The basketball 'Cats ended the first week of their season Sunday with their third straight win, a 80-53 laugher over Fairleigh Dickinson. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up some notes, quotes and observations culled along the way...
* Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn, Dave Sobolewski and Alex Marcotullio are the only names on the roster who have played for the 'Cats. It was by design, then, that the Knights were preceded on the schedule by Mississippi Valley State (last Thursday) and Texas Southern (last Tuesday). "We tried to get some games where we thought we could get some minutes for some guys," explained 'Cat coach Bill Carmody. He meant guys like Kale Abrahamson, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward who can shoot; and 7-foot freshman center Alex Olah, who starts; and 6-foot-9 junior forward Nikola Cerina, a transfer from TCU who limped off after twisting his right ankle on Sunday.
"We knew we'd have to play them and it's sort of paid off a little bit," Carmody would go on. "The other night (against Mississippi Valley) I didn't do what I wanted to do with Kale (who played only two minutes against the Delta Devils). But I wanted to get Kale in there, I wanted to get Nico in there, I wanted to get big Al in there. Now Sanjay (Lumpkin, another freshman) hasn't played (because of illness), but he was playing the best of them all. This will set him back a little bit. But that's what you have to do. You have to look at your team and see if you can schedule the way you want to. You can't always. But it's working out pretty nicely."
* Carmody did not mention the best newcomer to his program, the forward Jared Swopshire, and there was a reason for that. He is a grad student who transferred in after playing four years at Louisville and so he has plenty of experience, experience that he has manifested by slipping seamlessly into a starting role. "He's a basketball player," Carmody says of him by way of compliment, and here is what he means by that. Against Mississippi Valley, Swopshire had a steal, two assists, six rebounds and 22 points while going 7-of-11overall, 5-of-6 on his threes and 3-of-4 from the line.
"He's a versatile guy," Carmody said of him that night. "I don't know the stats. But he did a lot in every category, in all the categories, including turnovers (he had five). No. He makes big plays. He made some nice passes. And there's a calmness about him that I like and I think is good for the team."
* Speaking of passes: Through three games, the 'Cats have 89 field goals and 73 assists. This proves they are sharing the ball. They also have just 33 turnovers. This proves they are taking care of the ball.
* Sobolewski, the point, has 21 assists and just two turnovers. This was expected. But, even before the year began, Carmody said, "He's not that little point guard from the '60s anymore who just passes the ball, cuts and isn't heard from again. He's shooting more. There's been development there." That development wasn't obvious as he went 0-for-8 through the first 71 minutes of the season. But then, with 8:54 remaining against Mississippi Valley, he hit a layup, and now he followed that with a three, a pair of free throws, another layup, another three, and another free throw.
"That guy can shoot," Carmody later said and then, as proof, offered this. The 'Cats chart all shots during practice and, after a month, Sobolewski had the highest percentage of them all.
* Crawford was brilliant in game one, saddled by foul trouble in game two and average in game three. But his great skills are obvious and, says Carmody, "I'm not worried about him."
* Carmody references Malcolm Galdwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success" when discussing Hearn, the third of the returning 'Cats. In that book the author claims that the key to success in any field is practicing a specific act for 10,000 hours. "He's played that," the coach then says of his guard. "He's played a lot of basketball, you know. He's just played a lot. He's good. He's versatile. He's played a lot so he's used to different situations. And he's a competitor."
* Look for either Hearn or Swopshire to be the 'Cats defensive stopper.
* Marcotullio, the last of the returnees, has a balky back and so has gotten limited reps in practice. "But," Carmody said Sunday, "I'm going to get him in there a little more. I've just been putting him in with (the young) guys to teach them. But he can play with the good guys. He'll be Sobo's sub."
* Still, after just three games and with so many new faces surrounding him, Carmody still does not have a set rotation.
* Alex Olah, the second newcomer in the starting lineup, is from Romania, and so it is no surprise that he exhibits some of that versatility that characterizes European big men. He has hit a three. He has hit a turnaround jumper from the foul line. He has hit some short hooks down low. He has handed out eight assists. He has taken off after Sobolewski corralled a rebound, run the floor with his point and accepted a pass for a layup. "He can run," Carmody says when asked about that last play. "He's not used to doing it consistently. But if he can run, he's going to get four points on layups. Then you don't worry so much. You come in at halftime, you've got four points, two foul shots, you feel OK. To steal a couple along the way, it relaxes him."
"He's going to make some layups we haven't had the last few years. Guys missed them," he says of Olah's work down low. "He's capable of doing some things right now, but I'm hoping it grows and gets better. But it's going to be two steps up, one back, like that."
* Cerina, the transfer from TCU, saw his first action on Sunday and got in only 10 minutes before turning his ankle. But in that short span he dropped two of his three shots, went one-of-two from the line, collected seven rebounds and displayed a ruggedness inside that will serve the 'Cats well in the rugged Big Ten. "He likes it down there," Carmody says of him. "Some guys don't like touching skin-on-skin down there, it's sweaty and all. But he likes that. A hard worker. He was getting very good position, really deep. So I hope it's not a severe sprain. He needs some minutes to get back in the swing."
* Abrahamson, the last of the newcomers to get significant minutes, made his splash in the opener against Texas Southern, whom he scorched for 15 points in just 19 minutes. But two nights later he was on the court for just those two minutes. "I probably had a quick hook with him," Carmody later said. "But a couple things on offense, he just didn't do. Then he had a bad defensive possession, so I decided to go with the veterans."
He was back in the rotation on Sunday, getting 19 minutes against the Knights, but here he looked more like a freshman, missing four of his five three-point attempts and putting up just nine points. "He's just got to get experience doing stuff," Carmody said of him later. "He can't wait to get the ball and shoot the ball. I like him to shoot the ball too. But let it come to you a little bit more...He just has to have time. But he's going to help us."
* It should be noted that Abrahamson's funky jumper calls up memories of John Shurna's. "I've heard a few things like that," Abrahamson said when asked about that. "I try to stay away from comparisons like that at this point. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. But, yeah. They say my shot looks like his and I tend to disagree. But it's an honor to be compared to him in any way."
* The 'Cats played strictly man-to-man defense through their first three games. But when asked about the gnarly zone they often employ, Carmody smiled and said: "When we need it."
* And finally, Carmody, on what he has learned this week: "We're sort of like a team in progress. I told the team that. Even though we have some veteran guys, we bring in some other guys. First half there, we had three freshmen in there at one time. So there's going to be ups-and-downs, obstacles along the way like the other night. What can you learn from them? Can you get better the next game? But I like the energy level and I think they're all determined to contribute. You can see. It's not a five-or-six man rotation. So if a guy's not feeling it that day, you can get him out for a few minutes. Then he can sit, catch his wind, look at it differently. I think that's going to help us down the road."