EVANSTON — Where the heck is Isiah Brown?
That's a question permeating through the minds of many around the Northwestern basketball program — on a team that falls victim to scoring droughts and stagnant offensive stretches, why is Brown, a diminutive spark plug with a knack for scoring and creating baskets, on the bench?
According to Chris Collins, Brown's lack of minutes is due to the ascension of other players, notably junior Jordan Ash and freshman Anthony Gaines.
Gaines and Brown aren't really comparable players, so Gaines's uptick in minutes, some of which are likely at Brown's expense, isn't all that surprising. Gaines is emerging as a defensive stopper, and his physical presence has pumped some life into Northwestern.
What's more surprising is the disparity in minutes between Ash and Brown. While Brown hasn't played in four of the Wildcats' last five games, Ash has averaged nine minutes per game over the team's last five.
Brown's offensive rating is nearly eight points higher than Ash's this season, and his shooting percentage is close to 10 percent higher on 0.7 more shots per contest. As far as explosiveness and true offensive talent go, Brown is clearly superior to Ash.
Ash is a better defender than Brown, however, and he turns the ball over less. Even though Brown may provide more of a scoring punch than Ash, it's his mistakes, whether they're defensive lapses or careless giveaways, that are keeping a player as talented as him on the bench.
Assistant coach Brian James also noted Ash and Gaines's play as reasons for Brown's recent decline in minutes, but he acknowledged that Brown left the door open for them to take some of his minutes. He mentioned an increased attention to detail in learning the "ever-evolving" offense and nailing down defensive assignments as keys for Brown moving forward.
"It's all about competition," James said. "Isiah's not in disfavor or anything like that."
With Bryant McIntosh's impending graduation, you would think Collins would want to try to develop his heir apparent, at least during McIntosh's rests during games, and that has mostly been Ash in the last few games. Brown is by no means done — Collins said the team will need him at some point later this season — but the past few weeks, even though the team has been playing better, haven't been great for the Seattle native.
Brown isn’t being a malcontent, but his absence on the court in noteworthy nonetheless.
"I'm just focusing on staying ready," Brown said. "As long as we're winning, my job is to do whatever it takes to help us win. I'm a pretty motivated guy naturally. Where I'm from and my size, I was kind of built with a chip on my shoulder. I try to keep that everyday, whether things are going good or bad, so it's still the same."
Other news and notes
The 2-2-1 press
Collins recently implemented a three-quarter court press ahead of the team's first matchup against Minnesota, and, for the most part, it's worked. The Wildcats haven't allowed more than 71 in games they've used the press, and have given up just over 65 points per game over that stretch.
The goal of the press isn't necessarily to generate steals, but to slow down the opposition. The front two in the press — often some combination of Vic Law Jr., Scottie Lindsey and Anthony Gaines — have to be athletic and long, Brian James said. Their goal is to prevent the opponent's guards dribbling through the press. Ideally, the opponent will throw several side-to-side passes before advancing the ball.
The middle two in the press — usually Bryant McIntosh and the power forward — try to take away the advance pass down the sidelines. Adhering to "ball, you, man" principles, meaning they need to be aware of where the ball is on the court and where opposing players are, they will trap if the ball gets into any corner of the floor. Dererk Pardon is the 1 in the 2-2-1, patrolling the paint and protecting the rim is the press gets broken.
The press has forced opponents to take more time to get into their sets, making it difficult for them to push the pace and get in transition.
"Opponents don't push the ball up the court as fast," James said when describing the press. "It takes anywhere from six to 10 seconds to get the ball across, and then they have to figure out what defense we're in, and then you only have 15-17 seconds to run a play instead of 17."
In recent games, Northwestern has fallen back into a 2-3 zone most of the time after the press gets broken; many of the defensive mishaps in non-conference play came as a result of one-on-one breakdowns, so the zone helps to cover up some of those deficiencies. For one, the zone has kept many of the Wildcats' key players out of foul trouble, Collins said, which was a problem early in the season. Additionally, the zone forces the players to communicate, something that lacked early this season, Collins said.
The press and the zone will need to evolve as other teams have more film on them, but, at least for now, both have provided a defensive stopgap of sorts that, among other things has Northwestern winning games again.
"[The press] gave us new life," Collins said. "We were struggling at the defensive end, we were getting beat a lot on dribble penetration, we were fouling a lot. What it's enabled us to do is put kind of a stop sign up in transition where teams have to take time to get the ball up the floor."
"More than anything, the players believe in it."
The team saw a prescreening of the Big Ten Network documentary "First Dance" ahead of the Penn State game, and Collins thinks it gave the team some extra energy before the team's comeback win.
"I thought it really helped our guys," Collins said. "Just to see themselves with that kind of passion and spirit and comfort. It brings back great memories of doing well and what that journey was all about. I think it jumpstarted us a little bit."
"We do that a lot — when teams or individuals are struggling, sometimes showing a guy highlights of himself doing great things, seeing the ball go in the basket, being energetic. Sometimes it can remind you of who you are when you're at your best, when it's not going so well."
The documentary was great, and it certainly brings NU fans back to a time of great excitement that hasn't been present for a lot of this season. Having strung a few wins together now, maybe, just maybe, last seasons chemistry and togetherness is burgeoning with this year's group. The next few weeks will be telling in that regard.