Northwestern finished the non-conference schedule just a game over .500 at 7-6. The Wildcats are more than 60 spots behind all other Big Ten teams in the RPI rankings. The team just isn't very talented, and Chris Collins' new system doesn't fit their abilities. Northwestern does not have much depth and has become the odds on favorite to finish last in the conference. Three flaws have stuck out the most in non-conference play:
Northwestern Lacks Vital Position Players
The 'Cats don't have adequate starters for either the point guard or power forward position. Chris Collins had high hopes for Dave Sobolewski at the start of the season and named him co-captain. However, Sobo's production has only gotten worse. His points and assists per game are both down from last year. He turns the ball over excessively and is shooting a horrendous 26.8% from the field. Sobolewski looks like the furthest thing from a game manager at the point, and the 'Cats don't have any other true point guards. JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps have filled the void when Sobo is on the bench, but neither of them could start at the point. They lack strong ball handling and passing skills, and both naturally belong on the wing. Northwestern will have to get by with Sobolewski, who turned the ball over five times in each of Northwestern's last two games. The full court presses and tight defenses that Sobo will face in conference play are sure to cause even more problems for NU's lone point guard.
Dave Sobolewski's stats from last season compared with this year:
Northwestern also has only one true power forward. The only difference is he barely sees the floor. Nikola Cerina plays less than ten minutes per game and averages less than a point per game. Cerina hasn't developed into the talented the four man that NU so desires, which has left Chris Collins to get by with undersized forwards in the frontcourt. Sanjay Lumpkin and Drew Crawford have rotated between the post and the wing, sharing the rebounding burden. Lumpkin has been a pleasant surprise, using his length and athleticism to his advantage in post defense and on the boards. But Lumpkin is no more than a role player with a lack of scoring ability. Freshman Nathan Taphorn is the only other forward to contribute significant minutes. However, he doesn't have the size or athleticism to compete with the Big Ten's stars. Northwestern has two other big men on the bench, Chier Ajou and Aaron Liberman, but they aren't anywhere near talented enough to get on the court for NU. It's up to Lumpkin and Crawford to play down low and battle with the B1G's bruisers, so Northwestern will get killed in the rebounding margin in conference play.
'Cats Will Live and Die (Mostly Die) by the Three
Northwestern is shooting more three pointers per game than any team in the Big Ten, with the exception of Minnesota and Michigan. Yet, the 'Cats' 32.9% from deep is 11th in the conference. Obviously, that's not a combination for success. Northwestern's absence of offense in the post is forcing them to shoot a lot from three. Center Alex Olah has been able to work on the block against weaker opponents, including 18 point outbursts against Gardner-Webb and Mississippi Valley State, but when faced with talented big men, Olah struggles. In NU's four games against major conference teams, the sophomore center is averaging just five points per game. From here on out, Olah will deal with that competition every game, and no one else is going to post up for the 'Cats.
Northwestern's wings are left with the majority of the scoring load. Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and Tre Demps are scoring nearly 60% of NU's points, and much of that is coming on threes. Crawford and Cobb are the only guys who can create their own shot on a consistent basis, but teams are capable of doubling them with NU's shortage of other scoring options. Often times the 'Cats are settling for threes early in possessions because it's actually their best opportunity to score. Northwestern is going to lose time and time again from throwing up bricks, but they have the potential to pull an upset by shooting the deep ball. Their matchup with UCLA in Las Vegas serves as a great example. NU scored 79 points, one of their highest outputs of the season, on 37.5% shooting from three (12-32). If not for a scoring drought near the end of the game, the 'Cats 3-point percentage would have hovered near 50%. Northwestern didn't play a lick of defense, allowing UCLA to shoot 76.5% on threes and 63.6% overall from the field, yet they hung with the Bruins for much of the game. If they play some defense and get hot from downtown, Northwestern can beat almost any Big Ten team. That's just extremely unlikely. Northwestern will die over and over from shooting the three, but don't be surprised when they get one upset thanks to the deep ball.
Defense is Worse than it Appears
With all the issues offensively, Northwestern's defense has been quietly overlooked. The season stats don't show many deficiencies. The 'Cats are holding opponents to 30.2% from three point range and 40.5% from the field. They don't foul at an extreme rate, allowing just over 23 free throws per game. However, the story is much different against upper-end competition. In their four games against major conference opponents, Northwestern's opposition has shot 53.3% from the field and scores more than 78 points per game. And all this scoring is coming against a Northwestern team that plays very slow, minimizing each team's possessions per game. With their lack of size, Northwestern often has to play zone to avoid mismatches in the post. Sobolewski and Cobb aren't great on-ball defenders either. Good teams are picking apart NU's zone like nobody's business. The 'Cats simply are not quick enough or talented enough to defend against skilled passers and scorers. Big Ten squads will often run up the score on Northwestern.
Northwestern is going to struggle mightily in conference play. There's no doubt about it. They are not very talented, and they don't have a good system. Just a couple conference wins would exceed expectations for Northwestern. In all likelihood, the 'Cats are headed for the conference cellar.