Northwestern had one of the slowest tempos in college basketball season, but senior guard JerShon Cobb, a co-captain, said the team wants running to be its identity.
A big reason why they can be successful with a faster tempo are the additions of freshmen point guards Bryant McIntosh and Johnnie Vassar. Between McIntosh’s court vision and ball handling and Vassar’s explosiveness and athleticism, the young guards can be a pesky pair who complement each other in the backcourt when it comes to their skills and roles on the team.
“My role is just to run the team, to get us in our offense and create for myself or others,” McIntosh said. “Johnnie brings a whole other element to our defense. No offense to me or (senior point guard Dave Sobolewski), but we don’t really possess that quick, spark-plug energy that Johnnie has.”
Last season, Sobolewski started 21 games at point guard. When he missed time with an injury, Cobb and junior Tre Demps left their natural positions as two-guards to become part-time facilitators.
The Cats’ backcourt will look different this season with the new pieces, and coach Chris Collins said he will at times use a two-point-guard system. He experimented with such a lineup in NU’s exhibition against McKendree.
McIntosh and Vassar saw 5:26 of floor time together over two different stretches in the 102-52 win. After some sloppy play in their first stretch, the combo looked smoother late in the second half, as the team went on an 8-2 run before McIntosh was subbed out.
McIntosh has experience playing as a two-guard before college, so playing with another point guard on the floor is not a major adjustment for him.
On the other hand, Vassar said he was generally the main point guard on his high school and AAU teams. He is still acclimating to playing in lineups with a second point guard.
“You have to learn to play without the ball in your hands,” Vassar said. “But in the end, it’s just playing basketball, the game that we’ve all been playing.”
Last season, NU was a one-trick pony. The Cats always played with a slow tempo, rarely pressed and buckled down in the half-court on both ends.
With a dynamic player like Vassar, the Cats will be able to show some different looks and keep opponents off balance.
“He allows you to maybe go to a little bit faster tempo,” Collins said. “He can change the energy of a game when he comes in. Maybe we’re a little sluggish. All of the sudden, you can throw him in there and get him pushing the ball and picking the ball up. It gives us a change of pace, which I like. There’s no question when he’s in we can play more athletic and faster, and that’s something that he’s got to embrace.”
Vassar understands his role and does embrace it.
“If you need someone to pressure someone or push up the tempo, just call on me,” he said.
Collins said he is a coach who builds a system around his personnel rather than forcing his personnel into a system.
That is what happened last season. He switched up the team’s style in mid-January once he realized a slow tempo and commitment to defense would lead to more success.
With additions like McIntosh and Vassar, Collins can once again alter the team’s identity.
“I’ve always been a coach to use the guys I have on a given team and try to devise a way to play,” Collins said. “I didn’t come into last year thinking we were going to evolve into the team we did. But then we saw who we had, and we evolved into that team who could be competitive. This team’s a whole different team.”
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