by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Last year, Northwestern's frontcourt was a mess, plain and simple. It's hard to describe it any other way when 6-foot-9 John Shurna is playing center and the true centers couldn't put together a consistent performance. This year, with nine new players, the front court, especially, will have a completely different look. Northwestern will have eight forwards and centers that didn't see the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena last year, with a good mix, including five freshmen, a redshirt freshman, a junior transfer and a graduate transfer. Typically, having a lot of new faces isn't a good thing, but in an interview this summer, coach Bill Carmody summed up his excitement about this team rather nicely.
"We are going to be different because I think that when we throw the ball into our big guy, he’ll be able to do something with it once in a while and that will be nice."
That was a minor shot at last year's frontcourt, no doubt, but Carmody is right that this year's group should be light years better from a size, talent and depth perspective. Now we'll see if they can put it all together on the court.
Small Forward — Drew Crawford (6-5, 210 pounds; senior) – Crawford is undoubtedly the face of the Wildcats heading into the season. He's the Big Ten's leading returning scorer and a versatile player that fits nicely at small forward, after being forced to play power forward for much of last year. Crawford is a solid outside shooter, but he also has the ability to drive the lane and rebound. He's the complete package player that fits well into Northwestern's Princeton offense, and he should continue last year's offensive success. This year, however, he'll need to step up in crucial situations, as he struggled to make big shots in big games. Last year, he was NU's go-to guy at the end of games, and while it didn't work then, he could certainly retain that role this year. Expect Crawford to be one of the Wildcats' stars this year, and he'll have to step up even more for NU to make the NCAA Tournament.
Power Forward — Jared Swopshire (6-8, 210 pounds; graduate senior) — There are a lot of Northwestern fans and writers that are skeptical of what Swopshire can do for Northwestern. After all, he transferred to NU from Louisville because he wasn't likely to play much for the Cardinals, who are ranked No. 2 nationally this season. However, it's important to remember that Swopshire earned a starting spot at Louisville and is extremely talented. More importantly, he's a very versatile player that is a very good fit for NU's offense. Don't expect him to be the scorer Crawford is, but Carmody praised his post-up game and he is good at driving to the hoop. He should also help NU improve its rebounding from last year — the Wildcats were absolutely dismal in that area — and provide solid defense down low. Though he has yet to play a game in an NU uniform, expect Swopshire to have a big impact this season.
Center — Alex Olah (7-0, 275 pounds; freshman) — Northwestern actually has a center. Sure, he's just a freshman and wasn't a highly-touted recruit, but he's a big body that will give the Wildcats a presence down low and should help them run their offense more effectively. Defensively, Olah will be a huge plus, since NU was destroyed in the paint last year due to a lack of size down low. Offensively, it's tough to say what kind of an impact he'll have. Carmody certainly seems to think he'll have some sort of impact with inside scoring, and while he apparently still needs to improve how much he runs, he is more athletic than either of NU's centers last year. However, even if he doesn't put up big numbers himself, opposing teams will actually be forced to guard NU's center this year, which should help the offense be more productive as a whole.
Mike Turner (6-8, 215 pounds; redshirt freshman) — After redshirting last year, Turner is flying under the radar this season, but he should see a lot of time off the bench. He's another versatile player who can shoot, drive the lane and rebound, and that will fit well into Northwestern's offense this year. Turner is a solid perimeter shooter, but Carmody plans to use him as a center, as well, which speaks to his rebounding and inside scoring abilities. From the little we've seen in practice, he seemed to run the floor well and did a good job of driving the lane and scoring in transition.
Kale Abrahamson (6-7, 195 pounds, freshman) — The obvious comparison for Abrahamson is John Shurna. That isn't to say Abrahamson will match Shurna's scoring production — that would be quite the pleasant surprise for Northwestern — but he has a similar skill set in that he's a forward who is also a very good outside shooter. Carmody said in an interview that Abrahamson is still working to learn the game, and since a player of his skill set isn't in dire need, don't expect him to see him rushed onto the court this year. However, he's a good enough player to contribute situationally this year, especially in a four-guard lineup.
Sanjay Lumpkin (6-6, 195 pounds, freshman) — Northwestern has no shortage of versatile small forwards, but expect Lumpkin to see the floor early and often this season and be a candidate for NU's breakout player of the year. Carmody seemed confident in Lumpkin's abilities and he has picked up the system fairly quickly, meaning he should be in line for significant playing time. Crawford was also very impressed with what he has seen from Lumpkin so far and expects the true freshman to be a major contributor for the Wildcats. Lumpkin is a versatile player who is listed as a guard/forward combo (like Crawford), which means he should fit in well in the NU offense.
Nikola Cerina (6-9, 245 pounds, redshirt junior) — Cerina sat out last year after transferring from TCU, and while he has played his whole career as a post player, he worked on improving his outside shot to be a better fit for Northwestern's offense. Carmody indicated in an interview a few weeks ago that, while Cerina is a forward, he will primarily be a perimeter player for this team, with the ability to shift down low when needed. He's not necessarily as versatile as some of Northwestern's combo guard/forward-type players, but he can play a number of different roles for the Wildcats.
Chier Ajou (7-2, 235 pounds, freshman) — Nothing is certain at this point, but there's a good bet that Ajou redshirts this season to work on his offensive game and adjust to Northwestern's system. Carmody already said that he is behind Olah in terms of being college-ready. Ajou would be a solid defensive body down low and can block shots, but he's a raw talent and needs to work on his offensive skill set before being a major factor for the Wildcats. Still, he has the frame to be a major player for NU down the road if he can learn the system and polish his game.
Aaron Liberman (6-10, 215 pounds, freshman) — Liberman was added as a walk-on this year and gained instant Internet fame on the Northwestern interwebs, since he went to a Jewish school and plays with a yarmulke. Adding to the legend, one site called him the "Jewish Dwight Howard." Clearly, it's tough to expect a walk-on freshman to live up to that billing, and it's tough to see Liberman seeing the floor much this year. However, if he redshirts and gains experience, he could add depth to the NU frontcourt and earn playing time down the road.