Through the first month of the season, Northwestern’s reserves received a ton of flak for their lack of production. The bench had averaged 10.3 points per game heading into this week, down from the 17.2 points per game the reserves averaged last season. But in these past three games, and especially against DePaul, the bench has proved its worth, providing the starters with scoring punch and defensive energy.
In blowout wins over Chicago State and Valparaiso, the Wildcats’ role players got a ton of run, scoring a combined 59 points. Those two performances were encouraging, given the bench’s early-season woes, but it was the reserves’ play against DePaul that impressed head coach Chris Collins the most.
“I thought the minutes by Isiah Brown, Jordan Ash and Anthony Gaines were huge,” Collins said. “You had Vic out and you had Scottie with four [fouls]. You had Gavin Skelly with four fouls and we needed those three kids to come in and I thought they did an awesome job for us during that stretch.”
The stretch Collins is talking about occurred in the middle of the second half, when Vic Law had left the game with an injury, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly were dealing with foul trouble and Bryant McIntosh couldn’t find the bottom of the basket to save his life. At that point, Northwestern trailed 43-41.
Due to the Wildcats’ problems, Collins played his three backup guards—Ash, Brown and Gaines—with McIntosh and Dererk Pardon. That five-man unit had played 33 seconds the entire season, all against Saint Peter’s. In the postgame, Collins even said he had to play lineups that the team had never practiced with before. This unit seemed to fit that bill, and given the reserves’ struggles, it appeared that Northwestern’s deficit would only grow.
It did not. First, the Wildcats got a stop, punctuated by an Ash rebound. Then, Ash found Brown for a transition corner triple, giving Northwestern its first lead since it was 16-14. When DePaul wrestled the lead back, Brown came down and hit another jumper. The sophomore guard’s ability to heat up in a hurry helped the Wildcats last year, but a preseason injury has held Brown back to start this season. His play has improved recently, a trend his teammates have noted. Northwestern would not have won without him.
“Every game with Isiah, he’s just getting better and better, just getting his confidence back,” Lindsey said.
Brown has averaged 6.4 points per game in his last five, as opposed to the 1.6 per game he averaged over the team’s first seven. His short scoring spurt came at a crucial juncture in the game, with Northwestern fielding a weakened lineup.
On the other end, Ash and Gaines made their presence known, holding the Blue Demons to 2-of-7 shooting, including 0-of-3 from deep, over a 4:25 stretch. More importantly, the unit only gave up one free throw attempt, in a game where DePaul shot 24 of them.
Gaines was tasked with guarding Max Strus, who had a game-high 33 points, and held up well, holding the junior guard to 1-of-3 shooting during the Wildcat’s 7-4 run. It’s not too often that a freshman is asked to guard the opposing team’s best player, but given the circumstances, Gaines found himself in that position and delivered.
“This is his first time around and this was a huge game,” Lindsey said. “I thought he stepped up, definitely having to guard Max at the end of the game. That was a big assignment for him.”
After playing less than 10 minutes in the team’s games against Georgia Tech, Illinois and Purdue, Gaines has played at least 20 minutes in the Wildcats’ last three. Sure, two of those games were blowouts and he had to step in for Law against DePaul, but it shows Collins’ faith in the freshman to give him so much run.
As mentioned above, Ash did a lot of the little things during the run: rebound, find the open man and play some hard-nosed defense. Outside of that stretch Collins talked about, Ash hit a big triple to get the Wildcats back into the game, grabbed an offensive rebound off a free throw miss to get Northwestern an extra possession and even got a steal and subsequent fast-break layup.
During his three years in Evanston, Ash hasn’t had a big role on the court. Instead of pouting over a lack of playing time, Ash has made a positive contribution to the team by being a great teammate, whether it’s working hard in the weight room—he was awarded the Swolly Grail in the offseason—or participating in pregame rituals when the starters are announced. Ash’s presence is important to the team’s chemistry, something his teammates recognize and feed off of.
“I think Jordan is a good locker room guy,” Lindsey said. “Everyone really listens to him and rallies around him, so when he’s playing well, I think everyone starts to play well.”
With Law’s status unknown, Collins and his coaching staff must consider what the team’s role players will be able to give the team in the meantime. If the game against DePaul was any indication, they’re more than ready to step up and make an impact.