by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Having played 13 games of its 2012-13 season, Northwestern is finished with nonconference competition. The Wildcats now fix their gaze upon the Big Ten, the undisputed king of all hoops conferences, and organizational base upon which their conference schedule is grounded. Starting January 3 with a home test against Michigan, Northwestern will play 18 games against Big Ten teams. League play will be a grind. That is not a groundbreaking statement. Before they get there, the Wildcats will enjoy a short Holiday break, which offers us a perfect opportunity to wrap up Northwestern’s nonconference season. We’ve selected four categories to guide our thoughts. Know this: before you gloss over the bold print and take issue with our selections, read the explanatory blurbs that follow, because there’s plenty of wiggle room to stretch the definitional meaning of each category. With that in mind, here’s what most stuck out to us throughout the out of league portion of Northwestern’s schedule.
Best Win: at Baylor
Consecutive losses to Maryland and UIC left Northwestern desperate for a positive spark to ignite a strong finish to nonleague play and to inspire confidence in a campaign that was quickly fading into conference and national irrelevance. The second defeat, against UIC, felt like an absolute killer at the time, mostly because nobody really knew that UIC was a legitimate Horizon League title contender and one of the nation’s better mid-major outfits. Expectations heading into Waco were at floor level – and not only because of the Wildcats two previous defeats. The Bears had just ended Kentucky’s 55-game home win streak and were riding a powerful wave of momentum. Their frontcourt was loaded with NBA talent. It was the same composition – though not the same exact personnel – that dumptrucked Northwestern in Evanston one year prior. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were heading in the wrong direction.
So when Northwestern went into Waco and knocked off Baylor, it was surprising on multiple levels. At the time, it felt like a momentous turn of events, the sort of thing that would lead to newfound confidence against tougher competition down the road. As it turned out, the Wildcats would lose two of their next three games. That skid, combined with Crawford’s injury erased any momentum built up in the win. In fact, it is not stretch to say that Northwestern’s season has since headed south – hardly the emotional boost most expected. Even so, there’s no denying the long odds Northwestern faced heading into that game. Nor can one minimize the importance of beating a quality opponent in a harsh road environment.
Worst Loss: Stanford
Don’t let my selection fool you: Stanford is not the worst team Northwestern lost to in the nonconference. That distinction belongs to UIC. The reason losing to the Cardinal was so devastating is simple: Northwestern was so, so close to winning. It was the Wildcats first tough challenge since Drew Crawford’s injury – Texas State pushed Northwestern to the limit, but the massive gap between the Bobcats and Stanford is undeniable – and their first chance to prove they could handle formidable opposition without their senior leader and best perimeter scorer, Drew Crawford.
After weathering an 24-2 Cardinal run, Northwestern fought back with an 18-0 tear of its own, then lost leading scorer Reggie Hearn to an ankle injury midway through the second half, overcame Dave Sobolewski’s awful shooting night and found a way to hang around deep into the second half. Through all the setbacks, all the adversity, Northwestern never gave up. They pushed and pushed and found scoring from unlikely spots and came just two points short of pulling the upset. It was a magnificent all-around effort from a team that could have merely given up without its veteran leaders and top offensive players. That Northwestern fought so hard yet still came up short is what makes this loss so tough to stomach.
Biggest Surprise: Dave Sobolewski’s Scoring
We saw spurts of Sobolewski’s scoring ability last season – he scored 23 points vs. Iowa and 22 against Minnesota – but he was largely overshadowed by John Shurna and Crawford. This season, Sobolewski has stepped up his offensive workload. He is attacking the rim, beating defenders off the dribble and finding different ways to create offense out on the perimeter. Whereas he resigned himself to a more conventional pass-first point guard role last season, Sobolewski has increased his range of activity on the offensive end in 2012-13. Part of it is a product of circumstance – without JerShonn Cobb and Crawford, Northwestern needs other scorers to step up – but most of it has to do with subtle changes in Sobolewski’s game and mindset.
I spoke to Sobolewski about this very subject last week, and he acknowledged a change in the way he hunts scoring opportunities and the way he’s accepted a larger share of the scoring output. Sobolewski is actively seeking his own shots, rather than settling for outside looks or dishing to other shooters. His scoring is up 3 ppg from last season, and his per-game average of 11.3 should increase as he continues to grow into a more prominent scoring presence. The Wildcats are going to face some elite defenses in Big Ten play. There will be times when the Princeton offense isn’t producing enough clean looks. In those situations, it will be incumbent upon Sobolewski to create his own offense.
Biggest Disappointment: Jared Swopshire
When Swopshire announced his intention to transfer to Northwestern, I couldn’t help but salivate over the possibilities of an experienced and versatile scorer teaming with Crawford and Cobb and Hearn to offer a diverse array of offensive firepower. My vision was damaged with news of Cobb’s suspension, and all but obliterated when Crawford announced he would seek a medical redshirt and opt to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Those two departures fundamentally lowered Northwestern’s scoring aptitude. It also opened the door for Swopshire to step up and assume a more prominent position in the offense. I had high hopes for Swopshire, but as we move into Big Ten play, it seems the former Louisville forward is having trouble making the leap from role player to trusted scorer.
From a talent perspective, Swopshire ranks near the top of the list. For reasons we may never completely understand, he is not being assertive or aggressive enough to channel those skills into productive contributions on the floor. He settles for lateral passes, eschews opportunities to take on defenders in the open court and drives at the rim in feeble and easily defensible ways. From my distant viewpoint, Swopshire’s reticence appears more mental than physical. What makes this even more puzzling is that Swopshire was arguably the best player on the court in preseason workouts. Why he hasn’t acquitted himself in game situations, I can’t say. Whatever the reasons, Swopshire has been a disappointment. He’s capable of more than what he’s provided to date, only we haven’t seen any indication he’s ready to change his ways.