Big Ten Team Previews: Northwestern Wildcats

Posted by KTrahan on October 18th, 2012

Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Northwestern Wildcats.

Where we left off: The NIT. Again. For yet another year, Northwestern inched closer to the NCAA Tournament — this year closer than ever — and the Wildcats fell short again. NU’s season was defined by close losses to Michigan (twice), Ohio State, Indiana and Illinois. Had the Cats won just one more of those games, they could have potentially made the Tournament. Heck, if they had just beaten Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament — another close loss — maybe they could have gotten there. Now, with a number of new faces, they begin this season firmly on the bubble once again.

Positives: I did an interview with coach Bill Carmody earlier in the offseason and he remarked that, with its new lineup, NU will “have some scoring inside.” That will be a much-needed addition after last year’s centers — Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti — struggled mightily. This year, 7’0″ freshman Alex Olah is expected to start at center and the Wildcats will also have 7’2″ freshman center Chier Ajou, who provides depth, even if he doesn’t play much initially. Additionally, senior Drew Crawford returns and Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire is expected to make a big impact right away. It will be a very big frontcourt for NU, something that has seemingly happened overnight and hasn’t occurred in Evanston for a long time.

Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire (ball) will be a key player to watch for Northwestern fans this season (Chicago Tribune)

Negatives: Can this team play defense? The Wildcats have added a lot of potential inside scoring with Swopshire and Olah, but the jury is out on whether the team can defend and grab rebounds, unlike last year’s squad. The perimeter defense is questionable, as well, as the team’s best perimeter defender — JerShon Cobb — was suspended for the year. And can this team find someone to take the last shot? Last year it was Crawford, and even though that didn’t work very well, this year it seems likely to be either Crawford or Swopshire. The Big Ten will be very strong again this year, meaning NU will be involved in a lot of close games. It must find a way to make big shots and play good defense in crunch time.

Best Case: When you think about it, it’s kind of unbelievable that this team was even close to making the NCAA Tournament last season. It couldn’t do anything inside — offensively or defensively — and couldn’t rebound. This year’s team should have a solid inside presence, and while it won’t have sharpshooter John Shurna around to drop bombs, it still has plenty of guards who can play. This may be the most complete team Carmody has had, so it has the potential to pick up some big wins during the non-conference season — the Wildcats play Baylor, Butler, Maryland and Stanford — and then go over .500 in conference play, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.

Worst Case: If the new big men aren’t a step up, NU could struggle inside like last year, but not have the outside shooting ability of last year’s team to make up for it. If Olah and Swopshire aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be, the Wildcats could potentially lose all four of their major non-conference games, thus leaving them without a marquee win in non-league play yet again. With the Big Ten getting better and better, the lack of a frontcourt would mean NU doesn’t have the ability to compete in the conference, leaving the Cats in the NIT during March.

Projected Starting Lineup: 

  • PG — Dave Sobolewski (So)
  • SG — Reggie Hearn (Sr)
  • SF — Drew Crawford (Jr)
  • PF — Jared Swopshire (Sr)
  • C — Alex Olah (Fr) 

Key Reserves: Tre Demps (RS FR, G), Mike Turner (RS FR, F), Alex Marcotullio (Sr, G), Nikola Cerina (Jr), Sanjay Lumpkin (Fr, G/F).

The Lineup: Last year, Northwestern was forced to start John Shurna at center for some games. That certainly wasn’t ideal and it couldn’t get much worse for NU, but not only will the Wildcats be able to start players at their natural positions, they’ll also have depth. Crawford, Swopshire, Turner and Lumpkin are all versatile players who can help NU with its inside scoring and rebounding, and Olah should help defensively. At guard, Demps is an under-the-radar player who can make an impact backing up at the “one” and the “two.” Don’t expect a huge rotation, but NU has a lot more options this year and can play a more traditional lineup than it has in years past.

KTrahan (60 Posts)

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