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Analyzing Northwestern Basketball's Struggles This Season

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Over the past few weeks, a lot of people have been commenting on our articles with their theories about why Northwestern basketball is struggling. And, of course, every one of these people has an idea that will fix it. Some want to fire Bill Carmody, some want to play Tre Demps more and some want Indiana’s players to show up in purple when the arrive at Welsh-Ryan next Sunday.

I expect these comments to increase after Sunday’s 70-50 home loss to Iowa, though I don’t expect the commentary about the loss to be any more informed. However, that loss showed us the glaring reasons why NU has struggled so far — besides the obvious injury and suspension issues — and they aren’t any of the reasons listed above. Carmody did a good job outlining them in his postgame press conference.

  1. The veterans haven’t stepped up.
  2. The freshmen haven’t developed as quickly as anticipated.
  3. The inside play hasn’t been there.
  4. Shots aren’t falling.

Points three and four are a product of one and two. And NU fans won’t like this, but the only thing that is going to help is time and experience. But you’ve been waiting since, well, ever for a Wildcats team to break through, so what’s a few more months, right?

The first point — the lack of veterans stepping up — is the biggest difference-maker right now.  You can’t rely on freshmen to step up right away because they all have a different learning curve. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to expect more out of the veterans. With the loss of Drew Crawford this December and the loss of JerShon Cobb before the season, NU is already down two potential veterans who could step up. That leaves Jared Swopshire, Reggie Hearn, Dave Sobolewski and, to a lesser extent, Alex Marcotullio, to step up, and they haven’t done that yet.

Hearn and Sobolewski were both phenomenal early on, but both have dropped off in their production. Sobolewski had 14 on Sunday, but he was just 4-for-11 from the field and 0-for-5 from three, and he was absent in games against Stanford and Michigan. Hearn has provide a spark at times, but he’s struggled since an injury in December and scored just six points against Iowa. Swopshire, meanwhile, has been entirely absent save for two games in the South Padre Invitational and last Thursday’s game at Penn State.

Carmody specifically singled out Swopshire in the postgame press conference and said that Iowa’s veterans stepped up, while NU’s failed to. The Wildcats must find a way to get point from their veterans, or games like this will become much more frequent.

Now onto the second point. I think everyone — the fans, the media and even the coaches — expected more out of the freshmen than they should have this year. This group is going to be very good as they gain more experience, but it’s tough to expect too much from them right away. Abrahamson has shown promise as a shooter, but has been inconsistent. Lumpkin was praised by the coaches this offseason, but health issues have kept him off the court. Then there is Olah, who many fans apparently expected to be Jared Sullinger this year. Olah has struggled at times, but those comparing him to Luka Mirkovic are way off base. He needs to get better, and he needs to go up stronger to the hoop, but he’s a freshman — that will come. He’s already shown an ability to be a disruptive presence inside and has some decent post moves if he increases his strength.

Carmody acknowledged that he expected more from Olah by now, but this type of game isn’t out of the ordinary for a freshman — all you have to do is look at the other bench. Iowa’s big man — Adam Woodbury — was a four-star recruit last year and had offers from North Carolina and pretty much everywhere else before settling on the home-state Hawkeyes. He was 1-for-7 and struggled with his awareness and strength. These things take time, and the Olah and Woodbury you’re seeing right now will be completely different from when these teams meet in three years, or even next year.

But when you put together a lot of inexperience and veterans who aren’t playing well, you get a line like this from your five starters: 2 points, 3 points, 3 points, 6 points and 14 points. That certainly won’t cut it. There are people who want Tre Demps, a dynamic scorer, to play more, but as Carmody pointed out today, Demps took 11 shots in 19 minutes, making just three of them. Players need to be able to play within the offense, and Demps tends to struggle with that, wasting far too many possessions. That isn’t to say he won’t improve — he will, as will all of the inexperienced players — but right now, he isn’t a magical answer to NU’s prayers.


It seems like people are expecting a lot more than they should from this team sans Crawford and Cobb. Carmody said before the season that he didn’t expect the shooters to be as good as last year, so the missed shots shouldn’t be that shocking. He expected the inside play to be better to counter that, but it hasn’t been yet, so again, it shouldn’t be shocking that this offense.

But that isn’t to say the offense can’t be good in the future. People tend to assume that all of NU’s freshmen will play this way the rest of their careers, which is an absolutely ridiculous assumption.

Right now, sans Crawford and Cobb, NU lacks talent. It also lacks experience. That means this team probably won’t be very good. But next year? Well, that team will have a better combination of talent and experience than any team in NU history, and it’s not close. But people don’t like to wait. They want Carmody out because of this year — and obvious rebuilding year — without thinking of the consequences it will have on next year.

“But we’ve been waiting so long,” some say. “It will just be same old, same old. Carmody can’t coach.” You can’t assume misfortune in one year because it happened in a completely unrelated year, and you can’t say next year’s team will be bad because this year’s team is. That’s a lazy excuse and an uneducated analysis of basketball.

So yeah, this season is probably a wash. Yeah, this team isn’t talented enough or inexperienced enough to make the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn’t mean next year’s team can’t — in fact, next year’s team will be NU’s best in a long time.

As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. NU fans have practice with waiting, so they’ll just have to do it a little bit longer. With this team, that’s the only choice.