Northwestern basketball is going to have a terrible season, and somehow, I'm surprised by that development.
Looking back , there was no reason to be surprised. Northwestern was terrible last season and lost Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire to graduation, and the team's myriad issues were thoroughly covered, but somehow the return of Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb had me hoping this could at least be an NIT team. But right now, even a .500 overall record would be a near-miracle. So let's take a look at what's been going on in their first eight games and what needs to change for Northwestern to be remotely competitive.
Drew Crawford needs to start dominating the ball
Crawford is by far Northwestern's best offensive player, and has the talent to be one of the top scorers in the Big Ten. Yet right now, Crawford ranks fourth on NU in possession usage, at just 23%, a lower percentage than he had two years ago when he was playing second banana to John Shurna. When he does shoot the ball, he's been quite efficient, shooting 49% on twos and 44% on threes, but he needs to start demanding the ball. I'm willing to live with some 7 for 24 type nights from Crawford, because NU isn't going to beat anyone good without Crawford taking over games. Fortunately, the back spasms he suffered in Las Vegas don't appear to be too serious.
JerShon Cobb made good use of his year off
James Montgomery III being awarded a scholarship has been the feel-good story of the Northwestern season, but Cobb's story is great as well. After suffering through two injury-plagued seasons, Cobb was suspended for all of last year due to academic issues, and rather than giving up and transferring, Cobb spent last season not only hitting the books and improving his grades, but also working hard on his game. He's added a lot of muscle to a previously skinny frame and his dramatically improved his ball handling, so much so that he's probably the best point guard on the team now. He still takes too many long twos, but he's finally showing the talent that made him a four star recruit out of high school.
Dave Sobolewski is not a Big Ten-caliber point guard
This is a disappointing development, because I really thought Sobo would improve his game significantly this season. As a freshman, he performed admirably as the only point guard on the roster, and did the best he could last season trying to lead a bad team through a ton of injuries, but so far this season he not only hasn't improved, it almost seems like he's regressing. His jump shot has been off (25% from three, admittedly in a small sample size), his turnover rate is higher than in his previous two years, he's just as big a defensive liability as ever, and he's struggled as a distributor.
The problem for Sobo is he doesn't have the quickness to blow by opposing defenders, and when he does get into the lane his lack of size or athleticism prevents him from finishing over opposing big men. His most effective move is exaggerating contact to draw a foul, often in situations where he has no prayer of doing anything but turning the ball over. Things got so bad for him earlier this year that Chris Collins benched him for Tre Demps down the stretch against Illinois State.
Alex Olah has improved, but still has a ways to go
Now that he's escaped from big man killer Bill Carmody, Olah has played with a lot more confidence and has shown a variety of post moves and an ability to finish with both hands. The problem is that despite losing some weight in the off-season, he's still really slow, which combined with the new foul rules means he's extremely prone to foul trouble; he just can't move his feet quick enough to cut off dribble penetration. Combined with Nikola Cerina's struggles (I now understand why Carmody played Mike Turner over Cerina), this means Chris Collins has had to go to a small lineup with Nate Taphorn at center, a lineup that doesn't have a prayer of stopping anyone or getting a rebound during Big Ten play. He also sometimes goes into a shell against athletic opposing bigs, which, again, could be a major problem in the Big Ten.
Tre Demps is six one, two twenty five of pure chucker
Still sippin' a fifth, still frequently miss, still got no love for assists. It's now reached the point where the announcers in Las Vegas were openly calling him out for being a chucker. Then during garbage time against UCLA, you could hear Chris Collins yelling 'Share the ball!' at him over the broadcast. I almost want this to continue just for the comedy potential, but in all seriousness, this has to stop. Tre Demps should not be taking more shots than Cobb or Crawford when all three are on the floor together. Fix this, Collins.
Sanjay Lumpkin has some upside
Lumpkin has done an admirable job as an undersized four both defensively and on the boards, and while he's extremely raw offensively, he's already a solid contributor. Assuming he can tighten up his handle he should develop into a stronger version of Jared Swopshire, which is not bad for a guy who wasn't heavily recruited out of high school
Chris Collins may have trouble adjusting to all the losing
It's hard to fault anything Chris Collins has done at Northwestern so far. He's done everything right off the court, and so far on the court he's shown a willingness to try new things and adjust to the situation. He made the bold move of benching his starting point guard down the stretch of a game, has experimented with small lineups, and has adjusted to the new foul rules and NU's lack of depth by playing a lot of zone. He's also done an excellent job with offense/defense substitutions, especially at the end of halves.
The question now is if Collins will be able to stay positive throughout the season and instill confidence in his young players. Duke did nothing but win when Collins was there, during both his playing and coaching career, and now he's in charge of a team that's going to be on the business end of some vicious beatings against the Big Ten's elite. We've already seen his frustration boil over against UCLA, as Collins yelled at Bruin coach Steve Alford during the post-game handshake for leaving his starters in during a blowout and dunking in the final seconds rather than dribbling out the clock. As much as I hate to defend Steve Alford, he can manage his roster however he chooses, it's up to the opponent to stop them. Perhaps I am making too big a deal out of a minor incident, but I do worry that Collins may crack under the strain of so much losing.
Right now, KenPom.com projects Northwestern to finish the season 12-19 overall and 5-13 in the conference, and honestly, I'd be pretty happy with five conference wins given how ridiculously difficult the Big Ten is. On the bright side, when you have no expectations of success as a fan, that only means you can pleasantly surprised.. So let's hope Collins can somehow right the ship.