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Wildcats’ twin towers star on the biggest stage

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Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson proved to be an effective pairing against Penn State.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Penn State vs Northwestern Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — His roster riddled with injuries, Chris Collins elected to go with his ninth different starting lineup of this season against Penn State. It was unique in that it featured the team’s two centers, Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson. For a team that has been soul-searching for the majority of its season and was dealing with the absence of Vic Law, it made sense that Collins would try something new and different.

“I think our main goal was we had a couple of days to figure out how can we win the game,” Collins said. “I just felt like going with the two big guys playing a power game...would give us a chance to maybe cause some problems for them.

Benson and Pardon have rarely, if ever, played together this season (23:47 total in two games, to be exact). In an early January loss at Penn State, the duo failed to make a large impact. Against Iowa in the regular season finale, however, the centers, with the help of Scottie Lindsey’s career-high 32 points, played a huge part in climbing out of a sizable deficit to the Hawkeyes, holding them to 9-of-28 shooting when they shared the floor.

“[Benson] played very well in our last game against Iowa,” Collins said. “We had a big deficit in that game, and I thought he came in and just gave us a nice boost of energy. I noticed that his size was a factor in the game, especially when he was with Dererk.”

In the four games Law had missed before Thursday’s contest, Collins had opted to start smaller, giving Jordan Ash and Anthony Gaines a couple of starting nods each. The Wildcats went just 2-2 in those games, and coming off of Benson’s encouraging performance against Iowa, where he recorded season highs in points (8) and rebounds (10), Collins decided to go big and inserted the sophomore center into the starting lineup. Not in place of Gaines, but in the spot usually filled by Gavin Skelly.

On paper, it would seem that combining two big men with limited range, a wing with limited range in Gaines, and McIntosh nursing an injured shoulder, would make it difficult to both score and defend. Given Pardon’s inexperience at power forward and Benson’s lack of playing time this season, nobody would’ve been surprised if the brand-new starting lineup struggled.

As it turned out, the starters meshed quite well, with both bigs dominating. Northwestern shot 8-of-12 at the rim, while holding Penn State to just 4-of-10 in that same area. Collins’ decision to go big proved to be an effective one, as Pardon and Benson bullied the Nittany Lions on both ends.

In a career-high 30 minutes, Benson had his strongest game of the season, recording 9 points, 9 rebounds and a team-high 3 blocks. He was particularly effective in the first half, helping Northwestern build a seven-point lead. He and Pardon connected on some intricate high-low passes and crashed the glass on both ends, exploiting the Nittany Lions’ lack of size in the paint.

“We just got chemistry like that,” Benson said of his fellow big man. “It’s a different look and a tough matchup for a lot of teams. They ended up switching a lot and had a lot of small ball [lineups] with Stevens at the five, so we just looked to pound the ball inside and post up their guards or smaller bigs.”

Benson’s second half wasn’t as flashy as his first, but Pardon made sure the Nittany Lions still felt the Wildcats’ big presence inside. The junior finished with a team-high 14 points and 8 rebounds, splashing a couple jump shots from the midrange and converting an and-one layup off of a nasty spin move.

“I was just trying to do the best I could in a space I wasn’t normally used to playing,” Pardon said. “We didn’t really have a lot of time to prepare for it, so it was just something we did on the fly. I was just trying to keep myself active and cover my space.”

Even though the result was a loss, Collins felt like his decision to start the duo was a success, especially for Benson, who figures to see more minutes next year with Gavin Skelly graduating.

“I’m really proud of Barret,” Collins said. “Throughout the course of the year he had his ups and downs, and he finished the year really strong, which I told him in the locker room afterwards should be a great motivator for him heading into the offseason now in the spring.”

It’s a small sample, but given the pairing’s performance over these past two games, it feels like Pardon and Benson aren’t afraid of the big moment, especially when they share the floor together.

As mentioned above, Skelly’s departure leaves an opening at both power forward and center. Pete Nance and Ryan Young will have to prove themselves before earning minutes. Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas can both play power forward, but injuries have troubled both for the past two seasons. Does this mean the Pardon-Benson frontcourt has a place in Northwestern’s future?

With a glint of curiosity in his eye, Pardon asks, “Who knows?”