Yes, it was only DePaul, but Northwestern played its best half of the season against the Blue Demons. The Wildcats dominated every facet of the game, led 54-18 at halftime and steamrolled their cross-town rivals. It was yet another powerful statement of intent for this Northwestern team, which is quickly shaping up to be one of Northwestern’s best teams in years.
While Northwestern’s defense was solid, the offensive fireworks were the highlight of the night. Northwestern shot the lights out in the first half. Meanwhile, DePaul never came close to the light switch. Northwestern was 10-for-22 from three point range for the game, while the Blue Demons shot just 2-of-20 from beyond-the-arc.
Although Northwestern will not shoot that well every night, the display was representative of the new Northwestern team we’ve seen this season: a team with offensive diversity unseen last season. The team now ranks 49th in the nation according KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency stat, up from 72nd last year and a far cry from 288th in Collins’ first campaign. If this is sustainable, Northwestern will have its best offensive team since the 2012 Carmody team that went to the NIT, paired with a significantly better defense.
In this game, four players scored in double figures for Northwestern, and none of those players were Bryant McIntosh.
“We just have more firepower,” head coach Chris Collins said. “I love to see how balanced our team can be on offense.”
Northwestern went on to win 80-64 despite a sluggish second half, but the offensive explosion ensured the outcome was in little doubt. For large stretches in the first half, the game looked like a glorified exhibition as the Blue Demons had no answer for Northwestern’s versatility.
That versatility begins, somewhat surprisingly, with Sanjay Lumpkin. The senior captain and self-acknowledged defense/rebounding specialist finished with 11 points—all of which came in the first half. So far this year, he’s clearly expanded his game and changed his mindset in his final season in Evanston.
In previous seasons, it seemed as if Northwestern was playing four-on-five offensively when Lumpkin was in the game. But this season he has shown the ability to hit open three and even create off the dribble in certain cases, which has opened up the offense tremendously.
“It definitely takes pressure off everyone,” Lumpkin said. “I need to take shots when they’re there, and not try to get out of character. I’m playing freely, playing confident.”
But the offensive evolution of this team goes beyond Lumpkin. The most important change in this year’s offense is probably the addition of Vic Law. After sitting out last season, Law hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the starting lineup.
Law has shot over 50 percent from three this season, and his athleticism in transition is something Northwestern just did not have last season. Having another wing who can shoot the ball and defend has taken some pressure off of Scottie Lindsey, who has also taken a major leap in his junior year.
“He’s become a mature, really good player,” Collins said. “Physically he’s gotten stronger, his defense has improved, and he’s really become a two-way player. I think he took the loss of Tre [Demps] as a personal challenge for him to step up.”
After averaging 6.4 points per game game a year ago, Lindsey was averaging 15 points per game this season entering the DePaul game. He scored a game-high 19 points in the win.
“I think I just have a different fire for the game,” Lindsey said.
In addition to scoring, Lindsey has improved across the board. His rebounding and assist numbers have more than doubled since last season as he’s gotten more minutes. He’s occasionally looked mentally unsteady at times in his career, but those struggles are gone now. As Collins noted, his defense has also improved. He’s one of the team’s go-to players, and he’s readily embraced the role thus far.
Lastly, there’s junior Gavin Skelly, who scored 15 points in 26 minutes against DePaul. Skelly has taken a more central role in the team’s offense this season, and is the team’s best playmaker on the inside. He has also shown the ability to step out and hit threes, making the offense much more unpredictable.
Beating DePaul isn’t anything to write home about, but the dominant performance itself, especially in the first half, was notable. We saw signs of this uber-Wildcat team in the games against Texas and Bryant. This game showed that Northwestern’s lofty offensive ceiling may be no fluke.
At the very least, Northwestern’s opponents will certainly have a tougher time game-planning for Northwestern in 2016-17. The days of opposing defenses only worrying about Tre Demps and McIntosh are officially over. This season, there are simply more options. When Law, Lindsey or McIntosh has had an off night this season, one of the other guards—usually one of the guards in that trio—has picked up the slack.
Obviously, if outside shots aren’t falling, Northwestern’s offense can stagnate; that was evident in the Wake Forest game, in which Northwestern shot 6-26 from three. It remains to be seen whether the team can score efficiently night and night out against strong competition, but Northwestern should be able to attack Big Ten squads from a variety of angles. The chemistry appears to be there on the floor, and the offense is flowing as a result.
“Now we’re starting to get some of the fruits of the Vic Laws, Scott Lindseys and Gavin Skellys and the work they’ve put in. It’s been a lot of fun so far. Hopefully, we can keep it going,” Collins said. “Those are guys we’ve invested in and tried to develop. Now you’re seeing the guys we envisioned.”