Without their star player, many predicted that the Wildcats would struggle to adjust and compete in the Big Ten. That has been the case, as evidenced by blowout losses to No. 2 Michigan and No. 9 Minnesota.
The upside? Several pieces of the team's young core are showing significant improvement. That arrived with increased minutes.
"I think I've gotten the hang of it," freshman Kale Abrahamson said of the Princeton offense. "You should have seen me in the summer. I wasn't good, but as of now, I'm not messing up in practice and I think it's showing in the games."
After playing sparingly in most early-season games, Abrahamson was thrust into the starting lineup to replace Crawford on Dec. 17 against Texas State. His play initially seemed timid, and his poor defensive play contributed to the 94-point drubbing Michigan posted in Evanston.
Overall, though, Abrahamson has shown promise. Since the Texas State game, the freshman has connected on 43 percent of his three-point attempts – cementing himself as a perimeter threat.
On a game-to-game basis, Abrahamson said the difficulty lies in preparation. He recited staples of Carmody teams: intense game planning and loads of information. Rather than ride the bench for the rest of the season, Abrahamson is instead settling into the starter's role.
"It's been a good transition. I think I've responded pretty well so far," he said of the transition. "I wish that as a team we would be playing better, but it's been going smoothly."
In hopes of fighting off Minnesota at The Barn, Carmody threw in a wrinkle to challenge this young group. The team employed a slower offensive tempo, and it worked in the first half. NU held Minnesota to 17 first-half points, before a lousy second half sent the Wildcats to their second straight loss.
Austin Hollins knocked down five three-pointers as part of a 26-7 run, and the dormant NU offense failed to respond. It's difficult to point fingers considering the youth on this team. Despite some positives, Carmody said the next step is to put together a full 40 minutes.
"We let Hollins get out of the bag," he said. "That one stretch changes everything."
In the loss, Alex Olah struggled from the field, an indication that he still needs to hone his skills in all areas. Olah has progressed in, and with extremely high potential, it is crucial for him to work out the kinks.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Tre Demps finally embraced his role as a scoring threat off the bench. After suffering through a miserable shooting slump to open the season, Demps caught fire in recent outings. He averages 11.3 points in his last six games – more impressively, 26.9 points per 40 minutes during that stretch. This growth offers a glimpse of what he can provide. When Demps struggled, he stayed confident, knowing he would eventually convert his opportunities.
"The coaches helped me out in practice, and it was just a matter of the ball going in," Demps said. "(The shots) all felt equally good."
Sixteen Big Ten games remain. Difficult games await, and without key players, there is little optimism regarding this team's prospects.
But as for rebuilding, Northwestern is getting there.
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