EVANSTON--Lost in all of the hoopla surrounding John Shurna's record-breaking Saturday night was the continued emergence of freshman point guard David Sobolewski.
While Shurna scored 18 points to become Northwestern's all-time leading scorer, it was Sobolewski who quietly wound up with a game-high 22 points. In a game that coach Bill Carmody called "close to a must-win," the freshman point guard quietly hit 4-of-5 three-pointers in the Wildcats' 64-53 victory over Minnesota.
Sobolewski went scoreless in Northwestern's embarrassing 75-52 loss to the Gophers on Jan. 22, but he more than redeemed himself in the rematch Saturday. Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith praised Sobolewski afterward as one of the most improved players in the Big Ten.
"He's done a fantastic job," Smith said. "I was very impressed with how he ran the offense. He's just a very talented player that we had no real answer for."
Sobolewski has regained confidence in his three-point shot, catalyzing Northwestern's offensive attack. During his six-game long-range slump, Sobolewski went 2-for-16 (12.5 percent) from beyond the arc and the Wildcats went 1-5. Since then, he is 15-of-27 (55.6 percent) and the team is 4-2 and back in the hunt for the NCAA Tournament.
"He's so open," Carmody said of his hot streak, a testament to the team's ball movement and perhaps opponents' lack of respect for Sobolewski's shooting ability.
Sobolewski seemed to hit rock bottom in Minneapolis last month, when he was 0-for-5 from the floor and had only one assist and three turnovers in 22 minutes of play. Many observers at that point began to wonder if the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder, who plays over 35 minutes per game, was beginning to wear down.
But since having to field round-after-round of questions about hitting the wall as a freshman, Sobolewski has smashed through the metaphorical barrier by developing a more up-tempo style, pushing the ball in transition and attacking the basket with a renewed vigor to set up higher percentage shots.
As a result, he has averaged 14 points over the teams' past six games and has been the team's leading scorer in two of their four victories in the last two and a-half weeks.
"Dave's been great," Shurna said. "His role continues to grow each game, which is huge for us. That's definitely what you want out of a freshman point guard. He's poised and he'll take and make big shots for us."
The only other player who will challenge Sobolewski for the starting point guard spot on the All-Freshman Big Ten team is the one he will square off against on Tuesday night (7 p.m. CT, BTN), Michigan's Trey Burke.
When Michigan defeated Northwestern 66-64 in overtime on January 11, Burke got the upper hand on his first-year rival. He was an inefficient 5-of-17 from the floor but scored eight of Michigan's 12 points in the overtime period, going 6-for-6 from the foul line. He finished the game with 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists.
Sobolewski, meanwhile, was just 3-for-9 from the floor and scored nine points, to go along with three assists, a block, a steal and a turnover. Burke even outdid the iron man Sobolewski's by playing all 45 minutes of the extended contest, while Sobolewski played "only" 43.
Both players have each been thrown to the wolves far earlier than many freshman point guards are forced to, and to this point both have exceeded all preseason expectations. Burke ranks second in the conference in assists (4.8) and Sobolewski still leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.1).
Each has filled the void left by their team's leader from the previous season (Northwestern's Michael "Juice" Thompson and Michigan's Darius Morris) and has led his team to successful seasons in what is widely regarded to be the deepest and toughest conference in college basketball.
When the two teams meet in Evanston on Tuesday night, Michigan will be vying to get themselves in position for their first Big Ten title since 1986. Northwestern will have another opportunity to state its case to the NCAA tournament selection committee.
But aside from the larger connotations of this matchup, Sobolewski and Burke will have their own personal showdown on Tuesday night. One that should settle, once and for all, who holds the title of best freshman point guard in the Big Ten.