With injuries to Drew Crawford, Nikola Cerina and most recently Reggie Hearn, Northwestern has fielded five different freshmen on a regular basis. True froshes Kale Abrahamson, Alex Olah, Sanjay Lumpkin and redshirts Tre Demps and Mike Turner combined for 30 of the Wildcats' 63 points, all playing important roles in the win.
"Every day you're teaching," said head coach Bill Carmody, emphasizing the work that goes into coaching a young team. It's been a continuing crash course for the newcomers, but one he hopes will pay immediate as well as long-term dividends. Though the going hasn't been smooth, with key injuries proving major setbacks to Northwestern's hopes, the Wildcats head into Big Ten play with much still to gain.
"I think we're ready," Carmody said. "It's invaluable to get guys in there—Kale, Sanjay, Alex. I looked and there were four freshmen out there, and that kind of experience is just so helpful. It's going to be different in conference, but we've played some pretty good teams."
Good teams would be correct. Nonconference opponents Butler, Stanford, Maryland and Baylor have combined for a 35-10 record, and each posed its own unique challenge to Northwestern. With those tests behind them, Carmody's squad looks set for the intensity of the Big Ten schedule.
"We've seen some really good opponents so far," said sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski. "Those are Big Ten caliber teams. I think [the freshmen] have gotten a little taste of what it's like—everything is bumped up a notch, there's more passion on the court, more energy. The Big Ten is tough, but I think they'll be ready."
Northwestern's freshmen have done their best to keep up with the curve, and will have to continue learning on the fly given the challenges ahead. Those adjustments start in practice, where not only the basketball but also the instruction happens at a higher level.
"Some of the freshmen need to learn that we get on them because they need to start picking it up," said Sobolewski. "They're doing a great job with it, but the more we tell them what they're doing wrong, the more they'll learn. There's definitely still room for improvement."
And everyone seems to agree: the more playing time the freshmen get, the better off the program will be. It's easy to harp on Northwestern's inexperience, but also easy to appreciate how much improvement they've already shown.
"We've come a long way," said Abrahamson. "You should have seen me the first day of summer school, I was messing up every second. At this point it's gotten a lot better, and it's the same with everybody. You can see the steps every day."
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