At this time last season, Northwestern senior point guard Juice Thompson led the Wildcats on one of their best stretches in team history, coming through in the clutch on some big wins late in the season.
This year, freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski has suddenly found the same spark that his predecessor did a year ago, showing up big in the Cats’ past three wins against Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa.
Sobolewski played for 40 minutes in both the Iowa and Illinois games and played 38 against Nebraska. He scored 14 and 15 points against the Illini and Huskers, respectively, and a career high 21 against the Hawkeyes.
After a slow stretch to start conference play, he’s hitting his stride at the right time, as NU is looking finish the year on a strong run into March. Last year’s star point guard had been giving him advice along the way.
“Juice and I have been joking about other people saying I’ve hit a wall,” he said. “I kind of use that stuff as motivation.”
During non-conference season, Sobolewski was a model of consistency, which is the mark of a solid freshman — not making mistakes, but not standing out as a star, either. Now, he’s starting to stand out as a star on both ends of the court.
Sobolewski typically plays at the bottom of NU’s signature 1-3-1 zone defense, and while he struggled early to play against Big Ten size down low, he was impressive in the Illinois game and outplayed Iowa, despite being undersized.
Offensively, his contributions are more obvious. Beyond the stat line, he has provided the Cats with an option outside of stars John Shurna and Drew Crawford, who have garnered attention throughout Big Ten play.
“Teams have been keying in on John and Drew,” he said.
He has taken advantage.
Now that teams have been forced to respect Sobolewski as a legitimate offensive option, Shurna and Crawford have had more room to operate, as have Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio had 16 and 13 points, respectively, including some clutch threes to put the game away.
“Teams were keying in on John and Drew all year; it was time for other players to step up,” Marcotullio said. “I think we stepped up pretty well tonight. We had five guys in double figures; that’s a tremendous accomplishment for our unselfishness.”
Sobolewski has been a catalyst for that success.
"The last few games he's played very, very well, taking care of the ball again and doing the right things,” coach Bill Carmody said. “I'm coaching that kid hard because you can. He's one of those guys that I was on a couple of times, but I thought his decision-making was very, very good. You can coach him hard, he snarls at you every once and while and all that but in a good way. He's a competitor and he listens. I like the way he played in the last few games and I hope he can continue that."
Despite struggling earlier in the Big Ten slate with some “freshman” turnovers, he has turned his game around and sounded like a coach — something Carmody loves about him — dissecting Iowa’s defensive problems.
It was Northwestern’s freshman point guard who played with more poise than Iowa’s sophomore or senior at that position.
“I think they had guys back, but just didn’t see the ball,” he said. “It’s really hard to stop guys when you’ve got a full head of steam playing one-on-one.”
Now, on a three-game winning streak, Sobolewski will try to accomplish what Thompson and company couldn’t last year and no team in Northwestern history has ever done — wrap up a postseason bid.
“We just have to go on a little run here,” Carmody said.
It’s a run his freshman point guard has already begun.