WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Conventional wisdom tells me not to panic.
With this season all but over – and mercifully so – Northwestern fans look forward to what is perhaps the most pressure-filled offseason in program history. There’s not much else to talk about.
NU lost to Purdue 74-43 on Sunday at Mackey Arena. Barring a string of impressive late-season upsets, the Wildcats will sit at home during the postseason. No Madness. No NIT. There’s just your standard farewell to seniors and the promise of next season.
They need to make the 2014 NCAA Tournament. There is no other option for Bill Carmody, who I expect to return as coach despite the recent embarrassments. Drew Crawford, Jershon Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin rejoin the starting lineup. If the Cats fail to break through, everything might just start at square one.
It’s only natural for NU fans to think about what next season holds. The team has lost six straight, beginning with the loss to Iowa in which Jared Swopshire suffered a season-ending knee injury. Aside from the gutsy performance at Ohio State, the games have been awful to watch. And worse: I’m concerned for next season. Many events will take place in the coming months.
For now, it’s fair to speculate.
What can we expect from the frontcourt?
Alex Olah showed flashes of his potential in the early season. He averaged 7.2 points per game in non-conference play, no doubt a respectable number. Despite questionable stamina – limiting him to about 25 minutes – he impacted most games with his height and his hook shot.
Against Big Ten opponents, the growing pains have been on display. He averages just 4.7 points per game in conference games, and struggles to rebound consistently.
Though Mike Turner contributes some positive minutes, he barely shoots 30 percent. At 6-8, he is not a true center. He can’t rebound. Unless Chier Ajou blossoms into a solid center in one year, which is unlikely, Turner and Olah will be counted upon to hold down the center spot.
Perhaps Nikola Cerina enters the mix. Despite having limited big men, Carmody hesitates to insert the former transfer into the lineup. In a season-high 18 minutes on Sunday, Cerina had one point and one rebound.
With the ‘3’ and ‘4’ spots practically interchangeable in Carmody’s mind, there will not be much height in next year’s starting rotation. Lumpkin and Kale Abrahamson could split time in one of those spots, with Crawford owning the other. Regardless, the constant problem remains. They can’t rebound. It was their downfall last season, and could very well be their downfall in the next.
They can overcome the lack of size and lack of frontcourt talent. But it’s certainly a negative.
Has anyone stepped up in the wake of injuries?
The devastating injuries could have been construed as opportunities.
Abrahamson entered the starting lineup when Crawford went down. He was replaced by Tre Demps after a series of quiet outings. Then, he re-entered the starting lineup when Swopshire went down.
He’s not ready. Many expected the raw freshman to redshirt, which was impossible in these circumstances. Now, he's receiving considerable playing time.
Abrahamson made two of his 10 field-goal attempts on Sunday. He is shooting an unspectacular 36 percent, and makes a lower percentage of his shots inside the arc than he does behind it. His development has not gone smoothly.
Tre Demps, meanwhile, still struggles to blend into the offense. I’m not sure he ever will. He tends to be a high-volume shooter willing to create quick looks. The team simply moves at a different pace.
The redshirt freshman excelled as a midseason spark off the bench, but that might be his ceiling. He shoots 38 percent, and even that statistic is aided by his strong garbage-time efforts.
After the projected starting five – which I would argue includes Sobolewski, Cobb, Lumpkin, Crawford and Olah – there is little to work with.
Can you count on incoming freshmen Jaren Sina and Nate Taphorn immediately? No.
Who, if anyone, can step up?
That remains to be seen. There hasn’t been any noticeable, stunning improvement from the young core. And that’s scary.
Is the lineup really that good?
At least one thing is certain: Drew Crawford should be excellent next season. He significantly improved in each of his first three years, which bodes well for the future.
In his freshman year, as a solid third option, he averaged 10 points per game. Called upon in an expanded role the next season, he lowered his turnover numbers and maintained his offensive efficiency.
Then, Crawford became the complete player in his junior year. He improved his outside shot, pouring in 41 percent of his three-point attempts. I’m not concerned about any long-term effects of this injury. He should be stronger than ever.
After, you have Dave Sobolewski, who looked like the best player on NU when the season began. He willed the team to an impressive win at Baylor. He showcased improved defensive awareness and attacked the rim with greater urgency.
His production tailed off in recent games. Just like last season, the stretch run has been difficult. In the past five games, Sobolewski is shooting 26 percent. The consistency has yet to arrive.
And with JerShon Cobb, who knows? His absence hurts the Cats, but it was likely blown out of proportion prior to the season. He battled injuries last year, and reached double figures just once in his first 17 games. He picked up his game near the end of the season, but he’s not Reggie Hearn. Cobb is a strong defender, but not the savior.
Sorry for being the wet blanket
I think the team improves next season. With the addition of Drew Crawford, just about any team would.
Soon, they head into an offseason mixed with hope and uncertainty, trying to find that winning equation.
They could make the tournament next season. Right now, I predict they won't. And I wouldn’t breathe easy until the next Selection Sunday.
These last few games can be useful, even when subtracting the sentimental value. It's time for these young players to show life, to play with urgency, and to leave poor play behind.
Next year means everything, and the preparation starts now.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline