When an opposing team scouts the Northwestern Wildcats on film, it’s likely to focus on Bryant McIntosh or Vic Law or Scottie Lindsey. All are versatile scoring threats and, on any given night, can take over the game.
But while coaches devise strategies to limit the effectiveness of Northwestern’s high pick-and-roll or McIntosh’s drive-and-kick style, they probably don’t develop much of a gameplan built around stopping Sanjay Lumpkin.
The Wayzata, Minn. native won’t stand out much when you watch a Northwestern game. His contributions on the court don’t show up in traditional per-game statistical measures, though, but when you look at advanced offensive statistics, his numbers jump off the screen.
For example, Lumpkin’s remarkable offensive rating of 140.3 (!) is good for 15th-best in the country. Sure that’s a ranking helped by his “nearly invisible” offensive footprint, according to Kenpom, which gives that classification to players using less than 12 percent of their team’s possessions, but it does ring true.
Lumpkin knows when to pick his spots and is probably Northwestern’s best off-ball cutter. He can also drop the occasional three-pointer (44.4 percent on the year) and is a solid enough passer to get by. That role knowledge is a skill in itself: He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, often, somehow, with the ball at the rim.
That’s what he’s there for. Northwestern rarely runs plays for Lumpkin or makes a point to get him shots. Simply, he’s just there on offense, which, for him, is the perfect use of his talent.
“I’ve just been looking for my plays to score, playing off everyone, shooting shots when I’m open,” Lumpkin said a few weeks ago. “I’m in a good place and I’m feeling confident.”
The term “glue guy” gets thrown around a lot in basketball, and it’s a label Lumpkin embraces, but he takes it to another level. With his usage rate up just a tick from his junior campaign, his shooting percentages have gone up across the board in addition to his turnover rate dropping by over 10 percent.
Players who literally only do what they’re good at are almost impossible to find in college basketball. Lumpkin is a good cutter who can make the occasional open three, and he does just that and nothing more. Rarely will he force a contested shot or make a tough pass, which is invaluable for Northwestern.
In order to fully be that unselfish guy, it takes full acceptance on the player’s part. Lumpkin has definitely done that.
“That’s a role I’ve embraced. When I’m playing my best, I’m doing a little bit of everything. When you don’t embrace it, it’s a tough one to play. It’s what I do."
The offensive numbers certainly stand out, but his bread is buttered on the defensive end of the floor. All good teams — all NCAA Tournament teams — need that one lockdown defender to guard the opposition’s top scorer. Lumpkin is that guy.
And he does that regardless of how big that player might be. Lumpkin shut down New Orleans’ Erik Thomas this past Sunday, who stands at 6-foot-5, just a few weeks after being tasked with defending Wake Forest’s 6-foot-10 John Collins.
“I’ve always been a little undersized. I’ve guarded guys like AJ Hammons and Adreian Payne,” Lumpkin said, referring to the former Purdue and Michigan State standouts. “You just have to do your work early… I have an advantage if I get those guys out by the three-point line.”
That flexibility on defense is hugely important, as it allows Northwestern to configure its matchups in a variety of ways based on opponent. While he’s not the biggest guy on the floor usually, Lumpkin has even improved his rim protection with over a block per game. He blocked three shots in both the DePaul and New Orleans victories.
It’s safe to say not many 6-foot-6 players can block almost five percent of opponents’ shots. Lumpkin is even good on the boards: he is Northwestern’s second-best rebounder on both the offensive and defensive glass (among players appearing in over half of the Wildcats’ minutes).
Basically, there’s nothing the guy doesn’t do and when he isn’t on the floor, all aspects of the Wildcats’ game suffers. He’s also a pretty good bellwether for how Northwestern is playing overall; when he’s on his game, the Wildcats seem to play better.
Here’s a fun fact: Northwestern has won its last 14 games in which Lumpkin has made a three-pointer. The last game the Wildcats lost in which he converted on a triple was a 69-52 loss to Iowa on March 7th...of 2015. Johnnie Vassar actually got a minute of run in that one.
Lumpkin has already posted twice as many double-digit scoring performances this year as he did all of last year, and he just keeps getting better in all facets of his game. While that additional scoring is nice, Northwestern doesn’t need him for the points, it needs him for everything else he does. And that’s a role he fully embraces.