Men’s Basketball: NU’s turnaround starts inside

Danny Daly

During its recent nine-game winning streak, Northwestern spread opposing defenses thin with its shooting prowess on the perimeter. Once Big Ten play began, the Wildcats’ reliance on the outside shot proved problematic.

NU is tied for fifth nationally in 3-pointers made per game, attempting 20 shots from beyond the arc in all but one of its contests. The Cats have also scored more points with 3s (390) than they have with other field goals (370) or free throws (184).

But when their long-range shooters went cold in the second half at Illinois, their centers didn’t step up and convert their inside chances. NU (10-3, 0-2 Big Ten) hopes to display more balance in Thursday night’s matchup with Texas Pan-American (1-15) at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“The key is to get the ball inside first-not necessarily score, but get the ball moving inside-out,” sophomore center Luka Mirkovic said. “That’s very important for our offense because if we’re too focused on the outside shot, it will be really easy for a defense to read us. We need to establish more of a low-post presence, just so we can destabilize the defense.”

Mirkovic got off to an especially tough start to the conference season-he made just 5-of-23 shots in the Cats’ first two Big Ten games combined and missed all four of his free-throw attempts against Michigan State. His backup, 7-foot sophomore Kyle Rowley, was 0-for-2 from the floor in each of the losses.

Their offensive frustrations also carried over to the defensive end. Illinois and Michigan State scored 89 and 91 points, respectively, and both teams got open looks down low and outrebounded NU by a substantial margin.

“Most people, when their offense isn’t going too good, it affects their defense,” coach Bill Carmody said. “As soon as they start getting a few points and making their foul shots, their defense will improve.”

Texas Pan-American figures to be an ideal opponent for the big men to get back on track. None of the Broncs’ starters are taller than 6-foot-7.

That gives Mirkovic and Rowley nearly a half-foot height advantage, which should allow them to grab more offensive rebounds and get the ball closer to the basket.

“The biggest thing is just for our centers to have a sense of confidence,” Rowley said. “We’ll definitely have a lot of opportunities (against Texas Pan-American). It’s a chance for us to be a lot more physical.”

Plus, the nonconference game gives the Cats a short break from the physicality of the Big Ten.

“Michigan State and Illinois made it tough for us to cut,” junior point guard Michael Thompson said. “They were pushing us around and elbowing us, stuff like that. That’s just something we’re going to have to get used to in Big Ten play.”

With a trip to Michigan looming Sunday, NU is concentrating on being more aggressive defensively. Rowley said the idea is for opponents to feel like they are “on the attack defensively rather than being on the attack offensively.”

Carmody and the players emphasized the intensity of the team’s three practices since the Michigan State loss. Mirkovic in particular has been fueled by his recent struggles.

“He is using it as motivation,” Thompson said. “He’s working even harder than he’s been working and is starting to knock down shots like we know he can. He’s doing a better job finishing around the basket. I actually think that pissed him off, because right now he’s trying to dunk everything that usually he would lay up. It’s exciting to see.”

The Cats will also get a boost from the return of sophomore Davide Curletti, who missed five games with an ankle injury. He played for the first time in nearly a month against Michigan State, recording six minutes. Carmody said Curletti wasn’t 100 percent, which was evident when he couldn’t plant his foot on one play.

Having Curletti back gives Carmody more options to try to maximize production out of his centers.

“If he’s ready to go, he’s going to get some minutes,” Carmody said. “He’s going to give us one more guy to go to. If anything, (Mirkovic and Rowley) will think, ‘Hey, I might be coming out, so I better play better.'”

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