Nadkarni: Little things pay off in Sobolewski’s growth on court

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

When the clock ticked to zero at the end of Saturday’s game against Butler, Northwestern point guard Dave Sobolewski could only watch from the bench.

Sobolewski, or “Sobo” as he’s known to most fans, fouled out late in the second half of the non-conference match-up, leaving the game on a controversial charging call that had a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena going ballistic.

Once Sobolewski left the court, in a game slipping away from the Wildcats, I more or less knew in my heart NU couldn’t come back to win. Sure enough, the Cats would ultimately fall to the Bulldogs 74-65.

At the beginning of the season, I wrote a column about how NU would essentially go as far as Drew Crawford took them. Crawford, a senior forward, was supposed to take the mantle from all-time leading scorer John Shurna and emerge as the leader of a deep team that could contend for a tournament spot.

But the past two games have signified a serious shift in not only the offensive leader, but also the emotional leader, of the Cats.

Against Baylor, Sobolewski’s attitude rubbed off on the rest of the team in a gritty road win that could be huge in March. The 19-year-old defiantly mixed it up with an energized Baylor squad fresh off a road win at then-No. 8 Kentucky. He urged his teammates to do just the same.

Sobolewski set the tone, first with his corner 3-pointer that gave the Cats confidence going into the second half, and then with his taunting warning late in the contest that gave NU the proper swagger on the road. Even with his offensive struggles down the stretch, Sobolewski helped will his team to victory.

Against Butler, Soblewski put on one of the more masterful displays of Cats basketball I’ve seen in the past two seasons.

Sobolewski’s 21 points barely scratch the surface of his overall contribution to the game.

A lot can be made of the sophomore’s stats, from the season so far or the Butler game itself, but Sobolewski’s value doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score. Instead, it’s the little things that make him the most important player on the court for the Cats.

There’s no statistic for how Sobolewski commands the offense. He’s not afraid to point a senior in the right direction, call out plays or go off-script to make something happen.

Against Butler, if a play didn’t work, Sobolewski would drive to the hoop and make a tough layup. If the tough layup wasn’t there, Sobolewski would somehow draw a foul to put himself at the free-throw line.

It’s the point guard’s job to be the natural leader of the team, but Sobolewski also earned the respect of those around him with his attitude.

And that attitude – that swagger – was on full display Saturday.

Sobolewski wasn’t afraid to throw up a heat-check three if he was feeling it. He got under the skin of the Butler guards early, with little things like taking the ball out of someone’s hands during a stoppage in play. And when Sobolewski struggled chasing around Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, he defended him with pure intimidation and trash talk, absolutely getting into the shooter’s head.

Even while on the bench at the end of the game, Sobolewski remained standing, firing up his teammates and looking on almost as if he were another coach.

I’ll end with two little stories that I think show how far Sobolewski has come since last season.

First, I interviewed Sobolewski for a podcast during Spring Quarter of our freshman year. He video chatted me from his home in Naperville, Ill. When I asked Sobolewski about which players he faced that really impressed him, he answered with Baylor’s Pierre Jackson. He went on to say how Jackson was his first real test in college— it was the first time a game made him say, “Whoa, this guy’s alright.” It was Sobolewski’s first time on the big stage.

This year, in a tougher environment on the road, against the same Baylor team, Sobolewski was completely unfazed.

Second, I love the student section at Welsh-Ryan because of the intimacy. The stands are right up on the court. And especially in the case of basketball, it’s not hard to see what players are feeling or saying when on the court.

For the Butler game, I was in the front row behind the hoop. I saw the anguish in Crawford’s face while another game slipped away. I saw freshman center Alex Olah mutter under his breath when he looked to the bench and saw he was being taken out.

On Sobo’s face? Only confidence.