What rebuilding looks like

Nine games in, it's clear we'll be looking for the little positives as opposed to significant success.

Rebuilding looks like Alex Olah: In the span of four games, his performances have ranged from good to punchless to terrible. As the team's schematic backbone – the one in the "four around one" – Olah is simply not prepared for anything close to this much responsibility. He'll score 18 on 8-of-11 shooting (Gardner-Webb), run himself into foul trouble (Missouri), flash some efficient post moves (UCLA) and then collapse before our eyes against NC State.

Rebuilding looks like Sanjay Lumpkin: He's been the most and least effective player on the floor at various times this season. Arguably Northwestern's best defender, and one of its best rebounders, Lumpkin ends up so obviously forced out of his natural role. He's guarded Dwight Powell and T.J. Warren — two impossible matchups for a redshirt freshman. This team lacks the personnel necessary to put a legit team on the floor.

The whole effort, though, centers on Collins and his willingness to stick with what hasn't worked. We anticipated this season to start with something like this, aside from the disappointing loss to Illinois State. The Wildcats have real flashes of good play (oddly enough, these usually arrive when Dave Sobolewski makes shots) and they then fall victim to the basic struggles of teams that aren't very good.

I've never been one to trumpet the term "rebuilding," but here it applies. Chris Collins has spent the first nine games – and likely every one for the rest of the season – finding the proper combination of guys who can help the team win future games. He can implement his system, challenge younger players and expand the team's once-limited offensive repertoire.

(An aside: It's absolutely unacceptable how poorly this team has played defense. The fireworks at UCLA didn't obscure the Wildcats' horrible closeouts on shooters, sloppy transition play and complete lack of interior D. Also, I don't care how much the coaching staff likes – or dislikes – Nikola Cerina. He can give them quality average minutes as a capable true-four. No need to be stubborn.)

Next year's the year, or the start of something better. Having seen three of the four play live on multiple occasions, I can guarantee that Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Scott Lindsey and Gavin Skelly will transform the program. The first two will start immediately, with McIntosh providing a stunning upgrade over Sobolewski and Law replacing Crawford with his wing play and vertical game.

This season functions as a challenge for the current roster. When they're not a sub-.500 team, who can give NU solid minutes? Call it the Kale test: Abrahamson probably won't see increased playing time in future years, given that they're recruiting right over him, but even he's fighting to make himself a desirable candidate for some team.

Once we accept that this team has little chance of reaching the NIT – much less the NCAA Tournament – then we can try to extract positives, or figure out whether we can be positive about this young core.

Somehow, and you'd never have thought this before, Jershon Cobb's window looks much friendlier than Drew Crawford's. With Lumpkin struggling of late, Cobb has stepped in as the clear second best player and has another year of eligibility remaining. And trust me: McIntosh, Cobb, Lumpkin, Law, Olah (or fifth-year center) strikes me as a difficult lineup to defend. It's not a tournament team, not yet, but they're bottom of the bubble in my estimation.

That progress, though, relies so much on the current roster developing its game. Lumpkin will still need to defend bigger players on the inside; Law's less equipped to do so. Nate Taphorn needs to throw in some semblance of defense, though his shot and perimeter ability already look better than expected. JerShon Cobb can improve his isolation game and learn to facilitate the offense. As for Olah, he'll require something better to avoid being lapped by future center recruits.

It's not about the wins and losses this year — we mostly knew that. It's about the rebuilding process, the adjustments, and the pieces that Northwestern basketball can use when it finally becomes relevant. Now's not the year.

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