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Northwestern’s biggest challenge is having to play small

Northwestern’s Sanjay Lumpkis guarded by Missouri’s Johnathan Williams III during first half Las Vegas Invitational NCAA college basketball tournament game

Northwestern’s Sanjay Lumpkin is guarded by Missouri’s Johnathan Williams III during the first half of a Las Vegas Invitational NCAA college basketball tournament game Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in Las Vegas. Missouri won 78-67. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill

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LAS VEGAS — Northwestern coach Chris Collins can’t hide his team’s biggest weakness, and there’s nothing he can do to change it.

It isn’t something like a defensive weak link that can be cured by running a zone, or a player without an outside shot whom you can encourage to drive to the basket.

The Wildcats glaringly lack size. And short of praying for a teamwide growth spurt, Collins will need to deal with it all season.

Aside from 7-foot center Alex Olah, Northwestern starts 6-6 Sanjay Lumpkin, 6-5 Drew Crawford, 6-5 JerShon Cobb and 6-1 Dave Sobolewski.

How has Collins handled it? He has embraced it.

Not only does Northwestern have a small starting lineup, but the Wildcats go even smaller as the game progresses. Sometimes Collins will remove Olah and insert either Nate Taphorn or Kale Abrahamson. Both are listed at 6-7.

Collins could use that lineup during the Las Vegas Invitational, where the Wildcats will play bigger Missouri and UCLA teams.

“The bottom line is we don’t have a lot of big bodies on our front line,” Collins said. “I think at times depending on who you’re playing against, you can get away with going small and kind of spread the floor and keeping your skill guys in there and trying to rebound by committee and switching a lot of stuff and just providing a different look for the team. That’s something we’ve done at different stretches of the game.”

Having bigger wing players such as Lumpkin, Cobb and Crawford help the effort. But what Collins basically does when he goes to a small — or smaller — lineup is ask players to play out of position.

For instance, Taphorn is used to guarding players on the perimeter. Defending the post and being a primary rebounder are entirely different. Taphorn is looking to refine those skills during the nonconference season.

“Being more versatile is what I need to focus on more and accepting new roles and doing what I need to do,” Taphorn said.

“I need to guard a four or a three or even a two at times when we switch off. Just being laterally quick and able to guard those guys is pretty important. As far as guarding a four, being big, being able to rebound and then run the floor just like I would normally. So I think that rebounding has been a focus of mine now and needs to be a bigger focus.”

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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