to play, had a lot of energy, playing really well in the first half offensively," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would later say, and he was correct.


    Crawford was afire, going eight-of-10 in that half and finishing it with 19 points. Cobb was adding to his late season surge, going four-of-five in that half and finishing it with 11 points. Shurna was himself, going four-of-10 in that half and finishing it with 10 points. "Their niche (style of play) is very difficult. We struggled with it in the first half," Zip coach Keith Dambrot would later say, and here is the one stat that shows you he was not exaggerating. On the year, his team had allowed opponents to make just 29.7 percent of their threes. But on this night, in this half, the 'Cats went five-of-11 (45.5 percent) from that distance.


    That was the major reason they were up 15 with just 1:29 separating them from their locker room, but then the Zips' Chauncey Gilliam hit a three and Shurna missed a layup; the Zips' Abreu dropped a layup and Nick Fruendt missed a three; and the Zips' Diggs dropped another layup just before the buzzer to pull them to within eight. "We got a little sloppy toward the end of the first half and that allowed them back in the game," Shurna would later admit.


    "They were re-energized because of that," Carmody said even more pointedly, "and then they came out in the second half and wouldn't go away."





    Now, down three and with the clock under 10, the Zips put the ball in the hands of Diggs, who would end this night as their leading scorer. He was two steps beyond the arc, was searching for a shot that could tie this one up, but before he could find it here came Shurna to foul him intentionally and send him to the line for a one-and-one.


    Three nights earlier, in their MAC tourney final with Ohio, his teammate Abreu had gone to the line for a pair with the Zips down three at 3.1. He would make the first, would try to miss the second and would doom them to defeat when it still went in. Now, at Welsh-Ryan with 3.7 remaining, Diggs made the first, his coach Dambrot called time and out they came for the second. "I just wanted to box out the guys on the line, on the circle," Carmody would later say, recalling his instructions in the huddle. "I wanted to do that, and they're not going to call any fouls. They're going to push you under the basket, that's what they're going to do, so you go into him first."


    Then here is Diggs at the line and, without hesitation, without a bit of pretense, without going through any kind of routine, he sends a rope toward the basket. "That caught us a little off guard," Shurna later admitted, and in the scrum that followed the ball went out-of-bounds off the hands of Crawford at 3.5 and again the Zips called time. "No. You never think negatively," Crawford would later say when asked if close losses past here crept into his mind.


    But another close loss is just what the 'Cats confronted now as Abreu inbounded the ball to Zeke Marshall, the Zips' seven-foot center. "We thought of throwing it to the rim to Zeke, but we thought that was a little predictable," Dambrot later said. "So we were actually trying to get the jumper for Zeke. We figured they wouldn't cover him as close. But they did cover him close."


    So Marshall, deep along the right baseline, kicked it back to Abreu, who was outside the arc on the right wing. "We got it back to arguably our best player," Dambrot would continue, "and he got it up there, which doesn't surprise me, and it looked like it's going in."


    "Yeah. It looked kinda good," agreed Crawford.


    "But it just didn't go in," said Dambrot.


    "It was pretty nerve-wracking," said Crawford. "We lost so many close games this year and we didn't want to go down that way. So we were all glad to see that shot miss."


    "So we enjoy this," Carmody would finally say. "But in these kinds of games, these one and done things, you just survive and move on."

    BLOG: Suited Up, At Last

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    THE FACTOID: The 'Cats practiced in full pads Thursday for the first time this spring and, through their last half-dozen periods, went 11-on-11. "I thought the guys carried them well," Pat Fitzgerald later said. "But it took us to the team periods, which is about an-hour-and-a-half into it, until it was, 'All right. We're playing football again. Real football. Not seven-on-seven.' So I thought the finish was much better than the start."

    Big Ten Tournament Preview Scattershots

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    * The chatter centers, of course, on just how many games the 'Cats need to win in the Big Ten tourney to assure themselves their school's first bid to that tourney sponsored by NCAA. But that is not where their heads reside. "You don't ever want to settle for, 'Win one game, win two games.' You want to be able to go out and have a chance at winning the tournament," explained forward Drew Crawford. "That's the way we feel every year. We're doing the same this year."



    * But this year, unlike all recent years, they now reside firmly on the NCAA tourney bubble, which makes them the kid of the moment, an object of curiosity, a feel-good story that has drawn expansive attention. This was reflected in the scene before their Tuesday practice at Welsh-Ryan, where there was a veritable battery of cameras and microphones and notebooks eager to capture their every comment before they ventured off on what could be an historic journey. Yet this hype now surrounding the 'Cats only caused John Shurna to chuckle. "Obviously, this is exciting," he would then say when asked about it. "This is what you play for. You want to be playing your best basketball in March, you want to be playing well in March, and I think we've been playing well. But to be honest, we've been asked the tournament question since the start of the year. There's a little more attention now obviously, but we're all used to the question being brought up and maybe that's to our advantage."



    * 'Cat coach Bill Carmody, when asked how often he talked to his team about the NCAA tourney, initially said, "I don't think I ever talked about it." But then he got a good laugh from the masses when he continued, "I think maybe six weeks ago, and this was maybe the only time all year, I said if we end up eight-and-ten (in conference play), and this was when we're two-and-six, I said if we're eight-and-ten and do something in the conference (tournament), we'll be in the discussion. That's where we are. But I wish I'd said ten-and-eight. They listen well."



    * No 'Cat denied hearing the chatter, no 'Cat feigned ignorance when it came to the momentousness of the occasion. But when asked about facing yet-one-more must-game in Minnesota on Thursday, they did fall back on an old chestnut to explain their mindset. "We're just taking it one game at a time and one step at a time," was how guard Alex Marcotullio put it. "The big picture is always there. Our ultimate goal's always been to get to the NCAA Tournament. But we knew we couldn't look ahead of anybody and that every game is do-or-die. Even though it might not be, for us it really was."


    "I wouldn't even call all these games (they've played since the start of February) must-win. We don't have that mindset going into games," said Crawford. "We take each game like any other. They're all extremely important because, at the end of the day, they all count on your record, they all count on your conference record, they all count when it comes to the tournament. So we try to prepare for everyone the same. There is a lot of hype around the game, but that comes from outside sources. We try to treat the games the same within the team. That's not to say we're not extremely hungry and excited for the game. It's a huge one."



    * Since the game is the thing, let's mute the chatter here and now go there. In Minneapolis on Jan. 22, the 'Cats missed their first 14 field goal attempts, fell into an 11-0 hole and lost to the Gophs by 23. But at Welsh-Ryan a month later, the 'Cats turned over the Gophs 21 times, broke open the affair late in the first half and cruised to an 11-point win. When asked what his team learned about the Gophs in that second meeting, Crawford said, "They played a little bit of zone in that game and so we have to be ready for that. Rebounding's always key against them, and then transition defense as well."



    * In that second game, the Gophs had a 41-20 rebounding advantage over the 'Cats. In their first game, that advantage was 40-28. It is no wonder, then, that Carmody said, "With us, it's always rebounding (that's important)."



    * So that is one thing to look for. Another is the Gophs' height, length and athleticism, which can make it tough to score inside. Then there is their overall defense, which is aggressively in an opponent's grill. But when asked if all that could make it tough for him to attack the basket, as he likes to do, Crawford said, "I wouldn't say too much. You still maintain your aggression and you're still able to do the things you do because our offense is so fluid and we're able to find a lot of opportunities."



    * The wild card here is 'Cat guard JerShon Cobb, who sat out the loss in Minnesota with an injury and was just three games into his return when the teams played at Welsh-Ryan. That night, his first as a starter all season, he went 0-of-3 from the field, and he followed that up by going 1-8 against Michigan. "Who'd be play after Michigan? Ohio State (actually, Penn State)?" he would say on Tuesday. "I made a shot then. Then it was, 'OK. I can still play basketball."


    And now? "I'm back," he declared. "I'm more comfortable on the floor."



    * Cobb, said Carmody, is not all the way back. "He's got to come out of games sometimes when he's tired," he explained. But then he added, "He's also gotten a little more comfortable, he's feeling better, and he was certainly instrumental in our comeback the other night (at Iowa). He even hit some shots. So he's certainly given us another guy, a guy who can do some things off the bounce. That's one thing I think is real important for us."



    * Cobb, who before his injuries was expected to be the third 'Cat scorer behind Shurna and Crawford, was most certainly instrumental last Saturday in Iowa City, where he went 6-of-11 while finishing with 13 points. "He's been great for us," Shurna would say of him. "He's improving each game, each practice, and that's huge for us, an extra body that's really capable of making plays. I probably just had a bad quote there saying an extra body. He's definitely much more than that. He's a tremendous player, and the healthier he gets, the more he plays, the better he is. He's in the gym all the time, so he's going to continue to get better, which is huge for us."



    * And finally, Shurna, on the bubble and bracketology and all things related: "I won't lie and say I'm not watching other teams. But when it comes down to it, you have to really focus on Minnesota. You can't focus on other teams."

    BLOG: Pat Fitzgerald's Spring Preview, Part II

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    This time last year 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald described the offseason as a period when you look under the hood of the car and analyze it and try to figure out how you can make it go faster while using less gas. So when Special Contributor Skip Myslenski sat down with him two days before his team's first spring practice, he wondered first what Fitzgerald and his staff had discovered when they peeked under the hood this time around. What follows is Part II of Fitzgerald's two-part spring practice preview, a position-by-position assessment of the 'Cats.

    BLOG: Pat Fitzgerald's Spring Preview, Part I

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    This time last year 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald described the offseason as a period when you look under the hood of the car and analyze it and try to figure out how you can make it go faster while using less gas. So when Special Contributor Skip Myslenski sat down with him two days before his team's first spring practice, he wondered first what Fitzgerald and his staff had discovered when they peeked under the hood this time around. What follows is Part I of Fitzgerald's two-part spring practice preview.

    Fast Break - Iowa Primer

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    LATE WEDNESDAY NIGHT, after their enervating loss to Ohio State, John Shurna and Drew Crawford stood together on the empty court. Alternately, as Welsh-Ryan Arena emptied, they talked softly or considered only their own thoughts, and long minutes would pass before they finally headed to the locker room. "We were just trying to stay positive," Crawford would later say of that stark portrait. "We both knew it was a tough game. We were both feeling the effects of that since it was such a difficult one. But we were telling each other that we had to come ready to play on Saturday (at Iowa), and that we've still got a great shot to finish the season strong. I told him, and he told me the same thing, that we're still a hungry team and it kind of showed at the end of the game when we were able to fight back. Even though it didn't turn out our way, it showed we really care about this and we're going to fight to the finish.". . .


    BUT EVEN LATER ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, after he had returned home, the game still replayed itself inside Crawford's head. "I didn't sleep much. I bet not many of the guys on my team did sleep," he would say. "It was a great opportunity for us. But I think this also shows we're able to think ahead. You see guys out here on the court already even after a tough game. We're ready to go and get this thing moving again.". . .


    IT WAS THE MIDDLE of Thursday afternoon as Crawford spoke and all around him countless 'Cats were already loosening up for a practice that would not start for another 30 minutes. But he himself, after missing four of his five free-throw attempts against the Buckeyes, had arrived before any of them, and then set himself at the foul line of the west basket and took shot after shot after shot. "Free throws are about confidence. It takes a lot of confidence to make free throws, so I'm trying to build back up after a bad night of shooting," he would explain when he finally did take a break. "No, I haven't lost confidence in it. I kind of did a little bit last night. But the game before that, I think I was four-of-four. (He was thinking of the Indiana game in mid-February.) So it was a thing that was tough for me last night, which is why I'm in here now. I'm trying to get the feel back.". . .


    THE PERSISTENCE here manifested by Crawford could well symbolize all of the 'Cats, who visit Iowa Saturday for a game they surely need to keep their NCAA tourney hopes breathing. They have, of course, suffered numerous narrow losses this season, and against the Buckeyes often looked battered and about ready to go down for the count. But never have they surrendered, never have they thrown themselves (to borrow from Pat Fitzgerald) a pity party. They have instead exhibited an admirable resiliency they will be asked to again reflect against the Hawkeyes. "I think the resiliency comes from, I don't know, I don't know," Crawford will say when asked about its origin. "We're just a hungry team, a hungry team. All of our guys are passionate, we want to play well for each other. Because we care about each other so much, we really want to be able to come out every night and be able to play well. So after a tough loss, and we've faced a few this season, we've been able to play well the next game. It's no quit. You've got to be persistent. You've got to keep fighting.". . .


    REGGIE HEARN, the junior guard, would then add this when asked the origin of the steel in his team's spine. "Maybe it's from the sense that we feel we don't have much to lose," he would add. "Yes, there is pressure on us to get to the NCAA Tournament. But at the same time, as far as the program goes, Northwestern hasn't seen much success and we know we have the ability to do that. We have the talent, so it's just a matter of going out there and working for it. Wanting to make history, I think that puts a lot of fire in us. We're not dead in the water yet, we're not completely out of it. So you have to bounce back. You don't have a choice. We've got to move forward and take down Iowa.". . .


    BILL CARMODY, the 'Cat coach, has adamantly refused to label any one game a must-win for his team, and he would do that again here when considering this meeting with the Hawkeyes. He instead very simply said, "They're a team that's playing really well, and (the game has) some significance in the (conference) standings. So it's really important for them and maybe more important for us.". . .


    HEARN, IN CONTRAST, was more direct in his assessment. "We have to have a win. We can't lose this game," he declared. "So we're going to come out ready and you're going to see a lot of fight in us Saturday. If we want to be considered for the NCAA Tournament, barring winning the Big Ten Tournament, this is a game we have to have. So I think we're definitely going to be ready for it.". . .


    A MATTER OF WILL. That, in the end, is how this game is viewed by Hearn, who made that obvious when asked how the 'Cats will approach the Hawkeyes. He said, initially, that the coaches will let them know at that day's practice. But then he added, "The Xs and Os are all well and good, but what this game comes down to is what we just talked about. It's a must win. So if we bring the effort and intensity that we know we can bring, we're going to have success on Saturday.". . .


    THE 'CATS, at home on Feb. 9, were a smashing success against Iowa, taking them down by 19. But the Hawkeyes are a different animal in their own playpen, where they have defeated (most significantly) Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. "So," said Hearn, "I think it's going to be important that we come out and get off to a good start and show them we don't care that they've beaten an Indiana. We don't care that they've beaten a Michigan. We're going to be ready to play and we're hungry to get this NCAA Tournament bid and we need this game to do so."


    THE GAME, Hearn was now told, will also be Senior Night for the Hawkeyes, which prompted him to chuckle like some hard-hearted assassin. "We don't care at all," he finally said. "Ohio State didn't care about ours and we're not going to care about anyone else's."

    The Morning After - Northwestern vs. Ohio State

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    Now just 3.1 seconds remained and they were down a pair and without a time out and so they had but one option, get the ball into the hands of their stud. The 'Cats did just that Wednesday night in their showdown with Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and here came John Shurna pushing it up the right side and getting two steps past half court and going up for a three as 6-foot-9 Buckeye center Jared Sullinger flew at him with arms extended. Right here, for a heartbeat that seemed to last an eon, time stood still.




    Back in the '70s, when the heavyweight champion was considered nothing less than the toughest guy in the world, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier offered up a trilogy of fights filled with bloodshed and brutality and--most significantly of all--displays of courage that expanded the definition of that word. This was especially true of the oft-under-appreciated Frazier, that threshing machine who never retreated, who waded relentlessly forward, who accepted countless snake licks to his face yet never backed down.


    That image, that image of Frazier bobbing and weaving and rolling his shoulders and refusing to entertain any thought of surrender, that is the image that came to mind Wednesday evening as the 'Cats went for their upset of No. 10 Ohio State. For sure there will be numbers from this affair that will be discussed, and they should. There were the Buckeyes' 20 offensive rebounds that delivered them 20 second-chance points, and there was their yawning 44-18 rebounding advantage overall. There were those 16 turnovers caused by the 'Cats and the 21 points they got off of them, and there was their 48.1 percent shooting (13-of-27) on their three-point attempts. There were Drew Crawford's 23 points and Shurna's 22 and those four Buckeyes who finished in double figures, and all of that surely mattered in this one's outcome.


    But, in this mind at least, the abiding image of this night is still the 'Cats as Frazier, is the 'Cats never retreating, never backing down, even as they found themselves on a trek that often seemed as hopeless as the one confronted by that mythological king named Sisyphus. Their boulder was the 10-point hole they found themselves in with this game just over six minutes old, and their task now was getting it back up close enough to the top to put some real pressure on their more-vaunted foe.


    They had one chance to do that when, down five, Reggie Hearn stripped Buck Aaron Craft and sent a pass on to Alex Marcotullio, who seemed free for a fast break layup. But Craft recovered and knocked the ball out of bounds, and soon enough Hearn missed a three and Ohio State's lead was back up to a dozen. They had another chance to do that when, down eight, they created one more turnover, but here JerShon Cobb committed a turnover of his own and soon enough Ohio State's lead was back up to 13.


    Once more, down eight early in the second half, they got the ball after a Sullinger travel, but this time Shurna missed a three from the right wing and soon enough Ohio State's lead was back up to 13. They got it to five at 10:05 when Crawford made one-of-two free throws, but less than three minutes later Ohio State's lead was back up to a dozen. "it didn't seem like we could overcome that lead of theirs," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later said. "But then, all of a sudden, a lot of different guys came through."


    His guys, battered, bloodied, often on the ropes with wobbly knees, did just that, and the first of them was Marcotullio. With his team down a dozen at 5:25, he got his first points of the night by burying a three he launched right in front of his coach. Shurna, after Sullinger missed a layup, dropped a pair of free throws, and then here was Hearn with a layup at 3:44 that pulled the 'Cats to within five.


    Frenzy now filled their playpen, frenzy that transformed into vocal disbelief as Craft appeared to travel and no whistle blew and Craft found Deshaun Thomas for a three that put the Bucks back up eight. Still, like Frazier, the 'Cats kept coming, the 'Cats refused to retreat, the 'Cats responded with a three from the right corner by Dave Sobolewski, and then here was Shurna driving after a missed Ohio State three. Sullinger, its star, challenged the shot and bodied the 'Cat and sent him sprawling into the laps of the cheerleaders, but again there was no whistle even as the shot missed.


    "It's a physical conference. There's contact on a lot of plays. So," Shurna would resignedly say when asked about that play, but again he and his team came back. Buck William Buford missed a jumper, Sullinger rebounded, Sobolewski tied him up and the 'Cats, with the possession arrow in their favor, had the ball. Cobb made a pair of free throws with 47.1 seconds remaining to put them down three, Buck Lenzelle Smith Jr. walked under pressure from Crawford, Hearn missed a jumper, his teammate Thomas rebounded, but here came Cobb, stripping Thomas and calling his team's last time out with 16.9 left. Now, seconds later, the 6-foot-3 Marcotullio rose at the top of the circle, rose from NBA range and, with the 6-foot-7 Thomas in his grill, offered a three that found only net and tied this one up at 7.3. Finally, at last, the rock had reached the top of the mountain.




    Don't let Craft, the Buck point, rush the ball up the court, and then drop into a 1-3-1 zone. Those were the 'Cats instructions as they huddled after Ohio State called a time out. Rush the ball up the court and then choose one of three options. Those were Craft's instructions in his team's huddle and that is what he did, getting separation on Marcotullio and then looking up. He here spotted Sullinger near the basket and delivered a long pass, and Cobb went for the steal and missed the pick and Sullinger collected the ball and put in a leaner over the outstretched arm of Hearn at 3.1. "He had three reads," Buck coach Thad Matta would later say of his point. "I'm glad he chose option number one. That's what it was."


    "We were trying to contain Craft on the way up, but we didn't do a good enough job. He got going a little too quickly," said Carmody, and so now it was his 'Cats who had to move quickly, it was Shurna who had to move quickly, and here he offered his shot and time stood still and the ball hit the front of the rim and the buzzer sounded and Shurna's head fell in disappointment. "I thought it had a chance," he would later say. "Sullinger kind of came in at the last second. But I put it up there and hoped for the best. That's about all you can do."


    Now all he and Crawford could do was commiserate, and for long seconds they stood in front of their bench either talking softly or lost in their thoughts. Then, together, they sat down on the bench, and here Shurna dropped his head and covered it with his hands and simply stared at the floor. He, like all the 'Cats, had battled bravely this evening. But his last shot had been short, just short, and that left him with only one feeling.


    "Just disappointment," he would sadly say. "It's a tough way to go out."

    Fast Break -- Ohio State Primer

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    HE WILL CONFRONT the emotions of Senior Night. He will confront No. 10 Ohio State. He will confront the challenge of leading the charge to keep his team's NCAA Tournament hopes alive. 'Cat forward John Shurna will face all of that at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night, but late Tuesday afternoon his mood could best be described as buoyant. He joked with inquiring minds. He peppered his answers with laughs and giggles. He betrayed, quite simply, no signs of nerves. "We have two games left and we're right in the hunt here. So it's got to be a fun time," he would say in explanation. "You've got to have fun with it. If you get stressful, I don't think it would be good for the team.". . .


    BILL CARMODY, his coach, was neither surprised nor disappointed when told of his star's relaxed attitude. "That's the way he plays," he said instead. "He has a refreshing personality. I don't think he felt pressure when he made those foul shots the other day (to beat Penn State). He just has this boyishness to him. He's different from a lot of guys who seem really serious about it, like coaches for instance. He just has a certain, not naive, but.". . .


    HE PAUSED HERE, searching for the right word, and as he thought someone suggested it might be optimistic. "Yeah," he then said. "I hate that word, but.". . .


    BUT CAN THAT attitude be contagious, he was asked. . .


     "YEAH, I THINK SO," Carmody answered. "When he's feeling good and smiling out there, I always tell him to do that. I tell him, 'Even if you're not feeling good, do it to help the other guys.' But most of the time, he does it anyway. That's just the way he is.". . .


    THE WAY IT HAS BEEN for the 'Cats this last month is surely familiar to all who follow them. They have won some crucial games and have lost some that tore at their bellies, and always, always they have been surrounded by chatter centered on their NCAA tourney hopes. They are the bracketolgists' favorite pet, the thoroughbred looking to break its maiden, the debutante hoping to finally find her way into the ball, and now the buzz around them is as insistent as that around a wasps' nest. But, guard Reggie Hearn would say on Tuesday, "We've only got a couple more weeks to hear about it, especially if we take care of business against Ohio State and Iowa (on Saturday) and at the Big Ten Tournament. In the next week or so, we can squelch that. We're definitely embracing (that situation) as a team. We know we have a chance to make history. For each of us to be part of that would be really special. So we're looking forward to making that happen.". . .


    WE NOW ASKED HEARN, with a smile on our face, how it feels to have the whole world watching the 'Cats. "I don't think the whole world is watching us," he demurred. "I think we're just a very small part of what's going on with March Madness. We're just one story amidst many. So, like I said, knowing that, we know there is some pressure on us and we embrace it. But as long as you go about things the way you always have, then things will kind of fall into place and it will be just like another game.". . .


    THIS STANCE BY HEARN was another attitude Carmody embraced on Tuesday. "That's a good way to put it, embracing it," he said in explanation. "If you just go about it, you're not nervous about it, you know what you have to do, they've been doing this all their lives, playing ball. So I'd say embracing it is a positive way to put it. . .(and) I think it's great they're involved (in the moment). We haven't been in this situation too often and now we are, and I don't know if it necessarily adds more pressure. All these other teams that go (to the tournament) every year, they listen to SportsCenter too and they seem to do OK.". . .


    THE 'CATS, of course, did less than OK when they met Ohio State in Columbus, where they fell by 33 way back in late December in their Big Ten opener. But that result, just like the momentousness of their imminent rematch, is just one more reality that left Hearn unfazed. "I think we're a completely different team than we were at the start of Big Ten play," he would say in explanation. "I think me and Sobo (point Dave Sobolewski) were still trying to get used to our roles with the team. I think we've really grown offensively. I think our offense is flowing better now. The last half of the Big Ten season our offense has been flowing really well. So we're a much changed team, and we're going to use that loss as fuel to go out and win this game.". . .


    WITH THAT GAME NOW IMMINENT, we wondered what Carmody liked best about his team. "I think we can put five guys out there and I think they can all put the ball in the basket," he replied. "I think that they're playing at a decent level, to tell you the truth. They're sharing the ball nicely. Looking at that Penn State tape, offensively, the ball looked great. It was moving around so nicely at different times. Defensively, we need some work and I don't know how much correcting we can do. But on offense, I like the way the guys share the ball.". . .


    THEN, CONVERSELY, we wondered what worried him most about the Buckeyes. "They're all good. They're just all good," he said with a rueful chuckle. "It's a real nice team, they're well-coached, they've been there before, they're a very good defensive team. It's hard to get good shots against those guys. They don't give you too many good looks.". . .


    BUT LAST YEAR, when Ohio State was ranked No. 1, the 'Cats lost to them by a point at home and in overtime at the Big Ten Tournament. So, here, we finally wondered if he might dust off those old games plans for Wednesday night. "I think we controlled both games last year, we really did, and I think that's what we have to do, control the game with our offense," he said. "Now, that isn't easy to do. Then last year, in both games we played, we made a lot of shots in the last seven seconds of the shot clock. That's what we have to do. That's how we can beat Ohio State, if we're sort of in control with our tempo.". . .


    HE WILL CONFRONT the emotions roiling through his players on Senior Night. He will confront the harsh reality of No. 10 Ohio State. He will confront the challenge of coaching a team striving to keep his team's NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Bill Carmody will face all of that at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night, but late Tuesday afternoon his mood could best be described as unruffled and realistic. "I don't even think about it. I don't really think about it," he would finally say in explanation. "I think everyone knows what the situation is. We're going to have to win a few games here, and we have a good opportunity against a very good team tomorrow night. So it's a good chance for us."

    Friday's Northwestern Men's Basketball Scatter Shots

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    * Forward Drew Crawford, who sat out the last 12 minutes of the 'Cats overtime loss to Michigan on Tuesday night, appears good-to-go for their Saturday visit to Penn State. "The trainer told me he was fine," said his coach, Bill Carmody. "He'll be a little sore, but when he loosens it up, he'll be OK."


     "It's feeling better. But it's one of those things that it takes a little bit of rest to get better," Crawford himself said on Thursday afternoon. "It's a little sore right now. But it should be good in a couple of days."



    * Crawford came up with the injury early in the Wolverine game when he collided with their Evan Smotrycz.  "I was cutting through the lane there, and kind of went (Smotrycz's) knee to (his right) quad," he recounted. "His knee hit my quad and I got a dead leg. It hurt a little bit when it happened, and it continued to get worse throughout the game. It stiffened up and I wasn't able to move real well. Being on the court, I was slow. I couldn't contribute as much as I would have liked to. It was slowing me down."



    * 'Cat star John Shurna, surprisingly enough, also didn't contribute much in that game's last 25 minutes, scoring just four points in the second half and overtime. That led Carmody to later opine that he appeared "Reluctant to do anything. He had some pretty good looks and he passed them up to go to the next thing, the next thing. It was a day he had to take over, I thought."


    So, on Thursday, we wondered if Carmody had talked to Shurna about that.


    "No, because I've had that discussion with him for two years now. He knows how I feel, so we didn't have any discussion about it. No."


    "I don't know. I think maybe I was trying to let the game come to me a little more than I should have," Shurna himself said when asked about his coach's Tuesday night comment. "But you can't look in the past too much. You've got to learn from it and get ready for Penn State."



    * Shurna, of course, has not only played big minutes while carrying the 'Cats through much of this season. He was also, more recently, the center of much attention as he approached and then topped his school's career scoring record. Could all of that effort and hoopla left him less-than fully energized against the Wolverines?  "He's a little worn out, I think. He looked a little tired to me," said Carmody.


    "I've been trying to treat every game as a normal game," Shurna himself said when asked if recent events had tired him. "So, no. I was just going out there and trying to play my game and trying to help the team win."



    * That Tuesday evening, when his team faced Michigan, Welsh-Ryan was a hot house filled with folks who witnessed an affair mottled with roiling emotions. This was a game the 'Cats desperately wanted to gild the resume that will be studied by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, which is why the defeat was so enervating for them. "Yeah. It definitely was real emotional. It was a tough loss to handle, especially right after the game," admitted Crawford. "But like all losses, we have to move on from it. There's nothing we can do about it now."


    "Are we emotionally spent, deflated? I don't know about that," said Carmody. "We've had a few of those games this year and we seemed to be OK afterward. So I'm not that worried (about that). I just worry about our overall play. I certainly care about how they feel, their mindset, keeping them up and stuff. But we lost a few games earlier in the year there, and we came back."



    * There is a very simple reason for them not be deflated now and to mount one more comeback. They have three regular season games and their conference tourney yet remaining, which is opportunity enough to make an impression on that Selection Committee. "That's basically what we said (in the locker room after the Michigan loss). 'We still have a great chance here,'" said Crawford.  "It was a tough game, one that we could have won. We've just to be able to move on from in and continue to play with energy and play with heart. We're a hungry team. We've just got to finish strong now."



    * The only fan who doesn't know the 'Cats have never appeared in the NCAA tourney is an alien who just dropped in from some distant planet. So, always, they are surrounded by that reality and by the chatter that accompanies it and by the weight that this history delivers. Still, said Carmody, "I don't feel, like I said the other night, the seniors, they've won 17 and 20 and 20 (in their three previous seasons at the school). So they know history, they know what's come before them, and they feel part of that, the thread that binds. But they also know they've done pretty well here. That link isn't on them like some miasma hanging over their head or something like that."


    But, Crawford would most-honestly add, "Right now, we're focusing on Penn State, although the tournament looms in the back of our head a little bit, I think. We don't talk about it a whole lot. But in the back of our heads we know what the implications of each game are. We go out knowing each game is extremely important. It would be an historical thing. It would mean a lot to the school and the program. So it's our goal."



    * Still, in the present, the primary concern is now the Big Ten cellar-dwelling Nittany Lions, whom the 'Cats beat by a dozen way back on Jan. 1. That suggests this could be pleasant visit for them, but don't be fooled. This is one of those ever-dangerous trap games and here's why. Penn State, in conference, is 0-8 on the road, but 4-3 at home. Penn State, at home, has defeated Purdue by 20 and Illinois by two and Nebraska by 16 and Iowa by five. Penn State, in its last four home games, has held opponents to an average of just 54.8 points while limiting them to 37.6 percent shooting overall and 30.4 percent shooting on their threes. Penn State, on the road, is averaging 55 ppg, but at home that number jumps to 67.5, and Penn State, on the road, is shooting 35 percent, but at home that number jumps to 42. "So," said Carmody, "they've got that good feeling, or whatever it is, when we talk about home-court advantage. They definitely play at a higher level at home."



    * There is one more thing as well. The 'Cats last won at Penn State on Feb. 16, 2002.



    * So much, then, is now in play for the 'Cats, everything from those ever-popular bracketologists to this road trip to a playpen that has been unkind to them. But, in the end, their reality is simply that one defined by Crawford when he said, "The only thing we can do now is go out and try to win every game. That's the only thing we can control, so that's what we want to do. Win every game."

    The Morning After - Northwestern vs. Michigan

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    The fans were up and the joint was rocking and this beauty of a basketball game between the 'Cats and Michigan was tied at 49 and roaring toward its conclusion. Out of a time out they came, the 'Cats with the ball and 1:25 remaining, and here there was one pass, then another, some eight passes in all, and finally, with one minute left, John Shurna rose up along the right baseline and offered a 15-footer. It missed, but his teammate Reggie Hearn collected the offensive rebound and now came more passes, a plethora of passes, and then Hearn was driving. "We wanted him to drive it," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later said. "Reggie's been successful with that before. But he just didn't think it was there."


    "The play was for me to drive the baseline," said Hearn himself. "But one thing Michigan was doing pretty well all night was forcing middle. I thought (Wolverine guard Zack) Novak had a good angle on me and going baseline wouldn't have been advantageous. So I just tried to make something out of it."


    He did that by kicking out to JerShon Cobb on the left wing and from there, with the shot clock at two, the sophomore guard put up a three. He too missed, just as Shurna had  before him, and here Wolverine Trey Burke grabbed the rebound and was crowded by 'Cat Davide Curletti and started to teeter out-of-bounds and just managed to call time out before committing that turnover.


    Now 24.3 seconds remained and here, after the Wolverines burned all but 4.7 of them and with one to give, 'Cat Alex Marcotullio fouled Burke. Michigan coach John Beilein called a time out, then Carmody did the same, and finally Burke had the ball again, this time three steps out from the top of the arc. "We wanted Trey to turn that corner and make something happen," Beilein would later say, but he couldn't do that with Cobb right in his grill. So he pulled back and Hearn, arms high, jumped out toward him, and Burke threw up a three and it was an air ball and this one went spinning into overtime.






    There were no small stakes on the table Tuesday night when No. 11 Michigan dropped by Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was looking to stay in contention for the Big Ten title, the 'Cats were looking to gild their NCAA Tournament resume, and that promised an evening filled with fury and emotion and surges that carried its audience on an exhilarating roller coaster ride.


    That, in fact, is just what occurred, the Wolverines surging first and going up a half-dozen, the 'Cats then switching from man to their 1-3-1 zone and clawing back into a tie. This all unfolded in the game's first 13 minutes and already this one had transformed into a cerebral chess match as well as a physical fray. For here were the Wolverines, so defensively sound, closing down the 'Cats three-point game, and there were the 'Cats, so able to adapt, attacking the post more than usual.


    "You've got to make choices with them," Beilein later said, explaining his strategy. "Their three-point game is as good as anybody's, and we try to learn from each time we play them. It's such a challenge. We try to learn from the way they play and try to make some adjustments. I don't think I'm going to share anything in particular except make 'em make twos. Make 'em make twos."


    "They switch everything, but other teams do that also," said Carmody, when asked why it is so difficult to get an open three against the Wolverines. "I thought they did a pretty nice job of it. It think that was it. It also seemed, early on, John (Shurna, his star), the whole game he was reluctant to do anything. He had some pretty good looks, and he passed them up to go to the next thing, the next thing. It was a day he had to take over, I thought. I don't know. They switched and they switched well."


    So the 'Cats, who average 23.2 three-point attempts per-game, did not have their weapon of choice available to them. They would, in fact, try just seven of them in the first half and 16 of them in the game and make only three (for an 18.8 shooting percentage). But here their counter was effective, Hearn posting up or driving, Curletti working the blocks and attacking, and as the first half unfolded their lead slowly built, built until it was seven at halftime.






    Early in that first half, just over two minutes into it, play was stopped after 'Cat Drew Crawford emerged from a scrum in obvious pain. He would here leave the game, return less than 60 seconds later, play 17 of this half's 20 minutes and 10 more in the second. But at 6:57 of regulation he sat down and never returned. "They just told me he couldn't go," explained Carmody, who did not know the severity of the forward's injury. (Neither Crawford nor Shurna was later brought out for interviews.)


    That was one reality that turned this game and another was a change the Wolverines made to blunt the inside attack that had served the 'Cats so well. "I think they were a little more physical," explained Hearn, who did not miss a shot all night and finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds. "You saw at the start of the second half, I posted up, tried to go baseline and stepped out of bounds. They were just physical. You've got to give some credit to their defense."


    That same defense, which Shurna had dented for 10 first-half points, now smothered him as well, shutting him out for over 17 minutes and holding him to just four points after halftime. "Our defense on him was good. We had multiple guys guard him. We did some different things we feel you have to do," explained Beilein. "I had the kid (Kevin) Pittsnogle (when he coached) at West Virginia, tremendous player, tremendous teams, and you cannot do certain things. They're just too good. They'll just knock it in. So we really tried to do some things that would not allow him to feel comfortable even in the NBA range."


    All of that combined to pull his team back into this game, but still, still, the 'Cats went up two at 3:38 when Hearn buried a flat-footed three from the right of the arc. Then they were up four when Shurna got his first second-half basket at 2:42, and up three when he answered a Wolverine three with a 10-footer that fell as he hit the deck. But here, at 1:41, Wolverine Tim Hardaway Jr. buried a three over the zone from the left corner, which produced the tie that would remain unbroken through regulation's last frenzied seconds.






    The 'Cat 1-3-1 zone can flummox less-schooled foes, but it is a defense Beilein used when he coached at West Virginia and so he is well attuned to its nuances. "Knowing that zone, it's really tough to drive the ball to the basket," he would later explain. "What you have to have, it's not schematic. It's a bunch of guys who can see the floor and can all pass and are going to be selfless in their game. We had to spread the floor and rely on them to play basketball. We've got a good enough shooting team that we can make those shots eventually."


    Now, in overtime, his Wolverines did make those shots. They got a three from Burke after a Shurna miss. They got a three from Novak after a Cobb miss. They got a three from Stu Douglass after another Shurna miss. They got those threes in less than three minutes, and now the 'Cats were desperate and reduced to fouling and on their way to again losing to the Wolverines in overtime. Still, Reggie Hearn was soon saying, "I think we'll be fine. We still have a lot to play for, definitely.


    "This is a tough loss. But we're going to look at it as we fought hard, we lost to a good team, we had a chance to get a resume-building win, we didn't get it. But there's still a lot left to play for."

    The Morning After - Northwestern vs. Minnesota

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    Andre Hollins, the Minnesota guard, threw his crosscourt pass toward Rodney Williams, but here came John Shurna for the interception. Until this moment, which came just over 16 minutes into their Saturday night meeting at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the 6-foot-9 'Cat forward had been frustrated, had been elbowed, had been jostled and held scoreless by a rotating cast of Gopher defenders that included both the 6-foot-11 Ralph Sampson III and the 6-foot-11 Elliott Eliason. But here, on the run, he took that interception the distance, getting his first points of the evening on a breakaway dunk. "Usually that kind of thing picks you up. It probably did with him," his coach, Bill Carmody, would later say.


    "It's nice to get a layup to see the ball go into the basket," said Shurna himself. "But I was really focused on (the team) scoring points. Everyone was playing well. Dave (Sobolewski, the point) was hitting shots. Drew (Crawford, the other forward) was hitting shots. We got key contributions from everyone."






    Later, after the 'Cats had finished off their 11-point win and Shurna had replaced Billy McKinney as his school's career scoring leading, Gopher coach Tubby Smith was asked if his players had felt the pressure surrounding this game that carried huge implications for both teams. "I hope they felt the pressure," he fairly spit out. "That's what the game's about, what sports is about. It's measuring yourself against pressure. The great players, they want more pressure. The good players, they want the challenge. They seek it. They embrace it. . . They (his players) were told what the implications were and we didn't rise to the challenge."






    Now, after his dunk, John Shurna took all of the pressure surrounding this evening and simply embraced it, coddled it, treated it like it was nothing more than his personal plaything. It did not matter that both teams were playing with their NCAA tournament hopes very much on the line. Nor did it matter that the hot glare of the klieg lights bore down on him as he sought the record. He was immune to all that and to the frenzy in the stands, following his dunk with a three from up top and then a driving layup. Next came another three, this one set up by a pretty screen from Sobolewski, and finally, after his 12-footer in the lane went in-and-out, he got an easy layup after a steal and assist by JerShon Cobb.


    Before this flurry, he had missed a 15-footer, a three and had a layup attempt blocked. But here, in the final 3:42 of the half, he had gone five-of-six, scored all of his team's dozen points and staked it to an eight-point lead as it headed to the locker room. "That's a credit to my teammates, just knowing I had the hot hand going for a little while there," he would (characteristically) say when asked about this explosion. "They were finding me in areas to score. I think it's just the flow of the game."






    There were other stories for the 'Cats on this evening as well and one of them was Sobolewski, the freshman point whose scoring carried them early. He would finish with 22 points, would go six-of-10 overall and four-of-five on his threes, and would commit just a single turnover in 35 minutes. "I was very impressed with how he ran the offense, the way he shot it," Smith would say of him. "We were trying to pressure him. But he's a very talented player and we had no answer for him."


    "Dave's been great," echoed Shurna. "I think his role continues to grow each game and that's huge for us. That's definitely what you want out of a freshman point guard. He's poised, and able to take and make big shots for us. He's been huge for us."


    Huge too, in a less obvious way, was the sophomore Cobb, who coming off injuries got his first extensive minutes (24) since Jan. 4. He missed the three shots he took, but was a disruptive force atop the 'Cats 1-3-1 zone and picked up five steals. "He gives us another guy out there who's long, who helps you defensively," Carmody would say of him. "He had a few shots there, they were all right there. He didn't pull the string on them or anything. I thought two of them were going down. They didn't, but he gave us a nice lift there."


    They got a lift too from Crawford, who finished with 11, and an even bigger one from their defense, which not only forced the Gophers into 21 turnovers. It also limited them to just seven second-chance points even though they collected 17 offensive rebounds. "We just couldn't finish around the basket," Smith would later say of that second fact. "Seventeen offensive rebounds, you would think you would have a bunch of scoring from those, but we're not very physical and we just didn't make any shots. We had opportunities, but I thought they did a good job defending us at the basket. They really challenged us and we didn't go through them to the basket like we should have and draw the fouls. Then even when we drew fouls, we didn't shoot them well (his team ended six-of-13 from the line)."


    "We had a tough time attacking the 1-3-1," he said of the first fact. "The turnovers did us in, but it was because of their defense. They gave us all kinds of problems. . . We didn't really share the ball well. We didn't really move the ball well. We had people dribbling, trying to create their own shots. But that's what that zone will do to you."






    The Gophs, down 13 with 12 minutes remaining, switched into their own zone, got  a stop, a three-pointer and were now within 10. Patiently, on the perimeter, the 'Cats worked the ball and finally it found its way to Shurna, who was up top and three steps outside the arc.


    That morning he had received a call from McKinney, the holder of the record he here pursued. "It was a really good surprise," he would later relate. "He didn't have to do that, so I think it shows what kind of person he is to go out of his way to call me. It wasn't a long conversation. But he was really nice to me. He said just go out there and have fun. He said go out there and win."


    Now, before any Gopher could close on him, Shurna rose and offered a three and it found only net and the record was his with 10:48 remaining. "I thought I was open, so I shot it and it went through. Just trying to help the team win," he would laconically say of this historic moment, but the reaction that greeted it was hardly as restrained. The fans rose, all of them, some waving his number, others waving blowups of his face, and here a warm wave of adulation washed over him, bathed him, warmed him, and then came the chant, "Shur-Na! Shur-Na! Shur-Na!"


    "Obviously the crowd went nuts, which they should have," Sobolewski would later say, thinking back to this moment. "So, definitely, that got us all pretty excited, and we pushed through to the end."






    The game now just played out to the end, Minnesota never again getting any closer than eight, and later all the chatter centered on John Shurna's record. But his work this night, as it often does, included much more than just his scoring, and it showed just why he is always described as the quintessential teammate. For here, when it would have been easy for him to think only of points, he also had a team-high five rebounds and a team-high five assists and a team-high three blocks and a team-high (along with Cobb) four steals.    


    "Obviously, it's an honor," he himself would later say of the record he now holds and then, most tellingly, he added this.


    He added: "But I think it was more important tonight that we defended home court against a good Minnesota team."

    Fast Break -- Minnesota Primer

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    THE 'CATS, who next play in the comfort of home, are one of four Big Ten team's with a 5-8 conference record. Minnesota, which visits Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday, is another in that quintet, and that is why we wondered if it was fair to call it a must-game for them and their hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid. "Yeah, I think so. I think it is. It's a game we really need to get," said their one forward, Drew Crawford. "Yeah, I think so," agreed John Shurna, their other forward. "You could say every game is a must-game from here on out. But especially going against a team we're tied with in conference. Every game's a dog fight. But especially defending home court, this is important for us.". . .


    BUT THEIR COACH, Bill Carmody, would initially demur just a bit when confronted with that question. "Well, you know, we have five games left and to get to .500 (in conference), we have to win four of them," was what he said here. "You've got to win four-out-of-five. Three-out-of-five, I still think you're in the mix (for getting an NCAA bid). But four-out-of-five, I think we'd solidify it. And it's a home game, so. I think it's an important game certainly.". . .


    THE GAME, then, is obviously the thing come Saturday night. But also in the spotlight that evening will be the self-effacing Shurna, who needs just 17 points to pass Billy McKinney as the 'Cats career scoring leader. "People have e-mailed me about it, yeah," he said when asked if he was even aware of his imminent ascension. "But to be honest, the only record that matters at this point is wins and losses.". . .


    THAT SENTIMENT, of course, reflected both his character and personality, which have been on constant display in his team's locker room through his long tenure as a 'Cat. "I know how Johnny feels about it. He just wants to win," said Crawford, attesting to that fact. "That really just shows what kind of teammate he is. He's a great guy, a great teammate, and he honestly couldn't care less about the record. He really just wants to win and achieve our goals this season. Being the leading scorer in school history is a huge accomplishment. But what's really impressive is that it doesn't matter to him. He just cares about the win column.". . .


    BUT STILL that record looms, as inevitable as a new day, and so we wondered if he might have trouble focusing on that win column with it so very near. "I don't think so," said Shurna himself. "I'd like to say I've never really focused on individual goals from the start, so it's not really a big deal to me. If I don't score for the rest of the season and we win the rest of the games, I'd be even more happy. I just want to go out there and win games.". . .


    CARMODY, MINUTES LATER, would echo his star's feelings. "Generally speaking, I'd say he doesn't like to be the center of attention. He sort of deflects it a little bit.," he said here. "That's why he's such a likable guy. So I don't think it will effect him once the game starts. But, now, Minnesota did a good job on him last time. I'm sure that's in his head more than his scoring record.". . .


    MINNESOTA, IN FACT, did a good job on all the 'Cats when they met up there in late January, eventually winning that game by 23. Shurna, that night, did manage 21 points, but he missed 13 of his 21 field goal attempts and received little help from those around him. "They jumped out on us. I thought they really outplayed us, I really thought they outplayed us," Carmody said Friday, thinking back to that game. "In all aspects, we have to do a better job. I don't think we were as prepared as I thought we were going in, so I think everything. Offensively, defensively, backboards, everything. But it seems like it was a long time ago. Right now we're playing pretty decently.". . .


    THAT IS especially true of Shurna himself, who over his team's last five games is averaging 25.6 points while shooting 60.3 percent overall and 46.7 percent on his three-point attempts. "I'm just trying to leave it all out on the floor and trying to help the team win," he will say when asked to explain this surge. "I think I'm playing similarly (to what he was earlier in the season). I'm just trying to step up when the team needs me, and just try and go out there and make plays.". . .


    THAT STATEMENT, like those he made concerning the record, was another reflection of his self-effacing nature. But clearly, throughout this month of February, he has been heeding the advice of Carmody, who has long urged him to assert himself, to take over, when the moment calls for just that. "Yeah, he is. He's doing that. Now we've got to win," agreed the coach. "But he's taken it upon himself to put points on the board, and I still think he's doing a pretty good job overall rebounding, passing and doing stuff. But when he sees the opportunity, he's going for it. He's a little more focused that way.". . .


    THIS FOCUS, in turn, has refuted those many who once wondered if Shurna was just too nice, too self-effacing, to have that assassin's heart that defines someone like Kobe Bryant. "Johnny definitely does have a killer instinct like I said to you before," Crawford also said, adding another bit of refutation. "It just looks different from other people's. He just has fun while doing it, and the last few games he's been playing great. That shows it's coming out toward the end of the season.". . .


    THE END OF THE SEASON, especially with an NCAA bid on the line, can obviously deliver a special sense of pressure. But, Carmody would insist, "I don't see any tension. Nah. I don't see any tension. The guys, they know what's ahead of them. You have five teams looking pretty good in conference (for bids), then four teams 5-8 in conference. But right now, you have five games left.". . .


    WITH THE FIRST of those five on Saturday against Minnesota, which is one of those 5-8 teams along with the 'Cats. So at last, to conclude, Carmody will finally say, "Getting back to the question, 'Is it a must-game?' Probably as close to it as you can say a game is."

    Fast Break to Bloomington

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    INDIANA'S ASSEMBLY HALL can be a hot house for any opponent, a hell hole for any visitor, and that was just the harsh reality that was driven home earlier this season when No. 1 Kentucky and then-No. 2 Ohio State both fell there to the Hoosiers. Now, on Wednesday, the 'Cats must wander into that daunting den, yet thinking of that only brought a smile to the face of forward John Shurna. "I think it's a fun place to play," he would say Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, Indiana has such a rich basketball history and their fans are passionate and they have a great team this year. So it'll probably be even louder than it has been in years past, which is fun. It's always exciting to play in an environment like that.". . .


    THAT KIND of environment, in fact, is just the picture he drew up in the long ago, back when he was a kid and visualizing himself on center stage bathed by the klieg lights. "I just think, I feel when you imagined plays in your head and things like that, you imagined a packed crowd, a packed house," he said, explaining why he finds it fun to operate in a place like the Hoosiers' playpen. "When it's for you, it's obviously great. When it's against you, I think that's fun as well just because people are passionate about basketball and everyone's coming to watch your game. You just want to go out there and help your team win.". . .


    ONE PLAYER who has done little to help the 'Cats win this year is sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who has missed a dozen games due to injuries. The first was an after-effect of his off-season hip surgery, and the second was a back issue that arose in their game with Illinois back on Jan. 4. "When I used to run, pain went down my leg," he would say on Tuesday, explaining the consequences of the latter. "It's kind of like a disc thing, but I don't think it's as bad as a disc. It's better now. Now it's just getting back in shape, getting in rhythm. But the pain is gone.". . .


    HE HAS, Cobb also said, gone through full practices for two weeks now and is, when it comes to his health, good to go. "Obviously, it's the coach's decision (when he gets back into the rotation)," he then added. "But I'm ready to play whenever he's ready to put me in. Hopefully, it's Indiana. If not, the next game.". . .


    BUT EVEN NOW, he finally said, he is not yet in game shape. "There is a little rust there because of conditioning and catching the rhythm," he allowed. "The guys are in a good offensive rhythm right now. So for me, it will be just coming in, moving without the ball, not trying to take the most shots and things like that. Just contribute to their rhythm.". . .


    THAT RHYTHM, in fact, was evident even during the  'Cats Sunday loss to defensive-minded Purdue, whom they hit with 77 points. "Our offense is flowing really nicely," noted point Dave Sobolewski. "We're really enjoying ourselves on the court and playing really unselfishly, moving the ball, hitting open shots. We've been playing a little looser in the last few games, which is really good for us." To which the forward Drew Crawford added, "We are playing a little looser now because we're playing well. When you string together a few games where you play well offensively, it opens things up and you feel comfortable with your offense and with the shots you're taking. But that's one thing that you have to work on to do every game. You can't be uptight playing basketball.". . .


    THAT RHYTHM and its effect were two reasons there were no dour visages as the 'Cats refined their  preparations for the Hoosiers. The third reason for that, explained Sobolewski, was "We've still won three of our last four, and obviously that's always going to be good in the Big Ten to win three of your four games. So, nah. Nobody's down about the loss. We're ready to move forward and ready for the stretch ahead of us. We're excited for the opportunity.". . .


    BUT THE 'CATS, to make the most of that opportunity, must certainly belly up on defense against the Hoosiers, who lead the Big Ten in scoring while averaging nearly 80 points per game. "We have to stop them in transition," said Shurna, providing a mini-scouting report. "They like to fly the ball up the court, they have a lot of talented players, they have a big man who runs, and coach mentioned they're the best three-point shooting team in the conference. Obviously they have a lot of different ways they can score, so limiting them in transition's going to be big for us. It's going to be important to make them take contested shots, not give them any easy looks. Especially at home, it's important we have a defensive presence early on.". . .


    IN ASSEMBLY HALL, where the Hoosiers have lost just once this season (to Minnesota), that is both an imperative and a daunting task. But again, noted Shurna, "It's February in the Big Ten, everyone wants to win, it's going to be fun. It's competitive. That's the way we like it." To which Crawford finally added, "It definitely is fun. It's always fun anytime there's an enthusiastic crowd. Sometimes it is fun having 10,000 people cheering against you, especially when you can win. It's a game with high stakes, so we're excited about it."

    The Morning After - Northwestern vs. Iowa

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    POINT DAVE Sobolewski got the first 'Cat basket in their Thursday night meeting with Iowa at Welsh-Ryan. It was a three from the right wing and came with just over two minutes gone. John Shurna got the second, another three, 63 seconds later, and then it was the turn of Drew Crawford, who converted a fast break layup off a Hawkeye turnover. Next up was Reggie Hearn, who went up then under Roy Devyn Marble before spinning in a reverse layup, and finally came Alex Marcotullio, who got his own fast break layup off another Iowa turnover. All this took place in the game's first 7:30 and augured the 'Cat approach to this evening, which ended with each in that starting quintet in double figures. "As you guys know," Marcotullio would later say, "teams have been keying on John and Drew all year. So it's just time for other players to step up.". . .


    REGGIE HEARN, two days before this evening, recalled their preparation for their previous game, their upset victory at Illinois last Sunday. It included the observation that the Illini would indeed be concentrating their defense on Shurna and Crawford, so he and Sobolewski and Marcotullio would have their shots. "Before every game, you have to weigh your options," Marcotullio said Thursday when asked if there had been a similar observation before they met the Hawkeyes. "Like I said before, Drew and John are getting keyed on every game. They're at the top of the other team's scouting reports. So I guess it was said that we could step up and hit some shots.". . .


    SHURNA HIT enough shots to put up 17 points and Crawford did the same while scoring 11. But both those totals were below their season averages, so the key here was their supporting cast (to dust off a phrase popular back when the Bulls were Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and three other guys). Marcotullio, averaging 4.4, finished with 13 while going four-of-eight overall and three-of-seven on his threes. Hearn, averaging 6.8, finished with 16 while going five-of-eight overall and three-of-five on his threes. And Sobolewski, averaging 8.4, finished with a team-high 23 while going seven-of-eight overall and three-of-three on his threes. "Just a nice team victory, I thought. A lot of guys did some nice things out there," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later purred. . .


    THAT WAS especially true of Sobolewski, the fresh-faced freshman who dropped 20 on Penn State back on Jan. 1 in just his second Big Ten game. But then he faded, faltered and floundered, finally reaching the nadir at Minnesota just short of three weeks ago when he missed all five of his shots and failed to score a point. He only reclaimed his mellow nine days ago while scoring 15 against Nebraska, and then he followed that with 14 at Illinois and these 23 against the Hawkeyes. "I don't know," he would say when asked the reason for his resurrection. "I think a little bit of it is being more aggressive, a little bit is the other teams focusing on John and Drew. Juice (Thompson, the former 'Cat point whom he talks to often) and I have been joking about people saying I hit a wall (since he plays so many minutes). You use that kind of stuff for motivation.". . .


    THE EXPERIENCED CARMODY, who has the fine eye of a jeweler, saw something else as his young point struggled. "I think he was getting too serious, he was getting a little tight," he explained. So did he tell him to relax, to just play ball? "No, because I don't think he'd fall for it. He's a pretty sharp kid, so let it go, let him work it out himself. But, you know, you coach him hard because he is a freshman. You can coach him hard and he snarls at you every once in awhile and all that. But in a good way. He's a competitor and he listens. We're talking all the time about what do you think we should be calling now. On offense what should we be doing? If you see what they're trying to do, how do we stop it? He's got a good basketball mind.". . .


    THE MINDSET of all the 'Cats was acute against the Hawkeyes, who this season had already beaten Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota (twice). "Basically, it was just, not take quick shots, but push the ball. If you have good looks, take them, but if you don't have something you really feel good about, run the offense," Carmody would say of their offensive approach in this game, and the 'Cats did just that. They pushed quick enough to get 13 fast break points, but also ran their offense well enough to shoot 56.3 percent overall and 52 percent on their threes. Their 1-3-1 zone, on the other end, often flummoxed the Hawkeyes, who in its face committed 18 turnovers that led to 20 more 'Cat points. "They had some turnovers there, yeah," said Carmody. "But more importantly, I just thought they felt a little uncomfortable against it.". . .


    HIS TEAM'S lead, less than two minutes into the second half, was a still-uncomfortable nine, but if there was a pivot on which this game turned, it popped up here. It popped up when, on a single 'Cat possession and in the space of just 48 seconds, Iowa picked up its third, fourth, fifth and sixth team fouls of the half. "That was a big impact. It's tough. You guard a lot of stuff," Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery later said, but now they could not guard it too aggressively since their next foul would send the 'Cats to the line. "I don't think they backed off at all. At halftime, their coach was harping on picking up defensive pressure," Sobolewski would first say when asked about that. But then, after a breath, he would add, "We got them to commit some early fouls and, yeah, maybe they did back off a little bit. They were in the bonus real quick. Knowing that, you can't really pressure the same. So, yeah, that was really good for us.". . .


    THE 'CATS, in fact, were shooting the bonus with a yawning 16:39 remaining in the game and, on their next two possessions, got a back-door dunk from Crawford and a layup by Shurna. Now the Hawkeyes switched to a zone, not the preferred defense for a team trying to force the action and rally, and here the 'Cats not only built a nine-point lead up to 15 over the next seven minutes. They also played bleed-the-clock. "Once they got into the zone," explained Sobolewski, "we wanted to work at least 20 seconds off of the shot clock. In the zone, they don't pressure as much. Yeah, we did a really good job once they went back in the zone. We moved the ball really well and got a lot of good, open shots.". . .


    THOSE SHOTS would build the 'Cat lead to as much as 24, would produce a 'Cat win by a comfortable 19, would finally send the 'Cats soaring off on a mini jaunt that lands them at Purdue on Sunday and at Indiana on Wednesday. "I think we've played decently the whole year, to tell you the truth," Carmody would then say when asked about his team's three-game winning streak. "Now we've had some rough games on the road and we've lost some real heartbreakers. But I think it's a good team. Now we have to go play two games on the road, so we'll see. We've lost two games at home and won one game on the road, at Illinois. Now we've got to get back that other home loss. You win your home games and steal a couple on the road, that's what you have to do. Fred Hill, the assistant coach, after the Illinois game, he had on the blackboard, 1-0. It's the start of the second half (of the Big Ten schedule) here, and now it's 2-0. So we just have to go on a little run here."

    Fast Break With Reggie Hearn

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    JOHN SHURNA and Drew Crawford are their studs. But, as the 'Cats prepared for last Sunday's visit to Illinois, their concentration was elsewhere. "The coaches (then) talked about how guys like me and Sobo (point Dave Sobolewski) had to be ready to shoot," remembers the junior guard Reggie Hearn. "With Johnny and Drew being the first and fourth leading scorers in the Big Ten, they're probably going to focus on them. So I knew going in, I'd probably have a few open shots.". . .


    THAT MESSAGE delivered by the coaches not outlined the Xs and Os of a game plan. It also buoyed Hearn, who just two seasons ago was a little-used and lesser-known walk-on. "I think it really helped me," he says. "I think that's the kind of player I've always been. When I know a coach has confidence in me, I have a lot more confidence in myself and that really helps out on the floor.". . .


    REGGIE HEARN, at that game's start, did indeed find himself open. "But as open as I was," he remembers, "I did not expect to be that open. I'm just glad I was able to knock them down.". . .


    HE KNOCKED his first three-pointer at 15:28 and his second, at 14 minutes even. He knocked down his third at 12:10, his fourth just 50 seconds before halftime, and ended that half six-of-six overall and four-of-four on his threes and leading his team with 16 points. "Three of the four I was pretty positive as soon as I let it go," he recalls. "One of them, I was, 'All right, cool. I guess I'm feeling it.' So, yeah. For the most part, I was feeling good.". . .


    THAT FEELING arrives when an athlete finds himself in that place we call the zone and then, often, he will describe how time now seems to slow down and the basket looks as big as an ocean. "I don't know if I could say anything like that," Hearn himself will say of his time in that zone. "All I can say is it felt really good. I wasn't really thinking about it. As soon as I caught it, if I was open, I was going up in one, smooth motion, which is the way it should always be. I was just really feeling good about my stroke. I was feeling good about myself.". . .


    THIS WAS far different from the way he often felt during his first two seasons, which were mottled by those practices when he (by his own admission) did not labor full-bodied or at all well. "Some of the days were frustration, not being able to play, feeling that I didn't have a chance," he will say, looking back on them. "Some days had to do with maybe not feeling well physically. Some days it was just mentally, school, things going on in my head, knowing that when I was done I had to go home and was going to be up all night writing a paper, things like that. It was just a combination of things that I think pretty much all the guys go through, not just here, but all around the nation. It's about trying to have a mindset that when you come here and step on the floor, it's an outlet for all the other things going on. I think I've progressively gotten better at that and now try to give it my all each and every practice.". . .


    IT NEVER did get so bad that he hated the thought of coming to practice. "I wouldn't say I dreaded it," he goes on. "I think I thought of it as an outlet somewhat, especially scout team. I enjoyed playing scout team a lot, being able to be some of the best guys in the Big Ten at that point. (Demetri) McCamey for Illinois or E'Twaun Moore for Purdue. Those were really fun times for me. But I admit there were times where it was frustrating when the scout team was playing defense for a half-hour, an hour in practice when the starters were working on offense. But, you know, that's part of the gig. That's part of what comes with playing basketball.". . .


    NOR DID it get so bad that he thought of quitting the game all together. "No, no, no. I never got to that point," he concludes. "There were times before I got here when I thought, 'Do I want to pursue basketball in college?' But since then, there's never been a sense of quitting. There's been times, going through droughts, where you're just not feeling the passion for the game. But all that accumulated and led up to the point where I am now, where I'm really enjoying the game and feeling the passion for it.". . .


    BUT THAT memory of Reggie Hearn not giving his all, that old snapshot of Reggie Hearn beaten down and frustrated, those realities do stand in stark contrast to Reggie Hearn at Fort Wayne's Snider High School, which he not only led his team to its first ever state championship game appearance. It is also where, as a senior, he was the IHSAA's Mental Attitude Award Winner, a winner acclaimed for his mental attitude, his scholarship, his leadership and his athletic ability. "Well. I think playing here in college was a lot tougher than in high school, especially not being able to play the first couple years," he will say when the dichotomy of those images is pointed out to him. "But I think you're right. It definitely took a toll on that attitude I supposedly had in high school. But. You know.". . .


    HE SIGHS, then thinks for a moment and now, finally, says, "I think that's what it's all about sometimes. You've just got to get through the hard times. . .(and) I think the first couple of years really tested me. But I, I don't want to make it sound like there were times when I was going to quit or was being negative or wasn't being part of the team and wasn't filling my role. I think in saying there were times I was frustrated and things like that, I was just trying to describe the usual ups-and-downs I think pretty much every player has.". . .


    BUT NOT many players have the experiences that then festooned Reggie Hearn, who back home coached at the YMCA and tutored elementary school students and taught Sunday school classes at his church and was involved in Youth Leadership of Fort Wayne. Often, as he struggled through those first two years, he would look back on those involvements and remember. "Definitely," he says. "Some of those things, the Y ball coach, the leadership, even Sunday school leader in my church, I was sitting there, I was tutoring these kids on things like working hard and working through things, then here I was myself kind of struggling with that. So I kind of remembered that I was trying to teach those principles to the kids, and I was in essence reminding myself of those things. I was like, 'You're teaching these kids you have to work hard and stick to things and get through ups-and-downs. Well, you need to do that yourself. Practice what you preach.'". . .


    REGGIE HEARN ultimately did just that, he practiced what he preached, and last Sunday in Champaign he missed just one of the eight shots he took and finished with a career-high 20 points and was an important player in the 'Cats upset of the Illini. Now, as they prepare to host Iowa on Thursday, he is a walk-on no longer. He is a starter and an integral part of that puzzle that is any team. Still, says he, this does not mean he now feels any more part of the whole than he once did. "There really hasn't been that much of a change," he says instead. "A lot of the guys here, coaches included, everybody's pretty inclusive. It was more about me getting in the right mindset and continuing to work hard.". . .


    BUT, IN REALITY, there has been a change. For now, to conclude, Reggie Hearn will offer up a big grin and finally say, "It's always more fun when you play. Definitely."






    A couple quick notes: (1) Often, during his four years, 'Cat coach Bill Carmody has pushed John Shurna to be selfish, to demand the ball, to realize that he is his team's best weapon and to not be afraid to take over. That is just what he did in the second half against the Illini, though (true to his nature) he still has trouble owning up to that fact. "Kind of," he would say when we asked if that happened. "But, you know, I got subbed out real quick, then came back in and just kind of thought we were struggling to find a basket. Fortunately, I was open and my teammates found me in spots to score." But, we asked, it's not conscious on your part? "I realize now it's February and this is it," he said here. "So just lay it all out there."


    And (2) there is, as we've noted before, this reality in any sport: When a team wins a number of close games and finds itself in another, it collectively wonders just how are they going to pull this one out. But when it loses a number of close games and finds itself in another, it can collectively wonder about how they are going to blow this one. So, after the 'Cats dropped three close ones, we wondered how they skirted that trap to topple the Illini by four. "I think a lot of that, I was actually thinking about this during the game, kind of toward the end of the Illinois game," answered Drew Crawford. "Instead of thinking about ways to keep yourself from losing, you've got to think about ways to win and really know you're a capable team, you're capable of making plays down the stretch. That's what's expected of you and that's what you should do. That's the mindset we have to have, find ways to win the game and not ways not to lose it."


    Were the 'Cats, we asked, playing not to lose in those earlier games?


    "Ah, maybe a little bit, a little bit. We were struggling to make those plays down the stretch, and on Sunday we were able to do that. That's huge for us. Being able to close out games is big, and that's the right mindset to have. Think about ways to win the game."

    The Morning After - Northwestern vs. Nebraska

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    Most games are mottled with surges and lulls, with interludes of brilliance and interludes of drought, with displays of proficiency and displays of virtual paralysis. So it was Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats rushed to a 15-point halftime lead over Nebraska and then frittered most all of that lead away.


    They frittered it away first at the second half's start, which opened this way. Drew Crawford missing a running baby-hook and Reggie Hearn missing a put back, and a Husker layup. Hearn going one-of-two from the line, and another Husker layup. Alex Marcotullio missing a three, and a Husker three. Crawford missing an 18-footer, a 'Cat stop, Crawford missing a layup and Hearn missing a three, and a pair of Husker free throws. Dave Sobolewski missing a three, and a Husker three.


    Now, less than four minutes into that second half, the 'Cats were up only four and confronting their first crucible of the evening. They didn't blink, here forcing a turnover and getting a three from Crawford and eventually building their lead back up to eight. But then, once again, the Huskers responded, and when the clocked ticked just below 11, their guard Brandon Richardson tipped away a pass John Shurna sent toward Crawford, collected it on the run and drove coast-to-coast for the layup that pulled them to within one.


    Another crucible now confronted the 'Cats and this one looked even more dire than the first.






    The three was the thing through this one's first 20 minutes and during them the 'Cats responded to their fans' shirts, those shirts that demand they "Make Shots." Hearn, from the right wing, hit the first one just 35 seconds into the game and then Marcotullio, a mere 43 seconds later, hit another that set the tone on how it would now go.


    The 'Cats, in fact, would take 11 of their first 12 shots from out deep, and never would they stop that sniping from afar, ending this opening half 10-of-21 from beyond the arc. Shurna was three-of-five from that range and Crawford, two-of-three. Hearn was 1-of-2 from that range and Sobolewski (on five attempts) and Marcotullio (on six) each had a pair from there as well. "We knew they would play off guys on the weak side and sort of challenge Sobo and a few other guys to shoot the ball," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody said later when asked if he would have preferred a more balanced approach.


    "I thought sometimes we were shooting a little too quickly, but when you get an open 20-footer at this level, you've got to make it. Which we did, so. That's what was there. If you drove, you had to throw it out to a guy. That's what you were going to get. You want to get what you want. But sometimes you've got to take what they give you."


    "There's a handoff and a ball screen, bottom line, and we're going to chase it," said Husker coach Doc Sadler when asked about his team's vulnerability to the three. "We wanted to chase them. But we went underneath it, they stop, they shot it, they made 10 threes in the first half. It is what it is. You've got to make teams like that, in my opinion, they're averaging seven threes a game, we give 'em 14 (on the night). So. You know. On top of that, 50 percent (shooting on threes) almost.


    "I don't know that they got a backdoor layup, did they? (The 'Cats did not.) The backdoor to Northwestern is like a dunk to other people, and I thought we did a great job from the backside, coming in there and taking away the lane. So we took that away. But you ought to be able to take both of them away, and it was in the ball screen that we messed up on and we never got it corrected for 40 minutes. We did not guard the ball screens correctly, so give them credit. They definitely attacked it."






    But now, with just under 11 minutes remaining, it was his own Husker team that was on the attack and the 'Cats who were searching out a response. They, of course, had often found themselves in similar situations in the weeks just passed, had found themselves confronted by crucibles at home against Illinois and on the road at Michigan and again at home against Purdue. Each time they had failed to pass their test, falling by one to the Illini and by two in overtime to the Wolverines and by two to the Boilermakers, and so here they were facing not only a momentum-fueled foe. They also were facing a harsh reality of sport.


    The reality, simply put, is this. When a team consistently wins close games, when it is familiar with consistent success, its mindset at moments like these centers on wondering just how it is going to pull out a victory this time. But when a team consistently loses close games, when it is familiar with consistently coming up just short, that mindset is less annealed and oft wonders just how it is going to screw it up here.


    That was the other danger now threatening the 'Cats, but here they ignored their nightmares past, bowed their spines and retaliated. First there was Shurna, on a play designed to get him to the basket, finding his way blocked and kicking out to Crawford, who calmly dropped a three from up top. Then there was Davide Curletti, an energizer all night who also ended with eight assists, creating a turnover that resulted in a three offered by Sobolewski, who missed. But Shurna, even with his jersey clutched by Husker Brandon Ubel, put in a tip, got the call and completed the three-point play. "I was just trying to be aggressive, trying to get rebounds," he later said of this moment.


    "There was an aggressiveness there that I liked," said Carmody. "I just saw that hand go up and tip it in. A lot of times you tip those things and you don't get them. But that was a big play. That was nice to see."


    Nice too for the 'Cats was the defensive stop that followed, and now Hearn dropped a three that put them up 10 just 85 seconds after their lead had dwindled to one. "It's a good sign, guys coming through when they have to," Carmody would later say when looking back on those seconds. "Maybe you come out (with a big halftime lead) feeling, 'We'll just get through this.' A normal human element comes into play. So it was real nice, and it was three different guys who scored. It was nice all around."


    "I think it really showed we were able to handle adversity," said Crawford. "Basketball is always a game of runs. Teams are going to maker their runs when they're down. So I think it was good. They made a great run, they were knocking down shots, and we were able to stay composed and get through it."






    The Huskers, after some late (and uncharacteristic) turnovers by Sobolewski and Crawford, would claw back to within three at 1:33. But now, after those nine quick points, this game belonged to the 'Cats, who salted it away by making seven of 10 free in the final 51 seconds. (On the night, they would go 24 of 29 from the line.) Shurna would end with 28 points and Crawford with 21, but they also got 15 from Sobolewski and nine from Hearn and seven from Marcotullio and four from Curletti along with those eight assists. ("The other guys beside the two main dudes, what'd they get?" Husker coach Sadler later wondered, then he took a look at a stat sheet. "Seven threes. That's 21 points.)


    "It's good to get a win," Carmody would say, his sense of relief palpable. "So little separates wins from losses, certainly the last few weeks with us, actually the whole conference. It's just incredible. So it's really nice to get the win. . .(and) now you have to move on. You win, you move on. You lose, you move on. So. Just happy."


    "It felt really good to get this win especially considering we've had tough games this season when we weren't able to close out the game," Crawford finally said. "So I think it was really important for us to show ourselves we can close out games like this and come out with a victory. Hopefully, this will get us on a roll."



    BLOG: Recruiting, A Year-Round Occupation

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    * This Wednesday is a day of hope, a day of optimism, a day of superlatives and hyperbole, of exaggerated expectations and prodigal promises. It is, officially, football's National Letter of Intent signing day, that day when every recruit is a human highlight film capable of turning some lucky program around. That, in any case, is how it appears on the blogosphere and over the airwaves of hyperventilating TV networks. But, in reality, it is merely this:

    The Morning After: Northwestern vs. Purdue

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    It was a stark tableau and it spoke volumes. There, three seats from the scorer's table, sat 'Cat assistant Tavaras Hardy, his face a blank mask as he scanned the box score he held in his right hand. Six seats to his right was the guard Reggie Hearn, his legs spread, his hands dangling between them, his eyes looking out and seeing nothing.  Finally, two more seats down, was the forward Drew Crawford, his legs spread as well, his hands folded as if in prayer, his eyes glued to the ground even as his school's band exited right in front of him.


    Each, in his misery, recalled Cervantes' Don Quixote, that Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.




    No loss is easy. But some, some, some just reach in and grab your entrails and rip them from you body, which is exactly what happened to the 'Cats Saturday when they fell to Purdue by two at Welsh-Ryan Arena.


    They would, in this affair, commit 16 costly turnovers that led to 21 Boilermaker points, which is just the kind of malfeasance that normally dooms a team to a blowout defeat. But here they refused to let that happen.


    They had also, on this afternoon, suffered a drought of near-biblical proportions, managing just one field goal and five points through the last eight minutes of the first half. That too was the kind of lapse that often leads to a lopsided affair, but here again they steeled themselves and kept the fray close.


    Finally, against a team that goes deep into its bench, they had used Crawford for 39 minutes and point Dave Sobolewski for 39 as well and forward John Shurna for all but 9.8 seconds of the game's full 40 minutes. But never, never did any of the 'Cats waver or back off. "I was proud of the guys," their coach, Bill Carmody, would later say. "They were down most of the game it seemed, they kept coming back, get down again, come back. We defended pretty decently, and then it came down to the last shot and they made a nice play."


     "I thought it was a very interesting game, a game where no one could get a good feel to put that stretch together to put the other team away," said Matt Painter, the Boilermaker coach. "Both teams just kind of hung in there and we were fortunate at the end."




    The end began with Hearn and teammate Alex Marcotullio and Boilermaker star Robbie Hummel heaped on the floor in pursuit of  a rebound, a rebound that Marcotullio finally controlled before quickly calling a timeout. "I thought we'd do a better job on the glass," Painter would later say. "Give Northwestern credit. The out rebounded us by 14 (37-23) and a lot of them were just hustle rebounds. I thought Northwestern was quicker to the ball, they got more long rebounds, they got more 50-50 balls. Normally, when that happens, you get beat."


    But here, as the teams huddled with 55.7 seconds remaining, his Boilermakers were up two and Carmody was drawing up the play he hoped would bring the 'Cats even. It would go to Hearn, who soon beat D.J. Byrd down the left baseline for the layup that tied this one up at 56 with 41.9 seconds left. "I just got the first step on him and was able to finish," said Hearn, and so now it was Painter's turn to look for a play that could put his team back in front.


    It would begin with it taking the ball out in the backcourt, where Terone Johnson would inbound to Lewis Jackson. Now Jackson brought it up against the 'Cats 1-3-1 zone, and probed that zone, played catch against that zone with Johnson, and finally, with the shot clock running down, Jackson penetrated that zone and nearly lost his balance at the foul line and somehow shoveled a pass to Hummel deep down the left baseline.


    Four days earlier, in his team's two-point loss at home to Michigan, Hummel had missed an open three with 9.5 seconds remaining that would have rescued that game for the Boilermakers. But here, with the shot clock at two and Sobolewski scrambling to close on him, he rose and calmly dropped a 15-footer. "In that 1-3-1, I don't think we were dictating anything. I don't think it had anything to do with coaching," Painter would admit when asked about this play.


    "We were struggling with it. We might not having been turning it over much. But we were struggling to get a good shot against their 1-3-1 and we were fortunate Lewis got enough penetration to draw the defense and Rob could get the catch and beat the guy off the close out. Obviously, anytime you have a guy like Hummel, you want the ball in their hands to make a decision or make a shot. He made a good decision."




    Crawford, off his nightmare up in Minnesota, had been brilliant throughout this game, which he would end with 23 points and eight rebounds while going nine-of-16 overall and four-of-seven on threes. So now, with 8.1 seconds remaining and his team down two, Carmody designed a play that would get the ball into his hands. "Just trying to get it up the court," he would explain, "flash Drew into the top of the key area, throw it to him, then we had a screen down the other side for Shurna and Al (Marcotullio) was in the corner. There was also the drive possibility depending on where guys were."


     "We wanted to switch on everything," said Painter, explaining what was then being discussed in his team's huddle. "The last thing we wanted them to do was shoot a three and beat us. We wanted to switch all hand offs, switch all ball screens, switch any screens. They had eight seconds, had to go full court, that's a difficult thing to do."


    But the 'Cat tried to do it, Marcotullio inbounding to Sobolewski, Sobolewski rushing the ball up the court under pressure from Jackson, Sobolewski getting stymied at the top of the arc, where Crawford was draped by Boilermakers, Sobolewski finally kicking it right to Shurna, who was a good 35 feet from the basket. But he had no choice, he had to offer, and up he went for the three that would win this one for the 'Cats, but it was wide left and never touched the rim.


    "The play just didn't work out the way we drew it up because of the pressure," Crawford would later say. "So I wasn't able to get open and Dave wasn't able to make the pass."


    "There was too much pressure from Jackson for Sobo to make that pass (to Crawford)," echoed Carmody. "So we didn't get what we intended. We didn't get what we wanted. The time before that, we came out of a time out, we got exactly what we wanted (Hearn's tying layup). Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't get it."


    "We were lucky," Painter finally said. "We were fortunate they didn't get a quality shot."




    For long minutes Crawford and Hearn remain in their court side seats, each lost in his private world and ignoring all that is around him. The band disappears, the fans evaporate, Carmody does his post-game radio show and still they linger, occasionally now exchanging some quiet words. "It hurts to lose. It definitely hurts to lose, and we've been in this position it seems for a few weeks now," Crawford will later say.


    "But. We're just going to watch the film, try to learn from it and move on, like you do with every loss. I know next game we're going to come out hungry."

    'Cats Looking to Hit Their Stride

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    Last Sunday night was not an easy one for 'Cat forward Drew Crawford. He had been resplendent through so much of this basketball season. But that afternoon, up in Minneapolis, he had suffered through a nightmare, making just two of his 10 shots and finishing with five points as his team fell to Minnesota by 23. "That night, you try to forget about it, which is impossible to do," he will say when asked how he responded to that nightmare.


    "The whole plane ride home, when you're going to sleep, you're thinking about how terribly you played as a team, how terribly you played as an individual, and the next couple days it's the same feeling. But then you watch the film of the game and you break down and learn what you can do to improve. After that, you move on to the next game."


    And what did he learn?


    "We were taking bad shots at the beginning of the game. Coach (Bill Carmody) was saying our defense wasn't terrible in the beginning of the game, but they were getting too many offensive rebounds, they were getting to the line a lot, and down at our end we weren't knocking down shots because we weren't taking the best shots. We were taking quick shots, shots that weren't in our offense, and that really hurt us."






    Two Saturdays ago, after enervating losses to Illinois (by one) and Michigan (in overtime), the 'Cats faced a crucible when Michigan State dropped by Welsh-Ryan Arena. They responded with their best and most-complete game of the year and upset the Spartans. Now, after consecutive blowout losses at Wisconsin and Minnesota, another crucible confronts them this Saturday when Purdue visits their playpen. "We've (just) played in two tough road environments, two games where we didn't play particularly well," John Shurna will say when asked about that date. "So I think we're all excited to have a home game."


    "I think we're eager," Crawford will soon echo. "After a tough loss, we've kind of moved on from it, learned from it. Now we're eager for this Purdue game and the games that come after it as well. . . We need to get some momentum."


    That the 'Cats most certainly need as the calendar rushes toward February and those games that will do so much to determine their postseason fate. They had it early, back before the holidays, but now it has not only abandoned them. They are also short-handed (sophomore guard JerShon Cobb is not expected to play against the Boilermakers); piling long minutes on their bell cows (Shurna, Crawford and freshman point Dave Sobolewski are each averaging better than 34 per game); and, as Crawford mentioned and was evident at Minnesota, a once-precise offensive machine that is suddenly wheezing, smoking and coughing.


    Evidence supporting that last fact can be found with a glimpse at the 'Cat assist totals. They are, for the season, averaging just under 16 a game, and ran up 20 in their victory over Michigan State. But, against Wisconsin, they had only eight, and they followed that with just 12 against the Golden Gophers. "It's not the only thing (that has caused his team's recent struggles). But it's one indication that maybe the ball isn't moving around as much," Carmody will say with an eye on those numbers.


    "We've had games where we've had 25 assists, I bet, where 75 percent of our baskets are off assists. But the last few games, that has not been the case. Eight, nine, 10. That's not good enough for us. You're not making them defend enough. It's not in the flow ... We've gotten out of our offense."






    That offense, of course, could use a third contributor who scores with some consistency. The 'Cats have not yet found him this season. But, just as certainly, that same offense pivots around Shurna and Crawford, whose skills can produce incandescent interludes. That, finally, produces a juggling act the pair must master with their acumen as well as their physical talents. "They have to get the other guys involved more than they've been doing," explains Carmody.


    "The ball has to move around a little bit from side to side. The ball has to go in, then out, then side to side. For some reason, those shots go in a lot more often than when you're just making a move and no one else knows exactly what you're doing. I think we've been doing a little bit of that, a little too much of that."


    So you're looking for a balance, we suggest, where you ride them but they work within the offense?


    "Yeah, yeah. I told them, 'The good guys know. If me telling you to take good shots scares you from taking a shot, I don't care if it's early or late, I really don't. If you're a freshman and I say that and you hesitate and think coach doesn't want me to shoot early, OK. But you guys know me, I know you, if you have a good shot for you, that's a good shot. So you can't use that as an excuse because we've never said hold the ball or anything like that. So just be smart.'


    "That's what the good guys do. They know."






    The fineness of this line cannot be exaggerated and can be best symbolized this way. Carmody, through much of Shurna's career with the 'Cats, has encouraged him to be selfish, has encouraged him to demand the ball, has encouraged him to ride the wave and take the shots if he is in a magical place. But the forward, a classic team man, is often reluctant to hog the stage (or the ball) and so sometimes defers when selfishness is indeed demanded.


    Shurna, who is no dummy, clearly recognizes this, which he showed when asked to explain why this season he has followed bountiful stretches with stretches where he barely scored. "I have to continue to stay a little more aggressive," is what he said here. "I think sometimes I want to be a team player and help everyone out. But sometimes it's best for the team that I be a little more aggressive if I'm shooting the ball well. That's something I have to try and be better at."






    We remember that the football 'Cats, after their October struggles, spoke of possessing a greater sense of urgency as the final portion of their schedule loomed. So here, with February on the horizon, we ask Shurna if the same is true with his team. "Every game's important," he says. "We win those close games we have, maybe it's a different story. But you can't look back too much. We just have to start winning some games. . .(and) I think we've shown bright spots, of what we can be. We put that together for a full game against Michigan State. But, besides that, you can definitely say there have been moments when we've been lacking, when we haven't played to our full potential, which is frustrating."


    "That's really frustrating," Crawford will conclude minutes later. "Our team is capable of a lot and we all know that. So it's tough that we're not bringing that every night and winning the games we're capable of winning. So it's frustrating, and certainly something we have to work toward and try to put together so we're able to bring it every night."

    Northwestern Tuesday Scatter Shots

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    The 'Cats will face Wisconsin Wednesday night without senior guard Alex Marcotullio, who suffered a concussion in their Saturday upset of Michigan State. "He's not available. He won't be going to the game," Bill Carmody said Tuesday.


    But there is still uncertainty surrounding sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who is experiencing pain in the left hip he had operated on during the off-season. "We're going to see. He really hasn't practiced in awhile," Carmody said of him. "I was hopeful I could give him a couple weeks (off) to see if things got better and then, maybe the first week of February, get him going and he'd be healthy and we could make some kind of run. But now with Al out, I don't know. He's going to travel with us, though, I know that."


    This means senior swingman Nick Fruendt, who has totaled just nine minutes in the Big Ten portion of the 'Cat schedule, will be their first perimeter player off the bench against the Badgers. "Nick'll play. Nick'll play," said Carmody.


    The 'Cat rotation, then, is down to seven with only Fruendt and senior center Luka Mirkovic expected to see time off the bench. "But you only play five, right?" Carmody said with a chuckle when asked about that. "I have no choices. You have to coach. You can just concentrate on what you're doing and you don't have to worry about subs. It'll be obvious what you have to do. Foul trouble, put a guy in."


    Carmody could expand that rotation by taking the redshirt off 6-foot-8 freshman forward Mike Turner, who averaged 18.6 and 8.9 rebound per-game last season at University of Chicago Laboratory High. "It's possible. Possible," Carmody said of that prospect. "You still want to win. You still want to win. They say about burning (the redshirt), well, how many games do we have left, 15? That's still a lot of games."


    Asked for a scouting report on Turner, Carmody said, "He's pretty good at everything, he's not great at anything. He can dribble a little bit, he can make a shot, rebounds decently, decent defender. He's working and he seems to be getting better and he can put the ball in the basket. He's a very good 15-foot jump shooter, 16-foot jump shooter. So that's good."


    A short bench is not good when you employ the 1-3-1 zone that the 'Cats used in their victory over the Spartans. That ploy demands that defenders cover acres of ground, which could easily lead to tired legs. "It might. It might," admitted Carmody, who then added this. "But then (using a zone) you might not get into as much foul trouble too. It works both ways. Sometimes man-to-man, you can get into foul trouble a little bit, there's a little bit more driving to the basket maybe. So you have to balance that out, figure that out a little bit."


    The 'Cats, way back in November, picked up close wins over LSU (by six) and Tulsa (four), Seton Hall (seven) and Stony Brook (five). Those kinds of experiences, some feel, steeled their spines for gut checks like the one they faced against the Spartans. But, said Carmody, "I don't think it's as important as everyone else does, as far as playing today and what happened in November. I don't know. I don't know if it makes that much of a difference."


    Still, after enervating losses to Illinois (by one) and Michigan (by two in overtime), it was crucial that they win another close one before seeds of doubt sprouted in their collective brainpan. "Now they know we can do it," explained Carmody. "Like I said, we won close ones in November. But November was ages ago. If they remembered that, that would be good. But you can't. Everything is so present day. So I think it was important we got that thing so they didn't start feeling like, 'Here we go again.'"


    But, no matter how much that win may have buoyed the 'Cats, it did not add any giddy-up to their step when they returned to practice on Monday. "No. I was all over them yesterday," Carmody reported before the start of Tuesday's practice. "Holy Mackerel. We had to give them off Sunday, so yesterday they came out, there were a couple guys who looked very good and a couple guys I was not happy with. So it was not a fun practice. Anytime after a day off, you come out, it was probably normal. But I wanted to jack it up a little bit, expect more from them if I could. And I can."


    The 'Cats countered Michigan State's aggressive defense with those backdoor plays that used the Spartans' aggression against them. But the task will be far different against the Badgers, whose defense is precise and fundamental and -- not insignificantly -- physical as well. "So you're going to get checked up pretty good, and you have to push through that," said Carmody, offering up a what-to-look-for. "They grab you a little bit, hold you a little bit, a forearm in your chest a little bit. Yeah, we talked about that. I liked that the other night. Reggie (Hearn, the guard) was cutting really hard. It was great. He was responsible for about eight points just with his hard cuts that helped him or helped someone else. So we will emphasize that."


    The Badgers are usually infallible at home, but already this season they have lost to Marquette and Iowa and Michigan State at their Kohl Center. That's the good news. The bad news is the 'Cats are 0-12 in that building. "People say why is it such a tough place?" Carmody said when asked about that playpen. "Well, since I've been here, they've had really good teams. If they had bad teams, it wouldn't be so intimidating. It might be the fans and the court and all. But mostly it's the five guys on that court. They've had some really good players for a number of years, and they've been well coached. So I don't know if it's the building as much as the guys you're playing against."

    The Morning After: Northwestern vs. Michigan State

    By Skip Myslenski Special Contributor

    Every game features a maelstrom of swirling bodies, a kaleidoscope of flailing limbs, a torrent of plays made and plays missed and plays that bring viewers from their seats in various states of disbelief. They comprise the oversized portrait that is finally stored in the mind, but in that whole there are also moments of significance, moments to be recounted, moments like those that arrived just over three minutes into the 'Cats Saturday afternoon upset of No. 6 Michigan State.


    They were already down five now and then point Dave Sobolewski missed a three from the left wing. The Spartans, of course, are renowned for their rebounding, are clearly the best rebounding team in the Big Ten, but here 'Cat center Davide Curletti collected his teammate's miss, got fouled and made a pair. He is back at it again some five minutes later and with their deficit again five, this time outmuscling a pair of Spartans for an offensive rebound that he puts back for an easy two. Now, on the next 'Cat possession, he finds Drew Crawford for a back door layup, and then there he is at the top of the circle offering and draining a three.


    "We had rebounds, they took them from us and scored three different times," Spartan coach Tom Izzo would later say. "I thought each time, we had a six, seven-point lead, get a rebound, they took it, laid it up. One time they get a three-point play on it. That became the difference in the game. Give Curletti credit. I thought he played extremely well. He outplayed our centers and that's been something we've been pretty solid on. Curletti was the difference in the game, if you ask me. He was a big difference in the game and deserves the credit he got. He did a great job."




    The Spartans rolled into Welsh-Ryan unbeaten since mid-November and riding a winning streak that had reached 15. The 'Cats, in stark contrast, were not only coming off a pair of enervating defeats. They were also bruised and battered and beaten up. Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who had undergone off-season hip surgery, had pain in that left hip and was sidelined. Senior guard Alex Marcotullio, who had been hobbled all season with a bad toe, was cleared to play, but no one knew just how long he could last. Then there was Crawford, the dynamic junior. He had been felled by a stomach flu, had sat out Friday's practice, and had suited up only after getting IVs that night and again on Saturday morning.


    Bill Carmody, their coach, had planned to open small against the Spartans, using John Shurna at center and surrounding him with Crawford, Marcotullio, Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn. But, noting the uncertain health in that lineup, he made a late change in his plans, inserting Curletti and keeping Marcotullio on the bench. "Just before the game," the center would say when asked just when he learned he would be starting.


    Did that get him jacked up?


    "I try to be the energy guy whenever I can," he said, "so not really."




    Carmody made a pair of other decisions before the game that would also prove fruitful. On defense, he decided, his 'Cats would go exclusively to their 1-3-1 zone in an attempt to slow down the speedy Spartans. "The main thing was stopping them in transition since they have so many fast guards," Crawford would later explain. "Once we were able to stop them in transition, that's where they've very tough, we're confident in our zone. We were able to slow them down a little bit, which really helped us out."


    Then, on offense, his 'Cats would look always for those back-door cuts that might burn the Spartans' aggressive defenders. "All I noticed (on film), I thought their defense was playing you harder, they were playing the ball harder. So there was that possibility," Carmody would explain. "They've always been a good defensive team. But just on tape, we saw they are overplaying a lot. You never know. But we did get some easy ones there."


    "Maybe. Maybe," said Izzo, whose Spartans have young guards (and a senior transfer from Valparaiso playing his first season in the Big Ten). "But the truth of it is, we made sure in three days of practice that we were not overplaying anything. It's just, staying focused as a freshman, it's hard. Remember I said the perimeter guys, the lack of experience there is going to catch us sometimes. It caught us today a little bit."




    Curletti's histrionics saved the 'Cats early, when their offense struggled some, but what followed was a textbook exhibition of what is meant by the term Team Victory. Marcotullio would play the up-top chaser in the zone through much of the first half and then, in its final two minutes, hit one three that tied the game at 33 and another that put the 'Cats up two. They would never trail again, but Marcotullio himself was now done for the day. "I think he got conked or something like that," Carmody would say. "They just told me he's not feeling that good and that he's not available this (second) half."


    Hearn, who would play all of that half's 20 minutes, would go five-of-six from the field and end with 10 points and five rebounds. Sobolewski, the freshman point, would play all of the game's 40 minutes and commit just one turnover while handing out seven assists. Crawford, who played just 11 minutes in the first half but 18 in the second, finished with 20 points, and Shurna played all 40 and put up 22.  "I knew I was going to play the whole time. The question was how much energy I would have," Crawford would say. "But once the game started and I see Davide working hard, I see my teammates working hard, it kind of fuels you and gets you going."


    Then there was Curletti, who had never before logged more than 28 minutes in a game. He here played 36 and finished with 17 points and six rebounds and four important assists. "Our Energizer bunny," Carmody would call him.


    "It is fun when you play well like that," said the bunny himself. "Helping other guys is a great feeling, especially for us. Our offense is built around each other, making back door cuts, making back door passes. I felt tonight, we were hitting on all cylinders. We rarely broke out of our offense. We were able to run it to perfection."


    "We didn't lose that game on the offensive end. We lost it on the defensive end," Izzo would later say, supporting Curletti's claim. "We're not allowed to give up 81 points. It's ridiculous."




    The 'Cats, through the final 20 minutes, slowly built on their two-point halftime lead, built it to 10 with 10:40 remaining, built it to 12 with 6:45 remaining. But still, lurking in the brainpan, were memories of their late failures against Illinois and Michigan, memories that were suddenly stirred as the Spartans now rallied and cut that deficit to just five in a mere 68 seconds. "We just had to stop their run," Crawford would later say when asked about this moment. "Basketball is a game of runs and Michigan State's a very tough team. They're capable of making runs and that's where you've just got to be strong and keep your composure as a team and get back to what you do."


    What the 'Cats did here was put the ball in Shurna's hands, and what Shurna did now was masterly. He passed up an open jumper early in the shot clock and then, as it wound down, he drove hard down the lane, got fouled and made a pair. The Spartans responded with a basket of their own, but now the young Sobolewski exhibited the smarts of a veteran, exhibited them by himself driving as the shot clock wound down and getting fouled and making a pair. This time the Spartans responded with an air ball and now here came Shurna, once more late in the shot clock and off a pass from Hearn, burying an NBA three that put the 'Cats up 10 and closed this one out.


    "We told them at halftime you just can't be competing," Carmody later said, and then he offered this most salient of points. "You've got to take the game. You've got to be the aggressor. You've got to go after it a little harder. I really thought they did."



    Tom Izzo, whose honesty matches his coaching acumen, said this in his opening statement after his team lost for the first time since Nov. 15. "I had a couple concerns all week in preparing for these guys. The first one was I thought they were a much better team (than their record). I thought they could have won the Michigan game and the Illinois game, and if they were 13-3 everyone would have been talking about this being an incredible matchup. When you lose a game or two, it matters in the standings, it matters to the fans and the media and everybody else. But, to another coach, it doesn't matter because it means you played extremely well for probably 39 minutes in those games and lost in the last minute. So how you played was important, so I knew they were a very good team."


    Then later, at the end of an answer to a question about Curletti, he offered this. "Like I said, we weren't good enough," he offered. "But they were really good. Don't knock Northwestern. Northwestern did a hell of a job."

    Northwestern Tuesday Scatter Shots

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    * The 'Cats have 14 regular-season games remaining after they visit Michigan on Wednesday night. That means it is far too early to dust off old chestnuts like "crucial contest" and "must-win situation." Still, with Michigan State and Wisconsin up next after the Wolverines, they are most certainly entering a stretch where they can grab off some (to use another chestnut) "signature wins" that would not only enhance their standing in the Big Ten race. They would also burnish their (last chestnut, promise) NCAA Tournament resume.


    "Those (teams) are all up there, right?" said their coach, Bill Carmody, when asked about that. "Those would all be significant -- I don't know signature or not -- but those would all be important wins for us. We have to get 'em.


    "This is a big game, a really big game," echoed forward Drew Crawford. "One thing we've got to do is win on the road, and that starts tomorrow. These last two days of practice, we've really been preparing for them. We're excited for the game."


    "It's obviously a really big stretch for us," concluded the freshman point, Dave Sobolewski. "We're playing a lot of highly-ranked teams, and I don't think we've beat a ranked team yet this year. We played (No. 23) Creighton tough on the road. But, yeah, this is a huge stretch for us, especially with the Big Ten season here."



    * The 'Cats were last viewed at work last Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where they built a 10-point lead over Illinois, floundered offensively for 19 minutes, rallied furiously down the stretch, and fell by one. That performance mirrored, to an extreme degree, a pattern that had emerged in some of their earlier games, which too were mottled with stretches of offensive impotence. "Yeah, we've had some real bad times, minutes without scoring," Carmody agreed Tuesday when this was brought up to him. "Some of the games they've been pretty good shots. But the last game against Illinois, I didn't think the shots were as good. We've been working on our offense a lot the last few days, just trying to see if we can do a little bit better."


    And what in particular have they been working on?


    "Just the moving. It seemed our cuts (against Illinois), guys were holding us up a little bit, we weren't cutting as crisply and sharply, and when we were cutting we weren't really looking for the ball, so it doesn't put pressure on the next defender to help out so you get an open shot. So I think overall it just has to click better."


    "One thing that is big for us is cutting hard, especially when a lot of Big Ten teams try to bump you while you're cutting," Crawford later added. "You've got to be able to cut through hard and be physical on offense. We've got to be consistently aggressive making hard cuts, that's always important for us, and not backing down when the other team picks up their physicality."


    "We weren't moving the ball and running through our offense as quickly as we should have been," Sobolewski would then conclude. "We were kind of slowly going through the motions and, with our offense, a big part of it is running through things fast and moving the ball quickly. We just weren't doing that until the very end of the second half and that's when we went on that run. But for the first 17, 18 minutes of the second half, we weren't doing it."


    Has that been a point of emphasis in the practices leading up to the Michigan game?


    "Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely. Absolutely."



    * Not even John Shurna, who had just one field goal in the second half after going for 17 points in the first, was immune to the malaise that struck the 'Cats against the Illini, and so it was natural that Carmody was asked about him on Tuesday. "He's probably putting a little pressure on himself," he said of his star, who was not available for comment. "He came out against Illinois, that first half, he got to the basket two or three times, old fashioned three-point play, banged a three from the corner, hit a pull up jumper at the foul line. So he did a lot of nice things. Then in the second half those shots, some of them didn't fall. You know, you can't expect 17 both halves. So somebody else has to pick it up. It's a team. I just think overall we have to move the ball better and, when you get your open looks, knock them down."


    Is he playing out of himself since he is feeling that pressure?


    "John's good at staying within himself," said Carmody. "But I want him to hunt for his shots a little bit more, and he has done that. He's going after shots. Certain guys, if they just let the game come to them, all of a sudden the half's over and you have two shots, three shots.  Against Penn State, Drew had two shots in the first half letting the game come to him. Those two guys, they've got to go after it a little bit and get their shots, the ones they can make, not forcing them. Your best players have to be able to take some bad shots. Then, after awhile, those bad shots, they start making them. Where other guys aren't capable of doing that, those guys are. So I try to give them a little freedom."


    "Johnny's all about the team, that's what he really cares about," Crawford himself said when asked about Shurna. "He wants to do what's best to help the team win. That's always the biggest thing for him, and the rest of us too. We spent a lot of time talking and it's really about what we're doing as a team and what we can do to improve."



    * Which brings us to Sobolewski, who missed all five of his field goal attempts against the Illini. "They just weren't going in. Then in the second half I just wasn't getting looks," he explained Tuesday. "But I didn't take a shot that I won't shoot tomorrow night. They weren't going in, but I'll shoot the same shots tomorrow night if they come my way."



    * And finally, Sobolewski, on the 'Cats mood: "I think the whole team is confident. Just because we lost a few games, nobody's got their head down. We're ready to play again, we're excited to play again, and all of us are still confident in what we can do."

    The Morning After: 'Cats Come to Life in Second Half

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    The second half opened and, just 10 seconds in, Dave Sobolewski found John Shurna for a layup off a set play. Then, on the next 'Cat possession, Drew Crawford drove and kicked to Shurna, who drained a three from the right corner. Now, some 90 seconds later, here was Crawford driving and dropping in a short hook from the right side, then there he was dropping in another from low in the lane.


    Finally, at last, the game was afoot.




    It was a game in name only through Sunday's first half at Welsh-Ryan, where the 'Cats were hosting rebuilding Penn State. There was, in fact, little to like about these 20 minutes, which were filled with scattered shots and offensive offenses and--when it came to the hosts -- listlessness and lethargy and ennui.


    Sobolewski, the freshman point, was energized through them, and he kept the 'Cats afloat by hitting half of his eight field goal attempts and putting up 10 points. There was life too in guard Alex Marcotullio, who has been struggling with a toe injury, but all around them their teammates appeared to be ailing from a classic New Year's Day hangover.


    Shurna took only five shots in this half, missed three of his four three-point attempts, and committed three turnovers. Crawford, in turn, took only two shots and drifted too much and rarely attacked the basket, and then there were these most-revealing stats. The Nittany Lions had 15 offensive rebounds and the 'Cats, just three. The Nittany Lions had 31 field goal attempts and the 'Cats, just 19. The 'Cats had eight turnovers, but when it came to field goals made, the number was just seven.


    "None of us were happy in the locker room at halftime. The players, staff," Bill Carmody would later say. "We really didn't talk too much basketball there. I actually challenged these two guys (Crawford and Shurna) to be leaders out there. I thought there was no physicality at all. They had 15 offensive rebounds. And there was no enthusiasm. Two guys. Sobolewski and Marcotullio were the only guys in the first half that, I don't want to use that expression came to play, but just energized, full of life. You're playing college basketball. It should be a great time. And play hard.


    "So I singled these two guys out because they should be our leaders, and they have been. . . They were ticked off at me, I was ticked off at them and, in the second half, whatever they said, the heck with you, they came out ready to play. They passed the ball, they were moving faster, they were rebounding. Everything you want them to do, they did. So I was really pleased. I definitely don't care if they're mad at me. Keep playing that way, I'll be very happy."




    The 'Cats, angry at their coach, angry at themselves, came out of their locker room down three, but this game turned as soon as Crawford tapped into the aggressive side of his inner self. His team cannot win without this ingredient in the mix, that is how crucial it is to its success, yet later even he would admit, "It was obvious that I wasn't being aggressive enough in the first half. In the second half I was able to do that and I think it helps us as a team."


    It helped Shurna get that early three, which tied this one up at 28, and then the second of Crawford's short hooks put the 'Cats up two, which was their first lead since the opening two minutes. Now, as they took control of this game over the next eight minutes, the full package of his skills came out for public display. He drove for another short hook. He assisted on a Sobolewski three and then on a three by Marcotullio. He himself hit three and then, on the next possession, drove hard to the basket, missed the layup while avoiding a charge and saw it tapped home by Shurna. A minute later he dropped another three and finally, two possessions after that, he sidled behind the Penn State zone, streaked down the baseline, accepted a perfect alley-oop from Shurna and drove it home.


    "I just try to take what I get in the offense," he would later say when asked about this incandescent stretch. "A lot of times, if you get to the basket a couple times, the defense is going to start sagging off of you. They're going to play back off of you a little bit and give you room to shoot a three. If you knock down a couple threes to start the game, it's the opposite. You've got room to get to the basket. So you just go with the offense, go with how the defense is playing you."


    "What it does is, the guys who are playing with him recognize that, OK, he's in the game, he's being aggressive, he's taking advantage of his abilities," said Carmody when asked about the effect of Crawford's aggressiveness. "Sobolewski had a nice game, but it's like (Juice) Thompson last year. You're on the court with a guy like that, you say, 'We can hang with anybody.' That's what these guys (Crawford and Shurna) are. The rest of our team, they have to feel that if these guys are out there, we can play with anybody."




    Crawford's dunk put the 'Cats up six at 8:39 and from there the margin just grew, eventually cresting at 13 and ending in their 68-56 win. He would finish seven-of-nine from the field and two-of-two on his threes and five-of-six from the line for 21 points, and also chip in three rebounds, three assists and a block. Shurna, despite going just two-of-seven on his threes, would add 17, and Sobolewski would be big with his 20 ("When he has a game like that, they're tough to beat. Now they've got three scorers instead of just two," Nittany Lion coach Patrick Chambers would say.) Then there was Marcotullio, who scored just six points while hitting two of his four three-point attempts, but put in 20 minutes, the most he has managed in a month. "It's been a difficult process," he would say when asked about the injury that has nagged him for so long. "But just getting out on the court and playing with these guys for an extended period of time felt really good. The teamwork and the chemistry that I can help bring I think is going to be crucial for our success."




    The routine, after each 'Cat home game, calls for Carmody and a pair of players to appear in the press room, where the coach makes an opening statement, answers questions, then departs before the players take questions of their own. That is just what happened Sunday night and here, as you have read, he kept referring to these two guys, to his leaders, to Shurna and Crawford. Crawford was, in fact, on stage with him. But the other 'Cat on hand was not Shurna, it was Marcotullio, who looked over at his coach as he got ready to depart and asked, "Did you think I was Shurna?"


    "Oh, geez," said Carmody with a chuckle, recognizing at last just who was at his left shoulder. "You're not Shurna."


    "Yeah," Marcotullio finally said. "I was thinking that myself."

    It Takes Two To Make a Thing Go Right

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    The one, the senior, is the antithesis of the image that rules this Look-At-Me Age. He is self-effacing, reluctant to employ the pronoun I, and so unabashedly egalitarian that some question whether he can be killer enough, selfish enough, to carry a team. "That's been going on for three years," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody will say of his star forward, John Shurna. "I've been begging him to be greedy. 'This is not a democracy. No one thinks you're greedy.' There's other guys I've coached, people are, 'Aw man, that guy won't give it up.' He's not like that and you have to be. He's a real team guy, but I say that's not being a team guy. (Michael) Jordan was a team guy too and he made sure he got 26 shots up every game, or whatever it was. There is an 'I' in this team."


    The other, the junior, is an admirable amalgam of athletic ability. He can score inside and out, off the bounce or the pass, rebound and defend the opponent's best player, yet he still struggles some with his consistency and settling for long jump shots. "I just want him to be involved in plays. You know, run around," Carmody will say of his blossoming threat, Drew Crawford. "He's a strong kid, runs and jumps pretty well, good kid. So just don't be floating out there. If you were playing and I were playing, we'd be floating out there in space. It'd be nice. But I want him to just get involved in stuff and then his athleticism'll show up. Just be in on a lot of plays."


    The one, Shurna, sits down on a court side table in a near-empty Welsh-Ryan Arena and, inevitably, is asked if he can be a killer. "Coach has brought that up," he says. "I just want to win and I want to help the team win. So maybe that comes out just trying to help the team win. Trying to make plays to win the game, that's what I enjoy."


    Let me ask it this way, we now say.


     "You want me to say 'Killer,'" Shurna interrupts, and then he laughs.


    We don't want him to say anything he doesn't want to say, we assure him. But then we tell him that North Carolina coach Roy Williams once said that Jordan, in the best sense, was the most-selfish player he had ever been around, that he recognized his value to the team and wanted the ball at the end. Can Shurna, we then wonder, be selfish enough?


     "Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, I want to win. I want the ball in my hands. I just want to make plays and help the team win. So, yeah. Yes."


     "Johnny does have killer in him. It just doesn't look like the killer in another person," Crawford will say minutes later. He has taken Shurna's spot atop that court side table and here he continues, "Kobe (Bryant) will go out and score 40 and will be growling at people. Johnny'll go out and be scoring 40 and having a great time, smiling, running down the court, skipping down the court. So he has the killer in him. It just looks different from other peoples'."


    And Crawford himself, is he concentrating more on using his athletic ability rather than settling for jump shots?


     "I think sometimes I do do that," he admits. "A lot of times, in our offense, I'm finding myself open for three-point shots, but I'd like to be able to get myself to the basket and get myself going and score around the basket. I'm capable of doing that. I need to do it more."


    Is he then ready, for lack of a better analogy, to play Scottie Pippen to Shurna's Jordan?


     "This year it's important for me to step up, especially not having Juice (Thompson). Juice was big in that role last year," he says. "So I really have to step up this year and play a bigger role on this team. I'm definitely working on that."




    The real season, the Big Ten season, is now upon the 'Cats, who open up conference play Wednesday afternoon at Ohio State. They are 10-2, champions of the Charleston Classic (where they defeated LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall) and poised to make a run for their first NCAA tourney bid behind the estimable duo of Shurna and Crawford. Still, even with those positives tucked away in their resume, they (like all teams) are surrounded by questions as they begin their march toward March.


    Ask Shurna the key to his team's success between now and then and he will say, "Consistency. In years past, we felt we could compete with the best teams. But we've had slip ups, we haven't come up with those plays we need at the end and things like that. Early on this year I think we've shown that we could handle adversity. I think that's a good sign for the rest of the year."


     "The key for us to be successful this year is coming out with energy every night. That's going to be the main thing," says Crawford. "Every game that we play is a tough one, especially in the Big Ten. So coming out ready to play every game with energy. We're a high-energy team, so that's going to be important for us."


     "In past years, depth has hurt us. That's what I think it is," Carmody himself will finally say to the same question. "You got to defend better, you got to do this better, you got to rebound better. No doubt those are ingredients also. But I just think depth is the thing. Last year, I thought we were onto something really nice. Then (sophomore guard) JerShon (Cobb) gets hurt. For the Big Ten season, that (injured) hip was worthless. Johnny had stitches, the concussion, never quite the same. This year I come in, our backcourt wasn't what I expected it to be."


    That question of consistent energy, raised by Shurna and Crawford, well, that is an area they themselves can control. ("Being a four-year senior, it's my job to speak up and make sure everything's going well, everyone's bringing energy," says Shurna.) But those issues raised by Carmody are far gnarlier. He will, in hopes of defending better, now use a 1-3-1 zone more often than he has so far this season. He will, in hopes of rebounding better, continue to rotate centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti looking to find the hotter and more-active hand. His offense, bereft of a reliable inside game, will still feature a plethora of three-point shots ("I think the game's going that way," he says), yet there is no blueprint for solving his problem with depth.


    Freshman guard Tre Demps is injured and out for the year. Junior guard Alex Marcotullio is just back from a toe injury. (He logged 17 minutes in their last game, a loss at Creighton). Cobb, who had hip surgery in April, rehabbed for over four months, returned, suffered a concussion and is only now working himself back into full shape. ("He's still not quite there, but he's ready to go," Carmody says of him.) That leaves the 'Cat rotation still in flux, which is why they now depend so heavily on John Shurna and Drew Crawford.




    Last Thursday at Creighton, even while saddled with foul trouble, Crawford went 13-of-17 overall, 3-of-4 on his threes and ended with 34 points. "Drew's been underrated his whole career as far as basketball goes," Shurna says of him. "He always plays with a little chip on his shoulder. He wants to show people he can play and he's gone out and done that. He's been huge for us this year."


    That same night, even while not shooting especially well, Shurna himself put up 18 points while also grabbing a team-high nine rebounds. "I know what he's capable of," Crawford says of him. "He's our leader out there. We really get on his back and when he's on, he's unbelievable, one of the best players in the nation."


     "At the end of games, I want the ball in my good guys' hands, Shurna and Crawford," Bill Carmody himself will finally say. "That's what I want the other guys to recognize. Reggie (Hearn, the junior guard) took a baseline jumper off the bounce the other day, missed it, in his good game. And Sobo (freshman point Dave Sobolewski)took a fast shot when we're up one.


     "No. I'm saying I want to win with Crawford and Shurna."

    BLOG: See You Next Week

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    * Ahab was the captain's name and his obsession was a whale, that whale he so wanted to land that he promised, in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, "To chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give up." That is, too, just as it is with the football 'Cats, who themselves have not given up after recently chasing postseason victories in Dallas and Tampa, in San Antonio and El Paso, in Detroit and Orlando and Pasadena, Calif.

    BLOG: Tales from a Saturday Morning Bowl Practice

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    * Eight days ago, on an unremarkable play in practice, fate flaunted its fickle finger and altered the future of a pair of 'Cats. The victim in the deal was senior defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, who broke his right leg that Friday morning. The benefactor, if you will, was junior Brian Arnfelt, who was suddenly thrust into the front-four rotation after suffering through a season mottled with injuries. "Just going through the same thing he is, someone telling you you won't be able to play, it's just so tough," he will say this Saturday. "You feel for anyone in that situation, especially after just going through it. Everyone's got to pick up the flag. But I can't imagine what Niko's going through, that feeling of being a senior and not being able to go out there. It's a bummer."

    BLOG: When Freshmen Become Sophomores

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    * He was recruited by Texas A&M and, during his junior year at Houston's Westfield High School, even took an official visit to watch it play bitter rival Texas. "It was one of the coolest games I've ever been to. It was great," remembers 'Cat freshman receiver Christian Jones. But months later, during spring practice, he tore his ACL and the Aggies joined many others in backing off from their pursuit of him. "Somewhat. Yeah. Somewhat," he also remembers.

    BLOG: Nearing the End and Stronger Than Ever

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    * He has completed 193 of his 260 pass attempts (74.2 percent) for 2,163 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has also battled through nagging injuries as well as the aftereffects of the major injury he suffered 13 months ago, and catalyzed the 'Cats to the late surge that carried them into the Dec. 31 Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M. But even now Dan Persa is not the same self he was before ripping up his Achilles against Iowa, which is why he so looked forward to this month and the additional practices that accompany a postseason appearance. "I thought," he will say, "it was a terrific opportunity for me to take some steps in my rehab and get in the best possible shape for the game."

    Does he still feel himself getting better day-by-day?

    BLOG: Tuesday Practice Report

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    * Bad news first. Defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, a starter all season, broke his right leg in last Saturday's practice and will miss the 'Cats' meeting with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 31. "Just a freak deal. Just stuck his foot in the ground the wrong way, so he'll have surgery this week," reported Pat Fitzgerald.

    BLOG: Back to Work

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    The 'Cats, on Saturday, regrouped after finals and started working their way toward their Dec. 31 bowl date with Texas A&M. Some snapshots.