The first 13 minutes of Friday’s game between the Northwestern Wildcats (12-3, 1-1) and the Michigan State Spartans (10-5, 2-0) went about as bad for Northwestern as anyone could have imagined. The struggles for Chris Collins’ squad peaked at the 7:02 mark in the first half, when Michigan State guard Cassius Winston glided to the rim for an easy layup late in a possession to increase the Spartans’ lead to 28-9. Down 19 points on the road at one of the most hostile environments in college basketball, it appeared as though Northwestern could be in a for a long day. But instead, something changed for the Wildcats. On offense, the team settled into the game and start hitting open shots. And on defense, the Wildcats started forcing turnovers and keeping the Michigan State shooters in check. By the end of the first half, the Wildcats had gone on a 20-8 run and suppressed the Spartans’ lead to 36-29. In the second half, Northwestern was able to keep the game competitive, narrowing their deficit to just four at some points, but were never able to fully come back. And while the result of this game wasn’t the ideal scenario, there were plenty of takeaways from the Wildcats’ performance in East Lansing–both positive and negatives. Here’s four things we learned (or saw reaffirmed) from Friday’s game.
1. Front court depth is a problem, but Northwestern battled through it.
As the result of foul trouble, the Wildcats were forced to play an extra small lineup which featured Sanjay Lumpkin as the center and Nate Taphorn as the power forward for an extended portion of the game. The depth in the front court had been a question for the Wildcats ever since it was announced Dererk Pardon would miss time due to a right hand injury, but this was still a lineup we had rarely seen all season. Collins had talked about this lineup earlier in the year after the Chicago State game, saying he didn’t think playing Lumpkin at the five was ideal, however the senior captain made the most of his time at center on Friday, finishing with 7 points and 6 rebounds, and was able to help narrow the deficit in the first half and keep the game close in the second half.
“They were just fighting, they were scrapping and that’s all you can do if you’re a little bit undermanned and undersized,” Collins said about his small lineup after the game. “You gotta just fight, that’s never gonna be an issue with Lumpkin, that’s just who he is, that’s what he’s done his whole career.”
But while the extra small lineup didn’t sink the Wildcats against Michigan State, it could prove to be a bigger issue in future games if Pardon remains out and Skelly and Benson continue to flirt with foul trouble. Skelly picked up two fouls within two minutes after checking into the game and had a third by halftime, ultimately fouling out with 6:10 remaining in the game. Benson had three fouls by halftime as well and didn’t play much in the second half. Lumpkin also fouled out after he picked up all five of his fouls in the second half. Even when Pardon returns, the Northwestern front court will still be shallow and must find a way to keep the big men on the floor. The foul trouble is especially an issue for Skelly, as Collins mentioned after the game, because of the value he brings to the offense.
“We need Gavin, he’s been a big key to what we’re doing, he’s a double figure scorer for us,” Collins said. “So him only being able to play 12 minutes I thought was a big factor tonight because he’s a big function of what we’ve been doing offensively, his ability to space the floor.”
2. Vic Law can be ‘the guy” for Northwestern
This isn’t a new observation by any means, we saw what Law was capable of at the beginning of the season but he continues to impress on both ends of the floor. He led the team in scoring with 16 points, going 6-of-11 from the field but also led the team in rebounds with nine, all on the defensive end. On offense, Law was by far the most aggressive player for Northwestern, driving to the rim and finishing strong on several occasions. But what was perhaps even more impressive was Law’s play on the defensive end. In a game where many Northwestern players were battling foul trouble, Law finished the game with just two personal fouls and was very active down low in getting rebounds, soaring above everyone else on multiple occasions to get the board. He also locked down freshman Josh Langford throughout the entire game, limiting the former five-star recruit to just two points and denying him the ball on many possessions while he was on the floor. At this point in the season, it’s clear Law is the Wildcats’ most complete player, even when his jumper isn’t falling. His athleticism shines through even when facing a team like Michigan State with plenty of young talent and his length on defense makes him the Wildcats’ best defender.
3. Bryant McIntosh’s shooting needs to improve
McIntosh has been a streaky shooter to start this season and his woes continued against the Spartans. The junior captain was 3-of-14 from the field and 0-of-3 from deep, lowering his shooting percentages on the year to 35.1% from the field and 24.6% from three. Furthermore, it was a rough day for McIntosh on defense as well: He fouled out and struggled when matched up with Winston for most of the day, who finished the game with 15 points and 6 assists. We saw at the beginning of last season what McIntosh is capable of shooting the ball and we got a glimpse of it once again when he took over against Wake Forest this year, but he’s yet to turn in a string of consistent performances. Even when he’s not scoring, McIntosh still plays a huge role in the offense as a distributor and playmaker, but if he is able to straighten out his shooting and consistency, the Northwestern offense could be vaulted to another level.
4. This team is mature and different from previous years
In the beginning of the first half, the Spartans were playing some of their best basketball thus far this season while the Wildcats were playing some of their worst. As Northwestern fell behind to its largest deficit of the season, it looked as though the game could be following suit to some of the Wildcats’ blowout losses last season to teams such as Michigan State and Indiana — games where Northwestern couldn’t buy a basket on offense while it seemed its opponent couldn’t miss. However on Friday, unlike those games last year, the Wildcats were able to roll with the punches dealt to them early and battle back into the game. Michigan State’s perimeter defense is perhaps the best the Wildcats have faced so far this season and, after a slow start early, Northwestern was able to go toe-to-toe and match the Spartans in scoring throughout most of the second half. Part of that can be attributed to the team’s defense. Tom Izzo credited the Wildcats’ defensive effort as they held the Spartans to 32 percent shooting from the field field in the second half and helped keep the game close. While the team ultimately wasn’t able to battle back all the way and come away with a win, the comeback and effort shown in the second (all while dealing with many players in foul trouble) exemplifies the maturity of this year’s team has and that could help benefit the Wildcats in future games to come. After the game, Collins praised his team’s effort and said he would look to build upon the positives he saw during the comeback.
“We just can’t hang our heads. This is a tough venue to win in for us to put ourselves in a position after being down (almost) 20, to have it at four, I was really proud of that. Now we have to find a way to take that next step and get us over the hump.”