by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Last year against Illinois, Northwestern played just six players all game. In Sunday’s 80-53 win over Fairleigh Dickinson, 13 players saw the floor and 11 of them scored. That won’t be the case when NU plays better competition, but the Wildcats’ improved depth was evident in their win over the Knights.
While the starters are set for this team, the rest of the rotation is still figuring itself out. Guards Tre Demps and Alex Marcotullio figure to have playing time cemented and forwards Mike Turner, Kale Abrahamson, Nikola Cerina and Sanjay Lumpkin do, as well. The question is who will come off the bench first and how much will they play? Sunday was another piece to trying to figure out that puzzle.
“It’s sort of like a work in progress,” coach Bill Carmody said. “I told our team that, even though we have some veteran guys, we’re bringing in some other guys. The first half we had three freshmen in there at one time — Mike Turner, Tre and Kale. So, there are going to be ups and downs and obstacles along the way, like the other night. So, what can you learn from them? Can you get better the next game? But I like the energy level and I think that they’re all determined to contribute.”
“The other night,” refers to NU’s scare against Mississippi Valley State, in which the Wildcats gave up 68 points. The defense responded against FDU, holding the Knights to 14 first-half points.
“I guess, just to compare to last year, our defense and rebounding is better, despite the fact that (MVSU’s Davon) Usher went off on us for 35,” Reggie Hearn said. “I think you saw today, our defense, as a team, is much better, our rebounding is much better and I think that should continue to be good for us moving forward.”
Hearn responded as well as anyone on Sunday. He led the Wildcats with 23 points against MVSU, but struggled with his defense against Usher. Against FDU, he took care of business early.
“Reggie, I gave him a hard time the other night — a deservedly hard time,” Carmody said. “Tonight, that kid’s a good player. They had 14 at half and I just thought he was very good and came to play at both ends of the court.”
Like Hearn, freshman center Alex Olah stepped up after a bad performance against MVSU. He finished with 10 points and 9 rebounds in just 16 minutes on the court. He was active on the offensive end, but the biggest improvement was on defense, where he has struggled the most this year.
“I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the backboards,” Carmody said. “When he got the ball down there, he wasn’t trying to be tricky. I thought it was very nice, the way he played.”
It’s tough to take much away from the third game of the season — especially in a game against such a lackluster opponent — but it was another piece to the puzzle in figuring out what the identity of this team will be this season.
It was also the first chance for NU to respond to a bad performance this season, and by Carmody’s evaluation, the Wildcats did just that. In that sense, any game — even one against Fairleigh Dickinson on Nov. 18 — can have value.
Note: Forward Nikola Cerina went down with what looked to be an injured right ankle late in the game. He put some weight on it, but walked off with help. Carmody said his status is currently unknown.