Men’s Basketball: Simplistic scheme left Minnesota flummoxed

Colin Becht

It took a return to simplicity for Northwestern to find its offensive stroke and defeat Minnesota 68-57 on Wednesday night.

The Division I, major conference went “JV” en route to a 43-point second half to surmount a six-point halftime deficit.

JV is the name of the offense coach Bill Carmody said the Wildcats ran for the final eight minutes of the game, during which time the Cats started connecting on 3-pointers for a 29-12 run.

Why the name JV? “Because even a JV player can figure it out and learn it,” Carmody said. “It’s not complicated. Well you still have to bang a long shot in, and the guys did that.”

The offense entails setting up screens for NU’s key outside shooters – senior guard Michael Thompson, sophomore guard Alex Marcotullio and junior forward John Shurna on Wednesday – leaving them open for threes.

While the scheme may be designed to be simple, it baffled the Golden Gophers enough for NU to light up from behind the arc after a cold start.

The Cats made just three of 20 3-pointers through the first 27 minutes of the game, digging themselves into a 10-point hole at the time. However, NU drained seven of its final 10 attempts from long range complete the comeback.

“You’ve got to follow the script, you’ve got to do it every time,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “We say go over the screen instead of go under it. If you go under it, then guys like Michael Thompson, those guys are going to make the shot. They’re going to make those step-back threes. That’s their game.”

On Thompson’s Senior Night, it was only fitting that both he and his heir apparent, Marcotullio, would be the ones to spark the comeback.

Thompson scored 15 second-half points while Marcotullio added 13 in the second stanza to tie for the game-high with 18 points each.

After a pregame ceremony for the Cats’ four seniors during which Thompson said he got “a little weepy,” his shots were simply not falling. Thompson had just three points at halftime and hit just one-of-eight shots.

Carmody said that one airballed shot epitomized Thompson’s first-half performance.

“Towards the end of the first half, we ran a little play where either he or Shurna is going to get a shot,” Carmody said. “(Thompson) is wide open and he missed it. I never saw him miss a shot like that. An airball, and I mean really an airball.”

Not discouraged by the rough start and with his team needing one more of his trademark clutch second halves, Thompson drained two late threes and hit six free throws in the final two minutes to seal the win.

“In that second half he was really good,” Carmody said. “A lot of guys have bad halves. It takes special guys to have a bad half and then come back with the second half that he had.”

Before and after Thompson got his offense going, he still found a way to contribute on the glass. Thompson also overcame his 5-foot-10 stature to lead the Cats in rebounds with seven.

Marcotullio, too, contributed outside of the scoring column with a disrupting defensive effort.

“Al was all over the court it seemed like,” Carmody said. “He got his hand on a lot of balls. He didn’t come up with all of them, but he tipped balls away.”

Though Marcotullio was credited with only two steals, his tipped passes led to steals for his teammates,or at the very least, upset Minnesota’s offense.

“I was trying to get my hands on balls and just make energy plays,” Marcotullio said. “My defense was just a catalyst to my offense.”

Like Thompson, Marcotullio overcame a slow offensive first half, in which he sank just one of four tries from behind the arc.

“I was getting the looks that I usually knock down,” Marcotullio said. “In the past couple games I’ve been struggling a little bit with my shot. As a shooter, you’ve just got to keep shooting.”

That’s exactly what Marcotullio did, and he eventually found greater success, hitting 3-of-4 shots in the second half including two 3-pointers.

Next year, Marcotullio will be thrust into Thompson’s role of orchestrating second-half comebacks. His performance Wednesday seemed proof that he is ready for that role, and Carmody said Marcotullio has the nerves that are necessary for the job.

“The players were a little tight,” Carmody said. “Alex was actually pretty relaxed.”

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