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Northwestern 72, Eastern Illinois 55 : rapid reaction

After an uneven first half, Northwestern pulled away from Eastern Illinois and won its regular-season opener, 72-55. Some quick thoughts on the Wildcats’ victory.

-- It was clear from the tip that Eastern Illinois, who lost all but two starters from last season, when they went 11-21 (6-10 Ohio Valley Conference), was less athletic and less talented than Northwestern. The Wildcats took advantage by jumping out to a 29-11 lead, but the Panthers narrowed the deficit to four at the half, thanks in large part to their pressure defense. Northwestern reasserted itself in the second half, executing better on offense and playing good defense, to open up a sizable lead and win its first game of the season. Senior Drew Crawford led the way for Northwestern with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 11 rebounds. Redshirt freshman wing Sanjay Lumpkin and junior JerShon Cobb both had nine points, while center Alex nearly notched a double-double (eight points, eight rebounds). The Wildcats held Eastern Illinois to 30.2 percent shooting and 2-for-18 on threes.

-- If there was any debate about who Northwestern’s best player was – there was’t, but let’s pretend – it was settled tonight. Drew Crawford owns that title. He’s the only player Northwestern has who can consistently create offense off the dribble, and he did exactly that Saturday against Eastern Illinois, finishing with an impressive 25-and-11 double-double . Crawford was also effective on the defensive end, where he helped Northwestern hold an opponent to under 60 points for the second consecutive game.

-- It’s hard not to be impressed with Nikola Cerina through two games (one exhibition). A bone chip in his ankle hampered him most of last season, but he looks healthy so far this season, and the benefits for Northwestern, on both ends of the floor, are obvious: an active post presence who can defend the low block and rebounds effectively. There were times Saturday night when Cerina, who only played 11 minutes, was clearly outplaying Olah; that’s not something most people who watched Northwestern basketball last year would have expected to see. It's impossible to describe all the positive effects of having two serviceable big men (as opposed to the one Northwestern had last year, and even that's a bit of a stretch) without branching off into 1,500-word territory, but the point is clear: with Cerina and Olah, provided he makes the sophomore “leap” characteristic of many college centers, playing well on both ends of the floor – two big men Northwestern can count on, and will need against bigger, more physical Big Ten teams – the Wildcats are a better team.

--  The Wildcats don’t necessarily need point guard Dave Sobolewski to score a lot of points to win games, but I’d imagine coach Chris Collins was happy to see him score nine Saturday after finishing with just three Wednesday against Lewis. Sobolewski averaged 9.8 points per game last season, and sure, part of that was because Northwestern’s best scorer, Crawford, was injured for most of the season. He doesn’t need to average that many this season, but there will be games this season – games against teams with good one-on-one defenders – where Crawford could struggle to carry the bulk of the scoring load. Sobolewski isn’t Northwestern’s second best scorer (JerShon Cobb probably gets the nod there), but if he can contribute anywhere between 5 and 8 points on a nightly basis, it will give the Wildcats one more scorer for opposing teams to worry about. Sobolewski also had five rebounds and three assists Saturday.

-- There will be an ugly adjustment period at the beginning of this season to the new rules regarding hand contact and block/charge calls, and Saturday night's game was a perfect example. Both teams clearly have yet to grasp the new rules. One play in the second half was particularly glaring. Lumpkin stood behind an EIU player right outside the painted area, seemingly playing good, clean defense, only to be whistled for a foul after barely making contact with his hands. Collins was not pleased. There were 49 total fouls called and the teams combined to shoot 67 free throws.

-- It was encouraging to see both student sections at Welsh Ryan Arena completely filled. One was even overflowing. There were Big Ten games toward the end of last season where the student sections weren’t even half-full.

-- The Wildcats face their first tough game of the season Thursday at Stanford, a Pac-12 contender expected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.