Jared Sullinger, Robbie Hummel and Draymond Green are all names you’d expect to see among the leading scorers in Big Ten basketball this season. Maybe Jordan Taylor and Tim Hardaway Jr., too.
What about the lanky senior forward from Northwestern, John Shurna?
Featuring an awkward shooting release that one Wildcat blogger compared to In-N-Out French fries — ugly at first sight, with a tasty result — the 6-foot-9 Shurna is leading the conference in scoring with 20.2 points per game. On Saturday, he registered 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting against Minnesota to break Northwestern’s all-time scoring record.
Shurna may be the most unheralded name in college basketball considering his achievements, but Tuesday night has implications that extend much further than his personal accolades. No. 11 Michigan (10-4 Big Ten, 20-7 overall) will ride a three-game winning streak into Evanston and tip off against a relatively underrated Northwestern (6-8, 16-10) squad.
Just like Shurna, the Wildcats are often overlooked by most of the conference. But they’ve actually maintained an 11-3 home record this season, which includes a marquee victory over then-No. 6 Michigan State in mid-January.
“It seems like they don’t miss at home, especially Shurna,” said senior guard and co-captain Stu Douglass. “(Junior guard Drew) Crawford has been huge for them this year. … (We have to hold) those two to a minimum.”
The 6-foot-5 Crawford is right behind Shurna, averaging 16.6 points per game — good for fourth place in the conference. And the pair combined for 41 points in Ann Arbor on Jan. 11, when the Wildcats pushed the Wolverines to overtime before falling, 66-64.
This time around, the race for the Big Ten title looms. The Wolverines — who have all but assured themselves an NCAA Tournament bid — are aiming for the regular-season championship, currently tied for second place with No. 8 Ohio State after trumping the Buckeyes at home on Saturday night.
Northwestern, whose postseason chances are less certain, knows it can’t afford to lose down the stretch in pursuit of the program’s first-ever NCAA bid.
“We realize that they want this game as bad as ever,” Douglass said. “I think I just saw Lunardi had them as ‘last four in.’ They win this game, it puts them even closer. I don’t know if it’d be a shoe-in, but it’s as pretty close as it gets for them.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “I just think they’re a really good team. Their field-goal percentage is up from last year, their 3-point percentage is up from last year at this time, their defensive field-goal percentage (is) better.”
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody’s system, at least on the offensive end, is strikingly similar to Beilein’s. With a roster that doesn’t feature much length or athleticism, his team relies primarily on creating space for shooters on the perimeter, with occasional back-door cuts to the basket.
So far this season, Michigan and Northwestern lead the conference in 3-point attempts with 616 and 605, respectively, and the Wildcats knock them down at a marginally better rate.
“Bill obviously is one of the best coaches in the country,” Beilein said. “Shurna and particularly Crawford (are good), but now their point guard (David Sobolewski), oh my goodness. He’s having an incredible freshman year.”
Sobolewski, along with Wolverine freshman stud Trey Burke, should provide an intriguing matchup at the point guard position. On Saturday, Burke proved that he could find success on any stage, knocking down a pair of clutch baskets to topple Ohio State in front of a sellout crowd and ESPN cameras.
Though Sobolewski hasn’t had the same type of exposure and doesn’t score the ball as well as Burke, his efficient play has been impressive for a freshman in the Big Ten. His 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio is tops in the league, and he has just 31 turnovers despite playing over 35 minutes a game this season.
As the two freshmen prepare to lead their teams down the stretch, they’ll look to secure postseason glory for their seniors, who have all been in this situation before.
“It’s tough,” Douglass said. “It’s going to be something that we have to really stay focused for. We can’t let up these last few games.”