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What NU Must Do to Beat Illinois State

Northwestern basketball returns home this weekend after an unsuccessful road trip that saw them fall to 1-1 on the young season. The Wildcats will look to get back to winning ways on Sunday night against Illinois State.

Most Northwestern fans probably don’t know a great deal about the Redbirds, but ISU is a school that the Collins family is rather familiar with. In fact, take a trip to the Illinois State campus and Redbird Arena, and you might even catch a glimpse of a statue of NU coach Chris Collins’ father, Doug.

The elder Collins had a remarkable career at ISU, averaging an astounding 29.1 points per game, and eventually prompting the Redbirds to name their home court after their former star.

But Sunday, the younger Collins will be focused on his own squad, not the past of his opponent. Prior to the Stanford game, I wrote specifically about what NU had to do to beat the Cardinal on that day. On Sunday, it’s a different attitude. It’s about looking forward. Here are three things that we need to see from the Wildcats on Sunday night to show that progress is being made on a game-to-game basis:

1. Getting good shots within the offense

Much of what Collins has been putting in on the offensive end was foiled by a Stanford 2-3 zone that at times frustrated the Wildcats offense on Thursday. But regardless of the defensive set up, we need to start seeing the system, and Collins’ preferred offensive sets, generate more open looks.

In two games, the majority of the offensive production has come from guys making plays. Whether it’s been Drew Crawford rising up and hitting a contested three, JerShon Cobb driving and finishing through contact or Dave Sobelewski penetrating and creating for others, not much has come within the natural flow of the offense.

Now, this isn’t to say that individuals facilitating offense for themselves or others is a bad thing – Collins will likely welcome the confidence that his players have been showing – but clearly this team isn’t skilled enough to do that with enough consistency to win games. Collins himself even said as much when he explained, “we’re not a team that has guys that are going to be isolated a lot, that’s just not the strength of this team. Our strength is in our cutting, our slashing, our ability to keep the floor spread.” Going forward, it’s imperative that the Wildcats find a balance – a balance between individuals producing good looks on their own and the offensive system fashioning quality shots for them.

2. Dave Sobolewski

Sobolewski would probably be one of the first to tell you that these past two games haven’t been the best of his career at Northwestern. The junior point guard has been okay, but okay isn’t good enough from a captain and prominent player. He hasn’t been able to do nearly enough on offense.

Sobo also knows that he is an integral part of any success the Wildcats hope to have this year. His experience is vital, and Northwestern needs its leader to have more of a positive impact on the game. In two games, Sobolewski has a 7:7 assist-to-turnover ratio, and that’s insufficient.

Sobolewski doesn’t have to become a 15 point-per-game scorer, but he does have to make his presence felt more in other ways. He has to have a calming influence, he has to lead by example with inspirational defense, and he has to take control when things start to go awry.

3. When things do go awry... 

As they did in the second half on Thursday night, it’s inevitable that Northwestern will go through stretches where nothing seems to be going right; every shot is rimming out, defensive communication falters possession after possession, and nobody is on the same page.

In Palo Alto, the Wildcats responded to this adversity poorly. Rather than going back to what found them success in the first half, the players became flustered, and started throwing up low-percentage shots.

It’s a natural tendency to panic and become desperate when a game begins to slip from a team’s grasp, but good teams understand how to combat this. They understand that no matter the score or the amount of time remaining, the best recipe on the offensive end is the same as it was coming into the game.

This relates back to the first two points for improvement. When the Wildcats go through these periods, they must retain their trust in the offense; they must have a set play that they can go to to get an easy bucket to halt a run. And Sobolewski must initiate this, and must be able to discern when his team strays too far from their original gameplan.

If Northwestern can play halves like the first half at Stanford, and then mitigate the damage of faulty runs (which they were unable to do in the second half), they can be a decent team this year. But if not, one five-minute stretch has the ability to kill a team, and Northwestern is no exception.