On Wednesday night, Northwestern invaded UIC Pavilion and came out with a 93-58 victory over the UIC Flames to move to 2-2 on the season. The Wildcats excelled in most facets of the game, and were miles better than the horrid performance on Sunday night against Illinois State. Here are three takeaways from the game:
On Offense: It wasn’t quite a Wisconsin-like scoring display, but Northwestern looked very good on the offensive end. There were a couple of major contributing factors.
One was the play of Dave Sobolewski. Sobolewski played by far his best game of the young season, scoring 25 points on 9-14 shooting. He also shot 4-8 from beyond the arc.
The junior point guard and team captain played with composure and confidence, and controlled the game to great effect. Early on, he played the role of catalyst, pushing the tempo and getting NU off to a great start; but when he sensed the chance to run had evaporated, he pulled the ball out and set up the offense. This is the leadership we expected to see from him this season, but didn’t quite see enough of through three games.
“He had more pace to his game,” said coach Chris Collins. “We want to get the ball up the floor, and Dave was the guy who set the tone with that. It’s the best job he’s done. I’ve been on him about it, and he responded. It was a really good pace.”
But perhaps more important was the individual scoring output. This led to the second big contributing factor. When Sobolewski is a threat to put the ball in the hoop himself – rather than just run the offense and distribute – it opens up the floor in a way not many other things can. Depending on who else is on the court, it gives the Wildcats 3 or 4 legitimate long-range shooters that the defense must account for. And in general, it takes a lot of defensive attention off of Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb.
Going forward, if Northwestern is going to come anywhere close to putting up 93 points in games, floor spacing and scoring distribution are going to be key. Crawford and Cobb are good players, but they aren’t Lebron James and Kobe Bryant – they’ll have off nights, so it’s important that the Wildcats’ spacing can free up the floor for others to contribute double digits in points on a more regular basis.
On Defense: Overshadowed by the whopping 93 points scored was a solid defensive performance. Of course, it helps when you’re putting the ball through the hoop with regularity on the other end, thus limiting transition opportunities for your opponents and allowing yourself to set up in a half court defense. But Northwestern did a great job of forcing the Flames into tough shots.
Particularly in the first half, the Wildcats were all over their opponents on the defensive end. UIC shot just 29 percent on the night (22.6 percent in the first half) and their top two players, Kelsey Barlow and Marc Brown, were held to a combined 5-21 from the field.
Coach Collins said after the game that in the buildup to Wednesday night, he and his staff singled out those two players in their gameplan, and put an emphasis on stopping them. The Wildcats did an exemplary job of executing that plan. Cobb started on Barlow and was excellent, and Crawford, guarding Brown, was similarly outstanding.
Potentially having two defensive stoppers could be huge for Northwestern, especially when it reaches Big Ten play. Many teams in the conference have one or two go-to perimeter scorers; and while the players NU will face in conference are on a different level than Barlow and Brown, being able to put a damper on the scoring exploits of an opponent’s stars is imperative to pulling off upsets.
The Big Picture: Overall, this was a very good performance, a complete performance, and undoubtedly Northwestern’s best of the year. But let’s not drool over it, because after all, it was UIC. It was a UIC team that lost by 20 to Eastern Illinois (whom NU beat by 17), looked unorganized, and frankly didn’t belong on the same court as the Wildcats. And it seems the team is putting things in perspective as well.
“It was one good game and nothing more than that, and we have to move on,” said Dave Sobolewski, who was rather reticent after his career day.
Northwestern came out of halftime with significantly less energy and focus than that with which they started the game, and Collins was sure to let his team know how he felt about this decreased intensity. He was very animated, and at times demonstrative, berating his team for poor rebounding and a lack of fight.
At one point after the break, he turned to the bench and said, “guys, we’re losing this half by four.” This is an example of exactly the mentality Northwestern has to play with during this portion of the season. Sure, they were beating up on an inferior team and having fun doing so, but only three days earlier, they were losing to a likewise inferior Illinois State team. No matter the outcomes on the court, at this point, Collins wants his team to do two things: improve, and find consistency.
Wednesday night was unquestionably a step in the right direction, but if they become overconfident and forget the dismay of Sunday altogether, it was useless. However, if they take it in stride, and build on their dominance of UIC with two more commanding displays against IUPUI and Gardner Webb, that is tangible progress, and right now, progress is paramount.