by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Pessimism reigns in Evanston, and frankly, I don't quite get it.
Listen, Northwestern has undoubtedly been dealt its share of tough breaks. JerShon Cobb is pivotal to this team's fortunes. Long and lanky, he has the ability to hit a pull up jump shot, grab rebounds and play killer defense. Drew Crawford is obviously the Wildcats' most electric scorer with a devastating jump shot and a real ability to drive to the hoop. Both will miss the remainder of the season. Reggie Hearn and Nikola Cerina are also members of the walking wounded. For a while, the Wildcats were missing what at season's beginning were expected to be their three leading scorers. These are undoubtedly tough times in Evanston.
It's funny because a truly fantastic writer in Teddy Greenstein wrote for the Chicago Tribune on October 11, "Barring an outbreak of food poisoning or the Plague, there won't be a game like last season, when the Wildcats went to Madison, Wis, with seven healthy scholarship players." Well, the chefs at Sargent dining hall must have served something funky, because Northwestern limped into Welsh-Ryan Arena against Michigan with little more than seven scholarship players available. The unthinkably bad has occurred in Evanston.
Yet, the future is bright. That is for sure. To be quite honest, Crawford wasn't having all that great a season, anyway. His numbers were down significantly, as he was shooting just 40 percent from the field this season compared to 48.4 percent last season and just 37 percent from behind the arc this aeason compared to 41.2 percent last season. Now, he'll have another chance to put it all together. Instead of continuing an injury-marred campaign, he'll have a chance to start fresh this fall. He was fortunate to fall when he did. He just barely avoided burning his final year of eligibility.
All of the pieces are going to come together next season. Sure, the Wildcats will miss Hearn, who will graduate. Jared Swopshire had the potential to be a pivotal role player on a very good team. He'll be gone too. But next year, Cobb will be back, and he'll join a very deep backcourt. Tre Demps is getting the chance to run around this year. He has taken his lumps but he's also had the chance to be a significant scorer for the first time and he's shown flashes of greatness. Between Cobb, Demps and Sobolewski, who will finally have people to feed the basketball to next season, the Wildcats will be set at the guard position. Back to his natural role as a feeder, and with the stars helping open up his smooth shot, Sobolewski should enjoy a fantastic junior campaign in 2013- 2014. Meanwhile, Crawford could be great at the three or four. And down low, Alex Olah will come back a far better player next season after already displaying decent post game potential this season. Chier Ajou who has the most upside of anyone could be usable as well next season.
And this year shouldn't be tossed away either. Sure, there isn't a chance in hell that this team is going to make the NCAA Tournament. Even the NIT might be a stretch. This team is far from a finished product, but that's the exciting part about it. This is your chance to sit back from the edge of your seat, not worry about the bubble for once and simply watch a young team grow. This is a chance to see if Dave Sobolewski can finally turn into a consistent scorer, and not fall back to being simply a very proficient ball handler. Can he begin to drive like Juice Thompson and have the same success taking it to the hole that Juice did? Or is he merely a shooter? This is a chance to see whether Northwestern's frontcourt issues have finally been solved. Was Alex Olah's performance against Michigan merely an aberration, or is the freshman already an improvement over Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti? Is Chier Ajou the next Kyle Rowley or something far greater?
I don't know about you, but I think the rest of this season promises to be infinitely interesting. In much the same way I've been excited about the Mets this season and Cubs fans have been curiously optimistic about what Theo Epstein might accomplish as their new general manager, I'm curious about how Northwestern will fare this season. Listen, Mets fans and Cubs fans know they have no shot at the postseason in 2013, but we want to see if our team is heading in the right direction. We're enticed by the chance to see a team built from the ground up. Northwestern fans should relish that opportunity as well.
I've read predictions for Northwestern that vary between zero and three wins in Big Ten play. As our good friend Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. There's no doubt that the Big Ten is very good this year, and Northwestern is no longer going to run anyone off of the court — not even Nebraska and Penn State. They could very well lose all of their games, but they could also win a lot more than three. I mean, look, Minnesota is one of the best teams in the nation. Try comparing the two lineups and you'll see that the Golden Gophers are superior at nearly every position. Andre Hollins over Sobolewski? Trevor Mbakwe over Alex Olah? Rodney Williams over Mike Turner? It's just not fair. And yet, the Wildcats still competed into thalftime. This year's team is going to suffer a lot of embarrassing defeats, but don't tell me that those two games against Purdue, which was held to 44 points by a 7-7 Eastern Michigan team, aren't winnable. Or those two games against Iowa, which fell in similarly spectacular fashion to Michigan. Or those two games against Penn State, which lost by 25 apiece to Lasalle and Akron. Or that game against Nebraska, which lost 60-38 to Oregon earlier this season.
I'm not going to make any bold predictions here. I made the mistake of picking the upset Monday night with Notre Dame. I also believe that the Houston Texans are going to beat the New England Patriots this week, and I'm sure Tom Brady will prove me to be an idiot in that one as well. But let's not bemoan a winless Big Ten campaign before it has even kicked into gear.
JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford have fallen — the sky has not.