Fall quarter has come and gone at Northwestern, with many students retiring to their couches for a relaxing few weeks. They’ve learned of their grades, and can look back on the past quarter in retrospect.
In an academic sense, Northwestern basketball players are no different. They, like the rest, are students. But just as they must perform in the classroom, they must do so on the court. Rather than taking a break, their workload is about to ramp up. The Big Ten season looms, and coaches and players alike are aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
But before the new portion of the basketball season can begin, let’s assess the portion that is coming to a close. And given how academic-oriented the university is, there's no better way to do that than to give each player a grade based on what they’ve contributed so far during non-conference play.
Here are the grades, with the players listed in order of minutes per game:
JerShon Cobb – B
Part of what goes into these grades is the following mode of thinking: what was the player expected to contribute, and what has he done to fulfill or even surpass that expectation? Cobb is clearly one of Northwestern’s most talented players, but his play so far can be better described as erratic than good. He’s the Wildcats’ second leading scorer, and hit the game winning shot against IUPUI back in November, but he’s had his fair share of struggles. In part due to the failings of others, he’s been asked to play out of position at point guard, and he’s adapted fairly well, but still needs to exhibit more command with the ball in his hands and greater restraint on the offensive end. Too often he forces shots when he’d be better off setting the offense in motion or calling a set. To be fair to Cobb, he makes more tough shots than anybody on the team, and sometimes that’s a necessity considering the offensive abilities of those around him, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Cobb has also been Northwestern’s most influential player on the defensive end, and is the team leader in steals per game. All in all, after a year on the sidelines and some unexpected usage by coach Chris Collins, Cobb has had a solid start.
Drew Crawford – A-
Crawford is Northwestern’s best player, has been Northwestern’s best player thus far, and will continue to be until his eligibility runs out this spring. Crawford leads the Wildcats in points per game (despite being forced out of the Missouri game before halftime with an injury), leads the team in Offensive Rating, a KenPom stat measuring an individual’s offensive efficiency, and is the clear-cut leader in rebounds per game, Offensive Rebounding Percentage, and Defensive Rebounding Percentage. Often times deployed as the “4” in a small Northwestern lineup by Collins, Crawford has done an exemplary job adjusting to whatever his role is, both on offense and defense. He has coped with bigger players on defense, and his work on the glass has been invaluable. He also ranks in the top 60 nationally in Turnover Rate while still maintaining a fairly high assist rate. At times he has faded from games, deferring to his teammates and unable to assert himself, but overall he’s been excellent. Perhaps the biggest tribute to his value to this team was the way in which his absence was felt in the second half against Missouri and then throughout the whole game against UCLA. Collins has spoke with passion and admiration about Crawford, his leadership, his dedication, and his importance to the team, and given how the initial part of this season has transpired, its hard to argue with the coach in that regard.
Dave Sobolewski – D
Entering his junior year, Sobolewski was supposed to be one of this team’s standout performers. He has actually stood out, but not in the way many expected. It’s gotten to the point that Sobolewski’s only claim to playing time is his leadership. But that’s an intangible, and all the tangibles suggest that he should be on the bench. Among these tangibles are a Turnover Rate that ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten among qualified players, and a Offensive Rating that ranks second to last. His Effective Field Goal Percentage is 35.3, dead last among qualified Big Ten players, and he’s shooting an astronomically low 19 percent from three point range. Sobolewski was never going to be a great scorer, but at the very least he should be passable. Instead, he’s been a liability, both on offense and defense, where he struggles to stay in front of quicker guards. His playing time has seen a drastic decline from his first two years at Northwestern, and unless he is proactive about improving his performance, there’s no reason that that decline shouldn’t continue.
Sanjay Lumpkin – C+
Lumpkin has been all over the place this season, literally and figuratively. His effort is unquestioned. He plays recklessly, which can be both good and bad, consistently diving on the floor for loose balls and tracking down offensive rebounds. Watching him, you instantly see the potential, but he has yet to carve out an offensive niche for himself. His effective field goal percentage is 61.5, which ranks sixth in the Big Ten, but he only takes 10.5 percent of available shots, which isn’t nearly enough. He has also shown his inexperience at times, and regularly finds himself in foul trouble, thus stuck on the bench when Collins desperately needs him on the court. His fairly low grade is due to the fact that his impact has been minimal compared to what it could – and probably should – be.
Alex Olah – C
Olah has shown flashes – he’ll get the ball in the post, drop a shoulder fake, and smoothly drop a ten-foot hook through the net – but those flashes have been all too unpredictable, and in some games, nonexistent. Much was made of Olah’s progress over the summer, but it seems he forgot to bring most of it back to Evanston with him. His shooting percentages have been decent, and the numbers suggest he’s been better defensively than you probably think, but he still plays like he’s got wet sand in his shoes, and his deficiencies are more often the subject of jokes than his proficiencies the subject of opponents’ worry.
Tre Demps – B
After failing to show any improvement to begin the season, the Tre Demps that has come to play since has been arguably the most notable positive surprise of Northwestern’s season. One thing that hasn’t changed is that Demps is still a high-volume shooter, but that’s not as much of a negative when more of the shots are going in. He rarely turns the ball over, and his Effective Field Goal Percentage eclipses that of Cobb, Crawford, and Sobolewski. His Offensive Rating is also second on the team to Crawford. For a player maligned for his shot-taking and lack of shot-making, he’s been a pretty effective offensive player. If he keeps it up, his minutes will continue to rise as those of Sobolewski go in the other direction.
Nathan Taphorn – C+
Taphorn was one of the bright spots early on this season, but that was born more out of hope for the future than any significant contributions the freshman made on the court. He had some nice games, and it seemed he had the chance to be a major weapon off the bench for Collins, but Taphorn has gone cold from beyond the arc (he’s shooting just 31 percent from three on the season). That’s where everybody thought his impact would be felt, but he’s tailed off, and now possesses an Offensive Rating even worse than Sobolewski’s. It’s still early though, and there are signs of promise, so the grade is a bit generous.
Kale Abrahamson – C+
Abrahamson’s lack of playing time has perhaps been a little puzzling. When he plays, he seems to contribute – statistically, he’s the team’s best three point shooter, and is second to Lumpkin in Effective Field Goal Percentage – but clearly he doesn’t do enough for Collins. He’s not a great defender despite his length, nor is he a good rebounder, but it might behoove Collins to give him a bit more time to see what he can do.
Nikola Cerina – C
Cerina has drawn some praise from Collins, specifically for his defense, and he is strong on that end of the floor, but his offensive game is something between pathetic and dysfunctional. When Olah is on the court, the Wildcats get no help defense from their big guy, but when Cerina comes in, they have no post presence on offense. Cerina is a marginal role player, and that role isn’t likely to increase any time soon.
James Montgomery III – B
Until two games ago, there was no grade for Montgomery, whose only sight of the court came in junk time. Then, suddenly, he was in the starting lineup, and according to Collins, a big reason for the win over Western Michigan. Since his insertion into the lineup, Northwestern is 2-0, so until the Wildcats falter, you have to say that with the little opportunity that he’s had, Montgomery has made an impact.
Aaron Lieberman, Cher Ajou: N/A
Chris Collins - C
This is by no means a criticism, and if you’ve read anything I wrote earlier this season, you’ll know that in reality, this grade is an incomplete. But Collins hasn’t done anything to improve this team. Granted, he’s working with slim pickings, and granted, in some cases he’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by implementing his new system, but the Wildcats have underachieved in their first 11 games, and there’s no two ways about it. It’s unfair to judge until at least next year, when Collins gets his first recruiting class in, but there was a chance to mold this current group into a fringe NCAA Tournament contender, however slim that chance may have been, and on the evidence of 11 games, Collins has failed.