Things are changing at Northwestern; slowly, but ever steady. Sure, the NCAA Tournament bid that continues to haunt the program seems about as realistic as the Ghost of Christmas Past at this point, but you can visually see the changes that are going to eventually get them to uncharted lands. You can feel it. It's a different program than your father's Wildcats; fostering a young (eight underclassmen), scrappy squad that will continue to learn on the fly through the rest of this seasons Big Ten schedule and quite possibly a return trip to the NIT for the first time since 2012.
But for those of you who may have gotten your first glimpse of Northwestern in Tuesday's overtime, muck-it-up tilt with Maryland, don't let it be your last. Chris Collins has some good things going on right now; especially with one lineup in particular: senior (Tre Demps), junior (Sanjay Lumpkin), sophomore (Bryant McIntosh) and two freshman (Aaron Falzon and Derek Pardon).
This rotation features some unique young talent -- along with a junior who is a borderline free safety -- that should be the first members of the Northwestern Wildcats cohort to see March Madness. Sometime soon.
Sanjay Lumpkin is a hard hat and lunch pail hooper. The kinda guy that straight arm flexes while yelling into the air with his eyes closed after momentum shifting plays. His game is all predicated on drawing charges, getting scrappy on the boards, tipping out second chance opportunities and playing in your face defense. He isn't a focal point on the offensive end, but you best be sure to throw a body on him once a shot goes up. He also loves to "Layeth the Smack Down" on unassuming on-ball defenders:
He's the kind of guy you hate to play whether it's at the YMCA or NCAA. The fact that he has one more year with this squad, is going to pay dividends during their post season play the next two years. With all of that said, offensively he is what he is. He's a very poor mans Joakim Noah. All energy. All hustle. But entertaining as hell. You need those guys on your team, especially one with so many young players.
Derek Pardon has really been a surprise since the coaching staff burned his redshirt after Alex Olah's injury. In conference play, Pardon has converted on 31-44 shot attempts (70.5%) and continues to be the Hassan Whiteside of the Big Ten. It will be exciting to see what he can do next year with all of Olah's minutes at his finger tips and an off season to get stronger in both stature and in his game.
But for as impressive as those two have been at times this season, they're no Bryant McIntosh and Aaron Falzon. The maturation of this duo is appointment television for any Big Ten basketball junkie.
They are the perfect point guard and stretch four combo that have developed a flourishing relationship where they feed off of the others specialties.
Aaron Falzon -- who remember was a four star recruit and in virtually every major recruiting syndicates Top-100 -- has the unique (especially for Northwestern) attributes of looking like a power forward but playing like a shooting guard. He's a stretch big man that seems to bend opposing defenses in Northwestern's (and McIntosh's) favor more and more as each game rolls by. He legitimately has NBA range mixed with great feet and hands.
He's a weak side nightmare and his opponents seem to forget that he's a hybrid-big and lose sight of him during their help side assignments. Collins' has taken advantage of this more times than I can count this season and continues to draw up plays that often use McIntosh's innate ability to slither his way down into the restricted area to free up Falzon to move around to those prime perimeter locations:
Just look at the attention McIntosh gets there. Three different defenders break off of their assignments to make sure they stop the drive, leaving two weak side options for the Wildcats point guard to take advantage of (be sure to pay attention to the back pick that JVG sets to insure Falzon has all the space he needs for the corner three, it's beautiful).
On this next play, you'll see McIntosh call for a clear out pick and roll with Lumpkin. Once Lumpkin breaks, Falzon smartly moves up the wing for a release valve, only McIntosh decides to beat his defender off the dribble and guns it for the lane... drawing in Falzon's defender, who is stuck in no mans land:
Ultimately, McIntosh's pass was deflected, but you get the picture. These two have such a gravity about their games that the defense has to adjust, on the fly, to stopping them both. It should go without saying, but doing that is hard to do at any level. It's no wonder why McIntosh has assisted on 23 of Falzon's 44 made three pointers this season. The sophomore guard is looking for his running mate on the break, in transition and on drive and kicks.
McIntosh is a must watch player in this conference already. Outside of the last 5-10 minutes of the Maryland game, he's been such a heady player that doesn't force his hand. Instead, he sits back, baits and takes what he's given. He's such a great finisher around the hoop (both at the rim and a little beyond with that perfected floater) that he demands to be taken seriously when he maneuvers his way into the teeth of the defense.
And without that, this two man offensive game doesn't work. One hand feeds the other. McIntosh creates the gravity. Falzon creates the space. And together they live in offensive harmony that continues to blow my mind.
The best part of their budding relationship is that these two get to play together for another two years. If the rest of the Northwestern Wildcats roster around them fills in and performs, history just may be waiting at their door.