by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
EVANSTON, Ill. -- When Bill Carmody sat down to address the media following Northwestern’s 74-65 loss to Butler Saturday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, he spoke glowingly about point guard Dave Sobolewski’s newfound scoring focus. The commendation was appropriate if understated. Sobolewski finished with a season-high 21 points on 6-for-11 shooting and 7-for-8 from the free throw line, but the numbers don’t tell the entire story. For large stretches, as the Wildcats’ Princeton cuts and backdoor screens fell flat against Butler’s cohesive defense, the sophomore point guard was a one-man wrecking crew – including a 10-minute period to open the second half where Sobolewski was the only Northwestern player to record a field goal.
It was the kind of night that could springboard Sobolewski into the upper reaches of his offensive potential, which – as we found at last night, as well as at other select times last season – is capable of carrying Northwestern when other players aren’t keeping up their end of the scoring bargain. Only it underscored the pervasive scoring struggles of two of the Wildcats primary scoring options, Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire.
“We want Sobo to be more aggressive because of the problems we’re having on the perimeter,” Carmody said. “I think the staff has to figure out how we’re going to get our two senior guys [Swopshire and Crawford] into out offense."
Undoubtedly, the biggest question mark for Northwestern heading into this season was replacing John Shurna, last year’s leading scorer in the Big Ten at 20.0 ppg and the all-time leading scorer in program history. Crawford was the logical successor to Shurna’s alpha-dog scoring responsibility, with Swopshire – a role player on Louisville’s 2012 Final Four team, resigned to marginal minutes thanks to a frontcourt logjam, Rick Pitino’s aggressive recruiting and a scholarship crunch that forced Pitino to urge transfer and make roster cuts – expected to shoulder a larger share of the offensive burden than his subsidiary responsibilities as a reserve with the Cardinals.
Both Swopshire and Crawford have proven up to the challenge in select games, none more important than Tuesday night’s win at Baylor, in which the two seniors combined for 31 points. Then you get nights like Saturday (nine combined points) or the Maryland game (10 points). This is nothing new for Crawford. While he’s flashed immense scoring capability over the past three seasons with the Wildcats, his game is defined more by streakiness and spurts than it is consistency.
“I think maybe we’re putting too much pressure on Drew,” Carmody said. “He’s always been a streaky shooter. I think he’s been driving pretty nicely.”
The concerns for Swopshire run deeper than mere hot and cold shooting streaks. Making the transition from a marginal role player to a primary scoring option requires a transition that is as difficult physically as it is mentally. It’s not just about getting open looks and knocking down shots, about increasing your attempts and minutes and naturally evolving into a more proficient scorer. Becoming a go-to offensive weapon entails a change in mindset. Swopshire has stepped into that spot on occasion this season, including back-to-back 15-point games against TCU and Illinois State in the South Padre Island invitational. Now the question revolves around whether he can maintain the mental and physical focus to fill and sustain his increased offensive purpose on a consistent basis. Carmody, for one, believes Swopshire still has a ways to go before he breaks out of his role-playing shell.
“We’re trying to get him from being a role player at Louisville to someone who can get 10-12 points,” Carmody said. “He’s gotta find where he can make shots in this offense.”
Saturday night’s loss represents another missed opportunity on Northwestern’s nonconference ledger. Wins over Baylor and Illinois State buoy the Wildcats’ early-season resume work, but unless the Wildcats can finish strong by winning out in nonconference play, Northwestern will enter Big Ten competition with a large mountain to climb before entering the NCAA Tournament discussion. Losing to Butler, depending on how the Bulldogs finish out in the A-10, is not a crippling blow; it is a blown chance for another shiny resume chip.
In order for Northwestern to right itself before Big Ten play, which begins on January 3 with a visit from third-ranked Michigan, Swopshire and Crawford must figure out how to break this spell of inconsistency. Whatever the reason for their up-and-down production, Northwestern cannot hope to challenge upper-tier Big Ten teams without Swopshire and Crawford playing to expectations.
The Wildcats can merely get by, and perhaps pick up a few wins thanks to random scoring bursts from unexpected sources. But to be considered a legitimate Tournament-level squad, Northwestern’s two struggling seniors need not only to develop more consistency, but to diversify their offensive plans of attack so as to adjust for shrewd defensive tactics (such as Butler’s). Because as impressive as Sobolewski looked Saturday night, it would be unwise to expect 20-point scoring efforts to come as anything more than a rare luxury.
“Everybody goes through ups and downs in the season,” Sobolewski said. “We have to find a way to win when not only Drew, but someone else isn’t having one of his best nights”
When Crawford and Swopshire aren’t holding serve offensively, Northwestern hasn’t shown it can challenge quality opponents. On Saturday, with both seniors largely absent on the offensive end, it was something of a miracle that Sobolewski kept the Wildcats hanging around late into the second half. Don’t count on that happening again.