*This is part two of a six part series previewing each Big Ten team.
Part two, Tuesday: Northwestern, Purdue
Part three, Wednesday: Iowa, Illinois
Part four, Thursday: Minnesota, Wisconsin
Part five, Friday: Michigan State, Michigan
Part six, Saturday: Ohio State, Indiana
Just when things were starting to look bright for Northwestern, everything came to a crashing halt. The Wildcats entered Big Ten play last season with a 10-2 record and were projected by many to finally earn their first NCAA tournament bid in their history. After losing six of their first eight Big Ten games, it was clear that it was destined to be another lost year for the Wildcats.
Northwestern is typically known more for their brains than their brawn, but they’ve managed to compete through the years under the leadership of the best player in their history, John Shurna. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Shurna’s time is up. On the bright side, Coach Bill Carmody has a special player ready to step up and take his place in senior guard Drew Crawford.
“Drew Crawford was the co rookie in the Big Ten three years ago and he’s had a nice career,” Carmody said. “I think he averaged 16 or 17 points a game last year, and he may have deferred to John a little bit and I may have called John’s number more than Drew’s at different times, but he’s certainly a terrific year and I think he’s going to have a break out.”
Crawford did just about everything for the Wildcats last season, averaging 16.1 ppg, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals, and hit 61 three pointers at a 41% clip, earning him Third Team All-Big Ten honors. With Shurna gone, Crawford will need to make the transition from 2nd banana to the go-to player.
Joining Crawford in the backcourt will be fellow Naperville native, sophomore Dave Sobolewski, who’s coming off of a stellar freshman season. Sobolewski played big minutes right off the bat, averaging 35 minutes a night scoring 8.3 ppg and dishing out 3.7 apg to only 1.4 turnovers. Heavily under recruited out of Benet Academy, Sobelewski turned out to be a diamond in the ruff for the Wildcats. His continued improvement will be a key to their success.
Perhaps the most improved player for the Wildcats last season was former walk-on senior guard Reggie Hearn. Hearn jumped from 1.0 to 7.4 ppg and 0.2 to 3.7 rpg, quickly evolving from bench warmer to role player. Carmody will run lineups with Hearn at shooting guard and slide Crawford over to the forward spot to give the team more versatility on the perimeter.
Northwestern has a solid backcourt, but will need some help from their frontcourt; especially on the boards. Last season they were a miserable 333th in the nation in rebounds per game at only 29.3. Carmody believes rebounding should be the team’s focal point.
“There is some talent involved, some ability involved, but you’re right, we clearly have to get better at that,” Carmody said. “I think our defense is okay, except once it goes up, and that’s part of the defense, you have to finish the play.”
6’11,” 250 lb freshman Alex Olah should provide some immediate help in that area. Olah averaged 18.5 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks per game for Traders Point Christian Academy last season and should make the rotation this season. His ability to produce right away could provide a huge lift for the Wildcat’s inside.
Northwestern certainly has challenges ahead with the loss of their all-time leading scorer and no real help in their interior. The curse of missing out on the tournament will continue to hang over the Wildcats’ heads. Unless there are surprises along the way, the curse will lurk once again.
While Northwestern struggles to break the curse of failing to earn an NCAA bid, the Purdue Boilermakers have knocked off six straight NCAA tournament appearances. Unfortunately, the students in West Lafayette strive for Final Fours, not tournament bids. With four of their top six leading scorers departing, including their star Robbie Hummel, making the NCAA tournament might be a more realistic goal. In a position he’s not accustomed to, coach Curtis Painter remains positive.
“We’re excited about this year, in a little bit of a different position for us with losing technically four guys that started the majority of the season,” Painter said. “But we have some good talent, we’re very inexperienced, we have four true freshmen that I feel will play, we have redshirt freshmen that will play. It’s going to be a youth movement for us, and like I said earlier I do like our talent level, I don’t like our experience.”
Lone seniors D.J. Byrd and Dru Anthrop will lead a young Purdue squad that includes three ESPN 100 recruits in center A.J. Hammons, shooting guard Raphael Davis and point guard Ronnie Johnson. And to fill out a starting lineup of recruits, power forward Jay Simpson. With so much talent departing, much will be expected of these freshmen right off the bat. Coach Painter speaks highly of top recruit A.J.Hammons.
“He’s ahead defensively right now, I would say, in terms of blocking shots and rebounding and passing and thinking the game,” Painter said. “He’s very good in those areas. Offensively, he can make an open shot to 17 feet. He’s got to get polished in the post, a go to move and feel more comfortable down there on the block.”
With an influx of new players, the Boilermakers will have to be patient and wait for the chemistry to formulate. Leadership from senior guard-forward D.J. Byrd will be crucial. Byrd averaged 8.9 ppg and made 65 three-pointers shooting 43% from beyond the arc in only 19.5 minutes per game. Byrd will need to step up his game as he sees an increase in minutes and will have to establish himself as a vocal leader to the young players.
Junior guard Terone Johnson made huge strides last season, improving his scoring from 4.9 to 9.2 ppg and increasing his field goal percentage by 12%. Much like Byrd, Johnson will need to prove he could log 30-35 minutes a night while maintaining his production.
With question marks surrounding the team, Painter refuses to give up on this season.
“People may say this is not this team’s time, it’s going to be in a year, but it’s always your time,” Painter said. “There are two teams that made the Final Four three years ago that didn’t receive any votes at all in the top 25 in the preseason and one of those had to win 25 games to get to the Final Four. So you stick together and play hard.”
There’s no question this Purdue squad has raw talent, but the real question is whether this young group can produce sooner than expected. Coach Painter will certainly earn his stripes if he can extend the Boilermaker’s special six year tournament run.