In another frustrating loss that generated more questions about this team than answers, the Wildcats lost to the Minnesota Golden Gophers by a score of 81-70 in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.
Turning Point | 4:19 left in the second half.
It’s hard to say when Northwestern lost control of Wednesday’s crucial tilt in Minneapolis, considering there were any number of points when the Wildcats seemingly lost control only to regain it. The wheels came off for good, however, when John Shurna’s wide open three-pointer bricked off the rim of the basket with less than five minutes remaining.
The Wildcats’ earlier 13-point deficit had been overcome by a furious Northwestern rally to end the first half, filling the nadirs of a plodding, mistake-filled second half with the persistent hope for another rally. The Wildcats only needed to get one of the dynamic trio of Drew Crawford, Juice Thompson and John Shurna to catch fire from beyond the arc to eat away the Gopher lead. It was not to be; Shurna’s look didn’t go in, Thompson shot 5-15 from the field, and Crawford fouled out with three minutes to go. The cavalry never came.
Hero of the Game | John Shurna
This award should probably go to one of the five Golden Gophers in double figures scoring, but the toughness John Shurna displayed in Minneapolis simply has to be praised. Having played the entirety of Big Ten play thus far on a gimpy ankle, Shurna has been a paragon of perseverance, gradually rehabilitating his game to approach his pre-injury levels. So when he hit the floor Wednesday after a tough fast-break lay-in attempt went awry, it was hard not to think very dark thoughts. Shurna hit his chin on the padded basket support, and began bleeding profusely out of his mouth. Once the doctors could stop the bleeding, bandage the chin and assure him his jaw was not broken, however, out came Shurna to play his remaining minutes in the second half.
It is clear that Shurna is still nowhere near 100 percent, yet there should still be no shortage of praise for his play this season. With the tremendous void about to be left by senior leader Juice Thompson’s graduation, Shurna’s capacity to lead by example makes that departure feel slightly less foreboding.
Thing to Improve On | Front line depth
Even in the dominant days of the non-conference schedule, we knew the day would come when the Wildcat front lines would come up against capable post players and be savaged. But who knew it would be this bad?
Minnesota’s impressive trio of forwards — Trevor Mbakwe, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III — combined for 47 points and logged an eye-popping 28 free-throw attempts. Luka Mirkovic, the ‘Cats tallest player, logged only 23 minutes despite starting the game at center, in large part due to ineffectual defense. Davide Curletti played 18 minutes before fouling out, giving the Wildcats a slightly more stalwart interior at the expense of many free throws.
Crawford and Shurna, ordinarily accustomed to playing away from the basket, were forced to defend bigger men as well; Crawford fouled out and Shurna came within a foul of leaving. With no ability to deny the Gopher big men the ball, the fouls just continued to pile up. Thankfully, for Wildcat pride, it was the Gophers’ 67.4-free throw percentage that kept Northwestern in the game at all, but the fact remains that this team will never be able to take the next step towards competing for the NCAA tournament until a real post-presence emerges in the program.
Stat of the Game | Eighteen minutes played for JerShon Cobb.
There are going to be games where the three-pointers simply don’t fall. It’s a fact of life that the Wildcats have run into a few time recently, particularly as John Shurna struggles to come back from his ankle sprain. The Wildcats struggled again from beyond the arc against Minnesota, shooting just 30.8 percent, but that does not necessarily need to be a death sentence for this team. Unfortunately, this year’s team simply has been unable to adjust their offense to alleviate the pressure on their shooters, a failure that is beginning to take its toll.
That’s where JerShon Cobb comes in; the Wildcats certainly have the athletes to try and penetrate the paint with their dribblers, yet consistently refuse to do so. Faith in the Princeton offense can only go so far, and Coach Bill Carmody would do well to unleash his most talented players to try and penetrate, both to get to the line and create more space on the floor. Cobb only played 18 minutes against Minnesota, despite the fact that every other starting player (as well as Curletti, a role player) had more fouls than him. Cobb has the pure ability to stretch the floor and get to the hoop, yet Coach Carmody is entirely too hesitant to put the ball in his hand.
Cobb is not the only player who can create, either. Thompson, Crawford and even a healthy Shurna have all proven they can put the ball on the floor and make things happen. When the three-pointers are falling, this isn’t a problem, but in the offense’s most stagnant moments they absolutely have to find another approach. Here’s another stat for you: It took the Wildcats 19 minutes and 30 seconds to first get to the free-throw line in the second half. That simply can’t happen with this many quality athletes.