As Dave Sobolewski strode to the bench following pre-game warm-ups, expecting the traditional fist bumps from members of the coaching staff, Chris Collins halted his junior point guard for a fleeting moment. With a few encouraging words and a couple motivational punches of his captain’s chest, Collins handed Sobolewski his first start – and first significant minutes – since Jan. 9.
The situation arose earlier Saturday. As we reported prior to tip-off, JerShon Cobb had been ruled out indefinitely with a foot injury.
“He got through the Ohio State game, and after the game, his foot swelled up on him and got really sore,” Collins said Saturday. “Our medical people are going through tests and we’re figuring it out. He’s got a knee and a foot that’s been bothering him.”
Collins did make it clear that this was not an issue for Cobb that had been persisting throughout the season. Rather, it was the result of something that happened in Columbus on Wednesday.
On Cobb’s timetable for a return, Collins said, “I don’t know how long he’s going to be out at this point.” However, Stephen Bardo reported on the Big Ten Network’s broadcast of Saturday’s game that Cobb had sustained a broken foot, and a source told InsideNU the same early Saturday. If a broken foot is in fact the diagnosis, chances are that Cobb’s season is over.
With Cobb out of the picture, Collins and Northwestern scrambled to replace their second leading scorer Saturday as they took the court opposite Indiana. The challenge was (and is) a complex one, because not only do the Wildcats need to find replacements for Cobb’s scoring, but also for his ball handling – Cobb had been starting at point guard – and his rebounding and defense.
Collins opted for the duo of the aforementioned Sobolewski and Tre Demps to fill Cobb’s niche. And that choice was one of many that the first-year head coach made, and will have to make, that show the nature of the challenge facing him as long as Cobb remains sidelined.
Another one was the lineup that saw a lot of the floor down the stretch. Sanjay Lumpkin struggled with his offense – and thus his confidence – all game, so Collins turned to Nathan Taphorn and Kale Abrahamson alongside Demps, Drew Crawford and Alex Olah.
“We’re going to have to get Tap [Taphorn] in there, and Kale. I was trying to spread the floor, so we went with Kale and Tap, a few of our better shooters, and I thought it worked.”
The conclusion here is that Collins won’t be able to replace Cobb in one way. He’ll have to look to multiple players to, piece by piece, make up for what Cobb did for this team, and Taphorn and Abrahamson are likely key parts of that puzzle.
As is Sobolewski. He and Demps are now the team’s only players capable of assuming the role of primary ball handler. Sobolewski’s performance Saturday drew a fair amount of praise from coaches and teammates.
Collins and Indiana coach Tom Crean both said that Sobolewski did a “good job.” In addition, Demps said, “it helps having Sobo out there. Things are a little bit more relaxed, more calm when he’s on the court.”
But the attitude towards Sobolewski’s play perhaps exemplifies the severity of the loss of Cobb more than anything. A “good performance” from Sobolewski is one in which he doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It’s one where he isn’t a complete liability. On the other hand, a “good performance” from Cobb is one where he carries the team. And that ability to help carry an already futile offense is what Northwestern will miss most.
“Certainly that’s a huge blow,” Collins said regarding Cobb. “If you take anybody’s second best player off their team, it’s going to hurt them.”
Demps said, “It’s one less guy that can create his own shot. [Playing with JerShon] takes a lot of the load off of Drew and myself as the primary guys that are creating. So it’s a lot different [without him].”
The other major effect is the overload of minutes now facing players like Crawford and, particularly, Demps and Lumpkin. Crawford played the whole game Saturday, Demps came very close to doing so, and Lumpkin logged a season high 34 minutes (including all of a possible 20 in the first half.)
With Nikola Cerina suspended Saturday, Northwestern had a strikingly paltry seven scholarship players in uniform (eight if you count James Montgomery III) and nine players total. The depletion of this roster has reached a new low.
And that’s one of the reasons the reaction to Saturday’s loss to Indiana has almost been one of sympathy.
“Northwestern, Chris, Brian James, that entire staff, they are doing such a great job making their team better, making them believe,” Crean said.
“I’m so proud of my team,” Collins said. “I’m so proud of my team. I’m looking out on the floor, they have athlete after athlete after athlete, and we have about six guys playing. We just battled. We fought the whole game.”
With the sorry state of the current roster, the attitude surrounding this team is a far cry from what it was following the win over Minnesota. Any expectations for good results have been replaced by resignations to defeat, and a sense of helplessness persists.
Asking Collins and the players that remain to continue to battle shorthanded like they did Saturday is slightly cruel. But they’ll continue to do so, and while Cobb’s injury means the season will likely end on a somber note, letting its final month detract too much from what was accomplished in January and early February would be doing a disservice to Collins and this group of players.