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Northwestern point guard Dave Sobolewski likely booted from starting lineup

Saturday’s game at Indiana was the third Northwestern point guard Dave Sobolewski sat out due to a concussion he suffered at practice the day before the Wildcats' win over Illinois. Coach Chris Collins again chose to deploy a bigger starting lineup: JerShon Cobb (6-foot-5), Kale Abrahamson (6-foot-7), Drew Crawford (6-foot-5), Sanjay Lumpkin (6-foot-6) and Alex Olah (7-foot).

That lineup worked against Illinois, it worked against Michigan State and it worked against Indiana. Northwestern wasn’t great offensively in those games, mind you, but it defended much better than it did during its first three Big Ten contests, when Sobolewski was in the starting lineup (and played a total of 64 minutes). Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa scored an average of 1.26 points per possession against the Wildcats, while Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana scored an average of 0.82 PPP against them.

To account for the fact the first three teams have better offenses, I calculated the difference between the mean of those teams’ average offensive efficiencies in Big Ten play and the mean of their offensive efficiencies against Northwestern, then did the same for the teams Northwestern faced without Sobolewski. In other words, I wanted to find out how those teams’ offenses performed against Northwestern, relative to how they have performed against other Big Ten opponents.

The results: Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa on average were more efficient (1.26 PPP) against Northwestern than their mean offensive efficiency during conference play (1.16). The latter three teams’ offenses on average were far less efficient (0.82) against Northwestern than their mean offensive efficiency during Big Ten play (1.02).

It’s a small sample size, but it basically means the Big Ten opponents Northwestern faced with Sobolewski in the starting lineup were better on offense against the Wildcats than they have been on average throughout Big Ten play. The Big Ten opponents Northwestern faced without Sobolewski in the starting lineup were worse on offense against the Wildcats than they have been on average during Big Ten play.

In case you'd like some video evidence...

Whether the lineup shift Sobolewski’s absence prompted is the root cause for Northwestern’s uptick in defensive efficiency is beside the point. What seems clear is that the junior point guard has lost his spot in the starting lineup.

“Because of injury, we had to re-invent this lineup, and sometimes you find something, and right now we gotta go with it,” Collins told reporters Saturday.

He continued: “I think for now. We’re playing well. It’s hard to tell Kale he’s not going to start. The thing with Dave is, we gotta get him healthy and get him back to where he can help us. We need Dave. We need another guy who can get out there, give us some minutes, battle. Dave, the thing he’s excited about, he sees how hard we’re playing, he just wants to be a part of it.”

As Collins points out, the Wildcats will need Sobolewski. JerShon Cobb has played 35, 40 and 35 minutes the last three games, and Northwestern would benefit from having someone other than Tre Demps (who played 32 minutes against the Hoosiers) that can provide backcourt minutes. This is not a deep team and Sobolewski, for all his faults, has shown he can be a serviceable, manage-the-game-type point guard. He doesn’t need to score. He needs to set other people up to score.

Even in this, by far his worst season to date, Sobolewski has proven he can be a decent distributor. Sobolewski has assisted on 25.7 percent of the Wildcats’ field goals while he’s been on the floor (a top-200 figure nationally) and is averaging 3.2 dimes per game.

It’s not clear when Sobolewski will return, but when he does, it will only help the Wildcats. And who knows, maybe he will break out of his shooting slump.

“He’s such a team guy, we’ll work him back into the mix, then we’ll figure out what’s going to be best for the team down the stretch,” Collins said of Sobolewski.

The only way this team seems to be able to win games is by grinding opponents into low-scoring slugfests. Collins, and pretty much anyone who has watched this team try to run halfcourt offense, recognizes this.

“We've found ourselves,” Collins said Saturday. “We said, ‘If we're going to make something out of this year, we've got to become a blue-collar team.’ It takes time to figure out.”

The Wildcats have figured out a way that they can compete with Big Ten teams. It does not involve having Sobolewski in the starting lineup.