Five Thoughts: Northwestern-Indiana

Michael Hlebasko with his thoughts following Northwestern's win against Indiana.

— What Chris Collins said about this being a different team since refocusing following the Iowa game was not just lip service. The tenacity the Wildcats have shown on defense and the boards is a new sight to Northwestern fans. This team has stymied three consecutive opponents on defense and, although they have been vulnerable to offensive rebounds, held their own in the rebounding battle—in no small part due to the help provided by perimeter players. Jershon Cobb had seven rebounds against Michigan State and nine against Indiana. Tre Demps has averaged five over the last three contests. Although Northwestern was out rebounded by a combined minus-nine over the three games, the performances on the glass were very good given the personnel disadvantages. Playing with extreme effort and focus can paper over issues at the college level, and the Wildcats have done exactly that for the last three games.

Drew Crawford may or may not be 100 percent physically, but he showed for long stretches in the second half that if he makes the right adjustments he can be an impactful player regardless of his condition. Crawford hasn't looked like himself in Big Ten play when he catches the ball facing the basket and drives to the rim, but his post play has been stellar at times. He got himself going against Indiana today by backing men down and showing a deft touch on the block, which set him up to drive and pull up with less resistance. Adding in his 12 rebounds, Drew Crawford proved tonight that he will be able to lead by example for Northwestern the rest of the way, even if it isn't exactly how we imagined he would at the start of the season.

— Northwestern will not soon forget the two clutch performances by Tre Demps against Illinois and Indiana. Nor should they. Stephen Bardo compared Demps to Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson during the broadcast after Demps hit the absurd high-arcing step back to give the Cats a five-point lead with 2:25 to play. Demps took a couple ill-advised jumpers, but for a team whose offense is often stagnant, Demps trying to get it going doesn't carry a huge opportunity cost. Demps's shot selection may not be consistently good yet, but it no longer stands out negatively. In fact, Jershon Cobb's is starting to look shakier than Demps's. And when this team needed some big buckets, Tre Demps came up huge again. Another performance or two like this and Tre Demps will officially get the clutch label and we will have to come up with a snappy nickname like "Big Shot Bob" or something of that ilk. He's completely changed the perception of his game and his future in the program, and Northwestern's recent improvement is directly related.

— The biggest change on defense has been Alex Olah's improvement as a post defender. Though it's important to admit he didn't have to face Adreian Payne, the bigs from both Illinois and Michigan State were unable to assert themselves against Olah. Olah's battle with Noah Vonleh in Bloomington was an epic brawl, with both guys getting in plenty of blows and counterblows. While Vonleh finished with 17 and 12 to Alex Olah's 8 and 8, it still feels like Olah won the bout on decision. Olah had six blocks, and without his two three-pointers Vonleh only made two of 12 field goals. For years, Northwestern fans have expected the worst entering any game against a team with a good low post scorer, but Alex Olah has refused to be anyone's pushover against recent opponents.

— The question on everyone's mind seems to be how much Dave Sobolewski will play when he returns from his concussion. Collins admitted after the win over Indiana that he will not return directly to the starting lineup as this group seems to be working well (or, as Nick Medline translated on twitter, "is better"). This team definitely needs depth, but with its newfound defensive ethos, we have to wonder how Sobolewski fits into the rotation. Especially with Demps's improvement, Sobolewski's calming effect on the offense may not be enough to make up for his deficiencies elsewhere. I expect Sobolewski to play more than Taphorn and Cerina, but Chris Collins and his staff have found the core rotation of six players that gives this team the best chance to win, and Dave unfortunately doesn't provide compelling reasons to expand the core to seven.

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