The pieces that remain

There's plenty of hype about the future of Chris Collins and Northwestern basketball. But with the return of Drew Crawford, what do the Cats look like right now?

First-year coach implementing a new system on both ends of the floor. Two signature seniors lost to graduation, with two more starters forced to transition after missing a whole season. All in the best basketball conference in the country.

Chris Collins will implement a personnel-based scheme that won't resemble Carmody's Princeton offense whatsoever, while the loss of Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio leaves a swelling hole in locker room leadership. Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb will be thrown into the fold immediately—expected not to miss a step.

In rearranging a program's culture, you're bound to leave a little mess.

It's easy to start daydreaming of the future. The past four Northwestern head coaches have combined to go a paltry 43-71 in their inaugural seasons, and after losing out on Jaren Sina, there are no headline-grabbing names introduced to this roster.

With the football team on the verge of its most hyped season ever, sleeping on basketball and waiting for Nate Taphorn to sound the wake-up call sounds like the logical move.

Then again, what is a rebuilding year in college basketball? With four-year institutions, rapid turnover prevents most teams from being too bad for too long. Development trajectories are more dramatic in NCAA hoops than any other sport, and before anyone writes them off this winter, the possibility of the Cats staying competitive has to be entertained.

Drew Crawford's back. It needs no further qualification. After dropping more than 16 a night his junior season, Crawford will be the clear-cut No. 1 scoring option for Collins' nascent system. Commanding such a large cut of the offense, Crawford could easily see his numbers balloon to a 20 points-per-game average.

Then there's JerShon Cobb, Northwestern's premiere perimeter defender whose absence this past season was masked by Crawford's injury. Cobb has the ability to do exactly what Carmody and company praised about Alex Marcotullio: be a spark plug atop the defense. Regardless of offensive talent–or a lack thereof–any team has a shot to win with defenders making plays off steals and turnovers.

Another year of development bodes well for Alex Olah, and Kale Abrahamson should excel with Collins at the helm. The new head man has groomed the likes of long ball shooters Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. Taking strides together, Northwestern's touted recruiting duo from a year ago could start making major impacts. Perhaps Abrahamson's 16 points in the season finale against Michigan State was just a glimpse into what 2013-14 could be.

Then,of course, there's Sanjay Lumpkin, the celebrated prospect who returns with a medical redshirt after sustaining a wrist injury last year. Lumpkin's size (6-6) makes him a flexible asset in Collins' system.

With all these potential playmakers out on the floor, Dave Sobolewski could return to freshman year form, during which he dished out the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the Big Ten. Trey Demps can improve his shot selection and Mike Turner can be used as something other than an emergency stopgap.

It sounds like wishful thinking. Hell, it sounds an awful lot like last offseason, when Wildcat fans were noting improvement and potential while glossing over all five spots on the depth chart. But improving on last year's 13-19 record is very feasible—even in the midst of Collins' changes.

It's natural to assume the worst in the first year of a head coach's tenure. Those expecting–or even hinting at–an NCAA Tourney trip in Collins' first year should probably tone it down.

But then again, those expecting a disaster might be pleasantly surprised. Somewhere in the between, Collins, Crawford and the Wildcats are ready to set their own expectations.

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