With Northwestern basketball under two weeks away, it's time to start addressing the most important issues facing this team and the questions it must answer as it hopes to progress toward the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament. We'll call this segment the "Eight Questions of Fate," as the answers to these questions will likely determine how close Northwestern gets to that goal. We move on to question No. 7: Who starts? And does it matter?
Starting lineups can be difficult to piece together. Some say put your best five players on the court and hope to get off to a good start. Others want to mix and match skill sets — maybe pair an offense-minded guard with a good defender at forward. Maybe bring your best scorer off the bench. Perhaps it comes down to which five players play best together, whether that’s due to chemistry, overall skill or just mixing and matching strengths and weaknesses.
For Northwestern, though, the question of “who starts?” might be easier to answer than a lot of teams around the nation.
Bryant McIntosh is a lock at point guard. Dererk Pardon is a lock at center. Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey are darn close to locks as well, and Sanjay Lumpkin has started 90 of Northwestern’s last 97 games, including all 32 last year.
That may not be the answer all year, of course. Last year Northwestern experimented with Scottie Lindsey as a starter, though Aaron Falzon ended up filling that role and starting 29 games. Injuries at the center spot meant three different players got starts there.
But for right now, the five players Northwestern ran out against Illinois-Springfield — McIntosh, Lindsey, Law, Lumpkin and Pardon — seems like a pretty safe bet to be the starting five against Mississippi Valley State on Friday.
In that group, you have your undisputed leader in McIntosh. The crafty guard can score at a decent clip, but more importantly, he’s a fantastic floor general. You pair him with a pair of physically gifted wings in Lindsey and Law who can score off the catch-and-shoot, and you play into McIntosh’s strength of creating those opportunities. Law is a superior defender, rebounder and athlete, but Lindsey is arguably a better shot creator and scorer when he gets it going. If he’s focused and motivated, this is a solid pair of Big Ten-caliber athletes to pair with one of the nation’s best playmakers.
Then there’s Lumpkin. You know what you’ll get out of the senior captain: hard-nosed defense and good rebounding but not much offense in about 23-25 minutes per game. His numbers over the past two seasons paint the picture of a guy who won’t win you many games but won’t lose you many either. He’s the glue that holds together the guys around him.
The fifth piece of the puzzle is Pardon, who quietly posted a nice night against Illinois-Springfield (12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks in 20 minutes). He’s undersized, yes, but he makes up for that with a long frame, good athleticism and a nice post-up game around the rim.
But how much does who starts matter? What’s more important is the groups that enter around these guys.
As we discussed yesterday, some of the non-starting major contributors include Isiah Brown, Falzon and Gavin Skelly. Whether Collins expands that rotation to include Jordan Ash, Nathan Taphorn or Barret Benson is very much to be determined. Last year, Collins played 10 guys double-digit minutes. But those first three are surefire contributors off the bench, so it’s important to look at possible lineups with them.
We saw Brown play a lot off the ball against Illinois-Springfield, so it’s not unreasonable for him to be one of the early subs off the bench, likely replacing Lindsey. It’s also likely that Falzon comes in as an early sub for Lumpkin. These two subs create what might be Northwestern’s best offensive lineup: McIntosh, Brown, Law, Falzon and Pardon. It features two catch-and-shoot threats, two guys who can handle it well and distribute (McIntosh) or attack (Brown), and Benson.
That leaves Gavin Skelly. He seems to be the guy behind Pardon, though Benson might also stake a claim there as well. Skelly’s a dogged defender, strong (if undersized) in the post and a developing skilled big on the offensive end. Does he fit alongside the two other subs? Does Northwestern have the depth to play a fourth non-starter?
At this point, it seems as if the starters are settled, and an, at least, eight-man rotation is guaranteed. Whether or not that rotation stretches deeper and how Collins handles his secondary lineups will be key if Northwestern is to have sustained success throughout the 2016-2017 season.