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Northwestern Season Recap: Start of a NU Era

Northwestern struggled for the majority of the 2013-14 season, but Chris Collins brought in a number of changes that has Northwestern looking toward the future.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

Northwestern truly had a roller coaster season. They went on a number of winning and losing streaks in the non-conference. Then, they won five of seven Big Ten games, vaulting them to fourth in the conference, only to go on a seven game losing streak in February and early March.

The 'Cats were up and down throughout the season, and even at the end of the year, you didn't know what to expect from this squad. Just like a roller coaster though, Northwestern ended up essentially right where they started, the bottom of the conference. They finished 6-12 in the conference in a tie with Penn State for tenth place.

At the end of the non-conference season, most projections slotted NU for last place in the conference. Mizzou, UCLA, and North Carolina State wiped the floor with NU in the Las Vegas Invitational. A close victory over Brown and loss to DePaul in late December only hurt the 'Cats' resume. Their 7-6 non-conference showed little promise for what was to come in conference play.

After getting demolished by a total of 76 points against Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa in their first three conference games, Collins told his team that something needed to change. He wasn't going to accept that level of play anymore. On Jan. 12, NU beat a then-ranked Illinois squad in Welsh-Ryan Arena behind some great defense and slowed style of play.

Defense and slowing the tempo would be NU's mantra for the rest of the year. The win against Illinois was the first of five victories in seven games, including wins at Wisconsin and Minnesota. In early February, Northwestern peaked at fourth place in the conference. There were still many doubts surrounding the 'Cats poor shooting and lack of athleticism. Nonetheless, NU looked ready to contend in the Big Ten.

The excitement didn't last long. The student section at Welsh-Ryan Arena filled to the brim Feb. 8 against Nebraska, but the 'Cats lost in disappointing fashion 53-49. That would be the first loss in a seven-game skid that depleted all hope of a postseason appearance. A 59-32 shellacking from Penn State on senior night put the dagger in the heart, and it was a dismal last home game for Drew Crawford.

NU wasn't quite done yet, as they beat Purdue to end the regular season and won in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. The 'Cats surprised everyone by beating Iowa in Indianapolis. To end the season, Northwestern fell to Michigan State, the team that would go on to win the Big Ten tournament, 67-51.

Northwestern's 2013-14 season was a transitional phase, ending an old era and bringing a new one. Of course the biggest change was at head coach, as Bill Carmody exited and Chris Collins stepped in. The coaching switch led to a lot of changes for the program throughout the year.

Collins implemented a new offense, eliminating the Princeton offense from the gameplan. Collins wanted to be an up-tempo team and run a lot of isolation plays and on-ball screens. The personnel wasn't there though. Kale Abrahamson, Alex Olah and Dave Sobolewski are simply better suited for the Princeton offense and moving without the ball. Thus, Collins resorted to slowing the pace and focusing on defense this year.

Northwestern made great strides defensively. At the end of the season, the 'Cats ranked 17th in the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency rating. NU consistently held opponents below 50 percent from the field, if not below 40 percent. They also closed out well on jump shots, becoming one of the best perimeter defending teams in the country.

Several players made huge improvements on both ends of the floor this season and proved their worth in coming seasons for Northwestern. JerShon Cobb returned from suspension to average 12.2 points per game. He was a bit streaky shooting the rock. Cobb had four games with five points or less and four 20-plus point games before lower body injuries forced him to sit out the final six games of the season.

Alex Olah and Sanjay Lumpkin developed into solid forwards. Lumpkin became a great rebounder and lock-down defender for NU, often blocking shots off the glass in transition. Lumpkin still doesn't have much of an offensive game, but he's a good passer and helps maintain offensive flow.

Alex Olah's scoring jumped up to 9.1 points per game. He developed a couple of nice moves in the post and improved defensively by taking on the Big Ten's best big men. Olah figures to be crucial for NU in the coming years with such little depth in the front court.

Tre Demps was debatably the most improved player on the team. He was often Northwestern's go-to gut in the crunch time. He hit clutch shots in the victories against Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Demps showed off his ability to create his own shot and score in isolation settings. He also filled in at point guard for the struggling Dave Sobolewski.

Sobolewski missed a large portion of the middle of the season due to confusion issues. The 'Cats actually performed their best during that stretch without him on the floor. Sobo returned late in the season, getting roughly 20 minutes per game. His ball handling skills and ability to run the offense were key assets to NU's system. Still, Sobolewski didn't play anywhere near the level of a team captain this season.

Northwestern's other captain, Drew Crawford, finished his career as a Wildcat as one of the all-time greats at Northwestern. Crawford averaged in double figures in all five of his season at Northwestern. This season he finished with 15.7 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game. He ended his career as the second all-time leading scorer at Northwestern, trailing only John Shurna.

The big adjustments at NU meant the end of the playing careers at Northwestern for some other Wildcats. Center Chier Ajou decided to transfer in January. He will be playing at Seton Hall after sitting out one full season. Seniors Nikola Cerina and James Montgomery III finished off their Northwestern careers. Collins announced at the end of the season that Kale Abrahamson would also transfer from the program. It was unlikely Ajou or Abrahamson would ever see significant minutes in the future at NU.

2013-14 was just the start of things to come at Northwestern. Collins is really cleaning house with the multitude of transfers and five freshman coming in next season. It wasn't the most successful of years, as seen in the 14-19 record, but the 'Cats are making moves in the right direction. This year was a big transition phase for Northwestern. With Chris Collins at the helm, it's out with the old and with the NU.