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Northwestern basketball isn’t as positionally versatile as you might think

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When certain players were forced out of their natural positions in 2016-17, the Wildcats struggled.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, three of Northwestern’s starters — Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Sanjay Lumpkin — were between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7. As such, it seemed reasonable to assume that the trio could float between positions, utilizing their similar physical tools to guard different types of players.

However, this wasn’t the case. Law, Lindsey and Lumpkin have numerous skills, but playing out of position isn’t one of them. With the Wildcats’ questionable depth heading into next year, it’s worth discussing the challenges head coach Chris Collins will have in distributing minutes. Someis best players may not be as positionally versatile as they appear to be, and the stats back that up.

In 157 minutes last season, lineups featuring Vic Law at shooting guard were outscored by 43 points. With Law, who is a prototypical three, shifted down a position, the Wildcats typically featured two big men on the court. As a result, opponents were able to exploit Northwestern’s lack of speed on the floor in numerous ways.

Opponents shot 41.4 percent from deep in those minutes, moving the ball around until the Wildcats’ plodding defense cracked. The lack of playmaking hurt Northwestern’s offense, too. These lineups posted a 0.86 assist-to-turnover ratio and committed lots of turnovers in open play; 62.7 percent of the Wildcats’ turnovers were the product of steals.

In 117 minutes this season, lineups featuring Scottie Lindsey at small forward were a net-zero against opponents in 26 games. By shifting Lindsey up a position, Northwestern was able to insert another playmaker into the lineup, whether it be Jordan Ash or Isiah Brown. At the same time, it made the Wildcats smaller and weaker defensively.

With three guards on the court, Northwestern assisted on nearly 63 percent of its field goals and was able to generate better looks from deep, shooting 44.1 percent from three-point range. On the other end, the Wildcats gave up 26 more free throw attempts and were outrebounded by 19, including by 11 on the offensive glass.

The pair have been used at other positions, too—Law at power forward and Lindsey at point guard and power forward—but the samples are quite small. With respect to the sample of Law at shooting guard, it’s worth noting that Lindsey’s four-game absence during conference play resulted in Law starting at shooting guard twice and playing more as an off-guard.

Even so, it was curious that Collins used these lineups so frequently during Big Ten play. When Law was at shooting guard, the Wildcats were outscored by 21 points against conference opponents. Nearly 22 percent of Law’s minutes were spent at shooting guard. Again, the numbers have some noise in them, but the point stands. Law shouldn’t play shooting guard.

Lumpkin is more of a mixed bag. He spent over 90 percent of his minutes playing power forward last season, but an injury to Dererk Pardon during the team’s non-conference slate forced Collins to adjust, which involved Lumpkin playing some center. When Lindsey went down two months later, Lumpkin had to cover some of Law’s minutes at small forward.

In nearly 21 minutes over eight games, lineups featuring Lumpkin at small forward were outscored by 10 points. Northwestern shot an abysmal 38 percent from the field and 25 percent from deep. Lumpkin is neither a shooter nor playmaker, so it would make sense that shifting him down a position would have negative effects.

In 37 minutes over five games, lineups featuring Lumpkin at center outscored opponents by 10 points. While the Wildcats shot poorly with these lineups on the floor, their collective speed rattled opponents, who posted a 0.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. Opponents also shot 34 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range.

While those numbers regarding Lumpkin at center are interesting, it was never going to be a strategy the team would stick with once Pardon returned. After the Chicago State game, Collins even said that Lumpkin would ideally not play center. The Big Ten is also a physical conference with lots of talented big men, so it’s unlikely that Lumpkin would’ve thrived at center over a longer stretch.

So, what does this all mean, and how does it relate to next year’s team?

The numbers bear out that Law, Lindsey and Lumpkin mostly struggled out of position. With Lumpkin gone, Northwestern’s depth takes a major hit, but there is a bright spot for the Wildcats. When the three played together, specifically in the starting lineup, the team thrived.

In 302 minutes, the starting lineup of Bryant McIntosh, Pardon and the aforementioned trio outscored opponents by 30 points over 24 games. The Wildcats only shot 31.9 percent from deep due to Lumpkin and Pardon not having much range on their jump shots, but defensively, Northwestern’s starters were tenacious, holding opponents to 40.4 percent shooting from the field.

When they were all on the court, the trio was able to use their similar builds to stifle opponents on the defensive end. The success of the starting lineup shows that when they got to play their position, Law, Lindsey and Lumpkin produced in a big way.

Moving forward, Collins needs to find someone who can fill Lumpkin’s role within the starting lineup. That’s a difficult task, as Lumpkin was a unique player. Redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon and junior Gavin Skelly are probably the leading favorites to start at power forward, but by the end of the season, it could be someone else.

Law and Lindsey are one-position players. That’s okay. If Northwestern wants to continue its ascent up the college basketball hierarchy, the team must let its players perform where they do it best. The results are proof of this. Throughout next season, it will become clear if Collins has learned from last year’s transgressions.