Oct. 15, 2013
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Skip Myslenski was on hand at Northwestern Basketball Media Day on Tuesday and offers up this report on the men's program under first-year head coach Chris Collins.
THE `CATS will literally look different this season. "We've really tried to embrace our strength and conditioning, our sports performance program, and they've done a great job with our guys. A lot of our guys have changed their body types," said Chris Collins, their new coach.
Guard JerShon Cobb, for one example, shed some 20 pounds. Center Alex Olah, for another, initially dropped 15 and then added five. "I lost a bunch of fat, then put some muscle on," is how he explained it. "Now I'm much faster, much quicker on my feet. I can jump higher. A great change." Then there is point Dave Sobolewski, who went from 193 down to 177. "I feel good. I feel really good," he said. "My legs don't get as tired. Not throughout the course of a practice, but through a longer time period. Throughout the week I feel better. I feel like I've been able to change my body without losing strength. It's been really good for me."
THE `CATS will also play differently this season and so this should be made clear right here. It is now too limiting to label Sobolewski a point and Cobb a guard and Drew Crawford a forward, and here is why. "One through four (everyone but the center) is pretty much interchangeable," explained Sobolewski. "You just kind of fill your spots (on offense). I don't have to bring the ball down every time and Drew doesn't have to be filling one corner. It's kind of wherever you are when our team gets a defensive rebound, that kind of determines what position you're going to play on the next trip down the floor."
THE `CATS, after years of running the Princeton offense, will be more motion-based this season, and much more flexible. "We don't have a number of big, front-line bodies. But we have a number of hybrid players, guys who're between 6-4 and 6-8 that are kind of interchangeable parts," explained Collins. "So we're trying to devise a system that'll use that strength to our advantage. We want to be able to post our guards sometimes if they've got smaller guys on them. Our guys who are playing on the front line can all shoot the ball and they can all pass. So we're getting a lot of cutting, moving, playing to our strengths. I've always been a firm believer in coaching, you make the most of what you have. So for this year's team what we're trying to do is put together is a system that will maximize the talents we have...With this year's team it's not going to be as much dribble-drive stuff. It's going to be more screening, cutting, passing."
"It allows us to be free with the ball, which some guys are really looking forward to," added Sobolewski. "You get to use your skills a little bit."
THE `CATS, even with all that said, are on this October day still more a group of disparate pieces than one, cohesive whole. "We're still a work in progress and I'm still learning about the guys," said Collins. "I'm learning who plays well together, what lineups fit, how to mix and match what were doing. I'm sure that'll still be a work in progress as we head into the early part of the season."
THE `CATS, even in this time of change, will again lean heavily on Crawford, the fifth-year who underwent shoulder surgery last December. "He'll be the key anchor that gets us going here this year," said Collins. "I really want him to have a great year. I know he's worked hard. He's gotten through a really tough injury. We're going to put him in position to be a key guy and hopefully he'll have a great year for us. If he stays healthy and can do what he can do, I think he'll have a chance to vie for all-conference honors this year."
"I feel great. I feel great. No rust," said Crawford himself. "For a while there it was tough trying to get back into the rhythm of the game because I was gone for so long (five months). But once I was able to reestablish myself, get comfortable again, I'm feeling great now."
THE `CATS will also be happy to welcome back Cobb, the junior who sat out last season after violating team rules. "I think JerShon can do a little bit of everything," said Collins. "He's got great basketball instincts. He's got really good size for a guard. I think there's going to be times when he plays as a wing, there's going to be times when he brings the ball up the floor. He's one of our best ball handlers. He may be our best natural scorer. He may end up being our leading scorer at the end of the day. He's going to be asked to do what key players do. That's everything."
THE `CATS, each day, are also going through another change that is far bigger than the style of their offense or the shapes of their bodies. "We're trying to build a program. It's not about just having a team that's good in one season," explained Collins. "So what we're trying to do is lay a foundation for everything. How we train, how we practice, how we treat each other. That's when you start developing a culture, a winning culture. I've been fortunate to be part of probably the ultimate winning culture for a long time (at Duke). So I've seen what that is and we're in the process of now trying build something that can be considered that kind of culture."
THE `CATS, prosaically, are learning that part of that culture is a simple thing like talking. "I think communication and talk on the court is a skill and it's something hard for guys nowadays because all they do is text each other. They don't talk anymore," said Collins. "But you get on the court, the good teams communicate. They talk through situations. So that's something we've tried to build is our level of communication on the court. Our talk."
THE `CATS, more esoterically, are also learning that the new culture can include a matter as obscure as this. Some years ago, down at Duke, we witnessed a film session in which Mike Krzyzewski showed his players how they should react and look after hitting a big shot. "That's been a main focus, attention to detail," Sobolewski said after hearing that tale. "We're getting better with it. But right now we're not used to it as much."
What kind of detail, we wondered.
"Stuff like that. After somebody makes a big play, how are you going to react, how are you going to encourage them? If your team is losing the drill, how is someone going to bring them together and say, `How are we going to get this stop?' All little stuff like that. But that little stuff adds up and goes a long way. It really adds a bond to our team. It won't show up in a box score, but it will definitely help us down the road."
"That's a good point. It's extremely attentive to detail, the entire coaching staff," said Crawford after hearing the same tale. "Everything we do, whether it's on the court, off the court, these guys are trying to make us better every day. That's including things like you said. Reacting after a basket. Huddling your team. We went back to the basics when the coaches got here and since then we've been building a foundation and continuing to improve."
THE `CATS, with Collins, have generated a buzz, which inevitably led to questions filled with the words expectation and pressure. "We want to just go out and play and compete," he said to one of them. "I think that's what we're trying to build, the kind of camaraderie, chemistry in our group where when we go out there, we want the teams that are playing against us to know that they're in for a dogfight. I just feel if you play hard every night and you show up every night and you play smart and you play together that you'll give yourself an opportunity to win some games."
THE `CATS play in the nation's toughest basketball conference and that, on a lighter note, brought this from Collins. "Our schedule was released a few weeks ago. I got an e-mail, it said the Big Ten schedule, and I opened it," he deadpanned. "I saw the first five or six games and I got sick to my stomach. So I decided to stop looking that far down the road."
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