Can Wildcats rebound despite small lineup?

How will Northwestern compete on the boards in Year One of the Chris Collins era? The new head coach chimes in.

In the 2011-12 season, Northwestern nearly cracked the NCAA Tournament. The following year, an injury-depleted squad lost 19 games, leading to Bill Carmody's firing.

But there was one overwhelming similarity from those two campaigns. The Wildcats were outrebounded by exactly 218, a margin of nearly seven boards per game.

New head coach Chris Collins faces the same difficulty: "The bottom line is we're not blessed with a lot of big bodies," Collins said on Saturday. Rather than bemoaning the lack of personnel, he'll attempt to build a roster capable of improving in that department.

"We have to collectively rebound," he said. "You've got to rebound with five guys. It's got to be a mindset. You become good at what you emphasize and what you try to drill every day."

For Saturday's scrimmage, an incredibly small lineup took shape: Dave Sobolewski, Jershon Cobb, Sanjay Lumpkin, Drew Crawford and Alex Olah. Crawford as the technical power forward? Given that lack of size, "218" might seem like the reasonable estimate once again.

There are two factors, though, that might justify Collins' decision.

The first is Alex Olah, a high-upside center who averaged 6.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in his freshman season. Collins said that experience was invaluable for Olah, and the big man did look much improved on Saturday.

"I was really impressed with Alex Olah," Collins said. "He's had a great summer. He's a skilled guy, his body is changing, he's trimmed down, he's moving better. I think he's poised to have a big jump this year."

Behind Olah are Nikola Cerina and Chier Ajou, who will also be called upon to play at the critical five-spot. With Collins eager to play "four around one"–with four skill players surrounding the center–they'll need everyone to prioritize improved rebounding.

Collins, as noted, wants to establish the "stretch four" concept at NU. With added size, perimeter threat Nate Taphorn might work well in the position. Collins then drew a commitment from 2014 power forward Gavin Skelly of Cleveland (Ohio) Westlake to be his pseudo-Ryan Kelly.

The head coach cited other Big Ten programs as indication of a greater trend: Teams are more willing to forgo the traditional five-man lineup in favor of a more dynamic group.

"You look around the country, it's going to more of a ‘skill' game," Collins said. "You look at the good teams, they're playing skill guys and spreading the floor. I think we'll be able to match up."

For now, the team includes rebounding segments in every practice. "Four around one" might sound terrifying for any NU fan, but Collins thinks a collective process can negate a serious weakness.

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