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February 14, 2012

Wildcats still struggling to get over NCAA hump

A recent three-game winning streak was snapped at Purdue on Sunday but Northwestern (15-9, 5-7) still holds out hope for finally getting over the hump this season and into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are the one Big Ten team that has never made it into that tournament, and a win at Indiana at Wednesday night would do wonders in helping erase that embarrassing fact.

There's an extra urgency to get it done this year as it's the final season for 6-foot-9 forward John Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer. His jumper may look ugly but nobody can deny its effectiveness. The senior is averaging 20.4 points per game now in league games.

Northwestern has a real one-two punch as 6-foot-5 junior Drew Crawford is seventh in the league in scoring (16.8 ppg). The Naperville native is both scoring and converting (48.6-percent FG) at a higher rate than his prior two seasons. He may undersized for the four-spot he has to play now but uses his strength well on the boards and defensively.

The surprise major contributor to this team is true freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski. Also out of Naperville, Sobolewski leads this team in assists (3.9 apg) while turning it over just 1.2 times per game. The freshman can also shoot it to keep defenses honest and is the team's third leadings scorer (9.1 ppg).

Another guy to come out of nowhere is junior Reggie Hearn. After two years riding the bench, the 6-foot-4 Hearn has blossomed this season, scoring 7.5 points per game. Hoosier fans may remember Hearn because he played for the Fort Wayne Snider team that fell to Jordan Hulls' unbeaten Bloomington South team in the Class 4A state title game in 2009.

The other expected starter is 6-foot-3 junior Alex Marcotullio, a guy Indiana has to watch from beyond the arc. He's mainly come off the bench but big 6-foot-11 center Luka Mirkovic is nursing an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the last five games.

Once again Northwestern will play mostly zone on defense, primarily a 1-3-1. This year it hasn't been as effective as opponents in league play are shooting 40.6-percent from beyond the mark. Only Purdue is giving up a higher percentage.

Offensively the Wildcats make their living from behind the three-point line. No conference team shoots more treys and only Indiana converts those attempts at a higher rate. Shurna leads the way, averaging 5.9 attempts from that distance in conference play. He converts at a 42.3-percent rate.

"They're scoring over 27 points a game from the 3-point line," said IU coach Tom Crean. "They have proven veterans. They're playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They have three guys playing over 37 minutes a game. Crawford and Shurna have done it at a high level. They're a very difficult matchup."

If teams over-commit up top, the Princeton style offense of Bill Carmody will yield easy back-door layup opportunities.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey talked about that defensive challenge.

"They're not just spotting up," said McCaffrey. "They're running offense. It's all predicated on reads. It's hard cuts and flare screens and flat screens and back picks. It's a situation where it really takes complete concentration from all five players (on defense) the entire possession."

Despite have such a good three-point shooting team, the Wildcats rank dead-last in the league in free throw shooting (65.4-percent). Northwestern is also last in the league in rebounding margin.

Even with Mirkovic out, Northwestern recently put together a three-game winning streak that included a 74-70 upset of Illinois in Champaign on February 5th. Sandwiched around that streak, however, were two losses to Purdue. With a league record already two games under .500, the Wildcats may need another three-game streak to get themselves in the NCAA discussion. In other words this will again be a desperate team that invades Assembly Hall.

Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. ET.  It's a BTN broadcast with Tom Hart and Eddie Johnson on the call.

For more on the Wildcats, check out the Hoosier Game Day page.

Expected starters and key reserves:


Pos. # Player Ht Wt Year Home PPG Other
G 3 Dave Sobolewski 6-1 185 Freshman Naperville, Ill. 9.1 3.9 apg
G 11 Reggie Hearn 6-4 210 Junior Fort Wayne, Ind. 7.5 3.5 rpg
G 4 Alex Marcotullio 6-3 185 Junior Warren, Mich. 4.8 2.3 apg
F 1 Drew Crawford 6-5 205 Junior Naperville, Ill. 16.8 4.6 rpg
F 24 John Shurna 6-9 220 Senior Glen Ellyn, Ill. 19.9 5.7 rpg

Key reserves:

Pos. # Player Ht Wt Year Home PPG Other
C 12 Luka Mirkovic 6-11 245 Senior Belgrade, Serbia 5.9 3.8 rpg
G 23 Jershon Cobb 6-5 200 Sophomore Decatur, Ga. 5.6 0.8 rpg
F 30 Davide Curletti 6-9 230 Senior Farmington Hills, Mich. 4.0 3.5 rpg

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