Five Thoughts: Northwestern-MVSU

Michael Hlebasko with some insight after Northwestern's Monday win.

1. It's been 11 games now, so there is enough of a sample size to conclude that Dave Sobolewski just isn't going to fit into Chris Collins's system. It's a tough thing to admit, because Sobo gave this team a ton last year when it wasn't getting production from anyone. He willed the Wildcats to a win in Waco against Baylor and generally looked like a steady, competent Big Ten point guard. This year, he has rarely played well. Take away his outburst against a horrible UIC team, and he's shooting just 23% from the field. To make matters worse, his inability to put the ball in the hoop is spilling over into other parts of his game. He did not handle MVSU's pressure well today, and his assist-turnover ratio on the season is worse than 1.5-1. His decision-making on when to drive to the rim has been suspect as well, as he seems to choose to attack the basket when the team is set up with little chance for an offensive rebound and there are defensive bodies in the lane. Sobolewski will continue to get minutes for this team, largely because they have a paucity of bodies, so hopefully he will turn it around a little bit. However, we have to readjust our expectations for him moving forward.

2. I've been singing the praises of Sanjay Lumpkin's game since the season started. My love for the way Sanjay plays basketball is crossing over into Fatal Attraction territory. He had another double-double tonight, and I noticed something that I hadn't before: he was by far the best off-ball screener on the floor for Northwestern. It may seem like a small detail, but with the amount of freedom inherent in Collins' offense, having guys free up teammates off the ball is actually crucial to this team's offensive success. It is even more important for Northwestern because they have so few players capable of creating off the dribble for themselves, much less for their teammates. However, Sanjay has a nasty habit of getting in foul trouble. He is averaging 3.7 personal fouls on the season and had 4 more tonight. He is often guarding guys bigger than him and gives a ton of effort on the glass, so he is getting fouls that aren't because of poor positioning or defense, but he needs to fix this issue all the same. Northwestern needs him on the floor.

3. When this team was struggling early and James Montgomery didn't see the court, I wondered several times if his scholarship was just given as a feel-good story for the press and because the team had extras. He has seen some minutes in the last few games, and shown an ability to be another body for this team. He isn't going to score at all, and he's not better than anyone currently in the rotation, but this is a team with a lack of depth at guard, and the grind of the Big Ten will lead to foul trouble and fatigue as the conference season wears on. James Montgomery's ability to eat minutes, and use his five fouls, will be important in this team's quest for a respectable Big Ten record.

4. Alex Olah had either his best or second best game of the season, in a dead heat with his performance against Gardner Webb. The most encouraging part of his performance tonight was his ability to protect the rim. In no small part due to Olah's 4 blocks and general presence, MVSU shot just 14-41 on two-point field goals, and got to the line less than any team Northwestern has played besides IUPUI. Olah is never going to be an elite defensive big man, but if he can continue to make marginal improvements in his interior defense, especially helping on dribble-drives, it will make a huge difference for Northwestern on defense.

5. Northwestern should take care of business fairly easily against Brown and DePaul, but after that the wins become very hard to come by. If Purdue starts conference play well, the Cats may not be favored in a game again until February 8th against Nebraska at Welsh-Ryan. This team faces a brutal opening 5 game stretch in conference play, and winning just one of them would be a pretty good run for Collins' team. They've looked much improved against Western Michigan and MVSU, but both teams are legitimately awful. We are about to learn a lot about the mental toughness of this team, but I have a feeling they will exceed expectations early in Big Ten play. They may still win only one game, but I think they will be more competitive than they were during the Mizzou-UCLA-NC State stretch.

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