Northwestern thought it had figured that out. The departure of all-time leading scorer John Shurna meant everyone had to step up and give just a bit more. New players were getting settled, and the Wildcats were poised for another run through the Big Ten gauntlet.
But the question hanging over the Wildcats' heads returned anew last week, with the news that their leader Drew Crawford was done for the year with a torn labrum. It was another bad break for a team that has had its share of them, and posed a familiar but unmistakably difficult task.
Coach Bill Carmody and his team tried their best to answer that question against Texas State, gutting their way to a 74-68 win over an upset-minded Bobcats squad. Crawford was clearly missed: Northwestern frequently altered its rotation, to mixed results. Freshman Tre Demps' first-half ankle injury didn't make it easier. Carmody found the winning combo just in time for a late 12-0 run, putting the Wildcats ahead for good.
"We had a lot of inexperienced guys out there," said Carmody. "We had been trying for a couple of days to have different lineups, but you never really know until you get them out there. We have some freshmen out there who have to step up, and this is the time to do it."
It wasn't long ago that Northwestern had a new face come up big. Dave Sobolewski made major contributions last season as a freshman, thrust immediately into a starting role. Take it from Sobolewski: a little experience can go a long way in helping players develop.
"The freshmen are still trying to figure things out a little bit," said Sobolewski. "There's a difference between when they're in there and when there are only older guys. It's great for them that they're getting these minutes, because soon enough you won't be able to tell [who is more experienced]. Obviously we'll miss Drew immensely on both ends of the floor, but it's good for the young guys."
Hustle plays keyed Northwestern to victory Monday night, especially in the final minutes, the Wildcats battling back from a six-point deficit in a game where the lead changed 14 times. More often than not it was the veterans in the thick of it, as Carmody sat his freshman down the stretch. The importance of their leadership and savvy wasn't lost on the Wildcats.
"Sobo and I were talking the other day about how with Drew out now, we have to be the captains out there," said senior Reggie Hearn. "We're going to have to play a much more disciplined game. Drew is a guy who can go off for 25 or 30 on a given night, and I'm not sure we have anybody else like that. It's definitely up to us to tighten our game."
In the end, Carmody was pleased with freshmen Kale Abrahamson and Sanjay Lumpkin, key parts of the equation to help fill Crawford's shoes. Moving forward, they'll need to make a huge contribution along with fellow frosh Alex Olah if Northwestern hopes to make a splash.
"These guys are all competitors," said Carmody. "I've said to everyone that [Crawford's injury] is an opportunity, and it's not that big a deal. You came here to play, and now you get a chance to play. It's changing things, but we're looking at it as a positive."
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