Northwestern was dealt a major blow Thursday morning when the team announced starting center Dererk Pardon would miss at least the team’s six remaining non-conference games with a hand injury.
Dayton is the only KenPom top-150 team left on the Wildcats’ non-conference slate, but Pardon’s injury leaves a gaping hole at center nonetheless. If the Wildcats are to have major postseason aspirations, they’ll need to avoid any bad losses, starting against DePaul.
There isn’t one simple fix for replacing the team’s best big man, but there are a few things Northwestern can do—and will have to do— to make up for Pardon’s lost production and survive the rest of non-conference play, and possibly longer.
While it won’t be a one player fix, Gavin Skelly will have the most important role in filling Pardon’s spot.
Skelly will probably take Pardon’s spot in the starting lineup, and his minutes will surely increase from the 19.4 he averages per game this season. When Pardon went down early in the second half against Wake Forest Monday night, Skelly filled in well, turning in his best performance of the season with 11 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals in 29 minutes.
“Gavin already has had a big load,” head coach Chris Collins said. “The thing that was a little bit encouraging the other night was that Dererk got hurt with about 15 minutes to go, and we played the rest of the game with Sanjay and Gavin against two 6-foot-11 guys. I don’t think we have to change a whole lot.”
Assuming Collins does start Skelly, the Westlake, Ohio native will bring more versatility to the starting lineup, but will give up some size.
Offensively, a lineup with Skelly at the five gives you five players who are at least somewhat of a threat from three-point range, and is quicker on the whole than a lineup with Pardon. Also, Skelly gives Northwestern more of playmaker and passer — he’s third on the team with a 22.2 assist rate — at center. So far this season, Skelly has actually been used more than Pardon (a usage rate of 17.3, significantly higher than Pardon’s 12.2). He’s not quite the post presence Pardon is, but he does add versatility elsewhere.
But, Northwestern will miss Pardon’s activity on the offensive boards, so second-chance opportunities will likely be harder to come by for as long as Pardon is out. Pardon grabs 12.4 percent of offensive rebounds available when on the floor, by far the best mark on the team.
On the defensive end, Skelly has shown the ability to be strong around the rim, but he isn’t quite the shot-blocker that Pardon has been so far this season (Pardon blocks 9.9 percent of available shots — 50th in the nation — while Skelly blocks 8.6 percent), and will give up size and length to his opponents in most games.
Skelly will have to be stay out of foul trouble, because if he can’t play big minutes every night during Pardon’s absence, Northwestern could be in major trouble, especially with Aaron Falzon already out.
Another way Northwestern can combat the loss of Pardon is by going small. The Wildcats have had success playing small-ball, but may have to flat-out rely on it in coming games.
The starting lineup with Skelly is already a pretty versatile and small one, but Chris Collins may have to go even smaller without Pardon. Collins may try to steal a few minutes of rest for Skelly by putting Sanjay Lumpkin — who is listed at a generous 6-7 — at the five. Lumpkin provided a defensive spark against the Demon Deacons when he started guarded big man John Collins, so it isn’t out of the question to think Lumpkin can hold up as an interior defender, at least for stretches.
“Dererk was our leading rebounder, so I think our wings are going to have to do more on the glass,” Collins said. “We all have to collectively band together and get through not having [Pardon] out there.”
That lineup would be a nightmare for opponents to defend, and would give Skelly — a player who has only played 20 minutes in a game seven times in his career — valuable rest. Nathan Taphorn could also figure into the equation, but he would be much more of a liability as a post defender.
The wild card in all of this is true freshman Barret Benson.
Benson, the only true center left after Pardon’s injury, has only played 15 minutes total in five appearances this season. Benson has struggled to keep up with the speed of the college game early in his young career, but will now be needed more than ever for the Wildcats. His minutes will go up as well, especially to spell Skelly.
Benson knows he’ll have to play an important role in the team’s next few games.
“[Skelly and Pardon] have been my mentors ever since I got here, always looking out for me and helping me get better every day. They’ve been confident in me and what I’m gonna do, so I’ve just gotta go out there and do it,” Benson said.
Benson won’t be as much of a threat in the half court offense as Pardon was — even though the offense didn’t run through Pardon by any means — so he’ll have to impact the game with his energy and hustle to work through the growing pains that most true freshmen will have.
“Playing with a motor the whole time, going hard is probably one of the most important things, because playing hard and your effort can erase some of those mistakes that are naturally going to happen in a game,” he said.
Pardon’s loss opens the door for Benson, and others, to step up in bigger roles, just as Pardon did when Alex Olah went down last season.
“I love his energy. He doesn’t have to be a savior coming in. I just want him to focus on the little things he can do. Can he be physical player for us? Yes. Can he be a rebounder and a presence at the basket defensively, and can he finish around the basket when he gets those opportunities? I want him to try to not do too much, because right now, that’s not really where he’s at,” Collins said.
Losing Pardon will definitely hurt, and could prove costly for Northwestern’s postseason chances if they drop any of the six remaining non-conference games. If nothing else, though, Collins will find out what he really has in Gavin Skelly and Barret Benson, and on a broader level, what this team is made of.
“Does it hurt our team? Absolutely. We still feel like we have enough to be successful,” Collins said. “The way I look at it too is I think it can make us a better team. We know we’re gonna Dererk get back. The good part about it is maybe we can find another guy in Barret.”