Juice Sees Glass Half-Full
Even without an NCAA appearance, Michael Thompson is a special ball player.
by Quinn Peterson / @QwinFNP
Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament drought has been well-documented. Entering this season, with an expanded field of 68, some thought this may be the year they finally start dancing and stop being wallflowers; it still can be. If it is, it will largely be because of point guard Michael Thompson. If not, it won’t be for lack of effort on his part.
When “Juice” — as everyone calls him — arrived in Evanston in 2007, the Wildcats were coming off of a 10-18 season, including a 2-14 record in Big Ten play. While things did not turn around immediately, dedication and hard work have helped Thompson and the Wildcats get things rolling in the right direction.
“As a freshman, we were 1-17 in conference,” Thompson reflected. “Now, we’re on the receiving end of a lot of wins so, you know, things are a lot different. The feelings are happy and it’s a better atmosphere here in the crowd. The students are more into it and we have a bigger fan base.”
Getting the nod from day one, he’s now notched 119 consecutive starts.
“I gained a lot of experience. A lot of people, when they come to college, they aren’t able to come in as a freshman right away and play the amount of minutes that I’ve played. I’ve started every game since I’ve been here,” he said.
And now, four years later, he’s cracked the top 10 of several of Northwestern’s all-time lists. First in assists (485) and minutes played (4,191); second in games started (119) and 3-point field goals made (242). He’s also etched his name in the record books for points, steals, and games played.
More importantly, though, has been the impact he’s had in the win-loss column, and last year, the Wildcats met the 20-win mark for the first time over 100 years of work.
“It means a lot, especially with me being from Chicago,” said the Wind City native. “That gives my family and friends a chance to come watch us play. It’s a credit to the coaching staff, their doing a good job recruiting the type of players that come in and make a difference for this team. And it’s a credit to our team for working hard and staying together and now we’re finally winning some games.”
As point guard and floor general, it’s been Juice leading the way.
“As the leader of the team, it’s my responsibility to get the guys going. I have the ball in my hands for the majority of the game, so, you know, I call out the plays and I have to get everyone going. If guys aren’t ready to play, that’s pretty much my fault.”
When he says he’s the controlling the rock for a majority of the game, it’s no exaggeration. Anyone who has seen Northwestern play, could surely tell you of their incessant and intricate Princeton offense. Often times, they look to use 25-30 seconds of the shot clock before looking to score. In that case, Thompson, who seldom leaves the floor, truly serves as an extension of Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody, calling the plays, facilitating the offense.
“I work out as hard as I can each and every day, try to make sure I’m in shape, and I work on my ballhandling. On our team, our coaches haven’t recruited that many point guars, so I’m the only guy…I’m the primary ballhandler. We have a lot of shooters on our team and a lot of people that can score, so that makes my job somewhat easy. Once I break the pressure I have a lot of options.”
“It wasn’t that hard picking it up,” Thompson said of Carmody’s offense, filled with cuts and backscreens. “Prior to my freshman year, we were able to go to summer school and work with some older guys, and they showed me the ins and outs of the offense. I picked it up pretty fast.”
“Now as a senior, I know how teams play our team so I’m able to pick out my spots for myself, as well as my teammates.”
As a vet, he’s earned Carmody’s full trust and been handed the keys to the car.
“We have a great relationship,” said Thompson. “We talk on a regular basis. I try to get a feel for what he wants, you know, he just expects me to go out there and run things. He doesn’t want me to look at the bench or ask him for advice during the game, he wants me to go out there and just lead the team.”
“He trusts my judgment and my instincts.”
While he comes off as pass-first — which he is, in many ways — the Lincoln Park High School alum is more than just an orchestrator. For in the event that the shot clock is winding down — and it usually is — it’s Juice who will find the ball in his hands and have to make something happen.
“In practice we work on that a lot, running some stall offenses, trying to run some shot clock down,” he said. “As a point guard, you have to be a playmaker. For the most par, I’ve just been on the receiving end of a lot of shots.”
The confidence to take those shots, he said, comes from within. This year, in games against Ohio St. and Illinois especially, Juice has stepped up to knock down big-time shots, looking to will his team to a win.
In the process, he’s garnered the unyielding respect of opposing coaches and players.
“It seems like has ownership,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter last season. “I don’t know how to really explain that. I just kinda know it when I see it. It’s his team.”
After getting upset by the Wildcats in early-February, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said, “Juice was very special. Played like a senior, played very determined, wanted to win a game at home.”
The Big Ten is one of the toughest, most physical conferences in the country, no doubt. So the fact that Thompson stands just 5-10, yet it is equally as effective, is a true testament to his determined mindset. Instead, he finds a way to use his size to his advantage.
“Just trying to use my quickness and my toughness against bigger guys, just trying to outsmart them and get around them,” are ways the PG overcomes what he lacks in size. “[I try] to play out there with a lot of heart and a lot of confidence. At my size, I’m definitely the smallest guy on the court, for the most part. Going in there with some 7-footers, you just have to be tough and be physical.”
Seeing Thompson drain a three and Wildcat fans erupt in “Juice” chants, the heart he mentioned can be seen on his Nike dri-fit. For lovers of the game, it’s a pleasure to see. The emotion, the passion, all completely genuine. And despite never having been to the Tournament — a trip that’s slowly looking more and more doubtful for this year — it’s been that heart that have propelled him, and his teammates, through the tough times.
“We haven’t been successful at making it to the NCAA Tournament, but everyone’s still working hard, whether it’s in the weight room, on the court, in the classroom, and we just hold each other accountable for what’s going on there on the court.”
Here’s to hoping Juice can finally raise his glass at the Big Dance before his time as a Wildcat is up.