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Northwestern’s big men dilemma

The Wildcats can’t keep playing their big men together.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Everything’s peachy for the Wildcats right now. Coming off a massive win over Wisconsin, Northwestern is poised to finish with its best record in program history. And yet, there’s a lingering issue on the team that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

The team’s greatest strength has been its versatility on the wing. Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey have proven to be one of the most potent wing duos in the Big Ten. Sanjay Lumpkin gives up a few inches every night, but is still a capable power forward and much more than capable defensively. The Wildcats’ quickness on the perimeter helps them on both ends of the floor; it allows them to switch defensively and spread opposing teams out offensively. Playing three wings next to one big man has been Northwestern’s most effective strategy.

There are three traditional big men on the roster. Dererk Pardon starts at center, leading the team in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage in conference play. Gavin Skelly plays backup minutes at center and power forward, but has struggled individually in the Big Ten. Barret Benson is a freshman, forced to step into the spotlight when Pardon went down with an injury. Two-thirds of the way through conference play, Pardon and Skelly’s minutes have grown while Benson has only received more than five minutes twice since Pardon returned from injury. All of the following stats are from the conference season only.

In 203 minutes, Northwestern has outscored opponents by 41 points with Pardon as the only big on the floor. Opponents have shot a ghastly 39.3 percent from the floor and 28.9 percent from deep, but they have out-rebounded the Wildcats by 17 on the offensive glass, which is surprising, given Pardon’s gaudy rebounding numbers.

In 78 minutes, Northwestern has outscored opponents by 20 points with Skelly as the only big on the floor. Skelly’s playmaking boosts the Wildcats’ offense considerably; the team has shot 41.7 percent from deep and assisted on 67.3 percent of its field goals. Northwestern’s defense dips, though; opponents shoot 44.1 percent from the floor and have shot 15 more free throws than the Wildcats.

In 48 minutes, opponents have outscored Northwestern by two points with Benson as the only big on the floor. As a freshman, Benson has competed admirably, but the Wildcats’ offense gets bogged down when he plays. The team shoots 37.5 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from deep when he’s on the court.

All three bring different skills to the table, which would seem to play into the team’s theme of versatility. There’s just one problem, though: They can’t play together. Whenever Northwestern has tried to play two of them at the same time, the Wildcats are a net-negative on the court. Offensively, there’s just not enough room. Defensively, none of the big men are capable of chasing around perimeter players.

The Problem

In 95 minutes, opponents have outscored Northwestern by seven points when Pardon and Skelly are on the floor. This lineup has two advantages: rebounding and shot blocking. That’s to be expected of a unit featuring two of the team’s three big men, but every other statistic favors the opponent. The Wildcats have shot just 37.8 percent from the floor and 23.8 percent from deep with this lineup on the floor — Skelly is shooting 30.8 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from three in the Big Ten — and have allowed opponents to shoot 41.7 percent from downtown. Opponents have also shot 20 more free throws than Northwestern when this lineup is on the court.

Against Minnesota, the Wildcats played this lineup for nearly 16 minutes, and during that time, the team shot 7-of-30 from the field, including 0 of 14 from deep. Northwestern was outscored by three points, ultimately losing the game by four. For the 17-minute stretch when Pardon was the only big man on the floor, the Wildcats outscored the Golden Gophers by seven.

Here’s an example of what Northwestern’s offense looked like with both bigs on the court:

Pardon is completely ignored on this play, which ends in a tough floater for Bryant McIntosh. Skelly draws a double team on the block, but the only person he can kick the ball out to is Pardon, who is a non-threat from outside the paint. Had that been a wing, chances are Minnesota would’ve kept a man on him, giving Skelly either more space to operate or a pass to a more capable jump shooter for an open shot.

Against Purdue, the Wildcats had Pardon and Skelly on the court together for just over nine minutes, and yet the team was outscored by 18 points. The Boilermakers shot 5-of-8 from deep and got to the foul line 11 times. For nearly 20 minutes, Pardon was the only big man on the floor; Northwestern outscored Purdue by four during that time.

Here’s what went wrong for the Wildcats in West Lafayette:

Skelly is forced to help on Caleb Swanigan, who is rolling to the rim. That leaves Skelly’s man, Vincent Edwards, wide open in the corner. Skelly just doesn’t have the quickness to recover. Edwards would go on to make five threes in the game, several of them the result of being guarded by Skelly.

Northwestern has been able to thrive using this lineup at times, though. Against Rutgers, who is dead-last in the conference in terms of three-point shooting, the Wildcats played Skelly more to give the team more size on the interior. As a result, the team outscored the Scarlet Knights by 14 points in just over 16 minutes of action, recording six blocks and outrebounding Rutgers by 17.

Here’s how Pardon and Skelly were able to stifle the Scarlet Knights:

On this play, Pardon never leaves the paint, as Rutgers has no perimeter threats. Skelly also never ventures outside the three-point line for the same reason. When the Scarlet Knights attack the rim, both big men are there, coming up with a block and a stop. But Rutgers is truly an exception, especially when it comes to conference play; the Scarlet Knights are 337th in the nation in effective field goal percentage and 341st in three-point percentage.

As mentioned earlier, this lineup gives Northwestern more bulk inside, which can be a good thing, depending on the matchup. Still, the offensive and defensive limitations are too damaging.

In 23 minutes, opponents have outscored Northwestern by eight points when Benson and Skelly are on the floor. The team allows 46.4 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from deep. The Wildcats, despite having more size, also get out-rebounded by seven when this lineup has played. The sample is incredibly small, but its results are indicative of how damaging it is to play two traditional big men together.

The numbers speak for themselves. When Skelly is tasked with guarding a perimeter player, he just doesn’t have the quickness to keep track of his man. As a result, opponents get open looks from deep and have canned them at a scorching rate. On the other end, Skelly can’t get into the lane — despite playing as a big man, over half of his shot attempts in conference play have come from behind the three-point line — so he’s forced to operate outside the paint, and he’s not a good enough shooter to thrive there.

The Solution

If Pardon is going to play over 30 minutes a game, Skelly and Benson should split the remaining minutes at center. Since Benson is still learning the college game, it might be best for him to keep his minutes limited unless there’s foul trouble or the game is in hand. But he has also shown promise on both ends. That means Skelly’s role will be reduced significantly; his energy is infectious, but it’s optimized when he’s the only big on the floor. The team is better off with him playing strictly at the center spot.

There will be situations where he’s required to play power forward. Foul trouble to any of Northwestern’s wings could result in Skelly checking in for someone other than Pardon. Injuries to Lindsey and Nate Taphorn forced Collins to shift everyone down a position against Purdue, for example. Northwestern might even find a matchup where it’s advantageous to go big, like against cold-shooting Rutgers.

The Wildcats are already playing their best basketball in program history. They’re 8-4 in conference play and 19-6 overall. Scrapping these lineups may not matter. But it’s something the team should at least look at fixing. Minor tweaks like this could take Northwestern to another level.