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JerShon Cobb is back and Northwestern needs him

EVANSTON, Ill. -- There was rust. That was unavoidable.

No player rejoining his team after missing a season is going to be perfect on his first night back. And JerShon Cobb, who scored 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in Northwestern’s 57-46 win over Lewis Wednesday night, wasn’t.

“When’s the last time JerShon played with people in a gym?” Coach Chris Collins, still sweating after a hard-fought game, asked at the post-game press conference.

The last game Cobb played with Northwestern was on March 16, 2012, at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle, where Northwestern faced off with Washington in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. Cobb finished with eight points and three rebounds 28 minutes.

He was expected to return to the Wildcats last season to help Drew Crawford make another run at the NCAA Tournament. Instead, Cobb’s season ended before it could begin when he was suspended mainly because of academic shortcomings. Cobb was allowed to join the Wildcats in practices starting at the end of December, after improving his grades in the fall.

But he hadn’t played against another college team in front of a crowd (he played in a European exhibition tour with a selection of college players and Northwestern redshirt freshman Sanjay Lumpkin this summer) until Wednesday night, so you could understand why Cobb might have been a little anxious.

“I had a hard time sleeping last night,” Cobb said Wednesday. “Just excited for this game.”

The active perimeter defense fans best remember Cobb for was back Wednesday night, but Cobb looked different. He lost about 20 pounds over the offseason, the product of a new strength and conditioning program recommended by the Northwestern sports performance staff.

You may remember that Cobb dealt with hip tendinitis for part of last year after undergoing an operation in April. He didn’t show any ill effects from that injury Wednesday night – in fact, he looked quicker than he did in 2011-12 – but Cobb did leave the game in the second half on multiple occasions with a different injury. “It was just cramps in both my legs,” Cobb said, downplaying the severity of the injury.

How do you avoid cramps?

“Gotta hydrate better,” he said.

In the final seconds of the first half, Cobb provided some evidence to explain Crawford saying at Big Ten basketball media day last week that Cobb was a “scoring mastermind.” Cobb drove the length of the court, streaked into the lane, dipping his shoulder as he surged past two defenders, and laid the ball off the backboard just before the buzzer sounded. It was an impressive play from a guy whose offensive skills get less attention than his defensive ones, and it seemed to energize Northwestern, who built an 18-point lead in the early part second half.

“That definitely was a momentum swing,” Crawford said of Cobb’s buzzer-beating layup. “I think we were a little bit sluggish ending that first half, and that was big for JerShon to get to the basket, kind of give us some energy going into the locker room.”

It’s encouraging for Northwestern that Cobb, whose defense and scoring was sorely missed during last season’s injury-riddled 13-19 campaign, is not only healthy, but looks more fit than at any point in his time at Northwestern. If Northwestern has any hopes of making a run at the NCAA Tournament this season – or even the NIT, for that matter – it will need Cobb to consistently contribute on both ends of the floor.

His statistics – 4-for-11 shooting, 3-for-6 on free throws, 1-for-2 on threes – aren’t very impressive, but they also don’t tell the whole story. Cobb returned Wednesday night, and that’s a win in itself for Northwestern. More encouraging was the fact Cobb, despite the minor injury scare in the second half, looked every bit like the skilled two-way player we remember from 2011-12.

“It felt just like playing basketball,” Cobb said of Wednesday night’s game.

At this time last year, “playing basketball” wasn’t an option for Cobb. Now he’s back, and that’s good news for Northwestern.