NIT: How Akron Can Take Advantage of Northwestern's Decline

While most eyes will be focused on Dayton tonight, one of those other tournaments is starting. The MAC's Akron is traveling to Evanston to take on Northwestern.

Combine this with the Ohio-Michigan matchup and this is the basketball equivalent of the Big Ten football preseason.

This game gives the MAC hope again for another upset. Things at Northwestern are in disarray and have been for a while. This isn't a lament of not making the tournament. There is just something not working there.

Don't get me wrong, things are on the verge of working. The pieces just won't come together.

During the 2008-9 season, I spent a lot of time following the Wildcats while I worked for another website. That may have been the best team that Northwestern had seen in the past 20 years.

Do-it-all John Shurna was just a freshman, but showed glimpses of what he would become. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore powered the offense with help from Michael Thompson and Luka Mirkovic.

It just never came together that year. There were great upset victories, and then there were games that got away.

Moore graduated, and then Coble hurt his foot in practice, causing him to miss the next season, and eventually leave the program due to conflicts with the coaching staff.

That was when things started to turn sour.

With Coble, I am almost certain that 2009-2010 team is a tournament team. Without him, they were just another bubble less-than-hopeful. The program has gotten recruits, such as this year's starting point guard Dave Sobolewski, but it has never recovered from that broken foot, and what came after it.

So yes, there have been the tournament disappointments, and yes, Bill Carmody is starting to feel the heat from the few fans that show up in Evanston. But it is more than that. There is just not the culture in the program to take things to the next level.

When it lost the quiet Moore and then the vocal Coble, something changed. Shurna has tried his best, but he couldn't do it alone. Now with his graduation, Northwestern is left with nothing except hope in his final NIT appearance.

And that's where Akron takes the stage.

The Zips are built quite a bit like a Big Ten team. There is a lot of inside power, and a strong guard to guide it all. It is a style that Northwestern is used to playing -- and losing -- against.

This is not to say that Akron has the skill of those top tier Big Ten squads, but they have the personnel to make things difficult.

You never get used to playing a 7-footer. You never get used to playing against a deep bench where no one gets tired. And you can't prepare for it in two days.

The real question will be Akron's defense. The Zips were among the top half of teams in the country, but they haven't faced many teams with a playmaker like Shurna, or at least not a player with his combination of range, size and ability. And then they have to account for another great scorer in Drew Crawford.

So the work is cut out for the Zips. They just have to be the same "everyone contributes on both ends" type of team that they have been all year.

This game doesn't have the same upset feel as the Ohio-Michigan game does later this week. But Northwestern isn't exactly right in the head. There is too much bad mojo working there.

That could play right into Akron's pouch.

We leave you with the breakdown by HOOPWAR*

NORTHWESTERN

John Shurna, Sr., F: 9.3 HOOPWAR (19.8 pts, 5.2 Reb, 2.7 ast, 1.6 bl)
Drew Crawford, Jr., G-F: 4.2 (16.1 pts, 4.6 reb, 2.0 ast)
Luka Mirkovic, Sr., C: 1.0
Dave Sobolewski, Fr., G: -0.2
Reggie Hearn, Jr., G: -2.2

Bench: Davide Curletti, St., F: 0.4; Alex Marcotuillio, Jr., G: -1.0; JerShon Cobb, So., G: -0.4.

AKRON

Zeke Marshall, Jr., C: 3.2 HOOPWAR
Alex Abreu, So., G: 2.1
Nikola Cvetinovic, Sr., F: 1.8
Brian Walsh, So., G: 1.0
Chauncey Gilliam, Jr., F: -0.7

Bench: Demetri Treadwell, So., F: 3.1; Nick Harney, So., F: 0.4; Quincy Diggs, Jr., F: -0.5.

*One interesting note: Quincy Diggs, who won the 6th man of the year award, might want to share that with his teammates. According to the numbers, he didn't quite live up to that award. Then again, he has games where he can up the play on the court, such as in the MAC Championship game. There are just other games where he disappears (see the second half of February). He needs to have one of the former kind tonight.

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