Cobb needs to shift into primary role

What happened to JerShon Cobb down the stretch? Steven Goldstein wonders.

Jershon Cobb had Northwestern rolling with 23 points midway through the second half. He was held scoreless in the final 10 minutes.

Chris Collins' postgame statement reads the same after every 50 something-40 something loss. The team has no offense, he acknowledges, and it did all that it could to compensate.

Sunday's 54-48 loss to Minnesota rendered that tagline useless. The Wildcats had a real scoring threat in JerShon Cobb, who midway through the second half had 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting and a 5-of-7 mark from behind the arc.

Welsh-Ryan seemed to get gradually louder with every possession. (Nick turned to me and said: "I think they look like a real basketball team.")

Cobb's dynamic performance briefly masked the struggles of Drew Crawford, who went 0-for-7 in the first half. Then, with the score knotted at 41 and 7:50 to play, Cobb drew his fourth foul. He would be shut out for the rest of the night.

"The game was tied," Collins recollected in his press conference. "I thought, if I could just get to the six-minute mark and buy us some time...You just have to trust your guys there. I thought we would be okay."

They weren't. Northwestern would score just seven points in more than seven minutes, the majority of which came on late-game foul shots.

Crawford bumbled to 1-of-15 shooting and committed the deciding turnover with 33 seconds to play. I suggested Collins draw up perimeter screens to get him shooting along the more spacious perimeter; Nick suggested Crawford be benched for a few minutes. But we both agreed on one thing: from this point out, Cobb had to be the man. And he wasn't.

What happened?

If you ask Richard Pitino, Minnesota's Daquein McNeil locked down on Cobb. The Gophers originally came into Sunday's game with a focus on soft trapping Crawford, but as Cobb began his torrid shooting and the fouls kept increasing, the soft trap was switched to him. Pitino rang the praise of his small lineup's defense, and according to him, Northwestern was forced to make a tough in-game adjustment.

Tre Demps backs it up.

"We were always looking for JerShon throughout the game. He had it going on for a while," he said. "They just did a great job of denying us the ball. It felt like we were just running up and down the court. If we get them again in the Big Ten Tournament, we have to work on our spacing. Their guards did a great job defensively."

If you ask Collins, the Wildcats suffered from not only the fouls they committed, but the lack of fouls they drew. Crawford's struggles could have been ameliorated with extra looks at the foul line, but both he and Demps failed to take a single free throw.

"Drew plays the whole game, a physical game like that, and doesn't shoot any free throws," Collins lamented. "I have to get him in positions where he can get fouled if the jumpers aren't falling. We can get him something easy on the break."

But Cobb himself didn't have much of an explanation. He knew Minnesota upped its focus on him, and he knew that with four fouls on him, he'd have to hold back his hot hand and start distributing.

"They were doing a great job defensively on everybody. Down the stretch, they keyed in on me. I was trying to get the ball out of my hands then. It wasn't about me," he said.

Ultimately, it's good for Northwestern to continue being offensively aggressive. We said this early in the year, and even though the Wildcats have exceeded all of our expectations, grinding through the ugliness and finding a way to put up points is still necessary. When Cobb was limited, NU turned to its captain. Crawford's free trigger earned him National Player of the Week designations earlier this month.

"The thing about his night is that he was aggressive. I'd rather him go 1-for-15 than 1-for-4. If he's aggressive, that's enough from our leader," Demps said. "We're going to ride with him whether he goes 1-for-15 or 10-for-15. He runs the ship."

But it's also on Crawford as a leader and veteran player to fall back. At some point, the shots just aren't going in, and aggression can be channeled in other ways: drive-and-kicks could set up Demps or Kale Abrahamson on the outside, or as Collins said, drawing double-teams and fouls would slowly rebuild momentum.

It's frustrating, but this problem shouldn't persist beyond next year. NU will have a true point guard to distribute and set up plays, and the team will add a bevy of capable scorers that can come in off the bench to relieve a struggling starter.

Above all, this year's series of experiments revealed another important reality: when deployed efficiently, JerShon Cobb has what it takes to be a No. 1 scorer. Learning to be the first option while limiting the fouls naturally takes time.

"I'd rather have zero points and win than however many I had tonight," Cobb vowed.

Drew Crawford on any other night gives NU that win. But struggling with a few legitimate scorers is worlds ahead of what the Wildcats were dealing with a few months ago. Cobb will have a shot to reprise his performance, and Crawford and the entire team will have a shot to learn from mistakes.

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