Northwestern Basketball Preview

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Due to the current lack of basketball content on this blog, I thought there may be a niche for this basketball preview I wrote. What follows is a copy of a post I wrote on my blog Purple Storm, at

I just got really excited because I realized I have something legitimate to write about instead of football: Northwestern basketball starts this Saturday! As most of you are well aware, Northwestern let Bill Carmody go in the offseason, and replaced him with former Duke assistant coach Chris Collins. As a result, expect Northwestern basketball to look very different than it once did. Gone will be the slow-paced, methodical Princeton offense. In its place will be a faster-paced offense that will give playmakers more room to create. Many Northwestern fans are concerned about the ramifications of this change for this year, as Northwestern's current players were all recruited to be a part of a Princeton offense. However, I believe the current system will be more beneficial to players like Crawford and Cobb than was the Princeton offense. Gone too will be gimmicky defenses like the 1-3-1 and the bizarre version of the 2-3 we occasionally used. Instead, Northwestern figures to use man defense almost exclusively. Collins has supposedly put a huge emphasis on defensive principles, which, to be honest, is way past due. Unfortunately, this Northwestern team is not at all deep, and the odds of them making the tournament are quite slim. However, this should still be an exciting year, as we will catch a glimpse of the future of Northwestern basketball. Anyways, lets take a look at Northwestern's players and how they figure to fit in this year.


Dave Sobolewski, JR: Sobolewski projects to be the starting point guard for the Wildcats for the third straight year. Depending on the game, Sobolewski has either been very impressive or totally infuriating throughout his career. He can be a tremendous liability on the defensive end, with a 109.7 defensive rating (estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions). To put that in context, a well-respected defensive point guard, Aaron Craft, has a career defensive rating of 90.5. His scoring was inconsistent, as he had some very efficient scoring performances, but he also took some very ill-advised driving layups. Ultimately, he had a decent, but not great, true shooting percentage (a measure that weighs 3-pointers, 2-pointers, and free throws appropriately) of 50.3% last season, good for 39th among Big Ten players playing in at least 23 games. His best value was as a floor general, as his 4.0 assists per game and 2.1 assist to turnover ratio were both 6th in the Big Ten. As the Northwestern offense changes this year, Sobo's role will obviously change as well. He will likely have more freedom and more room to create. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.

Jershon Cobb, RS JR: Cobb figures to be the starting shooting guard this year, but Collins has discussed playing him at point guard as well, particularly when using a big lineup. Cobb was suspended for all of last year, allegedly due to poor grades but, before that, he was one of NU's most promising players. On the defensive front, this is one area where the advanced statistics and the eye test disagree. His career defensive rating is a poor 107.6, but he always looked good on the defensive end, particularly at the top of the 1-3-1, using his length to disrupt passing lanes, and his very impressive 4.3% steal percentage in 2011-2012 is a testament to that. On the offensive end, he was inconsistent, but was certainly capable of big games, including a stunning 24 point, 8 rebound game against Minneosta in the Big Ten tournament. One would like to see his 51.0% true shooting percentage improve, but I think it will as Cobb was improving dramatically at the end of the 2011-2012 season. On top of this, Cobb's biggest issue always seemed to be that he was a poor fit for the Princeton offense, as he was easily at his best creating his own shot off the dribble. Collins's offense, which should allow Cobb more iso opportunities, should be ideal for him.

Tre Demps, RS SO: Demps figures to split time at point guard and shooting guard this year. After suffering an injury in his true freshman year, he played 31 games last season. To put it bluntly, there was very little to like statistically about Demps last year. Like Cobb, Demps was a somewhat poor fit for the Princeton offense. As a guy who likes creating his own shot, he often went against the grain of the offense, chucking up ill-advised shots. His 48.0% TS% was poor, and his 1.1 assist/TO ratio is not what you want to see from a guy who is expected to play some point guard. When he got hot, there's no doubt he could score in bunches, but the 'Cats need much better consistency from him. There wasn't much to like on the defensive end either, with a 109.3 defensive rating and only 0.4 steals per game. Demps has promise, and he certainly may benefit from a new offense, but he must improve this year, as the 'Cats are lacking guard options off the bench.

James Montgomery III, SR: Despite having used only two years of elligibility, Montgomery is listed as a senior, so I'm assuming this is his last year. Previously a walk-on, Montgomery earned a full scholarship this season. He has not provided a nearly large enough sample size to make a good judgment of his past performance, but he is purportedly an extremely hard-working guy and a talented perimeter defender. His minutes will likely go up significantly this year, as the 'Cats have such little depth, but I still expect him to be little more than a role player.


Drew Crawford, RS SR: Crawford is undeniably the star of this team. While he is more a prototypical small forward, he will likely have to start at power forward. Crawford got injured last year, in what was supposed to be his senior year, took a medical redshirt, and is ready to go again this year. Like everyone else on this team, Crawford has a poor defensive rating, but he's always looked at least competent in man defense. He also recorded a solid 1.2 steals per game in the 2011-2012 season.being one of Northwestern's best rebounders, recording 4.7 rebounds per game in 2011-2012. He primarily excels on the offensive end, however. His 58.1% TS% was 14th in the Big Ten in 2011-2012, and he was sixth in the Big Ten in scoring per game, even while his teammate, John Shurna, led the conference. He also looked excellent behind the arc, hitting 41.2% of his 3's. It will be interesting to see how he fits into this new offense. He at times certainly benefited from the looks he got in the Princeton offense, but he may also also benefit from having more freedom in this new system.

Sanjay Lumpkin, RS FR: Lumpkin only appeared in four games before taking a redshirt last year, but he is still widely projected to be the starting small forward this year. Honestly, I know very little about the guy. He was a 3-star recruit with decent size and length, and he figures to be a pretty solid defender. Other than this, I haven't seen nearly enough of him to make any form of judgment.

Kale Abrahamson, SO: I have also heard some predict that Abrahamson will get the start at the 3. He certainly has more experience than does Lumpkin, but his body of work is not a strong endorsement. Abrahamson often looked lost on the court and did not have nearly enough size or strength to match up against his counterparts. His 49.6% TS% needs to improve, and he was too prone to throw up off-balance shots. Certainly, he has the potential to become a great outside shooter, if nothing else, but he is not there yet.

Nikola Cerina, RS SR: Cerina is kind of an odd case. After spending two years at TCU, he played his first year at Northwestern last season. However, he only saw time in 14 games, despite fans' pleas to see more of him. I expect to see significantly more of him this year, as he'll split time at power forward and center. He's a strong, athletic guy who can match up well at both positions and provide a lot of rebounds. However, you definitely want to see better offense from him. All things considered, I hope he can show enough promise to play good minutes at the 4, so Crawford can play the 3.

Nate Taphorn, FR: Taphorn is Northwestern's only new player this season. He was a well-regarded recruit, but was extremely undersized for either forward position. Regardless, it seems he has bulked up somewhat and has held up in practices better than his size would suggest. Purportedly, he is a very good shooter, and a good ball handler and passer, with excellent upside. As of right now, it is very difficult to project how much time he'll see this season, but based on the practice notes I have seen, he may see significant minutes this year.

EDIT: Based on recent comments by Coach Collins, it appears Taphorn will see major minutes, and may even get a chance to start.


Alex Olah, SO: Olah was the starting center last year as a freshman. He saw 22.2 minutes per game, a number that is likely to increase, given the lack of depth at the position. His performance of last year was much-maligned, and it is true that, statistically speaking, there is not a great deal to like. His .415 shooting percentage is well below what you'd like to see from a center, and his 4.1 rebounds per game could stand to improve. That being said, given the difficult situation in which he was placed, I was relatively happy with what I saw from him. Olah spent a part of the offseason playing for the Romanian U-20 team, in which he tore up the FIBA European Championships, putting up 16.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocked shots per game. Evidently, he is gaining confidence and has the potential to be the best big man the 'Cats have seen in a while. Carmody was always notoriously bad at developing big men, and Olah will very likely benefit from a new staff.

Chier Ajou, RS FR: At 7-2, Ajou is TALL. Unfortunately, that's about all he seems to have going for him at this point. He is extremely raw, particularly on the offensive end, and must be described as a project. There's a chance he may contribute for the 'Cats this year, and it would be good if we could get some minutes for him to take some of the burden off Olah, but most of the production we'll ever see from Ajou is most likely at least a couple years into the future.

Aaron Liberman, RS FR: I also know very little about Liberman, but I don't think we should expect huge production from him, as he still needs to bulk up to play the center position. If he does play, he may record a few blocks and a few points around the rim, but, like Ajou, he is a project. There is certainly some cause for concern about depth at the center position.

Bottom Line

The 'Cats do not have a great chance of finally making the tournament this year and will more likely than not be in the bottom four in the Big Ten. That being said, there is still plenty of reason to pay attention this season. This year is effectively a preview of the future of Northwestern basketball. We should get a good look at what Collins will do here, and with very exciting recruiting taking place, there is a lot to like moving forward.