Every Friday, Inside NU will do a “Take Two,” giving you our opinions on a major topic surrounding Northwestern or college sports in general. Today, we take our best shots at predicting the Wildcats' most impactful newcomer on the hardwood. Click here, for last week's edition, where we give our opinions on John Shurna's NBA aspirations.
This week, our own Kevin Trahan traveled to Welsh-Ryan Arena and caught up with Bill Carmody and some of the players during one of their summer workouts. You can read his full piece here, but his biggest take away was the breadth and variety of the Wildcats newfound depth, especially along the front line. Last season, this was hardly the case, and the Wildcats were consistently hammered on the glass and destroyed inside by the likes of Jared Sullinger, Cody Zeller and a handful of other Big Ten forwards.
The new faces include Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, TCU transfer Nikola Cerina, and true freshman Alex Olah. These three should factor largely into the Wildcats’ frontcourt rotation this season, but at this early stage, there’s really no saying which player will distinguish himself from the rest. One is bound to step up and have a big season, and judging by Kevin’s observations, and our subsequent discussion, we think all of these guys are equally qualified.
What we will attempt to do is select the newcomer who we think will impact the Wildcats in the most productive way. It’s a vague assessment, no doubt, but think of it as a completely unscientific estimate of who, among the new players, has the best chance of impacting NU’s season in a positive, tangible way. Basically, it’s a preseason MVP prediction, but we’re slashing the list of candidates to the new incoming guys. True freshmen are fair game here, as are the transfers and redshirts. So, let’s have at it.
Take one: Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
The reasons for NU’s failed tournament bid last season were manifold, ranging from ill-timed turnovers to defensive miscommunications to missed layups, and pretty much any other strategical or fundamental mishap you can think of. The mistakes came in bunches and spurts, piling up in the most critical moments. But the one inherent flaw the Wildcats grappled with throughout the season was rebounding. Never was it more evident than in Big Ten play, when NU’s feeble front line posted a laughable -6.6 rebound margin. To give you some context on how that measured up with some of the other Big Ten teams, consider this: Nebraska, who along with Purdue finished 11th in rebounding margin among Big Ten teams, ended up with a -1.0 mark. Pretty shocking stuff.
That deficiency, perhaps more than anything else, killed NU’s chances in league play. The Big Ten is traditionally a conference where physical frontcourt play and low block supremacy is paramount for any team with designs on a league title. The Wildcats managed eight wins in the conference slate last season, but their success hinged upon an unhealthy blend of hot three-point shooting and John Shurna magic. An effective low-block scoring option was never established with any measure of consistency, so teams simply forced them to make jump shots. On defense, NU’s struggles were equally damning. Opposing big men could post up at will, which resulted in countless layup opportunities and optimal positioning for offensive rebounding purposes.
At this point, you’re probably thinking there’s no single player capable of reversing NU’s track record of poor frontline play. And you’re probably right, although Nikola Cerina, who sat out last season after transferring from TCU, can provide the biggest dose of relief. As a sophomore, Cerina started 18 games for the Horned Frogs, posting averages of 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds. Yet he averaged a team high 8.4 rebounds over the final five games of the season, including an impressive 17-point, 9-rebound effort against Mountain West power New Mexico.
He flashed his quickness, innate touch and uncannily smooth post moves in practice this season, and will likely claim a starting spot in the fall. The Wildcats simply can’t hope to make noise in the Big Ten, which by all accounts should be the nation’s best conference next season, without wholesale improvements on the rebounding front, both on offense and defense. Cerina can deliver 8 to 10 boards on a nightly basis, and while his offensive game needs polishing, securing second opportunities on offense and preventing them for opponents on defense is the main area of concern for the Wildcats.
When I spoke to Cerina earlier this year, he told me one of the main reasons he transferred to NU was, oddly enough, the Princeton offense and the way it fits his style of play. The 6-9, 245-pound forward first plied his trade in his native Serbia, where early basketball development and training emphasizes ball movement, cuts and screens. Even taller players, like Cerina, learn to handle the ball, pass and shoot long jump shots; it’s part and parcel with the European game. That early development—learning to play like a guard in a big man’s body—will make the transition into the Princeton a seamless one. By the looks of it, he’s already mastered the offense to some degree, so he should feel comfortable once the season begins.
Since he landed on campus last year, Cerina has been eager to cure the Wildcats’ frontcourt shortcomings. There’s a fair chance he can’t do it by himself, but all indications point to him providing exactly what NU needs to counter the Big Ten’s batch of elite big men—Trevor Mbawke (Minnesota), Cody Zeller (Indiana), Branden Dawson (Michigan State), DeShaun Thomas, and on down the line—with aggressiveness on the boards, deft passing and a soft scoring touch.
Take Two: Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
For most teams, there typically aren't this many possibilities for "newcomer of the year." There are typically a couple of recruits and maybe a redshirt player up for the award. But this Northwestern squad isn't your typical basketball team. Seven players on this team haven't step foot on the Welsh-Ryan Arena court during a game. An eighth player — Tre Demps — played very sparingly due to injury. Four of the newcomers are true freshmen, one is a redshirt freshman, one is a transfer player who sat out a year and the last one — the most important one — is Jared Swopshire, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Louisville.
Swopshire had an up-and-down career at Louisville. He started games for the Cardinals as a sophomore, but was derailed by injuries and ended up being just a role player. He wanted to be a star for his final season, so he transferred to NU as a graduated student with the objective of, as his dad put it, "replacing John Shurna."
But Swopshire won't replace John Shurna — he can do more. Shurna was a better shooter, but Swopshire has a more developed all-around game. He's an extremely versatile player who can hit jump shots, but can also post up inside and rebound. It's a lethal combination that, if NU takes advantage of, could make Swopshire the most important new player on a roster full of them.
He clearly has the ability to be a great player in his one year at NU, and that has been evident already, according to senior forward Drew Crawford.
"Swopshire is real, real tough," he said. "He's especially surprised me in the post; his post game is real good. He's made some unbelievable moves in the post and I've tried to guard him a few times and he's tough to guard, so I'm really excited to be playing with him."
Those post moves will be important for Swopshire as he tries to rebuild the NU frontcourt, which is ultimately the area that held the Wildcats back last season. There are plenty of other newcomers to help fill that void, but Swopshire is in the best position, given his age and game experience. He's in a unique position among the newcomers; he's still learning the offense, but he's also a teacher to the younger players.
"It's been an adjustment coming from a different system and coming here as a new guy, kind of like a freshman almost, but expected to be a leader," he said, "but I'm more than ready to do it."
Carmody has already seen Swopshire's potential and the payoff of the experience he gained playing at Louisville.
"He is a pretty good all-around player,” Carmody said. “He can dribble the ball, he can pass the ball, he competes. He wants to be good. I think that playing for a coach at Louisville, (Rick) Pitino, he's well-schooled and he's played at the highest level. He was a Final Four guy last year, so he brings maturity to us."
That combination of maturity, versatility and talent not only makes Swopshire the most important newcomer, it may make him the best player on the team in the upcoming season. If he can be disruptive on defense and be a threat on offense both in the paint and beyond the arc, he has the ability to be a star at NU and lead the program to that elusive NCAA Tournament berth.