EVANSTON-Northwestern fans got their first glimpse of the 2012-13 Wildcats without injured star Drew Crawford on Monday night, and what they saw wasn't pretty.
It wasn't all bad, and the second half was better than the first, but fans saw enough to know that the NCAA Tournament is now a fantasy and the NIT a reach. This team is NOT going to the Big Dance; they would be lucky to get invited to a middle school mixer.
The Wildcats had to rally with a 12-0 run to close the game and beat 4-7 Texas State 74-68 at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Many in the announced crowd of 5,116 were thinking the same thing by the end of the game -- what is going to happen when they are playing, say, Michigan State instead of Texas State?
Not surprisingly, Northwestern's offense sputtered down the stretch without Crawford, the team's leading scorer and go-to guy. The Wildcats scored one field goal over the last 11:32 -- a 3-pointer by Dave Sobolewski with 1:45 left -- but still managed to win, even after missing four of their last six free throws.
Crawford had been averaging 14 points per game, and as Reggie Hearn put it, "everyone will have to score more" to pick up the slack because "I'm not personally going to start averaging 14 more points per game."
"Drew can go off for 25 or 30 on a given night and I'm not sure we have anyone else like that," he said.
They certainly don't.
Sobolewski, who scored a team-high 18 points to pace the Wildcats, and Hearn, who tallied 15, are proven scorers. Tre Demps, who provided a big boost off the bench with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in just 14 minutes, could be another player to count on for points. Jared Swopshire remains a glue guy that can do a lot of things to fill the stat sheet -- 10 points, five rebounds and three assists while playing all 40 minutes against Texas State.
However, NU will have to develop a reliable offensive threat among its first-year players, who will now have to carry more of the scoring load.
Kale Abrahamson got the start in place of Crawford and often looked like, well, the freshman he is. He hit a 3-pointer to open scoring on the Wildcats' first trip down the floor, but he made just 2 of 7 shots the rest of the night and often rushed his shot like a buzzer was about to go off. He finished with nine points in 23 minutes.
Alex Olah was his usual sporadic and tentative self inside, sometimes failing to finish around the basket. He wound up with eight points in 28 minutes, though he did collect a game-high seven assists.
Mike Turner, relied upon for defense, rebounding and energy, didn't take a shot in eight minutes, and Sanjay Lumpkin played just two minutes and missed one shot because of matchups that weren't in his favor, according to head coach Bill Carmody.
The one positive of Crawford's injury is that those young players will get more experience this season. They will improve as their minutes increase and Carmody finds the right combinations.
There are also a few players who have yet to make meaningful contributions that should bolster the team. Nikola Cerina (sprained ankle) and Lumpkin (mononucleosis) have hardly played this season and could give NU a boost as they work their way into the lineup. Veteran Alex Marcotullio, who played 15 minutes against Texas State in his first extended playing time as he recovers from an ailing back, should also provide points and a steady hand.
The Wildcats played much more cohesively in the second half against Texas State after experiencing their first 20 minutes without Crawford.
In the first half, NU committed nine turnovers, was outscored 10-1 at the free-throw line, and allowed Texas State's Joel Wright and Wesley Davis to score a combined 27 points.
After the intermission, the Wildcats turned the ball over just three times, got to the line 23 times, and held Wright and Davis to a combined 11 points.
Those positives do not sugarcoat the fact that the Big Ten season will be a long, grueling march for these Cats. Their inefficiencies on the glass (they were outrebounded 39-28 by Texas State) and at the free-throw line (they hit just 14 of 25) will be magnified in conference play, and Crawford will be missed on defense, too.
There will be many bumps along the road as the youngsters learn the rugged Big Ten terrain. As Sobolewski said, "It's different when we have freshmen out there," and now there will be more freshmen out there than there was before.
The mission of this season changed drastically last Friday, when news of Crawford's torn labrum and need for surgery was announced. The focus is no longer on the post-season but on next season, when Crawford and Jershon Cobb are both expected to return and, coupled with the freshmen with a year under their belts, will theoretically give the Wildcats their best chance yet for making their first-ever trip to the NCAAs.
Of course, NU fans have heard that before, too.