The myth of Northwestern's depth: Bad luck, poor play hand-in-hand on top-heavy team

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Although some upperclassmen have stepped up with injuries decimating Northwestern's roster, a flock full of fresh faces hasn't proven to be as helpful for Northwestern, a team that remains very top-heavy despite preseason hopes.

At the beginning of the year, I praised Northwestern's depth. Some of y'all said I was silly: that all that mattered about a team was its top three players. But I felt differently.

In the past, I'd seen Northwestern play games with seven guys. With six guys. I'd seen them come close and fall short, with a few elite players at the top held back by the fact the seventh man up wasn't replacement level. With a windfall of talent coming in, I thought that period of NU basketball was over.

As I write this, Northwestern is staring down the barrel of a Big Ten game with seven scholarship athletes available, one of whom has only played 33 minutes this season. It's a road game against Ohio State. That Daniel-Day Lewis is a hell of an actor, guys - what's the name of that movie with the milkshakes and the dude getting thwapped in the brain with a bowling pin?

But even when not considering the absurd situation NU is in - best player injured, third-best player suspended for the year, your starting center and power forward now out with injuries, and three guys who could have contributed also redshirting - I've been disappointed with Northwestern's depth. If you don't believe me, I started writing this post two weeks ago! This team is remarkably top-heavy.

I mean this in two ways. First off, I mean it as legitimate praise of the top few players on Northwestern's roster. Reggie Hearn, holy crap. From walk-on to star, with only a few super-awkward chuckfests in between. For all his defensive struggles, Dave Sobolewski is exactly the type of irritating scorer NU needs at the point guard position. And Jared Swopshire, well, let's just say Northwestern can't afford to see him hurt. I was starting to get a little bit disappointed with Swop after his first few games included some poor shooting outings, but his minutes and role are much bigger than they ever were at Louisville, and he's responded by being a better scorer and kept up the defense, which is impressive. And although he's hit-or-miss, let's give some credit to Alex Marcotullio: when NU's been successful, he's often been there, hitting threes and nagging in the 1-3-1. With no John Shurna and Drew Crawford, I expected little, and these guys stepped up.

But what I thought was going to be great about the 2012-2013 Wildcats was its depth. Northwestern brought in nine - nine! - incoming players, and I hoped with them, plus a solid crew of seniors, there would be one, maybe two guys capable of providing decent performances on a regular basis, perhaps four regularly providing spot minutes. I had reason to believe that: NU has found contributors early in its past classes. Michael Thompson, John Shurna, Drew Crawford, and Sobo each contributed positively as soon as they hit Welsh-Ryan. But it hasn't been the case: I guess you could say the same about Olah, but the fact that he's been far and away the most impactful freshman isn't a good sign for this team.

Let's think about the eight guys - freshmen, redshirts, transfers - besides Swop who came in this year:

Olah: I've liked what I've seen to be honest. Not a whole lot of complaints, although he really needs to work on his hands, both as a rebounder and as an offensive option. He has the potential to be the best center at NU in a while if he steadily improves.

Tre Demps: We knew Demps would be an offensive sparkplug, and at time he has: he's been the closest thing to an occasional contributor out of this group, chipping in solid performances in wins at Illinois and Purdue. But he's so rarely efficient: he's had as few or less points than shots in 14 of the 21 games he's attempted a field goal, and that's not cherrypicking stats - he doesn't have any 0-for-1 outings in there. He attempts 6.3 shots a game, and while NU needs that production, it isn't there more often than not.

Kale Abrahamson: I like Kale because he guns, and he's been good at it, hitting 36.9 percent from deep. But for whatever reason - I'd guess his wafer-thin frame hurts him on defense and he isn't quick enough to keep up - he's fallen out of favor with Bill Carmody. Since being pulled from the lineup Tre Demps, he's played more than ten minutes twice: in a major blowout against Michigan and after Swop/Olah both got hurt against Iowa - and shot a combined 4-for-13, 3-for-12 from deep.

Michael Turner: I sincerely hope he puts on some weight and becomes an average power forward, because he's at least shown a decent knack for blocking shots. He had a year to redshirt, and after that year, he's a fouling machine - 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes, just a tad below Kyle Rowley his freshman year - with no offensive capabilities - he's a 28.6 percent shooter from the field, even worse from inside the arc at 27.3 percent, which is an awful sign for a center, he has a team-worst offensive rating of 81.2, as well as a team-worst free throw rate of 19.6 - turns the ball over a lot - although to be fair, some of that is because of all the offensive fouls - and most egregious of all, is a terrible rebounder - the only players with worse defensive rebound rates are Demps and Sobo, meaning he's lower than Marcotullio, a 6-foot-2 guard who typically plays the top of the 1-3-1 almost 30 feet away from the basket. Despite this, he's playing about 15 minutes a game. It's not fair to Turner for Bill Carmody to continue playing him that much: he just isn't ready.

And now, the guys whose first seasons can only be described as "incomplete":

Nikola Cerina: I've expressed some serious concern over the fact he isn't playing. He's had knee issues. He's out of shape. I get it. But then he comes into the game and plays decently, and Bill Carmody's response is that he can't give him more playing time because he hasn't seen him play enough. No, really:

But the redshirt junior has not impressed Carmody in practice, largely because he isn't moving fluidly.

"Practice is all I have to go on," Carmody said, "and he has just been OK. Maybe you could put him in there for 10 to 12 minutes and see what happens, but that's not my style."

Then, after a game in which Carmody was forced to play Cerina when Northwestern's center and power forward were simultaneously injured, a cataclysm which got Cerina three minutes of playing time, in which he got two assists:

On Saturday, Carmody didn’t see much.

"I didn’t see enough, to tell you the truth," Carmody said. "He did okay. He did fine."

Cerina said he felt okay in the game, but he hasn’t seen much experience on the court over the past two years, so he was rusty.

"I felt alright," he said. "My body didn’t feel that good, especially not after such a long time sitting on the bench, then I wasn’t warm."

That's right: a coach saying he can't trust a player to put him in the game because he hasn't put him in the game enough, then the player saying he isn't ready to play because he didn't play enough. This is a real thing.

I don't get it. Cerina is a redshirt junior who played over 20 minutes a game for TCU two straight year. Now, he's played 33 minutes all year while Turner is torn apart by lions. Meanwhile, walkon James Montgomery III has played 43 minutes. I'm not saying Cerina deserves to start, or that eight minutes a game of him would save NU. But it's mystifying that he hasn't even gotten a look, and if he's actually hurt/not in game shape, how come he's suited up?

Northwestern clearly doesn't have a problem not suiting guys up, as noted by the last three players here:

Sanjay Lumpkin: First he had mono, and after some spot minutes following the Drew Crawford injury, he now he has a wrist injury, and will redshirt.

Chier Ajou: He has knee issues, and after some garbage minutes earlier, he is redshirting.

Aaron Liberman: Sure, he's a walkon, but two of NU's three centers are hurt, a third is struggling majorly, and a power forward who could play center apparently kicked Bill Carmody's dog. Either way, he has shin splints and is redshirting.

Now let me say this: I've been very pleased with the effort and fire of this team of late. I knew Northwestern wouldn't be good this season after the injury to Drew Crawford, and they've outplayed my expectations. Like I said above, this could have been blowout after blowout after blowout, and instead, some senior guys have taken real stake in the team and they've fired up some gritty wins.I'm proud of the guys on this team.

I'm just expressing disappointment that the depth hasn't been there; with an entire new team coming in, I figured there'd be some guys ready to play off the bat. With the exception of Swop, who we can classify as a senior and brief flashes from Olah, Kale, and Demps, that hasn't been true. I'm not saying these guys can't become better with time - NU seniors have been a mixed bag over the past few seasons, but you look at guys like Hearn and Marco who grew and take your chances - but they weren't there for this team. Then, that team lost more and more players, to the point where we're here now, with five guys out for the season - two who would have been big contributors - and now two more injured guys who were picking up the load with them out. The NIT would be a long shot at this point, and that's a bummer for every player on this team, young, old, and injured.

TL;DR: With some crazy injuries, Hearn, Sobo, Swop, and Marco are NU's top-flight players, and with those guys as your top-flight players, NU would have needed some new blood to make a difference, and it hasn't been there for NU to even make an NIT run. Now go prove me wrong, y'all!

P.S. I look forward to the first commenter to say something completely unrelated to this article about how Bill Carmody should be fired.

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