Northwestern Wildcats basketball preview: Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb return to backcourt

David Banks-US PRESSWIRE

A pair of quality guards re-enter the fray for the Wildcats -- will that be enough this season?

Northwestern is looking to make the NCAA Tournament for huuuuurrrrr durrr article about Northwestern basketball never having made the NCAA Tournament before have you heard they haven't made the NCAA Tournament before they've never made the NCAA Tournament ever not even once.

Although the arrival of Chris Collins ushers in a new era and new hope, there's a bit of a snag: in year 1, he's got to do everything with Bill Carmody's guys, and Carmody always had a reputation for managing slightly more success than the talent of his players merited due to running interesting sets on both sides of the floor. The future is bright, but asking a first-year coach to win games with this bunch without Carmody's coaching savvy is asking quite a bit.


The good news for Northwestern is that they'll have a bit more ammo than they did when they lost nine straight games down the stretch last year due to the readdition of a pair of their most talented players who weren't able to contribute last season. Both guys man starting spots in the backcourt:

The starters

Northwestern's three backcourt types are set, and they're pretty obvious.

Drew Crawford, Senior, 6'5, 13.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.7 apg

Crawford's the star here, and for good reason. He averaged 16.1 points per game as John Shurna's second-in-command on one of the most successful Northwestern teams in history two years ago -- THEY WON AN NIT GAME! THEY WON AN NIT GAME! -- a gifted athlete with the hops to dunk prettily, the burst to take players off the dribble, and the stroke to shoot 41.6 percent from behind the arc. But he seemed ill-at-ease as a senior last season, with numbers down noticeably both in production -- 13.5 points per game -- and efficiency -- a drop from a 111.0 offensive rating on Kenpom to a dismal 98.5. This dropoff was attributed to a nagging shoulder injury, and 12 games into the year, he opted to undergo surgery and take a fifth redshirt year.

After potentially transferring for a graduate season -- Missouri and Marquette were after him -- Crawford made the decision to return to Northwestern in hopes of kicking the Collins era off right. He'll man small forward for Northwestern

JerShon Cobb, 6'5, Junior, 7.1 ppg, 1.4 spg (2011-2012)

The two-guard from Atlanta was probably the best recruit of the Bill Carmody era -- a four-star guy in some services, listed just outside the top 100 players in the country by Rivals -- and emerged as a defensive ace for the Wildcats, a springy 6'5 player perfect for the top of Carmody's 1-3-1 zone. But nefarious issues -- academics was the final word, I believe -- caused Cobb to get suspended for the 2012-2013 season, robbing the team of one of its few Big Ten-tested options.

Cobb is the only player on Northwestern's roster who we know can effectively guard opposing wings and guards. For Crawford's offensive talent, he often fails to keep guys in front of him, and players like Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps might as well have red capes. NU had hidden these issues by playing tons of zone in years past. Collins won't stick to that as much as Carmody did, and that enough is reason enough for Cobb to see tons of short time. If he's added a jumper to an offensive repertoire based on gliding to the rim, he could be incredibly useful for the Cats.

Dave Sobolewski, 6'1, junior, 9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg, 2.8 rpg

As a freshman, the lil guy from Naperville showed up and was a surprisingly effective workhorse running the point. He looked like a bar mitzvah candidate, maybe 200 pounds while carrying sandbags, but he didn't make dumb decisions and hit open looks -- 35.7 percent from downtown. He played 35.7 minutes a game, but had a "limited role" per Kenpom's possession stats, using just 15.1 percent of the team's trips, and thus ended up as NU's third-leading scorer despite being the team's fourth or fifth option most times down the court.

Last year, Sobocop was asked to do a bit too much. He's a nifty distributor and a decent shooter, but he can't break down offenses one-on-five in Big Ten play. And calling him a defensive liability is an insult to defensive liabilities.

Due to NU's depth, Sobo practically has to play almost every minute. Tre Demps and JerShon Cobb can play the point in that they can move the ball across halfcourt, but they are not, by any definition of the word, point guards. But despite his minutes, NU has to hide Sobo somewhat for him to be effective, because the more he tries to do things himself, the worse he'll be.

The bench

(Kale Abrahamson, Nathan Taphorn, and Sanjay Lumpkin are all guard-forward types, but since all of them are in the mix for Northwestern's power forward spot, we'll be including them in our frontcourt post.)

Tre Demps, 6'2, sophomore, 7.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, .7 assists

The son of the New Orleans... um... Pelicans' GM had time to hang out with Chris Paul at some point in his life. In fact, he was playing in a pickup game with NBA players when he tore his shoulder ligament, an injury that cost him his true freshman season two years back.

One thing Paul clearly never taught Demps was how to pass. Demps is a chucker to end all chuckers. This isn't a problem out of a microwave-type bench scorer, but Demps last year had to play heavy minutes after everybody else got injured. He was given free range to chuck for upwards of 25 minutes a game in Big Ten play last year, and responded by taking a whopping 30.1 percent of the team's shots while on court. He'll be relegated to a less important role this year, which is good for all of us.

James Montgomery III, 6'4, senior, .7 ppg, .5 rpg, .3 apg

Montgomery quickly became the internet's most popular Northwestern basketball player on account of a video where the one-time walk-on received a scholarship in front of the team, then called his family and things got emotional. Don't expect Montgomery to be the next Reggie Hearn, who beat out scholarship players for a starting role and is now headed to the D-League. He has a limited offensive repertoire, hitting just six of 20 shots attempted as the team actually turned to him last season. But Collins did call him the team's best perimeter defender in the viral vid, and he wasn't necessarily lying. (I'd give the nod to Cobb, but, still.) Considering NU's depth, he might merit a few minutes per game.

Biggest question: Can Drew Crawford lead a team?

For the second straight year, NU enters the season knowing they'll live and die with Crawford.

Last year, Northwestern died, and they died violently. Most of this dying happened after Crawford's injury, but even with him in the lineup, there were some ugly games. They lost 50-44 to UIC, a game where Crawford was ineffective with 18 points on 14 shots -- but was ineffective because the rest of his team was completely horrendous, with the team's only option in crunch time situations boiling down to Crawford isos. We'd spent the offseason wondering whether Crawford could step up from being a secondary scorer to a team's main option, and it seemed like we had our answer.

We later found out Crawford had those painful shoulder issues that likely inhibited his game. So after another year of wondering, we're once again in the position of knowing Crawford will be the go-to guy -- without knowing whether he'll be able to pull it off.

Overall

The good news is NU has a few talented players in their backcourt. The bad news is the operative word is "few." Crawford and Sobo can be functioning participants in a decent offensive team, Cobb can fit in and flourish defensively. Nobody else seems primed to take the mantle if those players falter.

Meting out minutes will be tough. Sobo can't sit more than five minutes a game, Crawford has guys who can give him a breather in Abrahamson, Lumpkin, and Taphorn, but one of those three will be starting at power forward, which is its own problem.

And after injuries took last year's team and hurled it into a roadside ditch, the obvious potential exists for the same thing to happen in 2013-14.

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