South Padre Island was beautiful. The weather was nice at 80 degrees, and being on the beach late November in shorts and a t-shirt reminded me of professional basketball life in Israel or Greece. I also got to eat Thanksgiving Dinner with my Wildcat family, the first time for me since my senior year. I even sang karaoke while out in South Padre.
Despite being away from the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena, and being in a warm climate with lots of distractions, the Northwestern Wildcats came focused and ready to handle business.
It was special for me being a former player, because I made my debut doing color commentary with WGN Radio. I got to call the action while the Wildcats earned a championship, and moved their record to 6-0 on the season.
In this early part of the season, I have discussed how versatile the Wildcats are with their depth, plus their ability to score and play defense. Each facet of Northwestern's identity as a team was tested in South Padre against the physical TCU Hornfrogs, and the up-tempo style of Illinois State Redbirds.
I felt that TCU would challenge 7-foot freshmen Alex Olah, because the physical style in of their post players. It's similar to those power forwards and centers Olah will see in January playing in the Big Ten Conference.
Northwestern defense was amazing, holding the Hornfrogs to 25.9 percent shooting from the field, and only allowing 31 points in the game. That was the lowest total of points in which a Carmody-era team has held any opponent since my freshman year, when we held Maryland Eastern-Shore to 33 points.
Jared Swopshire stood out that game because of his ability to do everything as a basketball player. Swopshire was in the passing lanes deflecting balls, rebounding, scoring, helping out his team anyway he could. Watching a guy 6-foot-8 who has skills in every aspect of the game is so exciting and refreshing to watch.
Dave Sobolewski was another player who impressed me against TCU, not because of his ability to take care of the basketball, but his one-on-one defense with guards that are quick. If you challenge Sobo, he rises to the occasion and I admire his competitive nature.
The championship game was against Illinois State Redbirds, who made it to the NIT last season. For me, this game was important for two reasons: first, for resume and RPI late in the season when making a case for the NCAA Tournament; secondly, for recruiting purposes and claim as being the "Best Team in Illinois."
The Redbirds played a similar style of basketball as the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who beat the Wildcats in the Big Ten Tournament last season.
Illinois State loves to press and force teams into a fast pace, up-tempo game. With Jackie Carmichael -- who was named one of the best post players in the country by Sports Illustrated -- gave the Wildcats their greatest challenge so far this season.
Drew Crawford had a huge game with 20 points, nine rebounds, and three steals, making tough baskets in every crucial possession needed by Northwestern throughout the contest. Even though Crawford and other players missed many easy layups, the way they supported each other and stayed positive was a trait of a championship team.
Swopshire finished the game with 15 points and 10 rebounds, Sobo added 16 points, and Reggie Hearn with 12 points and 6 rebounds.
With the fast-paced style Illinois State displayed, Michael Turner played a major role at the center position, collecting 10 rebounds in the championship game and being an inside presence for the Wildcats.
Despite a 36-point performance by Redbirds guard Tyler Brown, Northwestern held off Illinois State in overtime 72-69 to win the South Padre Island Invitational.
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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.