How Northwestern can win right away

Some keys if Northwestern wants to fight for a postseason berth...

Alex Olah's Leap — We've bet on this for quite some time. In his freshman season, the center averaged 6.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, while flashing the raw potential that earned him a scholarship from Bill Carmody. And ever since Chris Collins arrived in Evanston, he raved about Olah's potential, and the team's "four-around-one" sets focus squarely on the sophomore center. It will take more than commitment, though, for Olah to find success. All too often last season, he fell victim to mediocre rebounding technique that plagued the Wildcats. Despite the offensive focus, too, he shot less than 42 percent — a statistic that would be unacceptable this season. But the hook shot looks more polished, he's extremely motivated–with Armon Gates doing excellent work in his development–and hopes to make that elusive leap.

Jershon Cobb scores, consistently — Collins and Drew Crawford named the embattled junior as one of the team's best natural scorers. That seems difficult to believe from his first two seasons, in which he continually struggled to establish himself as NU's third offensive option. He fought a hip injury in his sophomore year, though, and seems refocused after his suspension. Perhaps the end of the 2011-12 season provided the blueprint for his best usage: He was aggressive on defense and created his own shot, averaging 16 points per game in the final four contests. As one of Collins' "multi-faceted" players, he'll need to round out his offensive game — including the occasional post move and some improved perimeter shooting.

Immediate contribution from the freshman — Nate Taphorn's stock rose this offseason, on the heels of reportedly strong practice performances. The former Pekin (Ill.) standout stuck with his Northwestern scholarship after Carmody left the program, and appears set to benefit from the new regime. He's an ideal stretch four candidate: Someone who can knock down triples while adding some versatility on the inside. I'm not buying Taphorn as a starter, yet, only because the Big Ten doesn't cater to inexperience. He can still contribute immediately, and if he can develop some ball-handling skills, we're looking at one of Northwestern's most promising young players.

Sobolewski playing to his strengths — Is there any player more polarizing than Dave Sobolewski? The junior point guard enters his third year as a starter, and in his freshman campaign, led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio. Last year, though, he was forced into a major offensive role, and struggled throughout the conference season. In the last 11 games, he shot just 28 percent from the field — with NU winning just one of the matchups. So, we can infer this: Sobo is much more successful as the true point guard, which should work. I've personally heard superb reviews of Sobo; he's apparently an improved point guard and distributor. This Collins system might work for him, in his last chance to prove himself before star point guard Bryant McIntosh makes it to campus.

Surprise depth in the frontcourt — Perhaps I've buried the lede: NU needs someone to emerge as a frontcourt threat. To flesh out the "four-around-one" offense, four perimeter threats align around Alex Olah in an effective short-term approach. But Olah can't play 40 minutes, and against larger lineups, NU will die on the glass if that rotation holds. It seems as though Nikola Cerina–more of a power forward–will back up Olah at the 5-spot while adding some minutes as a true 4-man. Chier Ajou might need to contribute minutes given Mike Turner's permanent absence. The Wildcats should face rebounding difficulties if their guards can't help, but regardless, they'll need surprise help from backups to sustain frontcourt success.

Scoring balance — Collins can minimize the importance of three-point shooting to his coaching mindset. Really, he's recruited four above-average shooters, trying to build his team around spreading the floor and knocking down threes. This year, though, he doesn't have the ideal personnel. Cobb's not an effective three-point shooter, Sobo is unreliable at best and Lumpkin should better function as a slashing guard option. Collins smartly said that he wants his team to shoot more free throws this year, which seems wise given the rule changes and given NU's missing potential. A team that appeared content to chuck needs to discover a more balanced attack.

Minimize the talent deficit — To earn an NIT berth–and certainly anything beyond that–NU needs to play close games against elite competition. No one could possibly mistake this team for an NCAA Tournament lock, and with that, the Wildcats can afford to take risks early in the Collins Era. They play a difficult Big Ten schedule, with very few easy victories. The bottom teams, including NU, rose this offseason with key returning players. Still, it's important, even in Las Vegas, for Collins to figure out strategies that keep his team in contention. He wants his team to provide "dogfights" for every opponent. How that'll happen, we're not sure.


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