On the heels of his team's worst game of the season, Bill Carmody temporarily answered his critics last night, as the 'Cats were ready to go from the opening tip, jumping out to a huge lead and holding on for a 93-81 victory.
The biggest question mark for Northwestern all season has been on the defensive end, and while the final efficiency numbers don't look very good (81 points allowed on 70 possessions), the defense was far, far better than it has been. Carmody went exclusively with the matchup zone, and it was effective for the most part. The help defense on the interior (which had been a major weakness) was excellent tonight, as Northwestern had a season high 10 blocked shots, their most in a game since 2008. Drew Crawford in particular had a couple of spectacular blocks, highlighted by a stuff of the high-flying Victor Oladipo. Even Davide Curletti played within himself, blocking two shots and only committing two fouls.
Indiana still managed to score 81 points because they hit 21 of 25 free throws, rebounded 44% of their misses, and didn't quit in the last 10 minutes despite a 24 point deficit. All the free throws were due to the officials calling things extremely tight, and the rebounding was a bit concerning but had a lot to do with blocked shots bouncing right to open Indiana players on the weak side. The Northwestern defense was pretty crappy in the final minutes, as the 'Cats couldn't match their intensity from earlier in the game, but hey, they played 30 minutes of good defense. I'll take it. Also, they held Indiana's best scorers in check for much of the game; sharp-shooter Jordan Hulls was held to 0 for 3 shooting behind the arc (and two of those attempts were Devan Dumes style 30-footers) and Christian Watford was a complete non-factor for most of the game before padding his stats in the final minutes. Kudos to Carmody for getting his team ready on the defensive end.
Offensively, Northwestern had no trouble with anything Indiana threw at them, scoring an impressive 93 points, by far the most in a Big Ten game under Carmody (85 was the previous high, and 82 was the most in a non-overtime game). The 'Cats had just 9 turnovers, and made 18 of 37 twos and 10 of 20 threes, and did a nice job on the offensive glass, rebounding 40% of their misses. The offense functioned smoothly in the first half, and then the 'Cats got hot from three early in the second half and looked as unstoppable as they did against Georgia Tech. Also like the Georgia Tech game, Indiana started fouling like crazy in the last few minutes and took the 'Cats out of their rhythm, but 27 for 38 free throw shooting was enough to maintain the lead.
- Luka Mirkovic had probably the best game of his career. 20 points on 7-11 shooting, 12 rebounds (5 offensive), 2 blocks, and no stupid turnovers or forced shots. Unlike in non-conference play, he was able to exploit an opponent without a post presence, as he continually muscled his way into good position down low and was finally able to finish around the rim. The highlight of the night came after a Luka and-one; he broke out his signature King Kong chest pound after the play, hitting himself with such force that his face mask fell off. He also appeared to be assessed a technical for taunting, which would have been pretty awesome. Sadly, the Tee turned out to be on JerShon Cobb for hanging on the rim after the play.
- John Shurna led all scorers with 24 points, and has certainly regained his outside shooting touch, making 4 of 5 threes. He's still having trouble jumping (as seen by his zero rebounds), but he was moving very well laterally, as he had a couple of nice finishes at the rim on back cuts and one outstanding blocked shot where he stayed right with his man on defense.
- Michael Thompson had his standard solid floor game: 16 points, 8 assists vs. 3 turnovers.
- Drew Crawford managed just 8 points and sat most of the first half after picking up two early fouls, but I was happy with his play. Unlike in the past, he didn't force shots in the half court, and he played excellent defense in his 24 minutes. My only quibble was in the second half, where he had Mike Capocci WIDE open on a 2 on 1 break and instead took it himself and got swatted, pass the rock son.
- The Bencha Nostra provided solid minutes; Alex Marcotullio played most of the first half and had a couple of beautiful assists on back cuts. He also kept some possessions alive with his hustle; nice to see him contributing despite his 3-point stroke being a bit off. And fortunately, he wasn't hurt after being intentionally tripped by Indiana's Derek Elston, that was quite the cheap shot. Capocci had 8 points and looked comfortable at the free throw line for once (making 4 of 5), and Curletti contributed on defense with 2 blocks.
All in all, a nice bounce-back win for Northwestern. I'm not going to get too carried away here, after all, Indiana appears on their way to last place in the conference. Still, there were plenty of encouraging signs, we'll see if the 'Cats can build on this and get a win Wednesday night in Iowa City.