Cats must win next two games (Column)

nthony Tao

It’d be understandable if the Wildcats want to forget Saturday’s washout at Penn State. The Nittany Lions, celebrating Senior Day (their only senior, Travis Parker, scored a team-high 14 points and nabbed six steals), hit big shots, grabbed key rebounds and made important defensive stops. Northwestern’s players, meanwhile, looked as eager to hightail it out of State College as, well, as most people who visit State College.

Let’s agree that Saturday’s 68-55 loss is better forgotten by all. I’ll grant the Cats a mulligan.

But there’ll be no such pardons from here on out. The team must be prepared to give its two best performances of the year this week when it faces Ohio State and Minnesota to wrap up the 2005-06 regular season.

At 13-13 overall and 5-9 in the Big Ten, the Cats need to win Wednesday to pad their NIT resume. Otherwise, they’re just a high-RPI team (ranked 87th in the latest poll) with too many close calls (Lehigh, Delaware St.) and not enough quality wins (only Seton Hall, Iowa and Wisconsin are in the RPI top 50).

Ohio State, ranked 13th in the AP poll and fifth in the RPI, would fit nicely under NU’s belt. The Cats have four scholarship seniors who have never seen the NCAA postseason, and if they don’t win Wednesday, they risk slipping into a not-so-exclusive club of NU basketball players, now like ghosts, who just couldn’t get it done.

To avoid such a fate, here’s a short list of what the Cats needs to do against the Buckeyes:

1. Clean up on the boards.

Suffice to say, it may be too much to ask Vince Scott or Bernard Cote to add 25 pounds before Wednesday. But here’s what absolutely can’t happen: Ohio State’s Terence Dials can’t be allowed to grab 15 rebounds, including five on the offensive end, and the Buckeyes’ frontcourt of Dials, J.J. Sullinger and Ron Lewis can’t be allowed to corral 31 total boards, the same number as NU could manage as a team.

The first time around, Ohio State’s offensive rebounds (18 total) absolutely killed NU. So I don’t care if the coaches throw basketballs off the glass and have the players jump for it (a drill coach Bill Carmody admitted to doing last season), something needs to be done.

2. The freshmen need to regain their early-season form.

In front of family and friends, New Jersey native Craig Moore took seven 3-pointers on Saturday and missed all of them. Sterling Williams didn’t take a shot in 10 minutes. I don’t know which stat line is worse, but both need to step up.

3. Vedran needs to take more shots.

As the season’s progressed, Vukusic has taken on more responsibility, but against Penn State he seemed to disappear for long stretches (taking only 10 shots isn’t enough). He’s the Big Ten’s leading scorer and needs to play like it. No more “quiet” 20-point efforts – he needs to make an impact in a big way.

4. Break the zone.

Add “2-3 zone” to the list of ways of beating NU’s Princeton Offense. The Cats need to attack the defense (Mohamed Hachad, Tim Doyle, Williams and Vukusic can all do it), have a big man slip into the heart of the zone and either hit the 18-footer or pass out, and make their open shots. It’s elementary stuff, really, though the execution was terrible on Saturday.

5. Play with confidence.

“If we can play with the intensity and urgency that we did against Wisconsin and Iowa at home, then we’re gonna win both of (the next two) games,” Vuksic said.

That talk needs to spill over into the game, because as Jack Bauer of “24” would say – and you have to imagine him saying this to appreciate its urgency – NU is running out of time.

Sports editor Anthony Tao is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]