Northwestern's waiting game — wait till next year

Coach Chris Collins playing his system mostly with Bill Carmody's leftovers a poor fit, at least until handpicked reinforcements arrive

If Northwestern basketball fans want to be entertained this winter, they should check the schedule — St. Rita's schedule.

Vic Law plays for St. Rita. The 6-foot-7 forward is the jewel of Chris Collins' first recruiting class, a group that ESPN.com ranks 25th in the nation.

We're one game into the Big Ten conference season, and the reality is that wins and losses won't matter because there's no shot for a postseason berth. The Wildcats already have stumbled seven times in 14 tries, their worst start since 2007.

Some of that is a function of a nonconference slate designed for a team that would be on the NCAA tournament bubble — with road or neutral site games against Stanford, Missouri and UCLA and a Big Ten-ACC Challenge date at North Carolina State.

Some is a function of injuries — Drew Crawford's back and JerShon Cobb's ankle.

But the larger cause is the coaching change that cost Northwestern coach Bill Carmody and guard Jaren Sina, who is averaging 9.4 points and 38.9 percent 3-point shooting in his last five games for Seton Hall.

Carmody had glaring flaws: He was a reluctant recruiter who gave scholarships to Mike Turner and Chier Ajou, bigs who are simply not Big Ten-worthy players. He declined to market the program, passing on PR-boosting activities at Wrigley Field and the United Center. And defense and rebounding were sometimes optional activities.

But the man was a master at coaching the Princeton offense, a system that hid Northwestern's athletic deficiencies.

Point guard Dave Sobolewski was a functional player for Carmody. Now he's shooting a sub-arctic 27.2 percent from the field with assist and turnover rates going in the wrong direction.

But Collins still has to give him extended minutes because, without Sina, there's a dearth of ballhandlers.

Forward Sanjay Lumpkin mysteriously has gone from stat-stuffing glue guy to invisible man. Freshman Nate Taphorn lit it up in preseason practice but gets spooked once the lights come on.

Center Alex Olah had a breakthrough Thursday night against Wisconsin, scoring 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting. But when he misses his first shot or two, he loses confidence.

Kale Abrahamson probably has too much confidence, firing 3s early in the shot clock. Collins yanked him immediately after Wisconsin's Ben Brust beat him for a backdoor layup Thursday.

The Badgers weren't even challenged in the game. Then again, Carmody also had little success against Bo Ryan, going 4-17 against him.

Asked how game-planning for Collins' team differed from Carmody's squads, the Wisconsin coach replied: "It's still trying … to make people take tough 2s. They are running some good stuff, and they have not had all their pieces healthy to get an offensive rhythm. When I'm looking at film, I'm saying: 'Crawford didn't play in this game, Cobb didn't play in that game.' So it's hard to get a feel for what they have. If they can stay healthy and get some consistency, they are going to cause some problems."

That's a generous way of looking at it.

Collins, instilling a system that demands athleticism and creativity, is a long-term investment. Northwestern officials are buying shares in a real estate development before the permits have been approved.

Collins can only hope the next wave of Wildcats can cause problems for the opposition. This team is merely causing headaches.

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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