It all seemed too perfect. Dave Sobolewski, who had been mired in the worst shooting slump of his college career, nailed a three-pointer with less than five seconds remaining to seemingly give Northwestern an improbable comeback win over DePaul.
Then football season happened all over again. On the ensuing possession, what appeared to be an ill-advised pass turned into a Billy Garret layup for DePaul with 0.1 seconds on the clock, and in an instant, victory morphed into defeat.
But the frantic finish will mask an utterly grotesque game of basketball. If Friday night was any indication, Northwestern isn’t prepared for Big Ten play; in fact, they’re not even close. Looking back past the game’s final ten seconds, here are some takeaways:
- Basketball begins and ends with the point guard position. That’s just one of an endless string of clichés about the importance of the position, but it’s generally true. And Northwestern’s only “true” point guard, Dave Sobolewski, has been subpar all season, and that’s being generous. On Friday, the clutch shot notwithstanding, he turned in perhaps his worst performance yet
Sobolewski turned the ball over five times compared to only three assists, and the three-pointer in the closing seconds was his only made field goal on eight attempts. He went 3-6 from the foul line.
But more concerning is this: Sobolewski, supposedly a team captain and leader, inspires no confidence whatsoever when he plays like this. On Friday, it was almost as if you could sense the next turnover coming, especially against DePaul’s zone press. There was one particular play when Sobolewski caught the ball in the backcourt, attempted to beat the press with the dribble, but instead ran straight into a trap and a subsequent travelling violation. Headlines would have said that he silenced the doubters with one big shot, but the reality is just the opposite. Sobolewski’s contributions to this team at the moment are minimal, and his struggles are dragging the whole team down with him.
- When your point guard plays like this, it erases all continuity on the offensive end. And that was the story of this game for Northwestern. As has been the case almost all season, the pace was slow and transition opportunities were limited. But tonight, more than other nights, the half court offense was stagnant, even languid.
We often talk about intensity on the defensive end, but on Friday, there was no intensity on the offensive end. Nobody was cutting. There was no urgency, no desire to get to the rim. It was truly a demoralizing sight. DePaul constantly put pressure on the ball, and Northwestern just simply couldn’t cope. And if they couldn’t cope with a team that ranked 230th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, how will the cope with Big Ten teams that boast some of the best defenses on the country?
- Another reason for the weak offensive output was the lack of a post presence. But before you point fingers, there wasn’t much Alex Olah could have done. His post touches were limited, and that confined Northwestern on the offensive end. On one key possession in the second half, Olah did get the ball with his back to the basket, took a dribble or two, and kicked to Cobb for an open three. But that play stood out because it was a rarity on Friday. When there’s no inside-out dynamic in Northwestern’s offense, it is significantly less potent.
- Two things kept Northwestern afloat in the first half and to some degree in the second. One was Tre Demps. Demps had his best game of the season. He carried the load on offense for Northwestern, finishing with 23 points, including four three-pointers on eight attempts from beyond the arc.
The second was Northwestern’s defense and rebounding. DePaul is not a good shooting team, but the Wildcats, especially in the first half, contested every shot the Blue Demons took. They were very physical, and that helped thrust DePaul out of any rhythm that they may have otherwise developed throughout the game.
And after missed shots, Northwestern held DePaul to a 26.7 Offensive Rebounding Percentage, significantly below their season average. There was an emphasis on team rebounding, but Olah actually did an exemplary job of keeping DePaul’s active frontcourt players off of the offensive glass.
- Drew Crawford looked a step slow on Friday, a far cry from his performances against Mississippi Valley State and Brown. He still finished with 15 points and 7 boards, but when NU needed him to spark them out of their scoring lull in the first half, he was incapable of doing so. This just highlights Northwestern’s reliance on Crawford, and his value to this team. When he doesn’t play up to the high standard he has set for himself, the Wildcats struggle, and the step up in competition that Northwestern now must face will only exacerbate those struggles.