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What will Northwestern's guard rotation look like?

We don't really know, but we can make an educated guess.

Andy Lyons

Last week, our Daniel Rapaport asked and subsequently answered arguably the biggest question facing Northwestern basketball this season: how will the Wildcats replace Drew Crawford?

In his answer, he cited several stats that showed just how important Crawford was to that NU team. Here are two of them:

Drew Crawford led the Big Ten in minutes per game last year.

- Chris Collins turned to Crawford for 36.6 minutes per contest last year. That's more than 90 percent of the time that Collins felt it was absolutely necessary for Crawford to be playing.

As Daniel wrote, and as Collins has said, no one player will be able to replace Crawford. No one player will be able to replace his scoring. No one player will be able to replace his leadership. No one player will be able to replace his all-around contributions.

But who will get the available minutes that he has vacated? That's one of many unknowns heading into 2014/15. And it's a major part of the larger question of how the backcourt rotation will shake out. Crawford's whopping 36.6 minutes per game are gone, as are Kale Abrahamson's 15.4 and James Montgomery III's relatively insignificant 2.6.

But before we project forward, let's look at last year's rotation with those three players involved, along with JerShon Cobb, Tre Demps, Dave Sobolewski and Nate Taphorn, all of whom are back this season:

% of available minutes played when healthy % of total available minutes played
Drew Crawford 91.5 88
JerShon Cobb 84 63.1
Tre Demps 73.8 73.8
Dave Sobolewski 53.5 43.5
Kale Abrahamson 38.3 38.3
Nate Taphorn 20.2 20.2
James Montgomery 5.5 5.5

So essentially, Northwestern has to replace around 40 percent of its minutes at its three guard spots. That number takes into account the fact that both Crawford and Abrahamson saw time at power forward when Collins went small -- something that could be replicated with Vic Law this season.

So looking ahead to 2014/15, we'll use roughly the same amount of total minutes played by last year's group of seven players (a little less, because there is more frontcourt depth and therefore not as many minutes available for wing players as a stretch-four) and divvy it up between this year's guards and wing players. Here is my educated guess:

Projected 2014/15 playing time

Projected % of available minutes Projected minutes per game
JerShon Cobb 75 30
Tre Demps 75 30
Dave Sobolewski 32.5 13
Vic Law 70 28
Bryant McIntosh 42.5 17
Johnnie Vassar 17.5 7
Nate Taphorn 7.5 3
Scottie Lindsey 5 2

First of all, as I noted in my feature on JerShon Cobb and his injuries, I believe Collins is serious about limiting Cobb's minutes. I think he realizes that Cobb's body won't hold up if forced to play 33.6 minutes per game, so I think Collins actually wants to begin the season limiting Cobb to less than 30. That should then gradually ramp up as Cobb shakes off the rust and the Big Ten season approaches.

As far as I see it though, the big conundrum is that of Dave Sobolewski, and how much time he merits compared to the two freshmen, Bryant McIntosh and Johnnie Vassar. Sobolewski became an afterthought for much of last season's second half. Collins opted for more athleticism and scoring at the point guard position, and Sobolewski's prolonged shooting slump meant he was of little use.

My hunch is that Sobolewski is in Collins' plans though. The senior guard isn't as bad as he showed last year, and there is always a role for an experienced point guard who will bring effort, ball security and 3-point shooting. But with that being said, Sobolewski didn't bring two of those three things last year, and if he gets off to a tough start, his minutes will start to dwindle, just as they a year ago.

Plus, we saw last year's team transform towards the latter half of the season. With Sobolewski out of the lineup due to a concussion, they "found their identity," as Collins liked to say, and that identity was a defensive identity. And that's where Vassar comes in. He's a total wild card in this discussion. While Collins might not be able to trust the lightning-quick freshman on the offensive end, he might be NU's best on-ball defender. That alone will make it tough for Collins to keep him off the floor.

For McIntosh, it will be about adjusting to the college game. He still has more of a high school body, but in terms of his skill set and court awareness, he is reportedly mature beyond his years. He can also play either guard position, and that versatility should garner him some time. But with Northwestern's other options, he might have to wait until next year to become a major contributor.

As for the November starting lineup, my guess is Sobolewski, Cobb, Law, Lumpkin and Olah, with Demps in his now customary sixth-man role. But expect Collins to experiment with many combinations early on, and don't be surprised if the rotation fluctuates throughout the year.