Northwestern won the Charleston Classic, winning three games in four days. It's unclear exactly how strong their competition was, but LSU, Tulsa and Seton Hall are certainly better than the mid-major cupcakes NU typically plays in non-conference. We'll find out exactly how good those teams are as the season progresses. In the process of those wins, however, we found out quite a bit about Northwestern, starting with...
Drew Crawford appears ready for a breakout season: During his first two years in Evanston, Crawford showed occasional flashes of brilliance but was never able to establish himself as a consistent scoring threat. Expectations may have gotten a bit carried away, in part because Crawford won Big Ten freshman of the year (over the weakest crop of freshmen in recent memory) and also because Crawford's athleticism was so far above normal Northwestern standards that cognitive dissonance set in and some fans started hyping him to the point of being worried he would leave early for the NBA draft.
But after a mildly disappointing sophomore season, Crawford looks like a different player now, as he dominated the Charleston Classic for two and a half games, with 17 points in the second half against LSU, 28 against Tulsa and 27 against Seton Hall. He is beating people off the dribble and attacking the basket, and looks great from three point range as well, hitting 12 of 24 so far this season. Much like Kain Colter was quarterback 1B behind Dan Persa, Crawford is now scorer 1B behind John Shurna. This also leads into the second point...
Northwestern misses Juice Thompson a lot less than expected: Perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of myself with this one. After all, Dave Sobolewski, while he has been steady, is nowhere near Thompson's level yet. However, all three games in Charleston were close down the stretch, and in all three games it was Northwestern that looked like the more experienced, more disciplined team in crunch time. Many thought that NU would really miss Thompson's leadership in these situations, but so far that doesn't appear to be a problem. Also, Crawford and John Shurna both appear to have improved as one-on-one scorers, so those two can fill Thompson's shoes as the guy who made something happen outside of the offense late in the shot clock. Thompson's absence is still a factor: you don't just replace a guy who hit 40% of his threes and had an excellent assist to turnover ratio, but the offense still looks pretty good even without him.
The center position is still a problem: This shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who's watched Northwestern the last few years, but both Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti leave quite a bit to be desired, especially on the defensive end. Mirkovic is at times a passable post defender, but he is probably the slowest player in the Big Ten and thus is horrendous at help defense, while Curletti is still prone to fouling too much, and to make matters worse he often fouls the opposing player just hard enough to draw a whistle but not hard enough to stop him from scoring the basket. This is not a problem with an immediate solution.
On offense, Mirkovic's best skill is passing out of the high post, which is an important part of Northwestern's offense, but post game is still lacking. Curletti has done a nice job at the free throw line so far, but he is even less of a post threat than Mirkovic, and is a horrendous passer, often needlessly forcing the ball to teammates who aren't open. He also has yet to figure out how to set a screen legally. This problem has been magnified a bit by both centers struggling to make outside shots thus far, which likely won't continue: both Curletti and Mirkovic entered this season shooting over 35% from three. The threes will eventually start falling, but the other problems don't figure to go away any time soon.
JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio need to step it up: Crawford's outstanding play masked the relatively disappointing performances by Cobb and Marcotullio in Charleston. Cobb at least has an excuse, as he looked rusty in his first three games back from off-season hip surgery, but Marcotullio really struggled in the first two games, fouling out in 10 minutes against LSU and being held scoreless in 10 minutes against LSU. Marcotullio played very well down the stretch last year, so hopefully his improved effort against Seton Hall (7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists) is the start of better play.
The 1-3-1 zone is what we thought it was: Against a young, inexperienced LSU team, the 1-3-1 worked well, forcing a ton of second half turnovers and helping NU rally from the 9 point deficit. Against a more experienced Seton Hall team, the 1-3-1 mostly got torched, as the Pirates shot surprisingly well from three and rarely turned the ball over. At this point, we know what's going to happen when NU plays 1-3-1: it will work against young and/or bad teams, but against decent teams who've prepared for it, the 1-3-1 is only successful when the opponent can't hit threes. I thought Carmody stayed in the 1-3-1 a lot longer than he should have against Seton Hall, and had NU lost the game he likely would be getting the lion's share of the blame right now.
We'll probably see plenty more of the 1-3-1 throughout the season, as it can be effective against the right opponent or as a change of pace mid-game. Hopefully Northwestern's man to man defense can be at least competent: it looked good at times against Tulsa and Seton Hall, but was terrible against LSU.