Men’s Basketball: NU scrambles to find starters

Danny Daly

Considering the season-ending injuries to senior forwards Kevin Coble (foot) and Jeff Ryan (knee), as well as senior guard Jeremy Nash’s breathing problems, Northwestern has been a magnet for misfortune. There seems to be a different setback every time the Wildcats take the court.

“I feel like there’s a curse or something,” sophomore center Luka Mirkovic said. “There’s like 10 of us in the training room every day; we’re all kind of banged up.”

They don’t have much time to heal. NU faces No. 10 Butler on Wednesday night, a game that will serve as an early barometer for how the shorthanded Cats are progressing.

“We’re trying to find out exactly where we are now with Jeff out and Kevin out, and we’re just trying different combinations,” coach Bill Carmody said. “It’s almost like we’re starting over again.”

Butler is arguably the best mid-major team in the nation this season, returning all five starters and most of the key bench players from a squad that finished 26-6 a year ago.

Junior forward Matt Howard led the team in scoring with nearly 15 points per game, while sophomores Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack both averaged in double figures.

Cats forward John Shurna is familiar with both Hayward and Mack, having played with them this summer for the United States’ U19 team at the FIBA World Championships.

“Gordon was my roommate, so I know him really well,” Shurna said. “Shelvin was the captain of our team, so that says a lot right there, and Gordon made the all-tournament team, so he can obviously play with the best of them. They’re talented players.”

The Bulldogs gave up 57.9 points per game last season, and opponents only shot 38.5 percent against them – putting them sixth and seventh in the nation, respectively, in those categories. They shut down stars like Davidson’s Stephen Curry, who was held to a 6-of-23 performance from the field in a Bracket Busters matchup.

But NU had as much success versus Butler’s vaunted defense as anyone. The Cats made 15-of-22 shots (68.2 percent) in the first half of their tilt with the Bulldogs last November, which was the best field-goal percentage they allowed for 20 minutes all season. No one else managed better than 55 percent for a half.

Then Butler regrouped and limited NU to 17 points after intermission, overcoming a double-digit deficit to win 57-53.

“They’re a very tough team to play against,” junior guard Michael Thompson said. “In the second half, they made a lot of adjustments, made it hard for our guys to get open and get a lot of wide-open shots that we’re used to seeing.”

Thompson, Shurna, Nash and Mirkovic will have to pick up the slack this time around. All four scored at least 10 points in the season-opening victory over Northern Illinois last Friday.

If NU is going to succeed without Coble, its top offensive threats need to be more reliable.”Shurna can’t score 16 (points) one night and four the next night,” Carmody said. “He’s got to give us 14 every night, with eight rebounds. When Nash gets 20, that can’t be an aberration. He has to be consistently between 12 and 17.”

They also can’t get in early foul trouble, like Shurna did against the Huskies. He contributed all 11 of his points in the second half, but two quick fouls in the first five minutes sent him to the bench until halftime.

The early frontrunner to replace some of Coble’s minutes is junior forward Ivan Peljusic, while Carmody is leaning towards freshman Alex Marcotullio to fill in as Thompson’s backup with Ryan sidelined. Carmody called Monday’s practice “disjointed” because he was trying multiple different combinations and simultaneously preparing for Butler.

Recognizing the road to the school’s first NCAA tournament berth just got significantly more difficult, the team has been working even harder than before.

“Everyone’s getting extra shots up after practice and before practice, coming back in the afternoon,” Mirkovic said. “Everybody realizes that now we need to stick together.”

And trying to forget about the recent stretch of bad luck is imperative for the team to move forward.

“Those are things that we can’t really control,” Mirkovic said. “Now we’re going to focus on things that we can control – making sure we’re reading our scouting reports on Butler, practicing our offense, moving well on defense and doing what coach Carmody asks us to do.”[email protected]