In less than two weeks, Northwestern will play its first game of the 2013-14 season. Most Wildcats fans are more excited about college hoops than they probably thought they would be a month ago, when Northwestern's football team was still considered a legitimate Big Ten championship contender and Wildcats basketball felt like an afterthought. Now Northwestern is fighting just to make a bowl game. The Wildcats' basketball season might be similarly disappointing -- any year Northwestern doesn't make the NCAA Tournament is -- but we can't make any judgments quite yet, because the Wildcats haven't played any games. The freshness of a new season naturally breeds optimism, and even more so in a year when a new coach, former Duke assistant Chris Collins, makes his debut. To get you thinking about hoops in advance of Northwestern's Nov. 9 opener against Eastern Illinois, here's part 1 of our season preview.
What's Abrahamson's role on this team? Is he a three-point shooting threat? Can he become a presence as a forward? Right now, nobody really knows, and his role — at least, how big of a role he plays — is one of the biggest mysteries on the team heading into the season. Last year, injuries forced Abrahamson to play a bigger role than he probably should have. He was thrown into the mix and was far to inexperienced to be a productive forward in a league with so many dominant big men. He struggled to rebound, and frankly, that's not a role that fits his skill set. Perhaps Abrahamson's biggest contribution can come as an outside shooter off the bench, but his shooting performance left a lot to be desired last season. He could also potentially be a mismatch in transition — he was clearly ready to get out of the methodical Princeton offense — but that's another question mark. This is not to say Abrahamson can never be a good player for NU — he was only a freshman, after all — but he has a long way to go to find a consistent defined role for the Wildcats. That progression will be interesting to watch this year.
Ajou came in last year with a lot of height and a very raw offensive game. After playing sparingly early on with a cheer-inducing three-pointer and a couple huge blocks, he got injured and redshirted. So, what now? Ajou is still very raw and has a ways to go before he can reach the court. He's 7-foot-2, but at this point, NU would be much more comfortable putting 6-foot-9 Nikola Cerina at center than Ajou. This season is about Ajou developing his game.
After redshirting two years ago, Cerina figured to see time in a young, shallow frontcourt for the Wildcats last season. However, he battled injuries and could never make his mark on the team. Now in his final year with NU, Cerina can make an impact, and if he provides a boost, the Wildcats can have a much stronger season. Right now, NU's only reliable big man is Alex Olah, and he's still very inexperienced. For a lot of this year, NU is going to have to play Drew Crawford at the 4, and while he's capable of that, he's much more comfortable on the wing offensively and it will be hard for him to guard other power forwards in the league. If Cerina proves he can be a threat at the Big Ten level and can spell Crawford or Olah, NU's frontcourt will be in much better shape.
Heading into the season, Cobb is NU's biggest wild card. Drew Crawford will be the Wildcats' top scoring threat, but they need to find a good second option. They think they found that in Cobb. Cobb was suspended all of last year, but his 2011-12 was full of ups and downs. He was the best defender on the team — particularly as an on-ball defender at the top of the 1-3-1 — but he sat out a number of games with a hip injury and couldn't get a rhythm going offensively. However, he did get into a little bit of a groove at the end of the season and in the Big Ten Tournament, and for that stretch he was arguably the team's best player. So we've seen flashes; now the question becomes if Cobb can do that consistently. For this team to be successful, he's going to have to put together solid performances night in and night out. There's still a pretty big talent gap between even the middle of the pack of the Big Ten and this team. That''s going to be tough to overcome, but if the Wildcats have two of the league's better offensive players — a huge, unlikely "if" — and if Cobb's defense lives up to expectations, then this team can compete.
Although much has been made of Chris Collins’ recruitment of the class of 2014, he wouldn’t hesitate to say that his most important recruit so far has been that of Drew Crawford. After taking a medical redshirt in place of what would have been his senior season, Crawford could have left Northwestern and the opportunities to leave were there. But instead, he trusted Collins and opted to stay in Evanston for one more year. A third-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011-2012, Crawford has shown he’s capable of playing to an elite level in the Big Ten. Poised to make the proverbial leap to stardom the following year, Crawford lost his season to a torn labrum. Heading into this season, Crawford will be the unquestioned go-to guy on offense; using his abilities to drive to the rim and hit open jump shots. Crawford will also be counted on for leadership and for added athleticism on the defensive end and in transition. He’s proven himself to be able to carry a team for stretches, but after missing last season, he has yet to be “the guy” for a team. Earlier in his career, he played in the shadows of John Shurna and Michael “Juice” Thompson. Now, he’s a captain, a fifth-year senior and the team’s most accomplished player. It’s safe to say that as Crawford goes, so will Northwestern.
Due to the number of injuries Northwestern suffered last season, Tre Demps saw major minutes for the first time in his career. After scoring just 2.4 points per game in his first eight games of last season, Demps finished strong as he scored 9.7 points per game over his final 23. Starting nine of 31 games, Demps averaged 19.4 minutes per game last season. His biggest asset to this year’s team will be his ability to play either guard position. Last season, Demps often played alongside point guard Dave Sobolewski as a shooter on the wing. He shot 34 percent from deep. Demps also showed that he can spell Sobolewski as a primary ball handler. Demps will most likely come off the bench, providing an offensive spark for Northwestern, as he will undoubtedly be counted on for his outside shooting. The redshirt sophomore should, again, be a major part of Northwestern’s rotation as either a shooter or a secondary ball handler off the bench.
Sanjay Lumpkin was another casualty of the 2012-2013 season, sitting out the vast majority of his freshman season with a wrist injury and was granted a redshirt. The six-foot-six guard/forward hasn’t yet showcased his full range of skills in such limited action. He does have the capability to be a disruptive defender based on his athleticism and length, but it is yet to be seen if he has the foot speed to cover guards at the Big Ten level. Along with Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb, Lumpkin is another athletic wing that will see major minutes this season. After the intra-squad scrimmage in early October, Chris Collins spoke about going to a small-ball lineup this season where all three of the wings would wind up starting and playing together a lot. Lumpkin won’t be relied on to contribute in any major statistical way this year, but his role will be to chip in and help in any way he can. In particular, without any major interior presence besides Alex Olah, Lumpkin will most likely play a significant part in rebounding.
After redshirting last season, the six-foot-ten walk-on will most likely see his first collegiate action this season. The center possesses long arms that he uses well on the defensive end. During his senior year in high school, Liberman registered 8.7 blocks per game. He also has a nice touch around the rim. Listed at just 215 pounds, Liberman will need to bulk up to see much action. This will largely be a developmental year for the redshirt freshman as he continues to get stronger and refine his game.
James Montgomery III – It’s impossible to mention Montgomery without bringing up the video of the former walk-on learning he would be put on scholarship for his senior season. It happened at a team meeting, in front of his teammates, who instantly huddled around Montgomery when the announcement broke; included an emotional phone call to Montgomery’s mother and sister; and made waves across the Internet, landing on various blogs and fueling mass social media sharing. The video is also posted on Montgomery III’s NUSports bio page, in case you missed it. On the court, Montgomery should play sparingly in a crowded backcourt that features JerShonn Cobb, Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps. He played at least 12 minutes in three consecutive Big Ten games in February -- blowout losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue -- but sat out the regular season finale at Michigan State and registered just one minute in the Wildcats' conference tournament loss to Iowa. Montgomery could see a small uptick in playing time this season, but it’s hard to imagine him being anything more than a bit role player.
There may be no player more instrumental to Northwestern’s success (or lack thereof) this season than Olah, a seven-foot center who reportedly dropped 15 pounds since the end of last season. Olah starred with the U-20 Romanian National team at the FIBA European Championships this summer, leading the team in scoring (16.8), rebounding (9.1) and blocked shots (1.6), and said he gained confidence from the experience. He will need to make a big leap in production to give Northwestern the offensive post presence it has lacked in recent seasons. Olah showed promise throughout last season, including the Wildcats’ final two games against Michigan State and Iowa, where combined for 22 points and 11 rebounds. Looking at his season comprehensively, Olah was much less efficient than he needs to be: he posted an 88.8 offensive rating while using up 21.8 percent of available possessions and hoisting 22.8 percent of available shots, according to Kenpom.com. Only three Northwestern players (Reggie Hearn, Tre Demps and Drew Crawford) used a higher percentage of possessions when they were on the floor last season, and all of them – even the loose cannon that is Demps – scored more efficiently than Olah did. If he can become a more consistent low-post scorer while sanding off some of the other rough edges of his game – rebounding, man defense, dunking (ha!) – Olah could emerge as one of Northwestern’s best players this season.
Had 2013 three-star point guard Jaren Sina, a Seton Hall signee, honored his initial commitment to Northwestern, Sobolewski might not have a spot in the Wildcats’ starting lineup this season. Sina isn’t here, of course, which means Sobolewski will begin the season as Northwestern’s starting PG. When the Wildcats needed offense last season – this was a recurring theme, by the way – Sobolewski could, on occasion, score 20 or more points; see his performances against Nebraska and Butler as proof. If Northwestern can avoid injuries, rarely will Sobolewski need to score more than 15. If all goes right, and Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb emerge as the Wildcats’ top two offensive threats, Sobolewski shouldn’t have to score more than 10 on most nights. The 6-1 point guard functions best as a distributor, someone who sets up shots for others rather than creates his own. And Sobolewski is a good passer; he posted a 26.8 assist rate last season and averaged 4.0 assists per game. Both of those numbers should increase this season. Sobolewski is also adept at getting to the free throw line, which may not seem obvious at first glance, but bears out in the numbers; Sobolewski’s 45.0 free throw rate was the second highest of any NU player last season (behind Hearn) and a top-400 figure nationally. A lot of the fouls he absorbed came off drives into the lane that Sobolewski – given Northwestern’s lack of scoring options – was forced to make. Sometime he penetrated willingly. This season, Sobolewski is best served facilitating others; he needs to make sure Crawford, Cobb and Olah get clean looks -- whether on cuts or spot-ups or otherwise -- on a consistent basis. Any offensive production on top of that, provided it comes efficiently and without compromising his pass-first mandate, is a bonus.
Everyone I’ve talked to who saw Northwestern practice this offseason says Taphorn has been a pleasant surprise, that despite his slender frame (6-7, 190) he is not physically overmatched, that the common perception of an unathletic white dude that just shoots threes doesn’t apply. Positive practice reviews are always a good thing, but we will need to see Taphorn play in games before gauging whether he can be a major contributor this season. His skill set seems similar to that of Kale Abrahamson: a tall, lanky wing player who can shoot over smaller defenders. Most recruiting experts praise Taphorn’s shooting, ballhandling and passing and almost always mention his “upside". Knowing Taphorn has “upside” is arguably the most encouraging part of his scouting evaluation, because the true freshman may not play very much this season. If he continues to get better, and maybe adds a few pounds of muscle, Taphorn could soon become a regular in Northwestern’s wing rotation. If the rumors are true, maybe he’s already there – maybe Taphorn will get major playing time as a freshman. Without seeing the Wildcats play a game, it’s hard to know.