Northwestern begins the new year with an 0-2 record after facing No. 2 Michigan at Welsh-Ryan Arena, then No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers on the road. With no Drew Crawford or Jershon Cobb and Reggie Hearn still recovering from an ankle injury, the Wildcats are searching for identity and leadership. The freshmen and newcomers are receiving a first rate education on how tough the Big Ten really is. You must compete with a high level of intensity and toughness every night.
Playing basketball at a high level, you always want to compete against the best competition and play the good teams so that you can measure yourself. You wonder: is the hard work and hours put into the gym paying off? Am I improving as a player? Whenever you face the great teams and battle the best players you definitely see where you stand and what you need to work on.
The Big Ten opener against Michigan was a tough game to watch because the Wildcats played intimidated and star-struck against the Wolverines, a team which is always on national television, in magazines, has four or five NBA prospects, and two sons of former NBA all-stars playing on the team. The Wildcats acted as if they wanted autographs instead of playing to beat Michigan and having the fans of Welsh- Ryan Arena storm the floor. The Wolverines built a 21-point halftime lead and Northwestern never challenged them. Jared Swopshire played solid with 11 points, five rebounds, and four assist. Tre Demps came off the bench with energy scoring 10 points.
However, Michigan sensed the fear and attacked the Wildcats on the perimeter with Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points) and Tre Burke (23 points). The Wolverines also attacked and dominated inside with Jordan Morgan (12 points and 13 rebounds). Michigan won easily 94-66. As a player, I made it a priority to compete every night. If you were a better team, in my eyes you had to prove to me that you were better. At the end of the game, coaches as well as players on the opposing team would acknowledge the fight in me, and how tough our team was.
In Minneapolis on Sunday, I was privileged to call my first Big Ten game on WGN Radio, with Dave Eanet. I got a chance to enjoy the trip having three former teammates Joe Kennedy, Tavaras Hardy, and Winston Blake, a former All-Big Ten performer). We actually got to play pick up with each other while in Minnesota and it felt like the good old days competing. Tavaras talked about how tremendous we were defensively his senior year. To beat the ninth-ranked team in the country on the road would take the same defensive effort displayed by the Wildcats during Coach Hardy's senior year.
Early in the game, the Wildcats were looking good and aggressive on the defensive end. Their effort was so much better than what was shown against Michigan. Northwestern was blocking shots, diving on lose ball, fighting for rebounds, just playing to win the game. By halftime Northwestern was only down three points.
One thing about being a good defensive team you have to always communicate and talk on the floor which didn't happen in the second half. Northwestern left shooter Austin Hollins open from the three-point range, where he knocked down five, scoring 17 or his 19 points in the second half. The Gophers ended up winning the game, 69-51.
Reggie Hearn, even though he wasn't 100 percent, decided to give it a go, scoring 11 points. The feisty Dave Sobolewski scored 10 points, had five assist and four steals. Northwestern will be back on the road Thursday when it plays Penn State.
This is still a good Northwestern team. My advice is basically: keep moving forward and grow. You do that by playing hard every play, against anybody. At the end of the season as a player, it should be clear the things you need to work on collectively and individually so that the team can improve. The football team finally got it right and won a bowl game; let’s do the same and continue working toward the NCAA tournament.
Follow on Twitter: @Jitim Young
Jitim Young was a standout for Northwestern from 2000-2004. A Chicago native, he now serves as color commentator for NU basketball on WGN Radio 720.