Going into this season, the biggest question facing Northwestern was who would fill the hole at the power forward position. The departure of Jared Swopshire left an open spot next to center Alex Olah in the post. Nikola Cerina was the only true power forward remaining on the Wildcats’ roster, but in 2012-2013 he only played six minutes per game. So, a committee of Northwestern forwards stepped up to fill the four spot. Drew Crawford, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Nathan Taphorn have all put in substantial time at power forward to help Northwestern to a 7-5 record.
If there’s one guy Northwestern basketball can count on, it’s Drew Crawford. After playing only ten games last season and receiving a medical redshirt, the fifth-year senior could have transferred nearly anywhere in the country. Instead, Crawford bought into Chris Collins’ new system and stuck with Northwestern. At 6’5", he’s certainly undersized for a power forward, but he’s still the best player NU has for the position. Crawford’s a better scorer at the wing, from where he can attack the basket or create his own jump shot, but he’s proven he can score from the block and put back offensive boards. Crawford leads the team both in points and rebounds per game, 16.5 and 7.9 respectively. The team captain had 24 points and 11 rebounds in a win against Brown on Sunday. It certainly isn’t ideal for a former guard to have the greatest contribution on the boards, but it will have to do for Northwestern.
Drew Crawford isn’t the only wildcat proving that rebounding comes down to more than size. With 5.5 boards per game, Sanjay Lumpkin is second on the team in rebounding. The redshirt freshman is only 6’6", but he’s long, strong, and athletic, the perfect combination for cleaning glass. His length and agility gives Lumpkin the potential to become NU’s best perimeter defender. However, he’s going to struggle with defending Big Ten power forwards with greater size and strong post moves. Lumpkin isn’t a great shooter or scorer by any means, but he’s able to finish when he gets to the basket. Lumpkin’s best performance came in last Monday’s victory, in which he had 13 points and 10 rebounds. He may not be flashy or a star, but Lumpkin gets the dirty work done.
In his first year at Northwestern, Chris Collins only got one incoming freshman to work with, and the diaper dandy quickly became one of NU’s best assets off the bench. Nathan Taphorn, like Lumpkin and Crawford, would naturally play on the wing. He isn’t very quick or athletic, but Taphorn has the ability to move without the ball and is an excellent spot-up shooter. At 6’7" and 190 pounds, he’s still not strong or big enough to post up often, nor will he be able to guard Big Ten power forwards one-on-one. Chris Collins will have to draw up a complex scheme to handle the bruisers in the Big Ten.
Through 12 games, Northwestern has played a lot of 2-3 zone defense, and it’s going to carry over to conference play. Collins is hoping this will make up for the lack of size he has, specifically at power forward. There’s no way Northwestern will be able to matchup down low with the majority of Big Ten teams. For the Wildcats to compete in B1G play, they will have to rebound well in the zone defense. Crawford and Lumpkin have been quick to develop their rebounding skills out of the zone, but Olah, Cerina, and Taphorn still have some learning to do. They are a bit slower and less athletic, which makes finding a man and boxing out more difficult, but these three have the size to be a force on the boards.
Offensively, little production will come from the post. Northwestern’s most talented scorers, JerShon Cobb, Tre Demps, and Crawford, all prefer to score from the wing. Alex Olah is the only wildcat who can work on the block. Chris Collins’ new offense incorporates more on-ball screens and isolations, so Taphorn will look for kick-out jumpers, while Lumpkin can slash to the hoop. No matter who’s on the floor, the Northwestern forwards will just be secondary scorers.
The Northwestern frontcourt is not going to make front page headlines this year, nor will they be leaders for this team. However, the development of NU’s big men will decide how the Wildcats fare in the Big Ten this year. They need an inside presence to stay out of the conference cellar. Due to a lack of size and skill, no one player can carry this team down low. It truly will be a team effort for the Northwestern frontcourt this season.