Northwestern opened eyes again Wednesday night in a 55-48 victory over heavily favored Minnesota, their second win over ranked opponents this week.
The Wildcats have undergone a rapid transformation, from being a young untested group to pushing Big Ten heavyweights to their limits.
Reggie Hearn has stepped up. Bill Carmody has strategized and schemed as well as any coach in the country. But Northwestern’s surprise catalyst has been the often-polarizing Jared Swopshire.
Swopshire’s transfer from Louisville was well-hyped. Many hoped the fifth-year grad student would be the missing piece Northwestern needed for a successful campaign. After an inconsistent first half of the season, the 6-foot-8 forward appears to have put it all together.
“He was a role player at Louisville, and a good one,” said Carmody. “From day one we’ve been telling him to be aggressive, you have to do more here. He can dribble, he can pass, he shoots, but you can’t just be one of the guys. You have to be a little more.”
Recently, “more” has been an understatement. In last week’s win over number 23 Illinois, Swopshire had 12 points and six rebounds. He played all 40 minutes against second-ranked Indiana Sunday, posting 13 and eight as the Wildcats pushed the second-ranked Hoosiers to the brink.
Minnesota marked Swopshire’s best outing of the three, as the senior scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds as Northwestern rolled to another big win against the twelfth-ranked Golden Gophers.
“I think it started in practice: I’ve been trying to stay more aggressive,” said Swopshire. “My coaches and teammates have really encouraged me, and I’ve just been getting out there and trying to do that.”
Wednesday was another critical step in that direction, as Swopshire notched eight of his team’s first 10 points and helped set the tone for the game. After falling 69-51 to the Gophers in Minneapolis earlier this month, another terrific team effort from the Wildcats put them at a respectable 3-4 in conference play. Without Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb, Northwestern sits in territory few could have predicted.
“We've matured a lot,” said Swopshire. “Guys have been really paying attention. We had a few tough losses, but we've been right there and done some good things. We're just trying to learn from those things and move forward.”
Northwestern scrapped and defended its way to victory despite being outrebounded 48-31. Again it was Swopshire, banging with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams and putting in work on the glass to help keep the Gophers from coming back.
“They resorted to trying to beat us up on the boards like in the first half,” said senior Reggie Hearn, who had 13 points of his own. “Thanks to Swop, we didn’t allow that in the second half.”
Carmody was equally impressed with his graduate transfer, who has grown into the role Northwestern’s coaching staff envisioned from the start. The Wildcats are 8-2 when Swopshire scores in double figures. He leads them in rebounding, averaging six per game.
“Some of those rebounds were way up there, two-handed rebounds that we haven’t seen in the past that often,” said Carmody. “I think he’s playing better and better because he’s recognizing what’s expected of him here.”
It’s no small task for any transfer to immediately switch coaches, systems and teammates. But Swopshire has also had to function on the wing more than ever before, a task suited to his versatility but one that comes with a learning curve. In Swopshire’s adjustment from supporting actor to leading man, it seems things are going just fine.
“It hasn’t been that tough,” said Swopshire. “I wasn’t a role player before college. [I’m] just getting back to old habits.”
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