On Wednesday night, No. 25 Northwestern fell to No. 23 Purdue on the road at Mackey Arena, and it was ugly. In their first conference game as a ranked team since in almost 50 years, the Wildcats got beat up badly in West Lafayette. The result was a 80-59 loss, their first double-digit defeat of the season.
Not coincidentally, it was also the Wildcats’ first game of the season playing without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey. A starter in all 22 of Northwestern’s previous games and a double-digit scorer in 21 of them, the junior guard was even more sorely missed against the Boilermakers than most expected. However, while it was the absence of his volume wing scoring and long range shooting that most people will point to as the key factor in the Wildcats’ woeful showing, it was on the less-heralded end of the floor that Lindsey’s loss was felt the most keenly and most negatively impacted the team’s performance as a whole.
Yes, the Wildcats shot just 35 percent from the field, made just 2 of 14 shots from behind the three-point line and had to rely far too heavily on Bryant McIntosh and freshman Isiah Brown (in his first collegiate start) to create shots. The offense as a whole was impotent at best, and that cannot be argued, but with Dererk Pardon and Gavin Skelly neutralized by the bigger and stronger tandem of Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan down low, Nate Taphorn injured, and Vic Law struggling with his jumper and finding no luck getting to the rim (he shot 0-7 from the field and had just one point), would the insertion of Lindsey really have had a decisive impact in turning things around on the offensive end?
Perhaps he could have had more isolation success than Brown and could have created more coming off off-ball screens than Law, but it is a stretch to suggest that he could have added enough to reverse the tide of this game entirely. The defensive end, however, is a very different story.
Wednesday night revealed something that a lot of consistent observers may not have noticed in the midst of the Wildcats recent dominance defensively; that Lindsey and Law are the only two true long, strong wing defenders on this team (Sanjay Lumpkin can play there but mainly bangs with bigger bodies). With one of the two sidelined for the first time, the foundation of Northwestern’s defense became shaky, and Purdue was the perfect opponent to ensure that the structure of it as a whole crumbled as a result.
The total and complete breakdown of the Wildcats perimeter defense without Lindsey manifested itself in many different ways throughout the night.
Law in an unfamiliar assignment:
Vic Law is Northwestern’s best individual defender, and likely one of the best defenders in the Big Ten as a whole, but he had a rough night defending Purdue’s Dakota Mathias.
The beauty of Law as a defender is how ubiquitously dominant his talent package allows him to be. He can guard any ball handler one-on-one on the perimeter, switch onto forwards and big men, block and alter countless shots with his length and timing, and be a dominant force on the defensive glass. One of the only assignments that he is not accustomed to undertaking and excelling at is chasing around pure shooters, and it showed Wednesday.
In this clip from early in the first half, Mathias runs off of two brush screens and gets a trailing Law to fly by on a pump-fake, before sticking a jumper. From his upright starting position as Mathias begins his cut, it is clear that Law is not accustomed to guarding an off-ball curler on this type of action. We have seen Law be brilliant this year in his ability to fight past and recover from on-ball screens. He rarely has to chase shooters around screens, and here Mathias was able lose him on the curl, anticipate Law’s length and recovery ability, and calmly hit an open jumper.
Normally, Lindsey would draw the assignment of a shooter like Mathias. He has specialized in defending off-the-ball scorers this year, and his ability to rotate well, jump passing lanes, and get out to shooters has been one of the most underrated aspects of his game and Northwestern’s defense as a whole.
Law would normally have been tasked with a smaller ball-dominant guard like P.J. Thompson and would have been able to completely take them out of the game. Instead, he was left to unsuccessfully chase Mathias around the court as he filled it up from deep, which freed up Thompson to have his way creating off ball screens from Swanigan and Haas with the smaller Brown and slower McIntosh guarding him.
Sanjay Lumpkin as a second wing defender:
Lindsey’s absence did not just move the team’s best individual defender from a dominant role to an unfamiliar one, but also forced their best team defender to do the same thing.
At the start of the evening, Sanjay Lumpkin displayed all the best aspects of his incredible defensive talent. With Purdue playing two smaller guards and McIntosh, Brown and Law matching up cleanly on positions 1-3 on the perimeter, Lumpkin was free to play his familiar role of quarterback from the post at the 4 position. He repeatedly doubled down on Purdue’s go-to option, Swanigan, with expert timing and discipline, forcing the national player of the year candidate into three early turnovers. He was able to do the same when Isaac Haas came into the game, but then everything changed.
Purdue decided to start playing three wing players around a point guard and Haas/Swanigan. Without the size to play the 5 defensively, Lumpkin was forced out onto the perimeter for the rest of the game to guard swift-moving sharp-shooters Vince Edwards and Ryan Cline. Recognizing this, Matt Painter began to run a lot of screening action for three point opportunities with devastating results.
In the first clip, Cline (Lumpkin’s man) sets a baseline screen for Mathias. So concerned about Cline’s shooting ability, and needing to switch onto Mathias with Law again late to recognize the design of the offense, Lumpkin delays for a split second underneath the rim in picking up Mathias’ curl, and has neither the length nor the quickness to catch up in time to get a hand up and alter the shot.
In the second clip, Purdue runs a perimeter set specifically for Edwards. Lumpkin is placed in a position he may well not have been in before this season, of starting out a defensive possession in the half court guarding a man who is having his number called for a play on the perimeter. Not recognizing the situation, he goes under the Thompson screen and Edwards gets a quick and easy three, his fifth of the game.
Lumpkin’s strengths defensively are his physicality, veteran savvy, and quick hands in the post, and his ability to switch on-ball screens and move his feet on the perimeter. Lindsey’s absence and Purdue’s adjustment forced him to guard perimeter scorers, and much like Law, he was taken away from his established role defensively and failed to make an impact in his new one.
Skelly as a third wing defender:
This was the nightmare scenario. Plain and simple.
With two small offensive-minded guards on the floor in Brown and McIntosh, Lumpkin moved into an auxiliary wing defender role to counter Purdue’s small ball, one of Barret Benson and Dererk Pardon needing to be on the floor at all times to occupy either Swanigan or Haas, and without Lindsey or Taphorn, Chris Collins was stuck between a rock and a hard place in his choosing a wing defender off the bench.
The rock was 6-foot-1 point guard Jordan Ash, and the hard place was 6-foot-8 Skelly who has played the 4 and 5 this season. Collins chose the hard place, and unfortunately smashed his head against it one too many times.
Skelly was responsible for checking Edwards on the perimeter for two short first half stretches, and that matchup was almost single-handedly responsible for making those two stretches devastating ones for the Wildcats.
There is no need to break down each of Edwards’ four threes on this run individually, but as a package they illustrate Skelly’s struggles as a perimeter defender, both physically and mentally, after playing the whole year as a power forward and center. Physically, he is far too slow to move laterally to get out to Edwards in transition or chase him around screens. Mentally, all his instincts tell him to double down on rollers in the paint in the half court and sprint back to protect the basket in transition, resulting in three wide open threes for Edwards from the same side of the court, two of which nobody besides Skelly is at fault.
This lambasting of Skelly’s perimeter defense is not meant as a slight to his ability as a player overall, nor is it meant as an indictment for blame in the lopsided loss. Skelly is a player whose strengths are his energy around the basket and on the glass, and his ability to produce mismatches with slower big men on the offensive end. He is in no way a player who would ever be in this position coming off the bench if Lindsey had been in the lineup.
Nonetheless, that was the dilemma that Collins and this team found themselves in last night, and it goes to great lengths to illustrate the severity of the impact of Lindsey’s loss defensively. It will be a trying time for the Wildcats if their star guard is to miss an extended run of games, and it will perhaps be Collins’ greatest challenge of his time at Northwestern to navigate that potential run of games and figure out a defensive solution. If he cannot, his team’s tournament hopes could be in jeopardy.