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Dave Sobolewski's last shot

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Dave Sobolewski understands that his window of opportunity is creeping shut. And he’s determined to make his senior year count.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Sobolewski doesn't seem to particularly like talking to the media. Maybe his drab tone or indifferent demeanor are just natural or coincidental on this Wednesday afternoon, but even as he reluctantly drags himself up off of the Welsh-Ryan Arena bleachers to give an interview, his disinterest is evident. It's not that he makes a concerted effort to answer questions in a terse manner; you just get the feeling that he genuinely doesn't enjoy it.

It's the kind of thing he would never admit to of course. And to be clear, it doesn't say anything about his character or attitude during everyday life. But when Dave Sobolewski steps into a basketball arena, he wants to get down to business, and pre-practice talk won't help him do so.

As he speaks, eye contact is minimal, perhaps non-existent. The basketball in his right hand intermittently pounds against the floor. His occasionally glassy stare pierces something off in the distance, though it's unclear exactly what.

But you don't get the sense that it's a stare of disregard or absentmindedness. It's one of intensity. Of focus. Of determination.

"I don't know if unfinished business is the right way to say it," Sobolewski says pensively, "but there's definitely more stuff that we're working towards this year that I haven't been able to accomplish yet."

And that, right there, is the source of his determination.

***

Dave Sobolewski doesn't seem to particularly like talking about last season. That much is clear. In fact, he strategically avoids the topic.

When asked about what went wrong for him during a personally disastrous 2013-14 campaign, Sobolewski shrewdly evades the question. "Nothing in particular," he says. "It's a new year, and I'm ready to get going."

And does he have anything to prove? "No, I don't," he says rather frankly. And then he reverts to a now familiar and colorless refrain: "It's a new year," he says, "and I'm ready to get going."

Oftentimes in sports, players and coaches try to learn from and correct previous mistakes. They study film, analyze statistics, and think back in search of points of potential or even necessary improvement.

Whether it's intentional or otherwise, thoughts of the past have become taboo. It's almost as if [Sobolewski]'s in denial — denial that last year even happened.

But Sobolewski and coach Chris Collins, though they have probably done some of that, have taken an entirely different approach to what they both hope is a bounce-back season for the senior guard. They're set on forcing the past out of not only the minds of fans and the media, but also that of Sobolewski himself.

"This is a fresh start," Collins says. "He [Sobolewski] is a senior, he shouldn't feel any pressure. I wanted him to flush [away] whatever negative feelings he had about last year."

"Dave is a good player," Collins continues. "He has been a good player in the Big Ten on that highest stage. Last year, he didn't play as well, he'd be the first to admit it..."

But that's the thing. It's as if Sobolewski is taking Collins' intended mentality for him a step further. Sobolewski doesn't want to admit it.

Whether it's intentional or otherwise, thoughts of the past have become taboo. It's almost as if he's in denial — denial that last year even happened.

***

Sobo-depaul

Last year, unfortunately, did happen though. And it wasn't pretty.

After a freshman season that Ken Pomeroy's statistical model compares to that of former St. Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova and a sophomore year that wasn't considerably worse, Sobolewski, metaphorically, fell off of a cliff.

The stats and the eye-test tell equally troubling tales. Sobolewski's shooting percentages plummeted. His overall field goal percentage slipped to below 40 percent, and his three-point percentage fell all the way to a grotesque 18.3 percent. His individual offensive rating, a KenPom measure of efficiency, was 81.0, a whopping 11.1 points below any other Big Ten player used on at least 20 percent of possessions.

On the court, Sobolewski just looked overwhelmed and, for the most part, seemed to lack any trace of confidence. He looked out of place in Collins' offense, and was all too often a liability on both ends of the court.

Then, in mid-January, an injury exacerbated things. Sobolewski sustained a concussion in practice that would rule him out of four games, and from there, his role and his minutes evaporated.

"I think last year he felt pressure," Collins says. "And then he didn't shoot well early, and it kind of mounted. And then he got a concussion, and it kind of derailed his season. And [while he was injured], we kind of evolved in a direction."

That new direction relegated Sobolewski to the bench. Even as he languished there, he tried to not let his attitude waver. "It's part of being a team player," Sobolewski says, "just keeping your head in it for the team."

But as much as he supported his teammates and sought to preserve his leadership role, it must have pained him. Once a key player at Northwestern, and still a captain, he had become worse than merely a struggling contributor; he had become a non-factor. And as much as he wouldn't have wanted to admit it, the future didn't look too much brighter than the present.

***

The parallels are uncanny.

Nineteen years ago, Chris Collins was in a nearly identical situation to the one his veteran point guard finds himself in right now.

After a promising start to his playing career at Duke, Collins' junior season hadn't gone as planned. It began with despair on the first day of practice when he had broken his foot, and had continued upon his return to health. "I came back from the injury, couldn't make a shot [he shot 29.8 percent from the field and 23.3 from beyond the arc that season], lost my confidence, our team really struggled, and people kind of left me for dead," Collins says.

The similarities between Collins and Sobolewski continued into the former Duke guard's senior year.

"We had a bunch of freshmen who had come into the program," Collins says. "Trajan Langdon, Steve Wojciechowski, Ricky Price, three McDonald's All Americans that were guards... [the following year], I was going to be a senior, but we had all these young guards, and all these hyped guys, and it was going to be their time."

But Collins wasn't going to surrender to the changing of the guard just yet. He wasn't going to just cede center stage to Wojciechowski and company without a fight. As a senior, he went on to shoot 44.1 percent from three-point range, 46.7 percent overall, average 16.3 points per game, and start all 29 of his team's games. It was, after all, still Collins' time.

Is it still Sobolewski's time? Both he and Collins hope so. And it's a big reason they've discussed the similarities between their situations, and how Sobolewski could use Collins' experience advantageously going into his own senior year.

"On the one hand," Sobolewski says, "I'll definitely use that as inspiration... the way he persevered, and had a good senior year, is definitely something to keep an eye on.

"But on the other hand, I'm a pretty self-motivated guy."

***

sobolead

Chris Collins values leaders. And therefore, for a second year in a row, he values Dave Sobolewski.

"I want him to be confident, I want him to lead," Collins says of his captain. "There's a role for Dave on this team. We need his leadership, we need his experience. If he can get his confidence back, which he has in practice, I think he can help us."

But perhaps it's telling that Collins opts to speak of intangibles rather than tangible roles, because Sobolewski's is still undefined. "He's worked hard, he's in good shape, and with the way we're playing, he's going to have a role," Collins reiterates. "But we're still figuring out what that role is. Whether Dave starts or not, he's going to be a key guy. We're just still figuring out how that's all going to shake out."

One role that Sobolewski is ensured of, and one he takes pride in, is the captaincy. For the second year in a row, he was named one of multiple captains over the offseason, and it's something that, for him, isn't just an empty badge of seniority. Instead, it's a duty.

Asked to put his role into words, Sobolewski succinctly says it's "to lead the team by example, and always do whatever the team needs to improve and win games." And while that's a conjoiner of two clichés, you can tell it's a role he takes to heart. "To be a two-year captain is definitely an honor," he says, "and I'm excited to be a leader on this team."

***

Maybe it's a byproduct of being a captain, or maybe it's why he's so well-suited for the role, but either way, it seems that Sobolewski sincerely is a team-first kind of guy. And that's why when discussing goals, he doesn't talk in terms of "I." He talks in terms of "we."

And he speaks — or, perhaps more appropriately, dreams — of one thing. Interestingly, he never actually utters the words ‘NCAA Tournament.' But when he references "that one thing we've never accomplished here," he doesn't leave too much doubt.

"That's definitely been a goal of mine since I committed to Northwestern four years ago," he says, referencing that elusive tournament berth. "I think everybody in this room would tell you the same thing. Being the only BCS school to not make the tournament... we need to change that. It's a goal of all of ours."

However, Sobolewski understands that his window of opportunity is creeping shut. He also may or may not understand that the tournament appearance remains an extraordinary long shot.

But that, above all else, is why he's more determined than ever. Determined to silence the critics, although he won't admit it. Determined to prove his worth to himself. Determined to fulfill those dreams that were conceived four years ago.