Davide Curletti sparks Northwestern upset

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern senior Davide Curletti doesn’t know precisely when he stopped caring whether he started or how many points he scored in a given game, but it happened sometime during the past four years.

Part of that came with Curletti dealing with reality. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has never seen him as a starter and his job for the Wildcats hasn’t been to contribute a double-double like he did as a high school senior. His role has been to be an energy player off the bench, or as Carmody puts it, “the Energizer Bunny.”

It’s not the most glamorous of roles, but then again, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Curletti isn’t the most glamorous of players. He doesn’t outjump opponents for rebounds; he outworks them. He doesn’t outmaneuver defenders for buckets; he outthinks them.

Curletti has embraced that role and been consistent in it. He averaged 2.9 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.9 rebounds in 11.9 minutes over 91 career games before Saturday, and his numbers this season hadn’t been much different. He averaged 3.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 16.8 minutes in his first 16 games.

So no one, not even Curletti, could have predicted his performance on Saturday. Making only the second start of his career, Curletti scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists, stole two balls and blocked one shot in 36 minutes while helping Northwestern to an 81-74 upset of No. 7 Michigan State.

Because Curletti has become such a team-first kind of guy throughout his career, he was even careful of how he accepted everyone’s praise on Saturday. Although inside he was feeling pretty good about himself, he made sure everyone knew he wanted the win to be about the team’s play, not his own.

“It’s not about trying to be cocky or anything like that, but it’s just that it feels really good and I’m glad it happened,” Curletti said. “Obviously, I hope it happens again, but at the same time you got to think beating the No. 7 team out-trumps all of that.

“Last year my best game was against Wisconsin where I had a similar game, but we lost. When someone asked me of my favorite game of my career, I said last year’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. I later realized I didn’t even think about Wisconsin. Big wins do really matter in the long run.”

Curletti did confirm that Saturday’s game leaped that overtime loss to Ohio State and became his No. 1 career highlight. And of all the individual plays Saturday, Curletti will never forget his backdoor cut which led to a wide-open dunk to give Northwestern a 57-50 lead with 12:27 remaining. As he flushed the ball, Northwestern’s bench and nearly everyone wearing purple jumped off their seats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“It was great,” Curletti admitted. “It was really awesome.”

So how did Curletti go from being a career role player to a star in one of the program’s biggest wins? He claimed he did nothing different.

“It’s kind of like you work hard and some games you’ll get only one offensive rebound and you’ll get maybe two points, but other games, if you stick with it, you’ll have a night like this,” Curletti said. “For me, coming off the bench, you always have to have energy. That’s what I try to do. That’s kind of what my role was the last couple years, so that’s what I’m just going to keep on doing.

“I like working hard, and I consider myself a hard worker. I feel my best way of contributing on this team is to do that. You always need a guy like that on a team.”

You also need stars like Northwestern’s Drew Crawford and John Shurna, and those were the names rolling off Michigan State’s tongues leading up to Saturday’s game. Afterward, it was all about Curletti. Spartans coach Tom Izzo took a stab at pronouncing Curletti’s first name (DAH-vuh-day), but he got his last name perfect.

“Curletti was the difference in the game if you ask me,” said Izzo, who had been quite pleased with his big men prior to Saturday’s game. “He’s the one who snagged those [rebounds] when we had them, and he took them and scored on them. Curletti was a big difference in the game and deserved the play and credit he got. I thought it was a brilliant move by Bill to start him.”

Carmody’s brilliance actually was a last-second decision. He opted against starting a smaller lineup with Shurna at center and went with Curletti at the 5. Curletti’s one and only other start came against Ohio State as a freshman on Feb. 18, 2009. He finished with two rebounds on that day.

When Curletti discovered just before the game he was starting, he didn’t jump for joy. He understood he needed to play as he’s always played.

“To be honest, it didn’t really matter to me,” Curletti said. “It has been a while [since I started.] I’m also a senior now. I have to put the team ahead. I can’t be nervous. I have to play my game.”

And so he did.