The departure of Sanjay Lumpkin left a void in Northwestern’s starting lineup. Through six games, his absence has been felt. Gavin Skelly has filled in admirably to start his senior year but the Wildcats haven’t been as stingy defensively, allowing 44.4 percent shooting from the field and 34.7 percent from deep. Skelly has thrived as a reserve for the past two seasons, a role he’s better suited to play.
Redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon has only played in three games, but his play in Skelly’s place has produced encouraging results. This lineup has yet to give up a three-pointer and has goaded opponents into more isolation possessions; opponents have assisted on just 45.5 percent of their field goals and have recorded more turnovers than assists.
Falzon’s success with the starters dates back to his freshman year. While Vic Law sat out that season, lineups featuring Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Dererk Pardon and Falzon held opponents to 22.2 percent shooting from deep. The sample was small, but the point remains: The Wildcats defend the perimeter better with Falzon and without Skelly.
Why isn’t Falzon starting? According to coach Chris Collins, he doesn’t want to throw him into the fire right away.
“You guys gotta remember, he hasn’t played,” Collins said after the team’s win over Sacred Heart. “He missed the whole year last year and the first three games [this year], so there’s gonna be a little bit of rust on him as we work through the rest of this nonconference [schedule], as he gets his legs back underneath him in games.”
It’s unclear if Collins is hinting that Falzon might move into the starting lineup once the non-conference schedule concludes, but it seems like he has no intention of changing his starting five anytime soon. The current iteration has performed well; they’ve outscored opponents by 31 points in six games and more importantly, they’ve been sharing the ball. With Skelly alongside the four captains, Northwestern is assisting on 63.3 percent of its field goals. Replace him with Falzon and that number drops seven percentage points. For a team with so few elite shot-creators, ball movement is paramount to the team’s success.
“I think it lifts everyone up,” Lindsey said after the Sacred Heart game. “I think this team has a lot of weapons and when everyone’s firing on all cylinders, I think we’re a pretty hard team to beat.”
As Falzon fully acclimates himself back into the rotation, the Wildcats can stick with Skelly as the starting power forward. The team’s remaining non-conference schedule is manageable, and the conference opener on Dec. 1 against Illinois is very winnable.
Once the calendar turns to 2018, though, Collins should strongly consider inserting Falzon into the starting lineup. The unit has only played a hair under 19 minutes together, but the early returns are good enough to justify returning Skelly to his optimal role as a sixth man.