At first, it wasn’t a huge deal. Isiah Brown had been benched before. He’s not without his faults. His shot selection can leave a lot to be desired. His defensive intensity comes and goes. Despite that, he’s still a talented scorer. Surely Chris Collins would get him back out there, right?
It’s been five games, and the sophomore guard is still in Collins’ doghouse. Even against Indiana, in a game where Northwestern put up an embarrassing 46 points, Collins didn’t insert Brown until the Wildcats were down 21 with less than 12 minutes to play in the second half (he scored 9 points in the last 3:03 of the game). Brown also got a DNP-CD in Northwestern 23-point drubbing of Minnesota.
When asked why Brown hasn’t been playing, Collins said he’s been “rewarding” Jordan Ash for his “spirit” and for being a “tough-minded guy,” as well as for his play in practice. If that’s how Collins wants to determine who plays and who doesn’t, that’s fine. He’s the coach.
The numbers, especially since Collins decided to bench Brown, show that Ash has actually affected the team negatively. In the past five games, the Wildcats have held opponents to 35.5 percent shooting from three and a three-point attempt rate of 0.404. When Ash was on the floor, those numbers jump to 55.6 percent and 0.519. In simpler terms, when Ash plays, Northwestern allows more triples and gives up a better percentage. As a result, the Wildcats are a net negative with Ash on the court during this recent stretch.
Another way Ash has hurt the team is at the free throw line, or more specifically, getting there. Northwestern’s ability to get to the charity stripe has always been an issue since Collins came to Evanston; the Wildcats have never ranked higher than 253rd in free throws attempted per field goal attempt since Collins became head coach. Collins has repeatedly mentioned how getting to the foul line helps the team when shots aren’t falling. He’s right. Northwestern’s free throw attempt rate in wins this season is 0.383; in losses, it’s 0.232.
In the past five games, with Ash on the floor, Northwestern’s free throw attempt rate is 0.289, which is below the team’s average. That’s not all on Ash, but it does beg the question: What would happen if Brown, an aggressive scorer, replaced him in the lineup?
When Brown has been on the floor this season, the Wildcats have a free throw attempt rate of 0.401. Playing Brown has a direct impact on Northwestern’s ability to get to the line. This trend stretches back to last season, when Brown led all perimeter players on the team in free throw attempt rate. This year, he’s second among perimeter players.
Given his track record of putting pressure on opposing defenses, it’s curious that Collins hasn’t played Brown more. I’ve already mentioned the games against Minnesota and Indiana, but you could argue that against Ohio State, a game the Wildcats almost won, Northwestern could’ve used Brown’s attacking game to get some points on the board. Considering the team only played eight players against the Buckeyes and looked out of gas by the game’s end, Brown’s lack of playing time seems even more egregious.
Brown has also proven more capable of helping the team generate offense without Bryant McIntosh. In Brown’s minutes minus McIntosh, Northwestern’s has shot 41.5 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. In Ash’s minutes without the senior point guard, those numbers drop to 38.2 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Given how much the Wildcats have struggled in McIntosh’s minutes on the bench, it’s worth playing Brown if he can help staunch the bleeding.
I’m not going to advocate for Brown to take all of Ash’s minutes. Collins and the team clearly respect Ash’s work ethic. After the win over DePaul, Scottie Lindsey said Ash is one of the team’s leaders and everyone rallies around him. If giving Ash playing time lifts the team’s morale, that’s great.
That being said, Brown deserves some run, too. The numbers show that not only does he bring a greater impact to areas of need than Ash does, but he’s also able to keep the Wildcats’ offense afloat when their floor general sits.
When accounting for McIntosh’s and Lindsey’s minutes, there’s about 15 left to go around in the backcourt. I think it’s fair to argue that at the very least, Brown and Ash should split those. Collins said that Brown’s opportunity to play will come at some point this season. With nine games left, the time is now.