Joe’s Corner: The Fate of Dave Sobolewski

In this week’s edition of Joe’s Corner, WNUR co-Sports Director Joe Misulonas examines the role of Northwestern’s Junior point guard Dave Sobolewski

The Fate of Dave Sobolewski

On Saturday, the Northwestern Men’s Basketball faces the Iowa Hawkeyes for the second time this season. Last time these two teams played each other, Iowa won easily, 93-67. Iowa beat a top ten Ohio State team since that time and firmly established themselves as a contender not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire nation.

Northwestern, coincidentally enough, also established themselves as a team you can’t sleep on in the Big Ten. Since the Iowa loss, Northwestern is 3-1, with the only loss coming to a top-five ranked Michigan State Spartans team. This recent success is primarily due to a defensive resurgence. Below is a comparison between Northwestern’s defensive stats the last four games and the season as a whole:

NU Stats NU PPG Opp PPG NU FG% Opp FG%
Last 4 Games 51.5 51 34.6 29.8
Season 62 63.5 39.5 40.2

The last four games, Northwestern held opponents to 12.5 less points per game and lowered opponent field goal percentage by 10.4%. I would say these are statistically significant numbers even though it’s a small sample size. They’ve played two ranked teams during this stretch and an Indiana team which is better than nearly all of the Wildcats’ non-conference opponents. This isn’t Gardner-Webb, UIC, and Mississippi Valley State we’re talking about. This is four conference opponents, and these numbers cannot be taken lightly.

So what is the variable that made the last four games different than the rest of the season? Dave Sobolewski sat out all four games with a concussion. Sobolewski is not a good defender, which we’ve known since his freshman season. He’s not very athletic and lacks size. In the Bill Carmody years, his defensive deficiencies were hidden in various zone schemes. New Northwestern basketball coach Chris Collins uses more man-to-man defense than years past, and Sobolewski is simply outmatched.

Without Sobolewski, the Wildcats used man-to-man defense for extended periods of time with success. The numbers speak for themselves. JerShon Cobb and Sanjay Lumpkin are solid defensive players, and Tre Demps, Drew Crawford, and Alex Olah are serviceable defenders as well. With those five on the floor (whom Collins primarily relied on in the past four games), Northwestern’s defense suddenly isn’t as awful as it’s been in years past. It’s actually been good!

Offensively the team struggled. Cobb and Crawford, who are supposed to be the primary scorers for this team, lacked consistency. Olah’s low-post game isn’t fully developed, and Lumpkin is a work in progress. Demps provided firepower off the bench, and the last four games he’s stepped up for this team. But he’s still a streaky scorer who is as likely to be red hot coming off the bench as he is coming out ice cold. Kale Abrahamson, the only other player to really play significant minutes on this team, is shooting below 40% on the season. The improved defensive effort has been met with stagnant offensive play, but the defense has been so good that it hasn’t been as much of a problem.

The question is what’s going to happen when Sobolewski returns (which appears to be this Saturday)? Sobolewski has been the starting point guard for this team since his freshman year, when he helped lead Northwestern to its closest bid to a NCAA Tournament in program history. He’s always been an efficient floor leader. He lacks defensive prowess and true scoring ability, but in the past he’s always been a sturdy foundation for the offense to be built on.

This season, that has not been the case. In the 16 games he’s played in, Sobolewski is shooting 26% from the field, and only 17% from beyond the 3-point arc. His assist-to-turnover ratio (the one area Sobolewski has excelled in the past) is only 1.275, second on the team to Demps (1.5).

This is quite a conundrum. Sobolewski’s a three year starter, but he’s a prototypical Carmody recruit: Lack of athletic ability, doesn’t create his shots, can’t be relied upon in a man-to-man defense. He doesn’t fit Collins’ offensive or defensive schemes. Northwestern’s played better with him on the bench this season than with him on the floor. This isn’t a good sign, seeing as Collins is bringing in two 3-star point guards (Bryant McIntosh and Johnnie Vassar) onto next year’s team.

What is Collins going to do with Sobolewski? He’s currently averaging 27.4 minutes per game. Are we going to see that number drop closer to 20? 15? And what does that mean for next season? Will senior Dave Sobolewski, a three-year starter, sit on the bench?

Of all the players on Northwestern’s current roster who have to prove themselves for the future of the Collins’ era, Sobolewski is at the top of the list. If he struggles the rest of this year, he’s in jeopardy of losing his starting spot. Prove himself a valuable contributor and a solid fit to the Collins’ scheme, and next year’s Northwestern starting five could have a solid mix of veteran leadership and fresh talent.

It’s hard to imagine Dave Sobolewski, a valuable part of the 2011-2012 Northwestern team that nearly made the NCAA Tournament, losing his starting job his senior year. But if this team continues to play better with him on the bench than on the floor, that’s exactly what could (and probably should) happen.

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