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FILM: Small ball is Northwestern’s path to success

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Why do the Wildcats thrive with smaller lineups?

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

In order to maximize its chances of winning, a basketball team must play to its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. For Northwestern, a team severely lacking depth in the middle, going small was always the answer. Dererk Pardon and Gavin Skelly are the only big men on the roster with any collegiate experience, and the Wildcats have several wings with different skill sets. From Vic Law’s all-around game to Scottie Lindsey’s ability to score to Aaron Falzon’s floor-stretch capabilities (though we haven’t seen it much this year) to Sanjay Lumpkin’s “glue guy” role and surprising offensive output, the depth on the wing is Northwestern’s biggest strongsuit.

The blueprint for an effective small-ball team is in place, and for the first three games of the season, the numbers bear that out. When Northwestern plays one big man surrounded by four perimeter players, the team outscores its opponents at a higher clip than when it plays both its big men. When that big man is Skelly, the Wildcats outscore teams 74-48. When it’s just Pardon, the Wildcats lead 111-104. When either both or neither (though that neither is just a handful of minutes), the Wildcats outscore opponents by 10 points, and that number is in large part thanks to late action versus Mississippi Valley State.

Here’s why going small helps this year’s Wildcats:

Spacing

Naturally, playing more perimeter players is conducive to opening up the floor. Having two big men out there clogs the lane, forcing the team into taking tough shots. Just watch, as the Wildcats hoist up three inefficient looks before finding Skelly underneath:

Yes, the team scored, but the work to get there was really inefficient. And against better teams, it’s rare that Northwestern will get four shots per possession. Pardon can’t make a jump shot, and Skelly isn’t proven from deep (although he’s shown flashes), so playing them together handicaps Northwestern’s offense.

Unless Skelly is the lone big man on the floor, opposing teams are going to live with him shooting jump shots. Until he starts knocking down perimeter shots on a consistent basis, he’ll be left alone as his defender helps to seal off driving lanes. The result:

Offensive rebounding to score against inferior teams isn’t exactly sustainable offense, though it is good to see the ball movement opens up Pardon for an uncontested put-back. MVSU’s Michael Matlock forced Bryant McIntosh to give the ball up to an open Skelly in the corner, a less threatening proposition than McIntosh slicing into the lane.

Simply put, Northwestern cannot afford to waste possessions with shots like these. In the 21:25 that Pardon and Skelly have shared the floor, the team has shot a nauseating 41.4 percent from the field, compared with the 50.4 percent the Wildcats shoot when they roll with just one big man.

This doesn’t mean Pardon and Skelly should never play together. The team rebounds the ball better when they share the court and even defends at a higher level than when Pardon is the lone big man. There are ways they can coexist on offense, and Skelly has been the one responsible for this possibility.

As previously mentioned, Skelly’s jump shot is a work in progress, but in the meantime, he’s shown an improved passing game. Last season, he averaged 0.5 assists per game; through three games this year, he’s up to 1.7 dimes a night, including this gem:

Skelly realized that McIntosh didn’t have the angle to enter the ball into Pardon in the post, so he came up to the free throw line, got the ball, and threw a slick pass to his big man partner for an easy bucket. Here’s another example of Skelly’s vision:

Skelly spotted two defenders shadowing Pardon in the paint, so he kicked the ball out to the open man, Nate Taphorn, to drive into the lane and make a play. These are the sorts of plays the Wildcats can live with when Pardon and Skelly share the floor. Otherwise they won’t be able to generate enough points to keep up with their opponents.

Removing one of the big men from the lineup allows the offense to breathe a little, producing lovely sequences such as this:

Eastern Washington is put in a bind here. Isiah Brown and Scottie Lindsey, both capable shooters, are camped out in both corners, and McIntosh sets a pick on Skelly’s man, making Aaron Falzon’s decision easy: Feed the big man going to the rim untouched.

When teams have to account for everyone on the floor as an offensive threat, their defense is stretched to its limits, forming cracks that can be exploited. Watch as Lindsey and Pardon create a mismatch down low, forcing EWU’s defense to foul the big man:

Once Pardon has the advantage on the block, Sanjay Lumpkin immediately reverses the ball to McIntosh, who has a clean look at the entry pass. Once it gets there, EWU has no choice but to foul Pardon to prevent him from getting an easy score.

It won’t always be that easy for Pardon, which is why he needs to keep his head on a swivel for open teammates when he gets double-teamed. Here, he makes the correct read, leading to Lindsey getting fouled:

Pardon isn’t much of a passer, though, so it’s hard to expect him to make that pass every time, which could become a problem if teams throw a couple bodies at him whenever he touches the ball. The Wildcats only shoot 47.1 percent from the field and an abysmal 28.6 percent from downtown when Pardon is surrounded by four perimeter players.

Compare that to lineups featuring Skelly at center, which shoot 56.3 percent from the field and a blistering 55.6 percent from three-point range. Northwestern is a plus-26 with Skelly as the lone big man, and it showed in the team’s hard-fought loss to Butler, when Skelly’s versatility proved troublesome for the Bulldogs.

When it comes to Skelly’s shooting, it’s the threat of him making it that matters more than anything. If opposing teams think he’ll knock down jump shots, they’ll respect him out on the perimeter. Against Butler, he hit a crucial three to give the team the lead late in the second half:

From that point forward, Butler accounted for Skelly on the perimeter, opening up good looks for his teammates, including Vic Law, who canned a massive triple to extend the Wildcats’ lead:

Butler’s Kelan Martin leaves Law to contest Skelly. Once he knew Martin bit on the pump fake, Skelly passed to Law for an open three. Later in the game, the Bulldogs continued to treat Skelly as a threat from the outside, leading to an easy layup for Lumpkin:

Butler’s Tyler Wideman sticks to Skelly for one second too long, leaving Lumpkin open underneath. These sort of plays are possible if the opposition respects Skelly’s jump shot. Through three games, he’s two of three from downtown. His development from the perimeter should be on everyone’s radar for the remainder of the season.

By playing one big man, Northwestern can create more scoring opportunities as a result of the extra space on the floor. Until the team starts getting killed on the glass, Chris Collins should play Pardon and Skelly exclusively apart.

Defensive Footspeed

Another advantage of playing smaller is having at least four players that are quick enough to defend multiple positions. Big men tend to be plodding rim protectors, rarely venturing out of the paint, and that’s especially true in Pardon’s case.

Whenever Pardon and Skelly have shared the floor, Pardon guards the opposing team’s nominal center; in other words, he guards the slowest player on the floor, forcing Skelly to, at times, check a perimeter player. He tries hard, but sometimes Skelly just can’t keep up:

That’s EWU’s Bogdan Bliznyuk, who dropped 25 points, scoring from all over the court. Skelly, try as he might, can’t guard skilled perimeter scorers. He’s better suited as a speedy center that can cover a lot of ground and even switch onto smaller defenders, depending on the situation.

Next to Pardon, though, Skelly must guard potential perimeter threats. Such is the reality of playing two bigs. That’s not ideal, especially in transition, when it’s more difficult to match up. Watch as Skelly finds himself guarding the wrong man, causing him and Falzon to flub a switch, leading to an easy layup for MSVU:

Here’s another example of Skelly getting lost in transition:

Skelly tried to pressure the ball-handler, thinking that Pardon would have his back at the rim. Instead, the Wildcats gave up another easy basket. Northwestern can cut out these points by subbing out one of their big men for another perimeter player.

When Skelly is the only big man on the floor, opponents shoot a horrid 38 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from three. Watch as he defends a MVSU pick-and-roll to perfection followed by a good box-out and rebound:

He and Law switch and return to their original men effortlessly, and then he provides enough help to goad Lumpkin’s man into forcing a terrible shot. Finally, he closes out the possession by grabbing the miss.

Pardon doesn’t have Skelly’s mobility, which creates problems whenever he’s involved in a pick-and-roll. MSVU gets a wide-open three here because of Pardon’s inability to corral the ball-handler:

He leaves McIntosh out to dry, which forces Law to rotate down into the paint, leaving his man alone on the perimeter. Pardon needs to help McIntosh by moving his feet quicker to get in the way of the ball-handler.

Pardon also lacks an awareness of where his man is on the court. Too many times he gets caught napping, giving up free layups:

Here, Pardon is caught going for a block, disregarding the fact that he’s left his own man wide open underneath. As a result, the Wildcats gave up a layup.

When Pardon is the only big man on the court, opponents shoot 46.8 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. He needs to be better to justify his starting spot.

Pardon does have his defensive qualities, namely his huge wingspan, which helps him when going for steals. Watch as he correctly anticipates a pass, coming up with the theft:

If Pardon can keep that level of defensive intensity over an entire game, then that bodes well for Northwestern.

With only two capable big men on the roster, Collins needs to monitor minutes carefully. There will be opportunities for them to play together, but if the numbers show anything, it’s that they’re better off playing apart. In the era of small ball, it looks like Northwestern ought to be shifting in that direction to take full advantage of its roster.