Big Ten Season Wrap-Up: Northwestern

Posted by jnowak on May 10th, 2012

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: It was another season of close but no cigar for Northwestern. Another year gone, another year in which the Wildcats narrowly missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid. At this point, it’s hard to judge this team based on anything but a bid to the Big Dance, as a Tourney berth is the clear-cut next step in this program’s growth. Things won’t get any easier next year, when the team loses Luka Mirkovic, Davide Curletti and first-team All-Big Ten player John Shurna. But before we get ahead of ourselves, a look back at this past year.

John Shurna gave it a good shot, but couldn't lead Northwestern to it first-ever NCAA Tournament. (Anthony Gruppuso / US Presswire)

  • In a nutshell: Statistically speaking, two things led to the Wildcats’ demise this season: defense and free throw shooting. It’s hard to remain competitive when you’re one of the worst defensive units in the Big Ten (11th in the conference, ahead of only Iowa) and it’s really difficult to pull out those all-important close games when you can’t shoot free throws (10th in the conference, ahead of Penn State and Purdue). To see just how narrowly Northwestern missed the Tournament, you need look no further than all the close losses: a one-point loss to Illinois, two overtime losses to Michigan, a two-point loss to Purdue, a five-point loss to Indiana, a two-point loss to Ohio State, and a devastating overtime loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Overachievement: If there was one thing Shurna needed badly entering this season, it was a wing man (not necessarily at the wing position, but just someone to help him carry the scoring load). Drew Crawford took another step forward in his junior season to become that player for the Wildcats. He improved his scoring from 12.1 to 16.1 PPG while remaining consistent with his rebounding and assist output. Together, he and Shurna finished in the top seven in the league for points and minutes per game.
  • Underachievement: With Northwestern’s fondness for three-pointers, what the Wildcats needed consistently was a presence in the paint. As a senior, that responsibility fell on center Luka Mirkovic, but his points, rebounding, assists and free throw percentage all dropped this season. Three-point shooting comes and goes, but if you have a strong, consistent post player, you can compete in the Big Ten. Mirkovic’s shortcomings this season didn’t help Northwestern’s cause.
  • Defining moment: As mentioned earlier, there are so many games you can point to as the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of Northwestern not reaching the NCAA Tournament, but the most devastating might be the 12-point overtime loss to Michigan on February 21. Make no mistake, this was a game that was closer than the final score indicated, and one that Northwestern had no business losing. NCAA Tournament teams win that game.
  • Final Grade: The Wildcats have been so close to making the Big Dance over the last few years, and it’s really all anybody talks about when it comes to this team at this point. For that reason, it seems like there should only be an F grade or an A grade for the Wildcats. But Shurna was fantastic for a team that did not have any real egregious losses on the year. They just didn’t get enough important wins. Final grade: C+
jnowak (138 Posts)

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