Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
Looking back on it now, the unfortunate series of personnel hits that turned Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament-aspiring 2012 season into a 4-14 Big Ten record and a fired head coach had a logical starting point. The bad news began with JerShon Cobb’s season-long suspension, announced in September to widespread shock and dismay, and later found to be “academic in nature.” Injuries piled up after that, starting with Sanjay Lumpkin’s mononucleosis and recurring through Drew Crawford’s shoulder, Jared Swopshire’s knee, Reggie Hearn’s ankle, Alex Olah’s concussion, and probably another nick or two I’m simply failing to recall. With each passing injury, stacked on top of one another, it slowly began to feel like the college hoops fates had turned their noses up on Northwestern’s 2012 season, like it just wasn’t meant to be – that no matter how much sporadic evidence Kale Abrahamson’s spirited efforts or Alex Olah’s marginal improvements provided to the contrary, Northwestern was never going to make much out of its 2012 season. The Wildcats were doomed for the beginning, it seemed.
The push that got the ball rolling was Cobb. His suspension left Northwestern without its best perimeter defender, and maybe its second or third best scorer. Improved academic performance allowed Cobb to rejoin the team in practices after fall quarter, and after suppressing his initial desire to transfer away, he will rejoin the Wildcats for games this fall with two years of eligibility remaining.
A year spent rehabbing and amending his academic shortcomings might have done Cobb more good than harm. The painful hip injuries that have limited him throughout his college career will have subsided, for one. When Cobb is healthy and active on both ends of the floor, not only is he Northwestern’s most reliable perimeter defender. He’s a very capable No. 2 scoring complement behind Drew Crawford, and has shown the potential (see: 2012 Big Ten Tournament loss to Minnesota), if given enough touches and opportunities, to carry the Wildcats’ scoring load for large stretches. If Cobb can operate at his injury-free peak, he is, along with Crawford, one of Northwestern’s two most indispensable players. Another unexpected academic suspension would be crippling, in other words.
Predicting repeated chaos feels sort of fatalistic, which is the basic mindset most Northwestern basketball fans have long inured themselves to in these preseason months. But let’s not go there: Cobb will be back this season, one can only hope, and his re-entry raises a series of interesting questions. Will he be the same player he was before being suspended last season? Has an offseason of training and rehab improved his physical condition to the point where we can expect him to log 30-plus games, staying healthy all the way through? How will he adapt and relate to a head coach (and new lead recruiting assistant) that has no pre-established acquaintance for Cobb’s strengths and weaknesses, that never previously thought about how to wedge him into his new lineup plans, that never recruited him?
Until games and practices get underway, answering any of those questions would be something like writing a 50-page synopsis on a book you haven’t read or constructing a miniaturized arc reactor out of an underground terrorist hostage bunker without a deep understanding of nuclear chemistry. Perhaps I’m stretching the truth – it’s not impossibly difficult to see how a year of rest and personal introspection could help or hurt Cobb this season. If he acquits himself well to Collins’ system – and really, why wouldn’t he? – and his hip problems are more tolerable than they were at any point in 2011-12, when he missed 12 full games and sat out huge chunks of others, there’s no reason not to believe Cobb can’t enter 2013 ready to have his best college season yet.
There are unknowns. There are random variables. There is the rust that can accumulate after a year without gametime. There are unforeseen suspensions for “violations of team rules.” There is also a really important piece of Northwestern’s 2013 winning formula returning to the lineup just in time for new coach Chris Collins to christen his Northwestern tenure with the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament berth. Cobb will be back, he will be healthy and he will be more physically prepared to maintain a consistent level of performance over the entire breadth of a season than he was prior to his suspension. A year off the court must have felt frustrating and embarrassing and collectively disappointing and utterly infuriating, all at the same time. One year later, Cobb has a chance to turn the superficial gloom – a missed season, publicly-raised queries about an obscure academic-related “team rules” suspension, an inability to help a battered roster careening into the Big Ten cellar – into a counterbalancing two-year flourish. With a new coach, a fresh slate, improved health and a Tournament-viable roster, Cobb enters a positive environment with the opportunity to start anew, erase the ugliness of a year ago and finish his career in a positive light.