Decision from the bench
Northwestern's substitutes give Wildcats a lift
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ask Northwestern coach Bill Carmody whether his starters play too many minutes, and without fail he goes on the offensive.
He laughs and applies his standard response. "Remember, they're 20 years old," Carmody has explained.
The truth is Carmody, like any coach in the country, would prefer to limit his starters' minutes, give them rest and count on his bench to provide some production. The problem is Carmody's bench hasn't allowed him to have that convenience. He has to play his starters nearly the whole game every game and tell the media he's fine with that because he has no other option. He isn't one to sell out his bench.
On Friday, Carmody finally told the truth.
Just as his bench's play prevented him from doing so before, it permitted him to do so on Friday as the players stepped up and provided the difference in Northwestern's 73-58 win over Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse.
"People have said, 'Well, your guys are playing too many minutes, your guys are wearing down' and all that,'" said Carmody, whose team will play Purdue on Friday. "I sort of pooh-poohed that, if you will, but they might be right. So, it was great to get these guys to contribute."
Northwestern's bench play wasn't simply a luxury against the Hoosiers. What Carmody received from Mike Capocci, Davide Curletti and Alex Marcotullio was essential. Without them, the Wildcats likely were headed home after another depressing performance in the Big Ten tournament.
Indiana was on the verge of eliminating them at various times in the second half. Northwestern's bench prevented it, though.
With 15:12 left, the Hoosiers went up 39-33, and Marcotullio answered with his first 3-pointer of the game. With 14:10 remaining, the Hoosiers took a 43-36 lead, and Indiana's fans, who made up the majority at Conseco on Thursday, began getting loudening. Marcotullio quieted them with another 3. With 12:56 remaining, the Hoosiers built their lead to 45-39, and the momentum in the building began to sway in Indiana's favor again. This time, Capocci halted it with a layup.
All of a sudden, the tide had been turned, and the Wildcats' bench was responsible.
Capocci blocked a shot just after his basket. He stole the ball a few possessions later. After Michael Thompson, a starter, contributed a basket, Marcotullio scored to tie it at 45-45.
On the next possession, Capocci leaped above two Indiana players and grabbed a rebound off a Hoosiers miss. He was fouled while doing so, went to the free throw line with Northwestern in the bonus and sank both attempts to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game.
"I was just trying to box out," Capocci said of his key rebound. " I had just missed a board 20 seconds before that, so I had a little extra motivation to go up and grab that next one. That felt pretty good to get that one."
Curletti pushed Northwestern's lead to 49-45 when he made a steal, was fouled and made both of his free throws.
"The bench has been struggling as of late," Marcotullio said. "We just needed to pick up our team. We helped our team today. My minutes have gone down and my production has gone down during the conference season. I feel like I got to do whatever it takes to help this team win."
Northwestern's starters would put their own mark on the game by scoring the Wildcats' next 18 points and putting the game out of reach. But the bench had put them in position to do that, and the starters were grateful for that.
" When we have guys who are backing us up, it does take the pressure off," Northwestern starting guard Drew Crawford said. "It adds a little bit of confidence and swagger to the game knowing we not only have the starting five but we have guys behind us who are going to come out and play well also."
For Curletti, his play off the bench was especially rewarding. As he admitted after the game, it can be difficult to play just a few minute a game and struggle in that limited time.
"Sometimes, it's hard to back them up," Curletti said. "Obviously, I haven't been getting that much time over my career. But I got to come in there and do it for the team and school. It's more than just for myself."
Curletti finished with a career-high 12 points and played a career-high 21 minutes.
Northwestern senior starter Jeremy Nash did feel a bit strange watching from the bench for an extended period in the second half as the subs carried the game.
"There was one point in the second half I was sitting so long that I was starting to get antsy," Nash said. "I'm not used to sitting that much. It was good to get rest."
Yes, it was.
Even Carmody will admit that now.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.