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Vic Law injury: What losing Law means for Northwestern

The Wildcats will miss his versatility on both ends of the floor.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Just about a week ago, the Northwestern basketball program wasn't concerned about Vic Law's bothersome shoulder. Law's injury had caused him to miss some time in October, but it was more precautionary than anything. He played in Northwestern's exhibition against Quincy on Nov. 5, scoring 10 points on 4-6 shooting in 18 minutes.

But something, in the few days since that game, changed. And now, the sophomore wing is out for the year as he recovers from surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

There's really no other way about it. This is a devastating injury for the Wildcats.

You can talk about the emotional aspect of the season-ending surgery, about how more than any other player on this team, Law embodies the change in culture Chris Collins has aimed to instill in Evanston. As Collins' first real recruit to Northwestern, Law, who is from the Chicago area, is the highest-rated player ever to come to Northwestern. That symbolic aspect has been well-documented.

But more importantly, for this season at least, is the manner in which Law embodies Collins' philosophy when it comes to playing style and scheme.

At a school like Northwestern, where talent will be, at times, hard to come by, coaches and programs have to find other ways to make up for that gap. Some teams opt to emphasize schematic tactics to slow the game down. Others focus on providing the one or two players on their rosters with exceptional talent with an inordinate amount of opportunities to score. And others, like Northwestern under Collins, have employed a strategy of length, athleticism and versatility.

That's where the Law injury is so devastating.

With Law playing on the wing this season, instead of at the four where he spent time last season, Collins intimated Northwestern could actually overwhelm teams with its front court size.

"With Vic being 6-8, Scottie [Lindsey] being 6-6, [Aaron] Falzon and [Nate] Taphorn both being 6-8. [Derek] Pardon (6-foot-8), [Joey] van Zegeren (6-foot-10), [Alex] Olah (7-foot), [Gavin] Skelly (6-foot-8). We have big guys," Collins told Inside NU.

Now, obviously, being "big" isn't enough to win basketball games, but the versatility of guys like Law, Lindsey, Falzon, Taphorn, Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin (who is 6-foot-6) to play multiple positions would have allowed Northwestern to expand its playbook on both ends of the floor.

Defensively, Law, who added around 10-12 pounds of muscle in the off season, would have been able to use his height, length and foot speed to switch onto both guards and forwards when needed. The importance of the ability to switch cannot be understated, especially this season in college basketball as the shot clock decreases from 35 to 30 seconds. With teams being forced to run offense later in shot clocks, increasing defensive pressure by switching exchanges, ball screens and dribble handoffs late in that 30-second window will probably become a tactic teams employ to take advantage of the new rules. Law would have excelled in that role. Now, Northwestern should still be able to do some of that, but players like Lindsey and Lumpkin don't have the same overwhelming length that Law possesses.

Last season, Law was by no means a world-beater defensively, but for short spurts, he has the athleticism to hang with quicker guards. Against Quincy in the exhibition, Collins had Northwestern switching pretty much every on and off-ball screen or exchange with Law. While a lot of that had to do with Quincy's lack of height across the board, it was probably a tactic Collins will employ throughout the season. The reason Collins feels comfortable doing that is because of Law's ability to matchup with smaller players on the perimeter.

Take all this with a grain of salt if you must, but Law smothers Quincy's 6-foot guard Thomas Jackson, who had been decently effective getting to the rim. He keeps him out of the lane on the first attempt by Jackson to drive, then, on the second, he times his block perfectly.

The biggest revelation, though, from the exhibition against Quincy was Law's growth offensively. Along with defensive versatility, Law's length and skill set allows Collins to be more flexible offensively. It's clear Collins' roles for the three and four positions differ by player strength. For example, Collins has said Falzon and Taphorn will see most of the time at the "four" while Law and Lumpkin would move up to the "three." Basically, Collins wants more athletic versatility at the wing position with shooting at the forward spot.

With Law in particular, this freedom to use his athleticism would have paid dividends for Northwestern offensively.

No way does Law make that post move last year, for example. Matched up with a smaller defender, Law is composed and patient, allowing the lane to clear out before he executes a simple, one-dribble post move. The most important thing about this sequence, though, is that this play was drawn up for Law. Van Zegeren screens for Law on the weak side, where he comes along the baseline, stopping on the post. Northwestern's size, with Law in particular, would have forced teams to match up smaller players on the sophomore. Now, with Lumpkin, a less-skilled offensive player taking those minutes, for example, that offensive advantage is lost.

Law also turned it up from three-point range last season during Big Ten play, shooting over 44 percent, and stepped in confidently to a couple threes against Quincy, a part of his game that would have continued to grow.

Where Northwestern will also miss Law is as a third ball-handler behind guards Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps. Take this play, for example:

Law grabs the rebound and immediately pushes the ball up the floor, finding Falzon, a shooter in the corner. While Falzon doesn't shoot it, it allows Northwestern to get into its secondary break and eventually its offense much quicker. Last season, Law struggled in the open floor, committing costly turnovers when asked to take on some of the ball-handling duty.

Against Quincy, though, that seemed to change. Collins seemed to consciously employ Law as a ball-handling option in the open floor and performed well.

Here, Law flashes to the middle to break the press before immediately reversing the ball on a diagonal to Lindsey, who was streaking up the weak side. Law doesn't quit on the play and watch, though. He sprints back into the play, before acrobatically tipping in Lindsey's missed jumper.

That strong decision making continued into the second half. After a missed free throw, Northwestern decides to push the ball up the floor. First, freshman Jordan Ash receives the ball from Skelly. Ash dribbles just once before finding Law and Northwestern has crossed half court within two seconds of grabbing the rebound. Law makes a hesitation move around the three-point arc before driving baseline to find an open Lindsey in the opposite corner. He makes the smart pass and when Lindsey drives, Law, again, doesn't quit on the play. Lindsey misses the runner and Law is there to clean it up with another tip-in.

As a freshman, Law showed glimpses of being able to harness his athletic ability into productive basketball plays, but was very inconsistent overall. In just one game, an exhibition albeit, Law was pretty much impeccable. He played his role to a 't'. Collins has said that Law was going to be the catalyst for this team's success in 2015-16, and he showed why against Quincy. His versatility on both ends of the floor could prove to be irreplaceable for Northwestern, potentially costing them a chance at what could have been a particularly special season.