Jan. 21, 2011
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on a night of varied results on Thursday in a doubleheader at Welsh-Ryan Arena that featured both the Northwestern men's and women's basketball teams.
Thursday was sliding quickly toward Friday when Amy Jaeschke, the Wildcats' All-America candidate, stopped in a hallway of Welsh-Ryan Arena. Earlier this night, in her team's game with Michigan, she had performed with her typical brilliance, scoring 23 points and collecting a dozen rebounds in 38 minutes of work worthy of any warrior. Yet even that was not enough to stave off the Wolverines, who exited Evanston with a nine-point win.
This was an enervating defeat for her and the 'Cats and later, while seated on a small stage, Jaeschke had opined that her team needed to start performing more consistently. Since they had earlier plucked off marquee wins against Purdue and Ohio State and at Illinois, this was not an unexpected comment. So now, in this hallway, she is asked if a learning process must be endured to attain that consistency, and here she answers as quickly as she spins to the basket. "Yeah," she says. "I really think that there are players that are still trying to find their roles on this team. So there are nights when they're going to come out and have huge games, and there are other nights when they're not. So I think it's letting them get the confidence that they're the ones who can score points and make the baskets."
But there is also one more thing at work here with her and her team and that, quite simply, is their program's past. For an eternity, it seemed, it had wallowed in the netherworld of the Big Ten, but now, in just its third season under coach Joe McKeown, it is a contender, a real factor in its conference race. That emergence, in turn, has entailed nothing less than a change of identity for the Cat Women, and this has led, Jaeschke will say, to "A huge learning process, how to become a competitive team. That's something coach, as soon as he came in, implemented in practice. We had Competition Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, it was one team against another just so we could learn how to compete. Right now, it's believing that we can win every game, believing that we can beat any Big Ten team."
But shouldn't they have that belief after beating some of the nation's top teams?
So what happens when they fall at home to the Wolverines?
"It's the Big Ten. Every team's a good team. But when you have one bad game, it's like, 'Oh, no. Is this three seasons ago all over again?' It's not letting those thoughts come back. It's, 'All right, we lost the game. But we're Northwestern, we're a great team and we're going to bounce back and beat this next team.'"
Does she herself have to fight that thought process?
"Last year, I definitely did. But this year, for me, I expect that we're going to make it to the NCAA tournament. I expect that we're going to have 20 wins this season. It's really having everyone buy into that belief and I think people are on board with that. But we're still a little rocky at this point."
There was nothing rocky Thursday night about the Cat men, who opened the evening's festivities with a 43-point win over SIU Edwardsville. Five of them finished in double figures in scoring and not one of them was the forward John Shurna, who spent the game in dress sweats and resting his damaged left ankle. (He could have played if needed, but clearly wasn't.) That injury was the topic when we later caught up with the sophomore Drew Crawford, who had scored a team-high 16, and asked him this. Is he aware that Shurna is physically limited and does that compel him to add a bit more to his team's offense?
"There's always that feeling," Crawford says. "John, he's one of the biggest fighters that I've ever seen. He's struggling a little bit with his ankle, but he doesn't show it at all. He won't say it and he won't show it. So he's a warrior for that. Johnny's the type of kid, he never wants to let his team down. He's not going to show frustration. Even though he might be struggling, he's not going to show it all. He's always going to fight. But we know we have to pick it up whether he's hurt or not. We have to come out and have that intensity every night."
On Thursday, in fact, Shurna very much reflected that taciturn image Crawford painted of him when asked to comment on some observations made by his coach Bill Carmody, who had recently told him that he would have to find a way to play in pain. How does he do that?
"The reps I get in practice, just try and find different ways to play and help the team."
Is his ankle painful?
"A little bit. I mean. I'm not...I don't want to make a big deal out of it. I don't want any excuses."
"It's like coach said. It's going to be there and I've just got to figure out how to do it."
Is it taking him time to figure out how to do it?
"A little bit. But Big Ten play is a little different from nonconference, and I think I've just got to make adjustments."
Has he been putting too much pressure on himself to carry the team, which was another observation of Carmody?
"Maybe a little bit. But I think maybe I'm just frustrated that I'm not healthy at times, and I've got to realize what I can and can't do with my ankle. I've just got to put it aside and do what I can to help the team."
Joe McKeown, who has pushed aside the painful past of the Wildcats and transformed them into a contender, is standing in an empty room in the bowels of Welsh-Ryan. "Yeah, I think so," he says when asked if his team is still learning to play in a way that always lives up to its new identity. "Especially when you knock off an Ohio State, you start feeling like you're a little better than you probably are. What's hard to get across, as you know, it's the little things. Running out-of-bounds plays. Diving on the floor. Being aware. I always tell everyone at Northwestern it's better to be aware than smart, and they look at me like I'm crazy. But sometimes our awareness, where people are, what people are doing, isn't there. That's the thing. As a contender, you have to do all the little things at the end of the game."
So is it true, as his kind likes to say, that it's easier to coach after a loss than a win, that a team then will pay more attention to those little things?
"Sure. Sure. I remember John Wooden had one of the great lines. He said, 'I'd rather lose than play sloppy and win.' Because you get a false sense, when you play sloppy and win, that you're better than you are. Now we've got some things we can work on, correctable mistakes. . . You know what it was like around here for a long time. We finished last for 10 straight years, 12 straight years, 13 years. To get votes for the Top 25 (which his team did earlier this season), to have people talking to them around campus about how good they are, you know. You've got to be able to handle that without distractions and we're going through that process. There're no shortcuts."
There are surely no shortcuts for Crawford and his band of 'Cats, who Sunday morning host always-gnarly Wisconsin. "It's a huge deal for us, especially on our home court," he says of that affair. "That's a big thing, defending our home court. So getting a Top 25 team and playing them at home, that's going to be big for us. It's going to be a huge win."
And finally, Crawford, when asked if he appreciated the coincidence of his team's game with the Badgers preceding the Bears' showdown with the Packers: "I didn't even think about that actually. But now that I am, I'm hoping its going to be a good day for the Chicagoland area, a bad day for Wisconsin."
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