Men’s Basketball: NU hopes the juice remains, even without Thompson

Nicholas Medline

Michael Thompson served as Northwestern’s backbone during his prolific four-year career. In his senior year, the versatile point guard helped carry NU on the deepest postseason run in program history. He averaged 21 points in the team’s two NIT victories and finished his career with a school-record 528 assists.

The Wildcats (1-0) must not only replace Thompson’s on-court production, but also his leadership skills.

“Juice last year kept us composed,” junior forward Drew Crawford said. “He riled us up when we needed to be riled up. (The upperclassmen) really have to go out there and give the team calmness.”

The obvious candidates for this task are Crawford and senior forward John Shurna. The two have played an integral role in the program’s turnaround, which has culminated in NIT appearances in each of the past three seasons.

The team still needs a proven point guard to run coach Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense, and freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski seems poised to fit the bill. In a Nov. 7 exhibition against Robert Morris (Ill.), Sobolewski demonstrated a blue-collar style of play and knack for sharp-shooting reminiscent of his predecessor. After his 15-point outing, Sobolewski noted that he and fellow freshmen Tre Demps and Mike Turner are settling into the complex offensive system that Thompson mastered.

“The hardest thing for the three freshmen is picking up the offense,” Sobolewski said. “We still make mistakes with it every day, but we’re trying to hammer home all the details.”

NU’s offense struggled to get into rhythm during its 60-36 win Sunday over Texas Pan-American. The Cats made just five of their 22 three-point attempts against a Broncs team that finished 6-25 last season. Sobolewski misfired on his first five attempts before connecting with just more than a minute remaining in the game.

Although Carmody acknowledged that Thompson is difficult to replace, he said that he was optimistic about the team’s backcourt play.

“I’m over it. I like our guards,” Carmody said. “We have a good bunch of guards. The two freshmen (Sobolewski and Demps), we’ve got Alex (Marcotullio), JerShon (Cobb). Reggie (Hearn) played a little bit tonight. I’m fine with our backcourt.”

Other than Thompson, the Cats return all of their key cogs from last season. Shurna earned multiple preseason All-American nods and Crawford looks to post a double-digit scoring average for his third consecutive campaign.

NU opens the Charleston Classic Thursday with a matchup against Louisiana State (1-1). The Tigers, led by highly touted freshman Johnny O’Bryant, hope to rebound from a stunning loss to Coastal Carolina.

Fresh off its spellbinding Final Four appearance a season ago, Virginia Commonwealth and coach Shaka Smart highlight a tournament field that includes power conference schools Georgia Tech and Seton Hall. In spite of the difficult competition, all five ESPN experts asked to predict the tournament winner selected the Cats.

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