Men’s Basketball: Wildcats tune out sideshow

Matt Baker

To the media circus from ESPN, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune that flocked to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday night, Northwestern’s 85-82 loss to Indiana was merely a sideshow.

The main attraction was how the Hoosiers handled the departure of coach Kelvin Sampson, how they would play under interim coach Dan Dakich, and how the crimson- and cream-clad fans would react to their new general.

But for the Wildcats, the national stories were non-issues.

And it showed.

“I told our guys before the game, you don’t want the distractions to get to you,” coach Bill Carmody said.

They didn’t. NU put together one of the best, most spirited performances in recent memory against a team it had no business matching up against. The result was one of the most thrilling games of Carmody’s tenure – and one that could go a long way toward saving his job.

The Cats’ three-point squeaker should have been a 30-point slaughter. The Hoosiers had more talent – freshman phenom Eric Gordon and senior stud D.J. White will likely be first-round NBA draft picks this year.

The Hoosiers had more motivation and could have come together to take out a week’s worth of frustration and fear against lowly NU. The Hoosiers had every reason to show they were over the Sampson saga and were ready to make a run to the Final Four.

But they didn’t. And for most of the game, the Cats simply played better.

“Each time we seemed to come up with a big play, a defensive play here, made some shots,” Carmody said. “We just weren’t able to get that last one.”

Sophomore forward Kevin Coble had the game of his life, torching Indiana for 37 points and outscoring Gordon (18 points) and White (16) combined.

Point guard Michael Thompson didn’t back down from guarding Gordon and didn’t shy away from taking the game’s last two shots. He showed the kind of leadership you’d expect from a senior and love to see from a freshman.

Role players finally came together and played their roles. Ivan Peljusic dished out a game-high seven assists. Jeremy Nash intercepted a critical in-bounds pass with less than a minute left. Jason Okrzesik scrambled for loose balls and got enough of a rebound with 22 seconds left to force a jump ball and keep NU in the game.

So this is what a good Big Ten team looks like.

“Everybody just raised their play tonight,” Coble said. “It was great. We deserved to win this game. … Maybe it’s finally coming together a little bit.”

As much flak as NU fans get, the home crowd stepped it up Saturday. After White was fouled grabbing a rebound with Indiana down two with 15 minutes left in the game, he pumped his arms in the air to whip the Hoosier fans into a frenzy.

White bricked his free throw, and NU junior guard Craig Moore responded by waving his arms to pump up the home fans – who, for a change, were louder than the visitors. So this is what a crowd at a big-time college basketball game feels like.

“I wish every game could be like that,” Coble said. “It just gives a different sense to how we play.”

Even Carmody, despite the scattered boos he received during pre-game announcements, rose to the challenge.

In one stretch in the second half, Moore found Coble on a cutter for a layup to extend the lead to seven. Peljusic hit Sterling Williams on another cutter moments later, and Coble faked a pass to the middle and found Moore wide open in the corner for a 3. So this is what the Princeton Offense is supposed to look like.

Everything came together for NU, but against a better team, it just wasn’t enough.

“That game, we deserved to win it, playing as hard as we did, executing as we did,” Coble said.

Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz recently wrote that for the foreseeable future, the games at Indiana are mere sidebars. The real story is what’s going on in the Hoosiers’ locker room and behind closed doors.

But Sampson, that elephant in the room wearing his trademark blue shirt and red tie, was conspicuously absent from Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Although his presence was still felt – from the K.S. scrawled on Indiana players’ shoes to the student section waving its cell phones and chanting “Samp-son’s call-ing!” – for the Cats, the Sampson saga was the sidebar.

The only story that mattered was what happened on the hardwood.

And for 40 minutes Saturday night, in front of a deafening home crowd, against a better opponent, with the entire college basketball world watching, they played like it.