By Skip Myslenski,
NUsports.com Special Contributor
He was an unimposing suburban kid whose age had just reached double figures, but there he was every weekend, traveling with a bunch of kids just like him into the big city so they could ball with the best. That is what they went up against in the gyms of Chicago, those noted incubators of high fliers and higher skiers, but not only did our fresh-faced kid and his mates never back down. "As time progressed," he remembers, "we started winning tournaments and getting tougher and tougher every week."
Some variation of that word tough always accompanies any mention of 'Cat freshman point Dave Sobolewski, who is still fresh-faced and physically unimposing, and his bit of reverie was inspired when asked about that fact. Now someone asks if he ever faced off back then with Anthony Davis, Kentucky's hugely touted freshman out of Chicago, and he starts laughing and say yes. "Actually," he then admits, "I don't remember playing him. But one of my friends brought up a video. It was pretty funny to see. I didn't know he was on that team back then. But, really, a lot of the top Illinois high school guys from the city we would see week in and week out in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I think that did a lot of good for me."
Was it a matter of self-preservation?
"I think so. Even back then I was the point guard, I had to do a lot of the ball handling for the team. Obviously you're still very young, but you've got quicker guards back then just like I do now. So you've got to find a way to offset that."
We ask Tavaras Hardy, the 'Cat assistant and primary recruiter, what he best liked about Sobolewski when he first viewed him. "That he's such a tough kid and he's a leader," he says. "People look at him and they think he's not going to be athletic enough or fast enough. But he's smart, he's tough, and he is fast, he is strong. So I think those misperceptions about him, he kind of has a chip on his shoulder and likes to prove them wrong. That's what I like about him."
"He's physically a pretty strong kid, and from the neck up he's pretty strong too. He's a competitor," says the 'Cat head coach, Bill Carmody. "I've said that altar boy thing about him, but maybe I should say something else. He looks like a young guy, a nice guy and all. But he's got an edge to him, which is good to see."
Hardy, by the way, calls the young point, "Bo Lewski."
"It kind of flows," he explains with a smile.
Dave Sobolewski has clearly flowed into his role with the 'Cats, who carry a 6-0 record into this weekend when they host Mississippi Valley State on Friday night and No. 7 Baylor on Sunday afternoon. He has started each of those games and, most remarkably, handed out 24 assists while committing just seven turnovers while averaging 33.8 minutes. He has also averaged nine points, but most importantly, says Carmody, "He's getting the ball to the right guys.
"He's been well coached. High school (Benet), AAU, he's been coached very well, and the things that are new to him he picks up very quickly. He's a competitor and he really just has to get the ball to the right guy, right now. Timely shooting certainly helps. But we've got guys who can put the ball in the basket, so just make sure things run smoothly. I think he's done a nice job of that."
"I've been lucky enough to come in with some really good upperclassmen who put a lot of trust in me, and with that I feel really good out there," says Sobolewski himself. "I'm sure it's not easy to just give the ball to a freshman in the games, but they've put a ton of trust in me and that's made it a lot easier on me."
So wasn't he sure he could do it coming in?
"Oh, yeah. I was confident I could do it. But you never know with older guys. With these guys, I couldn't have asked for a better group to walk into. They've been so accepting on the court, off the court. They've been really good to me in my transition."
The estimable Juice Thompson, of course, previously held Sobolewski's job, and it was that same Juice Thompson that he regularly worked with last summer. "At first he was kind of teaching me a lot of the footwork that comes with the Princeton offense," he remembers. "We would go through drills with shots that are common to get in the Princeton offense, just kind of getting my footwork down. And then we'd play a lot of open gym, and you just pick things up playing with such good players like that. You learn from what they do, and you watch them and watch them, and I've seen some videos of Juice. Just picking up some of his little techniques have helped me so far."
How about a specific?
"A big thing we worked on was footwork coming off screens in our offense. Our play call 'Point Screen Away,' the footwork you've got to get down on it and how you have to stop behind screens sometimes depending on the defense, he kind of laid it all out for me and showed me what I had to do in different situations. After thinking about it, then seeing it all fall and throughout the start of practice, it took awhile to pick it up. But I feel I'm getting a pretty good hang of it.
"Juice was great to me. Obviously, I really appreciated that. He's about the best guy you can learn from in the history of the program. Yeah. He was great to me, always looking to put in more work. I still talk to him a lot, actually. He watches all of our games over in Germany (where he's playing), stays up late to watch them, and sometimes he gives me feedback on what to look for and what to do. It's been really good to have him around."
When he was a senior in high school, countless high-priced spreads deemed 'Cat wide receiver Jeremy Ebert too small and too slow to succeed at their level. Their snubs put a permanent chip on his shoulder and drove him during his brilliant career. When he was recruiting Dave Sobolewski, countless high-priced spreads asked Tavaras Hardy why he was bothering with that unimposing suburban kid. "We got that a lot, especially losing Juice," he remembers. "Some of the guys in our league joked, 'There's a difference in speed. We're glad Juice is gone.' But we don't analyze things based on rankings, based on appearance. We try to find the right-fit guys.
"He's a great kid off the court. But to play at this level, you have to have that extra edge and he has it. He displays it in a lot of different ways, whether it's boxing out a big guy or handling the ball full court against the press. That's where it translates. He's been big for us, big for us all year."
"I just try to play tough as much as I can," says Sobolewski himself. "Obviously, the guards I'm going to be playing against, there are a lot of guards quicker than me, a lot of guards more athletic than me, so I try to make up for that with toughness and just playing gutty."
So the circle of this narrative closes as it began, on toughness and guts and just maybe a chip on the shoulder, and so we wonder about the effect of those who surely doubted this unimposing suburban kid along his way to this promising present. "There are always going to be doubters, no matter what level you're at," Dave Sobolewski finally says. "I've had it so much, you've just got to use it as motivation. That's exactly what I do use it as. I like to prove people wrong. Sometimes I don't listen to it. But sometimes I do and I take it to heart and prove them wrong."