For as good as Northwestern basketball has been lately, the elusive hurdle has yet to be cleared.
The annual goal is still in play: Make the NCAA Tournament. Participate in March Madness for the first time ever.
A slew of schools have never played in the NCAA tourney, but Northwestern remains the biggest name on the list.
“I think making the NCAA Tournament is the goal for every team,” said Dave Sobolewski, the Wildcats’ sophomore point guard. “We have no control over the history. Even the seniors, they’ve had control over the last three years and that’s it.
“Making the tournament is definitely a goal of ours, and we’re trying to get better each and every day. Just take it one day at a time and at the end of the season we’ll be able to look back on our resume and hopefully it will be good enough to get us in.”
Sobolewski, a Naperville native, got used to winning big at Benet Academy. Over his junior and senior seasons in Lisle, the Redwings went 55-5 and were ranked among the best high school teams in the nation in their enrollment class.
While making the jump to the Big Ten was a little intimidating at first, Sobolewski made a fairly smooth transition last season and started every game for Northwestern.
“I’ve always liked being kind of in charge of the offense,” Sobolewski said. “I’ve always enjoyed having the choices of what to do on the floor. I’ve always been like a second coach on the floor.
“The hardest part for me was just learning the offense. The older guys, I give them a ton of credit for helping my transition and being confident in me, trusting me with the ball.
“They made my transition a lot easier than it could have been. I just came in and tried the best I could, worked as hard as I could to help the team right away.
“Once I saw they trusted me with the ball, every possession down the court, I saw the trust day after day, and that made my job so easy.”
Sobolewski did a great job running the offense for NU, averaging 8.3 points and 3.7 assists while earning a spot on the All-Big Ten Freshman team.
This season, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder is looking to take his game to an even higher level.
“It’s so much easier now,” Sobolewski said. “As a freshman, you come in with so many unknowns. You don’t know want the offense is going to be like, what the guys are going to be like. You don’t know the tendencies of each player.
“I feel like I’m 100 percent ahead of where I was last year just because I know the offense, and I feel my skills have improved a ton on the offensive end.”
With Sobolewski manning the point last season, the Wildcats went 19-14 and made their fourth straight NIT appearance.
But losing five of its last eight Big Ten games cost Northwestern an NCAA berth, so another trip to the NIT was a major letdown.
The Wildcats will try to regroup without forward John Shurna, who graduated as the top scorer in school history.
Guard Drew Crawford is back for his senior season. The Naperville Central High School product averaged 16.1 points per game last season.
“I think without even realizing, he deferred to John once in awhile and maybe I called John’s number more last year,” NU coach Bill Carmody said of Shurna and Crawford.
“I think he’s going to have a breakout year. (Crawford) was Rookie of Year in Big Ten three years ago, and he’s had a very nice career. But I just think he’s going to play especially well this year.”
Carmody has similar hopes for Alex Olah, a 7-foot, 275-pound freshman center from Timisoara, Romania.
As a senior last season at Traders Point Christian Academy in Zionsville, Ind., Olah averaged 18.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocked shots.
The Wildcats also welcome grad student Jared Swopshire, a 6-8 forward who played at Louisville the past three seasons.
NU has had trouble scoring inside and rebounding in seasons past, but the Wildcats have much better size this year.
“Our physicality is the biggest change from last year,” Sobolewski said. “We’ve had some very physical practices. We didn’t really have that aspect last year, so I think that’s going to really help us. We’ve got some bigger guys to bang around and get some rebounds for us.”
NU will have to overcome the loss of talented junior guard JerShon Cobb, who was suspended for the season because of violations of team policy.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.