A quiet bench

Northwestern's 3-6 conference record has coincided with a recent swoon in its bench production. Purple Reign looks closer at the drop in the bench's output, and how it has cost the Cats.

You don't have to look hard to find reasons for Northwestern's recent slide.

For starters, how about the schedule. Northwestern has played a Who's Who of Big Ten powerhouses to start conference play: Michigan State twice, Illinois twice, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue. All told, NU has played:

The top seven teams in the conference standings
The only four teams that are nationally ranked
The top five scoring teams
The top six non-NU defensive teams

So, that's definitely one of the reasons the Wildcats entered conference play at 10-1 and have slipped to 14-7 and 3-6 in the Big Ten; it would have been impossible to navigate that stretch unscathed.

You could also point to a bit of a dry spell from former leading scorer Michael Thompson. In the seven games prior to Big Ten play – against legit opponents like Notre Dame and NC State – Thompson averaged more than 17 points per outing. Over that stretch, Juice tallied at least 14 in every game – topping out with a clutch 22-point outburst at NC State – and had 28 assists to seven turnovers. But since conference play began with an overtime loss to Illinois, Thompson has averaged just 9.6 points in nine Big Ten games. Northwestern has cooled off right along with Thompson – probably not pure coincidence.

But even with all the tough opponents and Thompson cooling off a bit, the biggest change from the record-breaking early-season success to the all-too-familiar Big Ten lull may be this: Northwestern's bench isn't producing at all like it was at the beginning of the season. And it's hurting big-time.

Now, that is kind of a no-brainer. Of course Northwestern's bench isn't playing as well against Michigan State and Wisconsin as it was against Central Connecticut State and Liberty. You'd be hard-pressed to find a bench – especially one like NU's that leans heavily on youth – that doesn't have a drop-off in production going from run-of-the-mill Atlantic Sun teams (like the North Florida Ospreys) to Lottery Pick-toting Big Ten teams (like the Ohio State Buckeyes). Duh.

But even if you take the competition into account, the dip in Northwestern's bench production is eye-opening. Just look at NU's combined bench output from its toughest non-conference tilts (with special attention paid to freshman Alex Marcotullio, who was killing it early in the season – documented here and here):

Butler

50 minutes
18 points
Four rebounds
7-13 FG
Marcotullio: 15 minutes, 3-6 field goals, 2-5 three-pointers, eight points

Notre Dame

51 minutes
21 points
Nine rebounds
7-13 FG
Marcotullio: 20 minutes, 3-8 field goals, 3-7 three-pointers, 13 points

Iowa State

54 minutes
14 points
10 rebounds
5-8 FG
Marcotullio: 23 minutes, 3-4 field goals, 2-3 three-pointers, eight points

NC State

59 Minutes
13 points
11 rebounds
5-11 FG
Marcotullio: 26 minutes, 3-8 field goals, 2-5 three-pointers, eight points

So, in NU's four toughest non-conference games – three of which were away-from-home wins – NU's bench players were absolutely integral. In each contest, the bench players combined for at least 50 minutes; they combined for an average of 16.5 points per game; they combined for an average of 8.3 rebounds per game. Pretty darn good.

And make no mistake: Butler, Notre Dame, Iowa State and NC State aren't pushovers. Those four teams are a combined 60-27; they've won at a 69 percent clip. By contrast, Northwestern's first nine Big Ten opponents were winning 74.6 percent of their games entering the weekend. Moreover, between Butler, ND, ISU and NC State, there are wins over No. 20 Ohio State, No. 9 West Virginia and No. 7 Duke. It may not have been like what Northwestern has faced in Big Ten play, but still.

Alas, the losses have started to pile up – and those losses have coincided with a dearth of production from the Cats' bench. Check out the bench numbers in NU's six conference losses, again with emphasis on Marcotullio:

@ Illinois

36 minutes (including overtime)
14 points
4-11 FG
Seven rebounds
Marcotullio: 21 minutes, 4-9 field goals, 4-9 three-pointers, 13 points

Michigan State

56 minutes
18 points
4-11 FG
Five rebounds
Marcotullio: 28 minutes, 4-9 field goals, 4-7 three-pointers, 16 points

Wisconsin

12 minutes
0 points
0-2 FG
Two rebounds
Marcotullio: Six minutes, 0-0 field goals, zero points*

@ Ohio State

64 minutes
12 points
11 rebounds
5-12 FG
Marcotullio: 10 minutes, 1-3 field goals, 1-3 three-pointers, three points

@ Minnesota

19 minutes
Three points
Two rebounds
1-3 FG
Marcotuollio: Nine minutes, 1-3 field goals, 1-3 three-pointers, three points

@ MSU

38 minutes
Four points
Eight rebounds
2-5 field goals
Marcotullio: eight minutes, 0-2 field goals, 0-2 three-pointers, zero points

* That Wisconsin game was the unofficial start of a big dip for Marcotullio. In the five games since, he has scored a total of six points, made just two shots (and taken just nine) and has failed to crack 10 minutes of PT in two different games. To put that in perspective, he had failed to play at least 10 minutes just twice all season prior to Wisconsin – and one of those was in the season-opener.

Pretty stark difference. Remember how the bench combined for at least 50 minutes in all of those early-season games? Well, the only conference games in which the bench has combined for more than 50 minutes were blowouts: Michigan State and Ohio State. Against the Spartans, Northwestern was down by 20 with 10 minutes to play. And against the Buckeyes, Northwestern was down by 23 at halftime. Indeed, the bench players got a lot of run in those games, but they weren't really significant minutes. And those are the only two conference games in which the bench cracked 40 total minutes.

Juxtapose those anomalies with the tight conference games. Against Wisconsin, which was a battle the entire way, the bench totaled just 12 minutes and netted zero points; against Minnesota, the bench got 19 minutes and three points.

The Cats got similarly pedestrian production from the bench in their conference wins, as well:

@ Michigan

24 minutes
Zero points
One rebound
0-6 FG
Marcotullio: 12 minutes, 0-5 field goals, 0-4 three-pointers, zero points

Purdue

27 minutes
Four points
Three rebounds
0-2 FG
Marcotullio: 12 minutes, 0-0 field goals, zero points

Illinois

33 minutes
Four points
Three rebounds
2-4 FG
Marcotullio: 12 minutes, 0-1 field goals, 0-1 three-pointers, zero points

Again, not much doing. Out of NU's three conference wins, the most combined minutes for the bench players were the 33 they tallied against Illinois; they averaged just 28 minutes. The most points they scored were four – also against Illinois – and they laid an egg at Michigan. Oh, and the combined field-goal shooting in those three wins was 2-12, including 0-6 for Marcotullio.

There are some easy explanations. First off, the competition. As has been discussed at length in this article and others, Northwestern's Big Ten slate got off to an incredibly difficult start. That's probably one reason that the bench players haven't been seeing as many minutes or putting up as many points. It was surely easier for a freshman like Marcotullio and a sophomore like Kyle Rowley to thrive against non-con foes like Iowa State and NC State and Notre Dame than Purdue and MSU – even if ISU and NC State and Notre Dame, again, aren't patsies.

Speaking of Rowley, his switch from starter to backup has also affected the bench-production dynamic. Rowley started against Notre Dame, Iowa State and NC State, with Luka Mirkovic coming off the bench. But since the NC State game – when Mirkovic had five points, four rebounds (two offensive) and four blocks in 28 minutes – Mirkovic has been starting.

Coming off the bench, Mirkovic, a sophomore, was averaging 1.33 blocks, about eight points and shooting a hair under 50 percent. Basically, he earned himself a spot in the starting rotation. And he's validated that spot: he's getting 7.5 points and 7.6 rebounds during Big Ten play. Not bad at all.

That means, however, that Rowley is the new off-the-bench big man. And he isn't providing the same spark that Mirk was. That's no knock on Rowley – he doesn't play the same way as Mirkovic; they have different styles. It's just that Mirkovic's once-dependable bench production has moved to the starting lineup.

This doesn't mean that Northwestern's season is doomed or something. On the contrary, the fact that the bench has produced against teams like ND and NC State and Butler should give us hope that they'll eventually get back to the old days.

But still, there seems to be a correlation between the bench's production and the Cats' recent struggles. If the bench can get hot, then the Cats will almost certainly return to their winning ways.

And if not…

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