You’ve heard all the good things about Northwestern basketball at this point – the AP ranking, how they’re better than last year, and so on and so on.
Unfortunately, with the departures of starting forward Sanjay Lumpkin and sharpshooting bench player Nate Taphorn, there are still a few things to figure out: for starters, Chris Collins will need to decide who’s going to play the four. He was predictably open-ended in the preseason press conference, but let’s look into the near-future crystal ball and answer potential lineup questions for the coming season.
Who starts at power forward?
Sanjay Lumpkin was the perfect “glue guy” for last year’s tournament team: he was a gritty defender, a strong rebounder and an emotional leader as the oldest player on the court.
“Sanjay was such a warrior for us, he’s going to a tough void to fill,” guard Bryant McIntosh said. “He just understood how we ran things, he knew his role and he starred in it.”
The hole left by Lumpkin, who is now the second-leading scorer on the Stella Artois Leuven Bears in Belgium (yes, that Stella Artois), is a big one. The three biggest candidates to fill it are redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon, senior Gavin Skelly and redshirt freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas.
“We all bring different things,” Falzon said. “None of us are him, and he was none of us, so we all just bring what we can. We’ve got a lot of lineups.”
The most obvious solution would be plugging Falzon in at the four to start alongside McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. Falzon started at the three as a true freshman in 2015-16, but he said he felt more natural playing at the four, where he played in high school. The biggest upgrade here would be in terms of shooting: Falzon is a solid shooter from deep and could knock down some spot-up threes (especially from the corner) that Lumpkin was less likely to hit.
On defense, however, this team could have a tougher time. Falzon probably isn’t going to be the post defender that Lumpkin was. Despite being somewhat undersized, Lumpkin often handled the other team’s best post scorer with relative ease: the memory of him shutting down now-NBA rookie John Collins against Wake Forest last year comes to mind. Big Ten teams are often just that: big. Falzon is going to have to provide capable post defense against “twin towers” lineups (or if Pardon is in foul trouble) if this lineup is going to succeed on defense.
At this point, though, Falzon starting is mere speculation. Collins could easily surprise us and start Ivanauskas or Skelly, who each offer a different skillset. Ivanauskas, at 6’9”, has more of the skillset of a wing or stretch four. His health is certainly a question mark after he missed all of last season, but he could offer a higher ceiling in terms of athleticism and ability to get to the basket.
Skelly is more of a known quantity than Ivanauskas. Probably the most Lumpkin-esque of any of the options, Skelly hustles, rebounds and misses a frustrating amount of threes. Skelly was a good spark off the bench last year, but it remains to be seen whether he can fill a starting role.
McIntosh, well trained in the Chris Collins art of the partial answer, said all three would be crucial to the team’s success: “We fill that void with the shooting of Aaron, the toughness and playmaking of Gavin and the willing attacker of Rap. I think we can be really good.”
The bench order
The ‘Cats didn’t have an exact sixth man last year, with Taphorn or Skelly generally being the first person off the bench depending on the situation, and Scottie Lindsey’s injury also pushed Taphorn into the starting lineup at times. This year will probably be similar with Northwestern’s diverse set of bench options.
Whichever two forwards of Falzon, Skelly and Ivanauskas will likely be the first to come in, depending on the opponent. Besides that duo, expect Isiah Brown to mop up guard duties when Collins decides B-Mac or Lindsey needs a rest (he showed a willingness to play two-point guard lineups last year). Jordan Ash, likely the deepest bench player, will also see minutes as a backup guard.
In the post, Barrett Benson is the first option: the sophomore struggled at times last season, but he showed flashes of the inside scoring and rim protection that made scouts drool when he was in high school. At 6’10”, Benson has a Big Ten body in a way that Pardon doesn’t, and a little more maturity in the post could go a long way for both Benson and this team. Collins shied away from the two-big lineup last year for the most part, but he mentioned a willingness to use it this year – so perhaps it’s no coincidence Pardon took a few uncharacteristic jumpers in the purple-white scrimmage.
Perhaps the most intriguing name off the bench, however, is Anthony Gaines: the 6’4” guard from Kingston, NY impressed in the purple-white scrimmage, scoring 21 points, second highest only to Scottie Lindsey. His shooting needs work, but he attacks the hoop well and hustles on defense. The scrimmage was just a scrimmage, but if he continues to shine, he could jump past Isiah Brown as the first guard off the bench.
Collins could make all these predictions look like nonsense next week when Skelly starts at the four and Gaines doesn’t see the court, but the lineup should be a fun early season storyline: Evanston has never had this much talent before, and it’s going to be exciting no matter how Collins deploys it.