NU Notebook: 'Not there yet'

Pregame notes for Northwestern-Minnesota: On free throw shooting, multi-faceted offenses, and the reality of NU's tiny rotation.

-- It's extraordinarily telling that after Northwestern's Thursday loss to Michigan State, Chris Collins said outright that he could only play six or seven guys. Aside from the obvious five candidates-including bench threat Tre Demps-that list holds Kale Abrahamson and Nikola Cerina. Not Nate Taphorn or Dave Sobolewski. This is the only current worrying storyline of an already successful season for Collins. His one true freshman can't fit in at all, lost on defense and hardly better on offense. And the former starting point guard has lost his touch to the point of being constantly benched. The latter's a bit depressing. Judging by Collins' comments, though, we can't expect much change moving forward in terms of the rotation. He relies on Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb to play ridiculous minute totals, and that can result in fatigue.

-- The Spartans might have exposed NU's one overwhelming weakness. With five tired players on the floor, they struggle to adjust to personnel shakeups. Collins noted after the game that the Wildcats were thrown off by MSU's frontline shifts, with Kenny Kaminski breaking up the physical group by spreading the floor and knocking down three-point field goals. This Tom Izzo flexibility resulted in "breakdowns defensively" for NU. Obviously, few teams can mix and match like MSU, but the multi-faceted offensive approach halted the KenPom top-20 defensive team. Even more obviously, it helps teams when they have multiple three-point shooters. Teams like Purdue and Minnesota struggled with the smothering NU defense when they, characteristically, failed to make shots. MSU didn't fall victim to that on Thursday, and the outcome could hinge on Minnesota's ability Sunday to stretch NU out.

-- One vexing storyline: For a while, JerShon Cobb was shooting below 40 percent on the season. He was shooting awkward, contested midrange jumpers that stunted the offense and contributed to the team's bad field goal percentage. In the last three games, he's been much more confident, making 17-of-37, with 10 triples during that span. He was the best player for Northwestern against MSU, scoring 22 points and adding seven rebounds in the loss. Like Crawford, his rebounding average (4.8) is up a stunning margin compared to two seasons ago. Better, the difference between his 31 percent three-point shooting in 2011-12 and his 34 percent (at a higher volume) from this year is significant. Opponents are forced to have more respect for his jump shot, especially because, unbelievably, Northwestern is a horrible shooting team.

-- Here's one major problem with the current team: They've never been getting to the line frequently enough. As I just mentioned, they can't shoot, sitting last in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage. But that wouldn't be as important if the ‘Cats were to attack the basket and reach the free throw line. It's the most defensible argument, now, for giving Dave Sobolewski significant minutes. He was the second most consistent player in terms of getting to the stripe (only behind Drew Crawford). Alex Olah rarely draws fouls, squandering his decent free-throw shooting ability. JerShon Cobb, by style, usually pulls up before drawing contact. The combined result is that in an era with more fouls than ever, Northwestern has failed to adjust. They shoot them at a decent clip, but have taken 75 fewer free throws than their opponents this season. At three per game, that adds up.

-- In their last matchup with NU, the Gophers badly missed Andre Hollins. The junior guard, and team's leading scorer, was out during the loss with a severe ankle sprain. He then called out his teammates for being a "bunch of individuals" in the close Northwestern win. But, he's back now, and it's hard to tell whether NU will be able to stop him Sunday. Hollins adds another dimension to the Gophers, a team that pretty much defines "bubble" at this point in the season. If he can distribute the ball, facilitate shooters, and help the team avoid excessive one-on-one basketball, Minnesota should win the rematch decisively. Still, with Chris Collins and his team continuing to beat expectations—even after the latest tough two-game stretch—this one could certainly go either way.


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