Northwestern basketball preview: How will the Wildcats fare in Chris Collins' first season?

USA TODAY Sports

Just having a new head coach won't boost the Wildcats to relevance, although Chris Collins is a good one and Drew Crawford is a stud.

Whee! It's a coach besides Bill Carmody! IT'S CHRIS COLLINS!

The future of Northwestern basketball is bright with Coach C, a likeable, fun, exciting young coach who's already paid dividends on the recruiting trail. With Northwestern football dropping off the face of a damn cliff with enough speed to make lemmings jealous, so many dreary NU fans are casting their hopeful eyes towards Welsh-Ryan Arena.

I hate to slow their roll, but realism is somewhat important here. The future is bright, but the cupboard is... well, not bare, but certainly not well-stocked, neither. The mythical first-ever NCAA Tournament bid probably isn't happening this year. Sorry.

Let's get into the nitty-gritty of what to expect from NU in 2013-14, and why.

Starting lineup

No matter what you want to say about Northwestern basketball, they have three players that obviously fit on a Big Ten level. Drew Crawford is a stud scorer. JerShon Cobb is a very strong defender and a great athlete, and if he can show improvement in his offensive game, NU will be in great shape. And Alex Olah is a legit 7-footer with some moves on offense and a little bit of strength, who perhaps could develop into one of the better centers in the conference as his career unfolds. Those are three good players, listed in descending quality of goodness.

After that, we got struggles. Dave Sobolewski is Northwestern's starting point guard and will play like 35 minutes a game, but more out of necessity than anything else. And the fourth player will be a 6'6 freshman wing, Sanjay Lumpkin, and while I think he'll be surprising -- READ ON -- he's still a 6'6 freshman wing being asked to play opposing fours.


But there's nobody else to turn to. There was talk of Nathan Taphorn, a gangly freshman shooter, of busting in the starting five, but likely he'll be a first guy off the bench instead. My point is, this team almost started Nathan Taphorn.

Thanks to some bona fide talent, NU's starting five has the makeup of an average Big Ten team if guys play up to their potential. It's the back end where things get ugly.

Biggest strengths

Drew Crawford, I guess? He's really good.

The question is whether he can play as well as he did when John Shurna was running next to him, and whether he can be a team's go-to option. Signs weren't good last year, but he had a nagging shoulder injur.

Biggest weaknesses

Northwestern looks to have a one-pronged approach to offense, with Drew Crawford as the only player who can legitimately make his own shot and an offensive system that won't lend itself to assists like last year's. They look to have weak perimeter defense with Dave Sobolewski the most sieve-like on a team with several sieves. Their interior is Alex Olah, and it's not really clear who else. The only person on the roster who can reasonably be considered a power forward is Nikola Cerina, who Bill Carmody refused to play even in a injury-riddled wasteland of a season last year. And every player on the roster was recruited to play in a system the team by and large won't be running.

And yet, none of those are the biggest weakness. The answer here is obvious from looking at Northwestern's roster, even if you don't know any of the names on Northwestern's roster. There are only 12 players on the roster, and only 10 of those had scholarships coming into the season.

As is, NU will be forced to push its starters 30-plus minutes per game rather than thrust players who are unproven or simply aren't good enough for Big Ten play into major roles. There is no real backup for Alex Olah at center: just Nikola Cerina, a true power forward who Bill Carmody wouldn't play even in dire straits last year, Chier Ajou, who we've never really seen play, and Aaron Liberman, a walk-on we've actually never seen play. There is literally no backup for Dave Sobolewski, who isn't even a star, at point guard.

Last year, Northwestern suffered injury after injury as it spiraled into a nine-game losing streak at the end of the year. Four guys took medical redshirts, JerShon Cobb missed the year with academics, and Jared Swopshire's injury ended his season too.

(Also, Northwestern will be really bad at defense, but we'll talk about this later.)

Biggest surprise

It's a tough one, because several players have the opportunity to surprise. JerShon Cobb is kind of a mystery, since he hasn't played in a year and will be asked to play a bigger role than ever before. Nikola Cerina should get legitimate minutes after finally emerging from Bill Carmody's confusing doghouse, and all signs point to him being okay for a Northwestern big man. Nathan Taphorn seems like he can really shoot.

But I'm going with Sanjay Lumpkin, y'all.

Really, I just want to type/say Sanjay Lumpkin as many times as all. Lumpkin! Lumpkin Lumpkin Lumpkin Lumpkin Lumpkin Lumpkin.

But seriously, tho, this dude is starting. The redshirt freshman didn't get a chance to see much of the floor last year, taking a medical redshirt after four games due to a bout with mono and a wrist injury. So while we watched Kale Abrahamnson et al floundering on the court, we didn't pay attention to the fact that the best player in the freshman class was sitting on the sidelines in warmups.

Lumpkin seems like an alright scorer, but they won't need that from him with several talented scorers in the starting five. They'll be asking the 6'6 Twin Cities native to be the fourth small player in a lineup with Alex Olah. Two years ago, NU asked the 6'5 Reggie Hearn to play "power forward," since Sobo was a PG and Drew Crawford and John Shurna were best suited not guarding fours. With Crawford, Sobo, and a perimeter defender in JerShon Cobb, that role will fall to Lumpkin. And all reports point to him having a tenacious streak on defense and the boards.

NU will almost always be at a loss defensively, but if Lumpkin can adjust quickly to the role asked of him, it could be huge.

Overall

I have faith in the Chris Collins era. For the first time in a long time, I'm excited about the future of Northwestern basketball, rather than merely hopeful that this year can luckily be the year.

But the era won't start brilliantly. Chris Collins' roster is the same roster Bill Carmody had last year -- the roster which was a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament even if it hadn't undergone a cataclysm of injuries. And while it was time for Carmody to go, he always maximized the talent of his players by playing unique sets on both ends of the floor.

Collins' style of play likely won't give NU the same advantages. Duke guys are averse to zones, so Collins will likely ask guys like Dave Sobolewski, Tre Demps, and Kale Abrahamson to defend opposing players straight up. This will end in pain. And his offense won't be as methodically grinding as the Princeton, and won't lead to untalented players getting easy buckets.

It's an uphill battle. For NU to be as good as it has in past years -- years they've missed the tourney -- he'll need Drew Crawford to assume a go-to scorer's role with little dropoff, he'll need JerShon Cobb to develop an offensive game, and he'll need Alex Olah to be improved from last year. And they'd need to almost completely injury, considering the preposterous lack of depth. There's no guarantee those things will happen.

There's talent here, but for the team to actually make the tourney, it would take a damn miracle. That's a word for a reason, but don't hold your breath.

An NIT run would be a cool way for the season to end for this squad, but even that might be a bit of a stretch.

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