Chris Collins spoke late in the offseason of his "multi-faceted players," and then referred to their offensive ability.
Of course, that's the conversation topic, or at least what writers ask coaches. But his multi-faceted argument might apply more to the defensive end, where the Wildcats can experiment with a strong variety of lineups.
It's not this overwhelming positive. Half of the roster can defend; half of the roster absolutely cannot. Dave Sobolewski, Kale Abrahamson and Nate Taphorn–for now–have their value almost entirely concentrated on offense. Alex Olah still needs to learn how to defend bigger bodies, with Tre Demps' blinding struggles manifesting themselves early in the exhibition matchup.
Then there's the other side, with Jershon Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin masterful on the perimeter. Drew Crawford and Nikola Cerina also have experience, making this four-man crew the "stopgap" of sorts. The fifth man is yet to be determined, but the overarching claim stands: Collins' highest variable decisions might arrive on the defensive side of the ball.
Take, for example, his call to place Cobb in the backup point guard role. Jeremy Woo, friend of PurpleWildcats.com, argues this has no offensive value, as Cobb lacks any playmaking ability — and I'd agree in full. But look at the floor, and realize the formidable and athletic defensive rotation this might create:
PG — JerShon Cobb
SG — ____________
SF — Sanjay Lumpkin
PF — Drew Crawford
C — Nikola Cerina
As for the shooting guard position here, I'd argue for Kale Abrahamson as the oversized two-man. He's still adjusting to the college game, and might create another tough matchup if his opponent is small enough. (Sorry, anything but Demps.) Regardless, this lineup provides an intriguing blend of skillsets, assuming that on any given night, Crawford will play like the primary scorer.
As writers and fans, we're almost compulsive about offense. Bill Carmody's Princeton attack, we knew, minimized the usual talent deficit by limiting the number of possessions. Collins introduced what will ostensibly be a higher-tempo look for Northwestern, which requires greater endurance from his players and a flexible, athletic defense.
The Wildcats always played around their defense, hoping that the right combination of stretch-fours and mismatched centers could hold strong on the interior. Now, they might be best advised playing toward it.
They lack the ideal personnel for an offense centered on the three-point shot. Drew Crawford's relegated to more of a post role, and Sobolewski (35 percent career), Cobb (31 percent) and Lumpkin are average perimeter shooters at best. Worse, they're apparently comfortable leaving Abrahamson on the bench.
Given past performances, there's a different strength that could emerge in Evanston: Perimeter defense. The words sound stupid, but didn't it seem like a good first step when their first exhibition opponent went 0-of-7 from behind the arc? It all made sense, as the team's strongest defensive crew led an impressive two-way game.
Despite being a pedestrian scorer (7 points per game in his career), Cobb's long been praised for his defense. He's someone who frequently racks up multiple steals with his active hands and close out skills. Lumpkin functions as the multi-purpose guy, as he's comfortable grabbing rebounds and guarding the opponent's most athletic player. Throw in Cerina's fundamentals and true-four mentality, with Crawford's physical play, and you have four-fifths of a passable defensive lineup in the Big Ten.
So, yeah, I fell into the same trap, thinking that our schematic focus would be on the new-look offense. It never occurred to me, before now, that Northwestern's best chance of success might involve the other side of the ball.