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Northwestern Found its Swagger Against Baylor

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

On Dec. 4, 2011, Evanston was Lob City. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the Wildcats were on the losing end of that highlight real of dunks, watching Baylor put on a clinic in a 69-41 win. Exactly one year later, Waco looked prime to hold the Lob City title for the night, with NU in town for a rematch. But this time around, the game couldn’t have looked any different.

NU dominated inside en route to a 74-70 shocker, and out-rebounded the Bears 36-23. When you compare the two frontcourts, that doesn’t seem possible. Baylor freshman center Isaiah Austin was ranked the No. 2 center in the country last year, while freshman forward Rico Gathers was a four-star recruit. Junior forward Cory Jefferson is, like the other two, a future NBA prospect. Considering the size disadvantage NU had down low, remarkable might be an understatement.

“I heard we had more dunks than Baylor the other night, too,” point guard Dave Sobolewski said. “I don’t know if that’s a rumor or if that’s true, but if it’s true, that didn’t happen last year, so it’s an improvement.”

File that into things you thought you’d never hear. But this was the least “Northwestern” of Northwestern wins in a long time. On NU’s best dunk of the game — a two-handed jam by Drew Crawford — Crawford was called for hanging on the rim. Just before that, Sobolewski was warned for taunting, though he claims it was, “nothing to write a story about; not too good.”

That’s quite the contrast from last year, when Baylor’s players put on a dunk contest and then came into the postgame press conference goofing off like they had just beaten a junior high team. This year, NU was the team playing with swagger.

“I looked at that tape there and I don’t know if he hung on the rim there, but okay,” Carmody said. “It’s okay; you learn from that. We ran a nice play. It was perfect and that was exactly what was called for when we got it, so I liked that a lot.”

Regardless of whether it was actually hanging on the rim, Crawford and Sobolewski stepped up with big games and played with a confidence that wasn’t there against Baylor last season.

“I like competitors,” coach Bill Carmody said. “Who doesn’t? If they’re you’re supposed leaders, and I think they are, then that’s important.”

Baylor didn’t compete for rebounds or play with the physicality inside that NU did, and for the first time in three games, NU did show up in that regard. The Wildcats’ weren’t worried about their size disadvantage, Crawford said. Rather, they were focused on playing with more effort than they did in losses to Illinois-Chicago and Maryland.

“I think the main thing is we’re just playing with heart,” Crawford said. “That’s what’s important for us, is going out and giving our all when we’re out on the court. That really comes in play, especially when we’re talking about rebounding. Part of rebounding is heart, so we’re just trying to bring a lot of energy when we’re out on the court.

“We’re capable of beating any team.”

NU certainly proved that in Waco, and Carmody didn’t have much to complain about after the program’s biggest non-conference win in years. Sobolewski just had one small complaint.

“(Crawford) didn’t get as high as I expected (on the dunk),” he said.

If the elevation level of dunks is the only issue the rest of the season, NU fans won’t have much to complain about, either.