Men’s Basketball: Sophomores score big inside paint

Danny Daly

Last year, Northwestern had to lean heavily on its freshmen to provide a strong post presence. The Wildcats brought five new players into the program, four of whom were 6-foot-8 or taller, to aid a team in desperate need of height.

Now sophomores, they are demonstrating the vast effect of that first year of experience.

“They knew what they were doing,” coach Bill Carmody said. “They played like veterans.”

John Shurna led the way with 21 points and seven rebounds, both game highs. Luka Mirkovic added eight points on 4-of-7 shooting, while Davide Curletti pushed his weight around in the paint. The fourth big man, Kyle Rowley, sat out as a precaution, as he had only recently returned to practice and been cleared to play.

The difference between last year’s and this year’s exhibition game for them was palpable in NU’s 78-49 victory over Robert Morris.

“You’re able to see the game a little easier and slower,” Shurna said. “Things opened up for us.”

The team displayed its maturity from the opening tip. NU dictated the tempo, using up more than half of the shot clock during each of its first two possessions. The Cats established their physicality early on, too – they had two offensive rebounds in the first 90 seconds.

“We did a good job of getting the shot clock down and getting the shot that we really wanted – I really don’t think we took many poor shots, and they played us hard, trying to pressure us,” senior forward Kevin Coble said. “There was a little bit of nerves at the beginning, just given our history.”

The 69-62 loss to Robert Morris prior to last season is the history Coble was referring to. In that game, the Cats fell behind the Eagles by as much as 11 in the first 10 minutes and shot 23 percent from the floor during the first half. Mirkovic made just one of his seven shots for the game and did not pull down any boards.

Though Robert Morris was unquestionably better last year, winning 28 games and graduating most of its top players, NU looked considerably more confident. It did not trail after the first two minutes and was ahead by double digits throughout the second half.

The Cats’ ability to wear down the Eagles inside with Shurna, Mirkovic, Curletti and junior Ivan Peljusic contributed to the blowout.

Whereas NU was out-rebounded 47-42 in last year’s defeat, it pulled down 18 more boards than Robert Morris did on Wednesday. Mirkovic in particular was much improved on the glass, recording six rebounds.

“I liked that he rebounded out there,” Carmody said. “It seemed like he was getting two-handed rebounds…with people around.”

The sophomores also seemed more comfortable in Carmody’s Princeton offense. The Cats tallied more assists and fewer turnovers than they did last season against the Eagles.

By being more patient, NU took advantage of some open passing lanes to the sophomores down low. That allowed the offense to be more balanced.

“We went down there a couple of times,” Carmody said. “I liked that we threw it down there. Good things usually happen, even if it goes in and then out.”

The threat of scoring inside opened up opportunities on the perimeter. The Cats were especially efficient from 3-point range before intermission, making 5-of-11 attempts. It was a far cry from the 1-of-10 first-half performance in 2008’s exhibition loss.

Curletti might not have piled up as many points as Shurna and Mirkovic, but he was a factor nonetheless. He recorded a team-best four offensive rebounds, which gave the Cats some second-chance baskets.

“We’re not asking him to score a bunch of points,” Coble said. “He runs through things, he’s a strong kid and he plays the post well.”

Everyone insisted the team still has a long way to go, but Shurna, Mirkovic and Curletti showed how far they have come [email protected]