In Northwestern's last five games—in which the Wildcats are 2-3—Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps have played 376 of the possible 400 minutes. As the Wildcats have gone through their ups and down in the last two weeks or so, and the whole season for that matter, the two constants in terms of production and playing time have been McIntosh and Demps.
The inconsistencies that have plagued Northwestern all year, however, stem from the other three players that have shared the court with McIntosh and Demps. Chris Collins has tried to mix and match players to fill out the remainder of the lineup throughout games but hasn't found the perfect combination, or even one that stands out above the rest in both usage and effectiveness.
Per KenPom's lineup frequency data (which only goes back to the last five games), the Wildcats have used seven lineups in over 7 percent of their minutes in the games since—and including—the 85-71 loss at Iowa on January 31. That may seem like a surprisingly high amount of decently used lineups and, when compared to the rest of the Big Ten, it is. No other team in the conference, in their last five games, has used anywhere close to that many lineups for that many minutes. The team with the next most-evenly-spread lineup usage is Ohio State, which has used four lineups for over 7 percent of minutes.
The most-used lineup for Northwestern is, unsurprisingly, the McIntosh-Demps-Lumpkin-Falzon-Olah group which has started the majority of the Wildcats' games this season. But, that lineup has only been used for 15.9 percent of Northwestern's minutes in the last five games. The next most-frequent lineup—with Scottie Lindsey substituted for Falzon—got 13.7 percent of minutes while McIntosh-Demps-Falzon-Skelly-Olah is third with 9.5 percent of minutes.
Five Big Ten teams' most-used lineups got less than 15.9 percent of minutes, but no team in the conference had multiple double-digit minute lineups. Sure, the five-game limitation of the data at hand lessens the conclusions we can make, but, at the very least, it's clear Northwestern's spread of minutes between different lineups is unlike that of most comparable teams.
What does this tell us, though?
It shows that Collins—who has admitted to coaching predominantly "by feel"—isn't shuffling the lineups at such a high frequency for game-specific matchup purposes. Instead, Collins is mixing and matching so much because his team has struggled to get reliable production from anyone beyond its go-to guards.
Falzon and Lindsey have been effective in spurts, but have yet to string together the four or five consecutive strong efforts necessary to earn a consistent starting role. Dererk Pardon impressed early on, but has since struggled to consistently contribute off the bench. Lumpkin, for defensive purposes, and Olah, for his size and interior scoring ability, are pretty much entrenched in their positions, and for good reason. But both upperclassmen have still had their ups and downs this season.
Teams like Maryland, Illinois and Michigan—which all boast top lineups that regularly play 30 or more percent of minutes—know exactly which group of five players is best in any given situation against any given opponent. Northwestern—thanks to its necessary reliance on so many underclassmen—doesn't have that luxury so it has had to continually experiment with different lineups throughout the season. That explains the abundance of somewhat-used but not highly-used lineups for the Wildcats.
While it would be an oversimplification to blame the Wildcats' struggles this season on their inability to find a set go-to lineup late in games, it's certainly a factor. That comes with the territory for such a young team, but it shouldn't take the entire season for a consistent top-five to emerge.