Northwestern continues its brutal stretch to start the Big Ten tonight in Champaign, Ill. against our hated rivals Downstate. Well, every stretch in the Big Ten is brutal considering how stacked the conference is. and the Wildcats just came out of a little respite of sorts in facing Penn State and Iowa these last two outings. The road does not get any easier though with the trip to Illinois tonight, Sunday’s game against Indiana and then next week’s home game against Minnesota.
Life is never easy in the Big Ten. The task for Northwestern was made even harder with the injuries NU has had to face this year — Nikola Cerina and Sanjay Lumpkin in addition to Drew Crawford.
The Wildcats’ loss to the Hawkeyes on Sunday was extremely discouraging. The offense looked completely out of sync and it raised legitimate concerns about the future of the offense and whether this team could compete night-in and night-out with such a tough road ahead. What that post said was that the Wildcats need efficiency and execution to find any measure of success the rest of the season.
That may no longer be a postseason berth with this young squad, but it certainly means better than performances like Sunday against an equally young but still unranked Iowa team.
And that brings us to the difference between a win at Penn State and a home loss to Iowa. And the difference between the Hawkeyes and the Wildcats on Sunday.
Iowa had every reason to struggle against Northwestern’s sometimes odd 1-3-1 defense. The Hawkeyes rely on as many freshmen and young players as the Wildcats do. Yet, the difference in the game might have very well been the play of the veteran players for Iowa. The Hawkeyes got 17 points from sophomore Aaron White, 14 points from sophomore guard Josh Oglesby and 11 points from Melsahn Masabe. The three combined to shoot 17 for 26 (65.4 percent) from the floor.
Northwestern’s key veteran players?
Dave Sobolewski scored 14 points on 4-for-11 shooting. Jared Swopshire had two points on 1-for-6 shooting. And Reggie Hearn had six points on 2-for-6 shooting. Against Penn State, a blowout win for NU, the trio scored 49 of the team’s 70 points and shot 15 for 29 (51.7 percent) from the floor. That included 18 points from Swopshire and 17 points from Sobolewski.
The stark differences between these two performances might show the thin ice Northwestern is skating on for the rest of this season.
For freshmen like Alex Olah and Kale Abrahamson, this is their first run through the rigors of conference basketball. They are still finding their spots in the team and what they can do. Their growth is as important as anything else for the Wildcats moving forward. But it is difficult to ask any player — especially a college player with only four years of eligibility to use — to give up the chance at winning.
This is why Northwestern will need Dave Sobolewski, Jared Swopshire and Reggie Hearn (along with Alex Marcotullio) more the rest of this year. For NU to compete with teams in the Big Ten and avoid some of the embarrassment the fan base felt, it needs these veteran players to fill into their new roles as quickly as possible and perform at a higher level. As Jeremy Woo of Scout reports, that is the message Bill Carmody tried to deliver after the loss to Iowa:
I’ve been trying to tell our team the veterans have to do it. I didn’t think they did enough today for us to win. We weren’t able to do anything. We’re having a hard time figuring out who’s going to score.
Carmody cited the statistics above from the Iowa game that their veterans stepped up and stepped in a big way. So how does NU’s players do that? How do they perform the way they are needed for this team to find success?
That is a question Northwestern will have to begin to answer tonight against Illinois, in a tough environment against a good team. That is what you sign up for in the Big Ten. But just because players are hurt does not mean that the games stop. These teams still appear on the schedule and the games still get played.
There are still good players on this team. Perhaps all the players are playing a bit out of position. Swopshire went to Louisville but was already taking a bump up in roles by becoming Northwestern’s main wing defender and a post option. Sobolewski is a young point guard who is still figuring out how to manage leading this team. Hearn is going from do-it-all hustle player to someone defenses are focused on stopping.
These are not roles that easy to live up to in the middle of a season. But they are also the realities of any basketball season. Roles change as games and injuries occur.
Veteran players are the ones the coach is supposed to be able to depend on. For the rest of this season, Northwestern will depend on them much more than they had before.