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Northwestern shows depth quality, not quantity, as Wildcats thrash IUPUI

The rotation is down to eight for now, but it’s certainly a capable eight.

Legends Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey came into Northwestern’s game versus IUPUI having each scored 164 points in 11 games, good for 14.9 per game respectively and over two more points than the team’s third-leading scorer, Bryant McIntosh.

On Tuesday night, less than 72 hours after an exhausted Northwestern team limped to the finish in a win over Dayton, that duo combined for just 14. Hypothetically, that should have spelled trouble. In actuality, it didn’t come close, as Northwestern got 46 points — more than half of the team total — off its bench en route to an easy 87-65 win over IUPUI.

With Dererk Pardon out, this team is thin. Ideally, Chris Collins’ rotation includes no more than eight players at this point. That includes the two true freshmen, one of whom (Barret Benson) wasn’t expected to play too much this year.

However, the team’s thin rotation is certainly not thin in quality.

Surrounding Lindsey, Law and McIntosh, the three players averaging double figures this season, a cast of talented players have taken their role and have executed it well.

Sanjay Lumpkin, playing as the third wing alongside the more heralded Law and Lindsey, is enjoying the best stretch of basketball in his career. The fifth-year senior scored 13 points and collected 13 rebounds for his second straight double-double and third of the year, matching his total from his first three seasons. All three of his double-doubles have come since Pardon’s injury. During that span, he’s averaged 9.8 points and 10 rebounds per contest. Astonishingly, that’s almost a double-double per game since the team’s best rebounder went down.

His play was fantastic yet again versus IUPUI, especially with Lindsey sidelined early with fouls and Law “under the weather” according to Collins. He needed just five shots to get his 13 points, and is currently the 19th-most efficient player on offense in all of college basketball.

“Sanjay’s a winner,” Collins said post-game. “We’re better because we’re on Sanjay’s team. I’m better because I’m on Sanjay’s team. He’s got a warrior’s heart and a warrior’s spirit, and he’ll do anything to help the team win.”

Joining him in the starting five over the past five games has been Benson, the true freshman who looks more comfortable with each passing game. The Chicagoland product’s numbers are not as important as his day-to-day improvements. Against an undersized IUPUI team, this meant collecting five blocks while only committing two fouls in 15 minutes. He’s getting to his spots more quickly on defense, and when he gets there, he’s learning not to foul. Even when Pardon comes back and Benson’s minutes decrease, this experience will show its value.

We’d be remiss, however, to neglect the outstanding bench play from Tuesday night. With the short turnaround after the Dayton dogfight, Northwestern needed its three-man bench to step up.

It all started with Gavin Skelly, who is quickly proving himself to be much, much more capable than just a spark off the bench, a role he played for the majority of his first two years in Evanston.

“Gavin is a starter for us,” Collins said. “We just bring him off the bench because there’s value in what he brings off the bench. To me, he should be a prime candidate for sixth man of the year in our league if he continues to play like this.”

He brought 19 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks off the bench against IUPUI. All three were career highs. He bullied the players the Jaguars sent down low, gathering five offensive boards.

“One of my roles is, as a four man, be more of a threat,” Skelly said. “With me being able to score, they have to guard me; they can’t double-team Bryant off pick-and-rolls. By me being a threat, defenses have to change and adjust to it.”

That was certainly the case, and the Jaguars had no response for the junior out of Cleveland. Skelly showed his evolution as a playmaker, knocking down a three-pointer or putting the ball on the floor several times to either get to the basket or make the extra pass. He has averaged over two assists per game this season. Meanwhile, McIntosh, his pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop partner, had nine assists and just two turnovers.

Then there’s Nathan Taphorn, a floor-spacer in every sense of the word. Of his 35 shots, 28 have come from behind the arc. Of those 28, he’s knocked down 15. His offensive rating of 144.0 is astronomically high and would be the sixth-best mark in the nation if he were playing at least 40 percent of the minutes available, the cutoff in Kenpom’s ratings. For what it’s worth, over the past four games, Taphorn has reached the minutes threshold, and his offensive rating is 163.5, well ahead of Virginia’s Kyle Guy, who currently leads the category at 151.8.

Taphorn’s emergence has come at a key time for the Wildcats. With Pardon’s injury forcing Collins to play Skelly as a center, Taphorn has filled in well at the power forward position and stretched the floor beautifully. If defenders help off of him, he’s been fantastic from long range. If defenders do not help out, athletes like Law and Lindsey can probe the lane more easily. Even with his shot not falling against the Jaguars, Taphorn managed to contribute by getting to the free throw line four times (making all four) and gabbing four rebounds, two of them offensive. He also added three assists and a block while committing zero turnovers and zero fouls.

And finally there’s Isiah Brown, who started the season strong and fell on hard times after that, struggling with turnovers and going ice cold shooting. But Brown has certainly retained his confidence. He found important ways to contribute versus Dayton and then found his shot against IUPUI, scoring 15 points in 29 minutes, both career highs.

“He’s slowing down a little bit now,” Collins said. “He was just going real fast for a while, and the thing about it is I didn’t want to rob him of his aggressiveness, because that’s who he is...”

Against IUPUI, that development was on display. He had four assists and knocked down three threes, only forcing one or two questionable looks early in the shot clock.

“He’s a really important guy for us moving forward,” Collins concluded when asked about Brown.

The same can be said for all three of Northwestern’s bench players, as well as its two “role-playing” starters. And through a dozen games, all five have settled in and produced when called upon, especially after Pardon went down. Going forward, it’s that quality depth that will need to continue to perform to keep Northwestern in the hunt.