Both favored teams in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden have passed through their opening round tests. The Northwestern Wildcats, with an easy leashing of the St. Francis Terriers, and St. John's with a tough, bloody win over the Davidson Wildcats.
To help me preview the Big Ten's nerdiest team - oh, ok, the Big Ten's most Princetonian team (and a school I wish I'd gone to, given how much I love Chicago), I did a question exchange with John from Chicago College Basketball (who also covers DePaul).
And to find out more about the next set of Wildcats the Red Storm hopes to defeat, read below>>
Q: Northwestern's had a hot start... but hasn't played any teams of note. Is there enough information from the Wildcats' first 7 games to indicate that they will be a player in the Big Ten? Do you think the defense has improved? The offense?
Northwestern's best wins are over Creighton and Georgia Tech - both at home. The Wildcats have only gone on the road twice, and Northern Illinois and Texas-Pan American aren't anything to brag about. The schedule is down right awful and this team is going to have to earn its NCAA Tournament berth in Big Ten play. It appears that's still possible.
Both the offense and defense have improved this season. It's funny to say that an offense that ranked 33rd in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiencies could actually be better, but that's exactly what happened. Northwestern now has the tenth best offense in the country due to excellent shooting and great ball-handling. The three-point shooting is going to regress at some point as the Wildcats play tougher opponents, but the basic tenets will be the same and the offense will always be this team's strength.
Because of that offense, the Wildcats just need to be a passable defensive team. Northwestern has spent a lot of practice time working on the 2-3 match up zone defense this season and it appears to be the Wildcats' base set. When the situation dictates it though Bill Carmody will jump into a 1-3-1 to give opponents a different look in an attempt to get some turnovers. The switching back and forth between the two worked very well against Creighton.
The other surprising thing is that Northwestern, which really struggled with rebounding on the defensive end last season, is now actually grabbing boards. That'll be important moving forward. Players like Jeff Ryan, JerShon Cobb, Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti have really helped this team be effective while gang rebounding.
Q: Where are the cracks / flaws in Northwestern's game so far?
The two biggest flaws I see in Northwestern's game are that you can get shots with good ball movement and that the Wildcats don't get a lot of easy points. Both of those things come from the fact that the Wildcats play zone defenses as their base sets. If Northwestern falls behind by 10 points in a game I don't know how'd they'd be able to mount a comeback. That said, this is an offensive team that's designed to wear you down and get a lead before that becomes an issue. We'll see how that plays out as the competition gets tougher.
Q: How has JerShon Cobb come along this year? What makes this year different than last year?
JerShon Cobb's offensive numbers are pretty pedestrian. He's averaging 20.2 minutes, 6.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. He hasn't shot particularly well to start the season either, but he's still in the starting lineup. That may seem odd, but I think it makes sense. He gives the team good defensive minutes thanks to his energy and athleticism. While he still needs some time to grow into the offense, he's going to be special.
Another thing that has held him back this season is a hip injury. It seems to have robbed him of a little bit of explosiveness. Hopefully that'll heal up as the season goes along and he'll find ways to integrate himself into the offense and become a constant contributor.
The other big difference this season is that Jeff Ryan, now a fifth-year senior, is healthy. While the departure of Kevin Coble got all the press before the season started, the fact that Ryan has come back has been a key. That may seem weird to say about a player who only ends 3.9 percent of the possessions he's a part of while on the court, but he's a good facilitator and defensive rebounder. He's 6'6 and can play the point guard position. That's a really valuable asset for this team.
Q: John Shurna has been effective, aggressive, and impressive this year. What has changed in his game, if anything? Do you see his talents translating to the NBA?
While the two players aren't directly comparable, if Gordon Hayward is an NBA Draft Pick, then John Shurna should be as well. Shurna has a funny shooting stroke, but it's very effective and he's got sneaky athleticism for a guy with decent size at 6'8. He's a player that deserves a lot more credit than he gets sometimes, possibly because he plays for Northwestern.
Like you said, Shurna has basically been on fire the entire season. He's 26th in the nation in offensive rating. None of the inferior opponents the Wildcats have played had a player that could stop his combination of three-point shooting, post play and cutting. In Northwestern's last game against American it was a tour de force as he scored 28 points, blocked three shots and helped contain the Eagles' best player. The game before that against Long Island he shot 10-11 from the field and scored 26 points along with seven assists.
It'll be very interesting to see what happens when the Wildcats play a team that has a player with the size and athleticism to match up with Shurna. But since he's not Northwestern's only offensive option, and he seems content to pass when defenses lock down on him, the Wildcats should be okay if Michael Thompson, Drew Crawford and Luka Mirkovic can get their looks instead.
Q: How is the bench? More importantly, WHO is the bench? The Wildcats don't go very deep; who are the impact players off the bench?
Northwestern's starters play between 20.2 and 36.4 minutes per game. If a game is close expect John Shurna and Michael Thompson to never come out of the game. After the five starters there are three, maybe four, players that Bill Carmody trusts to be on the court in a big game. Here's a quick run down of each:
-Jeff Ryan: Plays 11.7 minutes per game, see above for more.
-Davide Curletti: The backup center. He turns the ball over a little too much, but he's a good defensive rebounder. You'll typically see him in when Mirkovic is struggling defensively.
-Alex Marcotullio: A sophomore guard that is best when he's playing the top of the 1-3-1. He's a three-point specialist on offense. He's used to rest Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb.
-Mike Capocci: The ninth guy on the bench. An athletic, senior forward that has gotten more playing time as the season has progressed. He's a good rebounder and active defender.
My answers to his questions are on the Chicago College Basketball site.