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Northwestern Isn't Thinking About Depth Issues

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

EVANSTON, Ill -- As Reggie Hearn made his way onto the court for Friday afternoon practice, he glanced over at Northwestern beat writer casually taking jump shots. “You have any eligibility left?” The answer, at the risk of being blatantly obvious, is no. Northwestern won’t receive any outside assistance for Sunday’s home game against Illinois. The Wildcats will take the court with seven scholarship players – the exact personnel constraints they faced in a 10-point loss at Ohio State Thursday night.

Playing up the lack of depth and potential foul trouble issues is not something Northwestern is buying into. Besides, the Wildcats do not typically demand heavy reserve minutes. Only 30.2 percent of Northwestern’s minutes come from reserves, according to Coach Bill Carmody doesn’t mind playing with a downsized rotation. In fact, It’s his priority.

“I have a low pulse rate,” coach Bill Carmody said of the mounting injury problems his team has faced this season. “I really liked the way we played last night. We went in with a game plan and executed well. I don’t usually play that many guys.”

The latest injury hits came Saturday at Iowa, when senior forward Jared Sullinger went down with a season-ending knee injury. Freshman Alex Olah suffered a concussion; he missed the Ohio State game and his status remains uncertain for Sunday. This is nothing new for the 2012-13 Wildcats. In the preseason, the first domino fell when defensive stopper JerShonn Cobb was suspended for the season. Next was Drew Crawford, whose long-ailing shoulder broke down in early December when he underwent surgery for a torn labrum.

Both players should be back next season, provided Crawford receives a medical redshirt from the NCAA. In the meantime, Northwestern will make do with what’s available.

“I don’t think everybody in our locker room was doubting our guys,” redshirt freshman guard Tre Demps, who played a season-high 32 minutes Thursday, said. “I think the media was hyping that up. We have some really talented guys, so we still felt like we had a really good chance of being competitive and winning.”

It wasn’t just Demps that saw an uptick in floor time. Sharp-shooter Kale Abrahamson also played the most minutes of any game this season, and finished with a tidy 13 points (also a season-high) on 4-for-8 shooting and 3-for-5 from long range. Redshirt freshman Mike Turner and junior Nikola Cerina filled in for the injured Olah.

The new faces and tweaked gameplan – Northwestern employed a 2-3 zone defense for the first time all season, in part to limit foul trouble – nearly gave the Wildcats their biggest upset of the season. Perhaps the biggest difference was in the way Northwestern positioned its forwards. With Olah on the sidelines, Carmody counseled Cerina and Turner to set up shop in the high post, which not only pulled the Wildcats out from under the basket, opened up shots for Abrahamson, Demps and Sobolewski on the perimeter and facilitated a crisper passing attack. It allowed the Wildcats to avoid what Carmody called a “bogged down” painted area.

One of the few remaining starters from opening day, sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski, who played all 40 minutes, was genuinely impressed.

“They rebounded well, they defended the post well,” he said. “They were unselfish out on the offensive end, which is good. I think they’re both making huge improvements.”

Said Demps, “With Niko and Mike out there, I think it gave us a different look as far as what they were expecting from our centers. The tempo is increased, hand offs are a lot crisper.”

When Olah returns, the frontcourt adjustments will be an interesting dimension to track. The size advantage offered by Olah provides a much-needed inside presence. Is that more or less important than quicker ball movement within the construct of Carmody’s Princeton offense? Can Olah and Cerina play together in large stretches? Will Cerina and Turner’s brisker operation speed contrast with Olah’s preferred style?

Cerina is just getting his feet under him, both physically and mentally. The TCU transfer is learning a new position while rehabbing a lingering ankle injury. Still, he sees potential in the chemistry between him and Turner. “I think we’re quicker than when Olah is in the game,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I do think there is some difference when Mike and I play.”

These are interesting questions – questions that get unearthed when teams are forced to explore the depths of their roster. The Wildcats would very much like to enter part two of this state rivalry game with a clean health bill. From Olah to Cobb to Crawford to Swopshire, the Wildcats could be a dangerous team with everyone on the floor.

That potential, however tantalizing, isn’t weighing on Northwestern. The Wildcats are focused on what they can control. And that means beating a streaking Illinois team at Welsh-Ryan Arena Sunday night.

“We’re not going to back down,” Sobolewski said. “No matter who is healthy or who is hurt, we’re going to play until the final buzzer.”