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NU Basketball Preview: Breakout Players, Burning Questions, Projected Starting Five, Power Rankings

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 the 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 2 of our season preview. Click here for part 1.

Breakout player

Sanjay Lumpkin (RS FR, G/F)

You may not remember that Lumpkin, a 6-6, 210-pound wing, actually played last season. After missing nine of Northwestern’s first 10 games while recovering from mono, Lumpkin logged a combined 25 minutes in three December games against Texas State, Stanford and Brown. Then Lumpkin hurt his wrist in practice and opted to redshirt. Now a redshirt freshman, Lumpkin still has four years of college hoops in front of him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a major impact as early as this season.

People who watched practices this summer say Lumpkin looked like one of Northwestern’s best two-way players, and that he may have earned a spot in the starting lineup. If that’s true, Lumpkin is a perfect candidate to be Northwestern’s “breakout” player. Last season, some fans probably didn’t know Lumpkin existed. In 2013-14, he could be one of Northwestern’s biggest minute-getters.

Since he played only sparingly last season, it’s not easy to predict how, exactly, Lumpkin will help the Wildcats. After reading various scouting reports, it seems Lumpkin’s greatest strengths are his athleticism, his defensive instincts and his ability to create offense off the dribble. Northwestern could use more of all of those things, which means Lumpkin – if he backs up those scouting reports on the college hardwood – could be an excellent fit. That’s my guess here – that the skills Lumpkin flashed in high school will translate to the next level. The redshirt year Lumpkin took will help him become a better player, this season and over the long run. Even if he’s not a starter, Lumpkin should play plenty of minutes and help Northwestern on both ends of the floor.

- Chris Johnson

JerShon Cobb (JR, G)

During media day, there wasn’t one player that Chris Collins said more about than JerShon Cobb. “I think JerShon can do a little bit of everything,” Collins said. “He’s got great basketball instincts. He’s got really good size for a guard. I think there’s going to be times where he plays as a wing, there are going to be times when he brings the ball up the floor. He’s one of our best ball handlers. Certainly we’re going to rely on him. He may be our best natural scorer. He may end up being our leading scorer at the end of the day. He’s going to be asked to do what key players do and that’s everything. He’s going to have to be a great defender for us. He’s going to have to be a leader. He’s going to have to help initiate our offense. He’s going to have to score.”

And after sitting out last season due to an academic-related suspension, Cobb is hungry to get back on the court. While opponents know what they can expect from a player like Drew Crawford, Cobb is a largely unknown commodity. During 2011-2012, Cobb sat out 12 games due to injury after starting 25 out of 27 games as a true freshman in 2010-2011. Now completely healthy, Cobb should be able to use his athleticism to play a major role on both ends of the floor. Under Collins, Northwestern will look to run more, allowing Cobb to attack the rim in transition where he is a skilled finisher. If he stays healthy, Cobb has the ability to be an All-Big Ten player and can lift Northwestern up from near the bottom of the Big Ten to being a potentially dangerous team in conference play.

- Josh Rosenblat

Alex Olah (SO, C)

Alex Olah wasn't ready to play Big Ten basketball last year, but who could blame him? He had played low-class Indiana basketball for two years and before that, he had only played in Romania. He wasn't big enough or conditioned enough for the Big Ten game and it showed early on. He struggled to get to the right place on defense and was out-rebounded by more athletic players. On the offensive end, he was passive and couldn't shoot in the paint. But again, what did you expect from a player who needed to be an understudy for a year.

However, by the end of the year, Olah started improving, particularly at the offensive end of the floor. Against Michigan, he showed flashes if the player he could be, posting up and excelling off the pick and roll. That was an aggression we hadn't seen from Olah befire. Now, heading into his sophomore season, he looks ready to become a more complete and more aggressive player.

It's tough to discern much from scrimmages, but the most obvious improvement in NU's scrimmage earlier this month was Olah's aggressiveness. He's lost weight, making him more of a threat on defense and he wasn't afraid to shoot the ball or go toe-to-toe with someone in the paint. Of course, scrimmages and Big Ten play are much different things, but it's encouraging to see traits from the end of last season carrying over to this year, particularly the aggression. Now. he just has to do it consistently. Olah isn't going to be an All-Big Ten player, but her certainly has the skill set to be the Wildcats' best big man in awhile.

- Kevin Trahan

Three Burning Questions

Can Northwestern compete for an NCAA Tournament berth this season?

When Drew Crawford announced in April that he would return to Northwestern to play out his final season of eligibility, the first question everyone wanted answered was some iteration of the following: does this make Northwestern an NCAA Tournament team? The notion didn’t seem crazy at the time. The Wildcats were bringing back a proven double-digit scorer in Crawford, a productive two-way complement in JerShon Cobb and an emerging young big man in Alex Olah. Maybe Northwestern could, in new coach Chris Collins’ first season on the job, end its perpetual state of March longing. Maybe the Wildcats, after notching a few big upsets, could claim the very last of 37 available at-large bids. Or maybe Greg Gumbel would defy the selection committee and, in a show of sympathy, name off Northwestern, rather than the more qualified team, on the CBS Selection Show.

Nope. Sorry. Northwestern isn’t making the NCAA Tournament this season. It probably won’t even get close. There are at least eight (and probably) teams in the Big Ten better than Northwestern this season, and I don’t expect the league to send nine teams to the Tournament. The Wildcats would do well to land on the outer fringes of the bubble, but they’re not getting in.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Northwestern basketball in 2013-14. The Wildcats have a new young, energetic coach with a great pedigree who – in less then eight months – has already proven his ability to recruit better players than former coach Bill Carmody did. Provided Collins can continue to convince upper-tier Chicago prospects that he can build Northwestern into something more than a Big Ten also-ran, the Wildcats should trend upward over the next few years. But it’s unlikely Collins can guide Northwestern to its first Tournament bid in program history in his first year at the helm. These things take time.

- Chris Johnson

Can the Wildcats find a post presence?

It was clear from Northwestern’s intra-squad scrimmage that getting Alex Olah the ball in the low post was a priority. Olah showcased a few nice moves on the block. He was able to look comfortable taking shots from over both his right and left shoulder. But, like he’s done in the past, Olah drifted away from the hoop too often. Here is the first of two things I tweeted during the scrimmage: “Olah with back-to-back buckets. First a 15-footer then a sweeping hook across the lane. Showing increased versatility.” The next one just a minute later (these are all about successive possessions): “Then, feeling it, Olah takes a contested jumper from just inside the three-point line and he air-balls it… Then steps back and nails a three.” Just let those tweets sink in for a second or two. Olah took 14 threes last year, making three of them. In reality, that was 14 threes too many. As a legitimate seven-footer, Olah is Northwestern’s only reasonable interior presence. He has also trimmed his body and looks a lot swifter on the court. Further, his statistics from his summer playing for Romania in the FIBA U20 European Championships indicate an offensive improvement. He averaged 16.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and led the team in both categories.

It will be interesting to see how much players like Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin play on the low post. Because Chris Collins will be forced to use a small-ball lineup because of a lack of frontcourt depth, each of those wing players will probably see some time on the post. Like Olah, Crawford, Cobb and Lumpkin all posses above average court vision and can be effective by not only scoring out of the post, but by finding cutters as well.

- Josh Rosenblat

Will a No. 2 scoring threat emerge?

There's one certainty heading into the 2013-14 season: Drew Crawford will be NU's top scoring threat. Reports coming out of the Wildcats' camp are that he's back to his 2011-12 form, and he'll need to be for the Wildcats to have any success. The bigger question is whether a No. 2 threat can emerge, and those discussions start with JerShon Cobb.

Cobb was suspended all of last season and had an up-and-down year battling injuries in 2011-12. He couldn't get into a groove offensively, but at the end of the year, with consistent health, he found his shot and was arguably the team's best player down the stretch. Now the question is whether he can do that consistently this season. It's tough to say if he can, but he'll certainly need to be an offensive weapon for NU to be a good team.

The other option is Sanjay Lumpkin. He impressed the coaching staff right away last year and looked poised to get a lot of minutes. However, he got mono just before the start of the season and injuries caused him to take a redshirt year. This year he's back on track and seems likely to win a starting spit. He'll be on the court for his offensive prowess, and if he can develop quickly, that will provide a major boost for this NU team. If he and Cobb both develop into scoring threats, the Wildcats could actually have a pretty formidable offense capable of taking down some top teams.

- Kevin Trahan

Projected Starting Five

G - Dave Sobolewski

G - JerShon Cobb

G/F - Sanjay Lumpkin

G/F - Drew Crawford

C - Alex Olah

Big Ten Power Rankings

1. Michigan State — With a core of Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson and top reserves Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice, this could be the best team in the country.

2. Ohio State — For Ohio State to finish near the top of the conference, its top recruits have to emerge from the shadows and start taking over. This is the year they will.

3. Michigan — Will the Wolverines be as good as last year? Probably not. But that can be one scary frontcourt with Mitch McGary leading the way.

4. Iowa — The Hawkeyes can legitimately go 11-deep with good players and apparently all 11 will make the rotation. That, alone, will be fascinating to watch.

5. Indiana — Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are gone, so the Hoosiers are bound to take a step back. However, with Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey back and top recruit Noah Vonleh coming in, IU will still be very dangerous.

6. Wisconsin — I know, the Badgers never finish outside the top four in the Big Ten. The guards are solid but there are questions in the frontcourt. A lot of this season will depend on Sam Dekker's growth.

7. Purdue — Last year's team was very young and a bit of a disaster. Can Matt Painter put things together this year? The talent is certainly there, especially if A.J. Hammons can become more of a consistent contributor.

8. Illinois — In a year or two, the Illini will have one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten, but this could be a rebuilding year depending on what the incoming class, led by Kendrick Nunn, can do right away.

9. Penn State — The backcourt of Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill and John Johnson will be among the best in the league. The frontcourt will be among the worst in the league. This team won't have the consistency to make the NCAA Tournament, but it will upset some good opponents.

10. Northwestern — There are still questions in the frontcourt and there is a need for more scoring threats to emerge. Right now, there are too many unknowns.

11. Minnesota — Richard Pitino is recruiting well and should be successful in Minnesota longterm, but this looks like a rebuilding year, especially with so much inexperience in the frontcourt.

12. Nebraska — The Huskers will be better than last year, but the lack of a frontcourt should keep them near the bottom of the league. Look out for Sam Shields, though.