On the Hardwood: Northwestern Wildcats

The Wildcats will count on JerShon Cobb to lead the way in 2014-15. - Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

A look back and a look forward at the Northwestern Wildcats basketball program on the heels of the first year of the Chris Collins era.

So far: Purdue Boilermakers

Next, we me move on to the 11th-place Northwestern Wildcats, piloted by first-year head coach Chris Collins in 2013-14. On paper, you could say this was the same old Northwestern. But, if you watched them play, you could see that was far from the truth.

As NU continues the transition from longtime coach Bill Carmody, the same questions will arise as with any other program. How long before Collins can get "his guys"? Are said guys, you know, good at basketball? Can he nudge the team forward from the realm of the scrappy to the realm of the contenders?

After just one year of Collins, it's far too early too make any sort of macroscopic exclamations about his destiny, especially with respect to Northwestern basketball, where Carmody could coach for over a decade without a tournament appearance.

So, what happened this season?

Well, lots of things. Where should we start?

Things looked pretty grim during the nonconference schedule, which included losses to in-state foes like Illinois State and DePaul, the latter coming via a heartbreaking buzzer beater to get the Blue Demons the win in Welsh Ryan. A 7-6 record entering conference play --let alone Big Ten play-- generally does not bode well.

Then Big Ten play began, and the 'Cats had the pleasure of facing Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa (the latter two on the road). This yielded three losses by an average margin of 25.3 ppg. In short, Northwestern was basically like those cows from "Twister" at this point of the season, squirming uselessly against a vortex of cataclysmic force (okay, maybe those offenses weren't that good, but still).

Then something funny happened, as NU reeled off five wins in their next seven games, including wins at Indiana (a place Michigan lost at, of course) and at the Kohl Center in Madison. For good measure, the purple and black-clad warrior poets then traveled to Minneapolis, where they scored a win at The Barn, no easy place to win, either.

In short, Northwestern this year was basically like the Wisconsin of old (i.e. before this past season) looked like, minus, well, the talent. Even so, for one glorious stretch, the Wildcats were fourth in the Big Ten standings, 10 games into their conference season. Fourth place! Nebraska finishing in the top four when all was said and done was obviously more impressive; still, for a brief stretch, the 'Cats creaked their way to win after win, playing tough defense and somehow managing to find big shots out of an offense that could simply be described as "moribund."

Numbers

  • As mentioned already, Northwestern's offense was abysmal, even with Drew Crawford choosing to return to Evanston instead of playing out his 5th year elsewhere. During Big Ten play, NU finished 12th in the conference in points per possession, 11th in free throw rate and and 11th in three-point field goal percentage.
  • To make matters worse, they also got destroyed on the glass, finishing dead last in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. This isn't surprising except insofar that it makes that mini-run even more remarkable.
  • To bring the aforementioned old school Wisconsin description home, the 'Cats were also last on possessions per 40 minutes; given that offense, that was probably the best asset the Wildcats had with the ball in their hands. If you have the ball for most of a 35 second shot clock, well, I suppose your opponent can't score during that time.
  • With the help of 7-footer Alex Olah, they did finish 6th in block percentage.
  • Turnover-wise, that gritty defense didn't do much in that department, sporting the third-worst defensive turnover percentage (16.3 percent). On the other hand, NU was a middling yet respectable 6th in turnover percentage on offense (17.2 percent), ahead of Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State.
  • All of these numbers basically say that Northwestern's run to the top four of the standings --for a short time, sure, but it happened-- was quite possibly the product of erudite sorcery, statistical incongruities or some combination of the two.

Roster Shakeup (transfers, NBA entries, incoming recruits, etc.)

Unfortunately for the 'Cats, Crawford, Northwestern's "guy who has been around a million years," is finally out of eligibility. Crawford has been a central cog in any success NU has had since 2009; he will be very difficult to replace this coming season.

Also gone, due to transfer, are sniper Kale Abrahamson, Aaron Liberman and big man project Chier Ajou (Seton Hall). Also, forward Nikola Cerina ran out of eligibility.

Returning is Olah, who checked in this season with 9.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 1.8 bpg. Collins will need another step forward from the Romanian big man in 2014-15.

Also back are guard Tre Demps and JerShonn Cobb, the former who developed a knack for the Big Shot this season, frustrating many Big Ten foes. Cobb's season was derailed by injuries down the stretch, but he finished second in scoring behind Crawford and figures to be The Guy this coming season, has last year of eligibility. Cobb dropped a season-high 23 in an ugly home loss against Minnesota (I was there, I saw it with my own eyes). The problem? NU finished with 48 points that game.

Demps shot a nice 34 percent from three on 140 attempts (Crawford led the team with 153). As a redshirt junior, NU hopes the Texan will continue to find the mark from the outside like he did this past season, especially in those late shot clock/clutch situations.

Of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the SOBOCOP himself, Dave Sobolewski. He had himself a tough time this season, with a turnover percentage during league play of 20 percent while hitting just 19.2 percent from three. It's worth noting that his minutes took a serious nosedive, from 35.3 per game in 2012-13 to just 14.6 this past season. He will be a senior, so experience is on his side, but, and I don't feel very nice saying this...it might be difficult to get minutes if he continues to turn it over and shoot so poorly from downtown.

On the bright side, NU will get a big boost from its five-member 2014 class, which includes 4-star SF Victor Law and four three-stars. Law, notably, was also offered by Illinois, making him a major victory for Collins on the recruiting trail in the Land of Lincoln.

Collins also landed a couple of point guard in Bryant McIntosh and Johnnie Vassar. Among others, McIntosh was offered by Cincinnati, Clemson, Creighton, Missouri and Purdue. Vassar landed offers from DePaul, SMU and USC.

With Olah's post game possibly improving, Cobb's pure scoring, Demps's shooting, the talent of Law and the ball-handling McIntosh and Vassar could provide, NU's offense should take a step forward, even sans Crawford. Then again, that isn't a high bar to clear. But, Collins is building a program, and any steps taken away from the bottom are worth noting.

What's next?

With a full class of Collins recruits coming in, NU basketball is slowly but surely moving away from the Carmody era to a new brand of basketball. Defense is clearly a bigger priority for Collins, which is not a bad place to start for any program looking to make its way out of the cellar.

Northwestern will not be a tournament team this year, barring some seriously crazy developments. On the other hand, the Big Ten won't be as strong as it has been the last couple of seasons, and with an influx of solid talent and the returning Demps-Cobb-Olah trio, the 'Cats will definitely topple a big dog or two along the way.

And who knows--maybe if the program continues to pick up steam, Welsh-Ryan Arena could some day become a little barn that Big Ten foes don't enjoy visiting. The Keg of Evanston isn't coming back, so perhaps NU students can transfer that, uh, "enthusiasm" to the barn on Ashland Avenue.

For now, however, there's a long way to go. Regardless, whether you're a Northwestern partisan or not, it's always fun watching a program like that try to climb up the ladder.

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