No one painted Sobolewski as an elite player: He figured to be the four-year starter who helped mold average talent into something productive. With Drew Crawford and John Shurna, he turned the ball over at an extremely low rate and shot a respectable 36 percent from behind the arc.
The Princeton offense was his. Sobolewski perfects the slow, skipping dribble up the court that leads to intense off-ball screening and open perimeter looks. Carmody's offense concealed his lack of ball skills, and I mean that in a good way. Every elite Princeton-running team uses a high-IQ, ruthlessly efficient guard, and at times he was like a poor man's version of Jonathan Wallace — who manned the point at Georgetown from 2004 to 2008.
We've become so infatuated with numbers, though, that we miss some very basic, old concepts. Dave Sobolewski was horrible in the "clutch" that year. He failed to make a shot in his last three games of the season (0-for-12), including the stunning loss to Minnesota that doomed Northwestern to yet another NIT appearance. He's always been a porous defender, so bad that you notice.
After his freshman year, no one imagined the logical trajectory would end here. Look at Iowa point guard Mike Gesell as something of an example. He's a not-super-talented but essential piece to a team with several offensive weapons. He takes advantage of that. You trust him to break presses and post a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (5.4 to Sobo's anemic 1.4). So even if Sobolewski never improved his defense or shooting, he'd be a reliable option, right? Right?
Nope. He's had an almost dramatic fall. Ever since last year's loss at Nebraska – which I had the thrill of traveling to – he's been a shell of himself. The idiom works in this case: Just watch tape of that game, when he scored 21 points and tried to will Northwestern to victory, and then follow with something since then. A leader and fighter turned into someone who, from this vantage point, had just about conceded.
I don't use that term to suggest that Sobolewski tries less hard than the rest of the team. He's just lost every semblance of confidence — to the point where I don't think he can recover it. He will not wake up tomorrow and suddenly rediscover his game, because that was predicated on ones like Baylor last year, when he served as the emotional spark and poured in 13 points.
In the 11 games following the Nebraska loss – with the team injured and struggling – he shot a miserable 27 percent. It reflects this season, with him shooting 29 percent.
With a new offense, it goes beyond that: the turnovers have risen and the discomfort has grown. If you don't think that some tension exists between Sobolewski and Chris Collins, you're out of your mind. Collins made an extreme move to bench Sobo in favor of former walk-on James Montgomery and somehow saw better results.
Worse: he's right. I don't know why you play Dave Sobolewski, a player once so promising. He does nothing on defense, nothing on offense, and nothing "typical" of any point guard. Jershon Cobb, Tre Demps and even Montgomery seem perfectly capable of holding down the one-spot because they have particular talents.
The best counterargument is that Sobolewski could improve, but do you want someone prone to disappearing in pivotal moments? Someone who struggles with the basic press, as Sobo did against Mississippi Valley State? No. You don't play him. Maybe 15 minutes per game will suffice. This team, so set on its development, cannot waste time.
It is widely believed around the program – and I say this with confidence – that incoming point guard Bryant McIntosh will start immediately. Collins recruited McIntosh and not Sobo, use your eyes, et cetera. It's one of the most blindingly obvious decisions that Collins and his staff will have to make while at Northwestern.
Then, if not now, Sobolewski will be an afterthought, with his career gradually declining. That's the truth, and rather than hiding behind loyalty, Collins has started to realize that benching him is, sadly, the only option.