Five Thoughts: Northwestern-Nebraska

Michael Hlebasko chimes in after Northwestern's latest loss.

— The team was obviously going to struggle without Jershon Cobb, but I have no "it's all part of the process" silver lining for the performance. They played poorly on offense, lacking any real direction on that end. They've had plenty of awful offensive performances, and tonight's wasn't necessarily especially bad, but the slowed progress is frustrating. The offense hasn't improved enough. The run of positive performances earlier the conference slate was heartening, but this team has laid enough eggs now for us to simply say they've been bad without providing excuses or claiming that were indicators of future success. They played poorly, and they have played poorly enough times now to say that the latter part of the season hasn't been a significant move forward in terms of overall team play.

— The obvious exception to the above pessimism is Alex Olah, who has had two consecutive fantastic games. His 11 and 7 rebounds respectively are just as important as his 37 combined points. I don't expect him to replicate his recent three point success consistently, but he has also shot 80% from inside the arc and 75% from the line. Adding his 6 blocks to the mix makes it a hugely encouraging two games from Olah. I have complained about his development not moving fast enough a few times this season, and he still needs to think and move way faster on both ends, but he has markedly improved from last season in nearly every important category, and has played his best basketball later in the season. I have been skeptical of the potential that many fans and analysts claim to see in Olah, but I am starting to believe.

— I really wish that Sanjay Lumpkin's decision making on both ends had improved more by now. He's still playing his butt off, but the fouls he is taking are not always the product of his need to compensate for his size disadvantage. Especially knowing that he is going to have to take several fouls a game to be an effective defender; he needs to get better at conserving fouls in other situations. He never should have had to make a play anyway, but his foray into the lane that ended in a charge and effectively ended the game was simply not a smart play. He turns the ball over a lot for a guy who produces so little offensively, and opponents are openly daring him to shoot threes. Developing players once they get to campus is an underrated but crucial part of succeeding in college basketball, and Lumpkin is a guy who gives Collins an opportunity to prove he is able to.

— I doubt anyone is more upset about Drew Crawford's up and down offensive performance than he is, but his rebounding efforts deserve to be lauded. He is averaging 6.6 on the season for a Wildcats team that needs to scratch and claw for every rebound, and has rebounded especially well on nights where his shots aren't dropping. He is giving this team everything he has. It's sad that his Northwestern career will end with so many losses and such offensive frustration, but Northwestern fans should be incredibly proud of how Drew has poured all of himself into his last college season. He probably hasn't played well consistently enough to make any All-Big Ten teams at the end of the season, but he has represented himself, the program, and the university as well as any Northwestern athlete I've seen. He could miss the rest of his shots and I'd remain steadfast in my belief that nobody should ever wear his number for Northwestern again.

— Northwestern has an opportunity to win both of its final two games. Any narrative that attached huge significance to those two games would be misleading. I'd love to see better performances to close the season and avoid a seven or eight game losing streak. Seeing Olah continue to rebound or Abraham and Taphorn finally do something valuable would also be great. But, nothing that happens in these last two games will be more important than what we've seen over the course of the season. The roster as presently constructed is deeply flawed, and the list of limitations is longer than the list of Big Ten-caliber skills for most players. That won't change against Purdue or Penn State, but it might get better over the offseason. The first regular season is almost over for Collins and his staff, but the first offseason of player development and recruiting will be even more important.

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