With two of the top three scorers in the Big Ten, a lack of offensive output is not what Northwestern anticipated coming into conference play. But during the past two games -- losses to Illinois and Michigan by a combined three points -- offensive cold streaks have left the Wildcats scrambling to keep pace late in games.
The duo of John Shurna (18.9 ppg, first in scoring in the Big Ten) and Drew Crawford (17.4, tied for third) have been the offensive catalysts for Northwestern this season. The two are responsible for more than half of the Wildcats' points over the season so far, but over the first four games in conference play their performance has faltered.
Never was this more evident than in the second half of the team's past two defeats.
In the final 20 minutes of a 57-56 loss to Illinois, the Wildcats went through two stretches of over eight minutes without a field goal before making a late charge. Shurna, who led Northwestern with 17 first-half points, was 1-of-7 from the floor for three points in the second half. Crawford, who struggled throughout the game, was 2-for-9 in the second half with six points.
Then, in Wednesday's 66-64 overtime loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, Shurna and Crawford combined for 23 of the team's 34 first-half points, shooting 10-of-14 from the field. But in the second half, the duo was a combined 4-of-14 for only 14 points and the Wildcats, who led by as many as 10, did not score a bucket for the final 8:18 of regulation.
Northwestern's formula for success is no secret. When Shurna and Crawford are scoring, the team rolls. When they have been shut down, there are no other options to keeping the offense going.
"We just have to do a better job of keeping our offense moving," Shurna said of the team's second-half woes. "Sometimes it gets a little stagnant, and I think in order for us to succeed we have to make sure everyone's moving."
There's a little more to it that that, says Northwestern coach Bill Carmody.
"I think some of it has to do with the depth," he said after Friday's practice.
Injuries have limited the coach's options when defenses have locked down on Shurna and Crawford. Sophomore JerShon Cobb's recovery from a torn hip labrum has been far slower than the team hoped for. He missed the Michigan game, and Carmody says it's highly doubtful that he'll play against Michigan State on Saturday.
Alex Marcotullio will most likely play on Saturday, but Carmody was skeptical about his effectiveness with an injured left big toe. Marcotullio has not missed as much game action as Cobb, but the junior guard has lacked the consistent productivity that the team has needed on the perimeter.
"I thought that would be the strength of this team, perimeter guys," Carmody said. "But with Marcotullio, Cobb, and (freshman point guard) Tre Demps out, those guys I figured would be three of the top seven guys in the rotation."
Injuries have left the Wildcat roster stretched thin -- and that is not the only thing about the team that is a little thin.
"(Shurna) has a tendency to lose weight during the season," Carmody said. "I think he wears down a little bit. That's something that we're really looking at, and I might have to get him out (of the game) a little bit more."
It is not likely that Shurna will play the full game on Saturday, as he did against both Illinois and Michigan. Carmody also said that there are plans to use him at center at points again, which will limit the number of times he has to handle the ball and enable Carmody to keep him fresher.
As far as keeping Shurna's weight up, Carmody is having a tougher time coming up with solutions.
"You can't tell guys to have a few beers during the season anymore," he joked.
If the Wildcats continue to lose hearbreakers like they have in their last two outings, a few beers might not be a bad idea.