ROSEMONT, Ill. — It’s Big Ten Basketball Media Day and Dave Sobolewski appears to be weary.
He sits with his head buried in his iPhone as media members talk to Drew Crawford, who sits across the table, Chris Collins, who is nearby, or many of the other high-profile players and coaches that share the conference room at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare.
He’s tired, but a different type of tired than what he feels when playing a basketball game.
“I’d much rather be playing a game right now,” he said.
Sobolewski played almost 35 minutes per game last season.
In almost every media session Sobolewski has taken part in this offseason, the focus has been on something new and someone other than himself.
It makes sense, though. He has a new head coach and arguably the team’s most talented players in Crawford, guard JerShon Cobb and wing player Sanjay Lumpkin all missed last season and are making returns. Sobolewski has answered questions about them consistently for the past few months, saying great things about Collins and his staff and how great it is to have his teammates back healthy.
He’s a point guard even with the media, dishing off praise to others.
Sobolewski has become the forgotten man on this Northwestern team with so much attention being diverted elsewhere. Now, as a junior, Sobolewski has been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during his collegiate career.
The Naperville, Ill. native has started all 55 games he has played in during his career. In 2011-2012, Sobolewski was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team after helping lead Northwestern to a 19-14 record, barely missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
The following season, it was Sobolewski who was the one constant for a team that lost players to injuries and suspensions, eventually leading to a 13-19 record and the firing of coach Bill Carmody.
The experiences have given his new coach the utmost confidence in him this season.
“The thing that I love about Dave is he's like a coach on the floor,” Collins said. “In order for him to be successful at this level, he's had to be smart. He's had to be tough. He's had to learn where he can find his way.”
Collins’ point about Sobolewski having “to be smart” to have success, wasn’t a knock on the guard’s perceived lack of athleticism, but a statement echoed around the Big Ten.
For example, Sobolewski came into the Big Ten with Michigan’s Trey Burke and as freshmen they battled twice. Despite Burke’s natural advantages, Sobolewski’s Northwestern teams forced the 13th-ranked Michigan teams into two overtime contests. Sobolewski played a combined 81 minutes in those games, turning the ball over only three times. He also held Burke to just 33 percent shooting.
Burke is just one of the many great point guards the Big Ten has had over the past couple of seasons. Along with Burke, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft has had his battles with Sobolewski. In 2011-2012, Northwestern battled the 11th-ranked Buckeyes to a two-point loss. Sobolewski helped force Craft into four turnovers. The following season, Sobolewski held Craft to just three points as he scored 13 points in a hard-fought, ten-point loss.
“He’s a scrapper,” Craft said. “He’ll do whatever he needs to do to get a win. If you need a bucket, you know [the ball]’s going to be in his hands. He lets the game come to him. He does a great job. He’s perfect for that team. He compliments them very well. Can’t go under a handoff on him because he will knock it down and I’ll get yelled at and that’s not good.”
Every night in the Big Ten, Sobolewski will go against some of the best guards in the country. This season features players such as Craft, Michigan State’s Keith Appling, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Penn State’s Tim Frazier. The fraternity and tradition of Big Ten point guards runs deep.
“It’s definitely not easy,” Craft said. “Being able to play against some of the best teams in the country with some of the best players night in and night out, it takes a great point guard that knows what he’s doing, that can control his team and calm them down when he needs to. It’s always good to see everyone kind of evolve. Every team has that guy that they can go to when they need to.”
Coming into his third season, Sobolewski is comfortable matching up with his fellow guards in conference play. His past results against them have given him reason to believe he belongs, a necessary intangible quality that point guards must possess.
“It’s basketball. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I’ve always loved to do. I go in to every game thinking that I’m the better point guard on the floor. Being able to play against guys of that caliber is a blast. Being a competitor, that’s what I signed up to go to Northwestern for. Being able to play against the top competition each and every night. I really see every night as a competition. I see it as a challenge. I see it as a way to really show my abilities and improve upon my abilities. It’s really fun playing in this league because of the point guards,” Sobolewski said.
But even amongst his peers, Sobolewski is still the forgotten man, often overlooked by pundits and analysts alike.
This season, he’s set out to change that, to be known as more than just a “scrapper,” as Craft so eloquently put.
This offseason, Sobolewski has dropped 10-15 pounds in order to improve his lateral quickness and overall athleticism. He’s also made improvements on his mid-range game. With the reintroduction of Crawford and Cobb to the offense, Sobolewski also expects to be given more catch-and-shoot opportunities this season.
“I admire him as a player,” Collins said. “You'll see physically he's lost about 15 pounds. He's gotten lighter. He's quicker. He's had a great offseason.”
Now a captain and upper-classman, Sobolewski can’t just look to make an impact in any one area of the game. His biggest asset will be his leadership, a quality that his new coach already senses he has.
“Every team has a point guard that commands the team on the floor, that gets them organized,” Collins said. “You're the head of the offense. You point out the defense. And we're expecting him to be obviously a key guy. But the main role he has is to be our leader.”
Although Sobolewski’s impact may still be buried beneath the stat lines of others, he is the one player that might have the strongest hand in how Northwestern’s 2013-2014 season plays out.
“You can only go as your point guard goes,” Collins said.
When thinking of Sobolewski, the only words that come to mind: under the radar.