Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Northwestern Wildcats Basketball Preview

Wait, who scheduled the first night of rush week against Northwestern's first conference basketball game with the students here against its only in-state conference rival? Don't they know Sam Maniscalco is never gonna get a bid now?

Anyway, Northwestern takes on an Illinois squad that started out 10-0 against, well, teams, and climbed into the top 25, but has hit some snags of late. The last time these teams met was NU's first ever CBS appearance and an awesome home win. This time, well, hit the jump?

Are they good?: Good, sure. But they're not an elite Big Ten team. You remember last year's Illini? You know, the guys you hated? Northwestern killers Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale, as well as Jereme Richmond, Mike Davis, etc.? Gone. Five of the team's top seven scorers have either graduated or Jereme Richmond'ed themselves out of Champaign. The Illini won their first game against a Kenpom top 25 team by beating Gonzaga on the road, but their last three such games - a blowout loss to UNLV in a basically-home game at the United Center, the Braggin' Rights game against a very good Mizzou squad, a not-so-close either loss to Purdue in Mackey - haven't gone as well. Their last six games have also included five-point squeakers against sub-mid-majors in St. Bonaventure's and Cornell.

What are they good at?: Illinois is a very good defensive team, thanks in large part to the length and athleticism of future NBA center Meyers Leonard, who limits teams' interior shooting capabilities, blocking 2.4 shots per game, while cleaning up on the boards by bringing in 25 percent of defensive rebounds while he's on the floor.

What are they worse at?: They're not so good at defending threes or shooting them. DJ Richardson is the team's only passable shooter at 40.6 percent, next is Maniscalco with 30.9.

Why are you a hater?: The numbers and resume make Illinois seem, well, good, but I don't particularly buy it. I've watched, by my count, three Illinois games this year: Gonzaga, St. Bonaventure's, and I am in hate with their offense. The team ostensibly runs its offense around Leonard, who is a remarkably efficient scorer, shooting 61 percent from the field. But I feel like they run an offense very poorly suited for their team's personnel.The team runs its offense around getting Leonard the ball. Sometimes, he gets the ball a lot, gets a lot of buckets, and leads the team to victory - 21 points on 11 shots against Gonzaga, 20 on 10 shots and 11 boards against Minnesota. Others, his teammates struggle to get him the ball, which leads to him disappearing for large stretches which results in lots and lots of contested looks for guys who don't particularly deserve them.

In the team's most recent game, a loss to Purdue, almost every offensive set featured some sort of pick by Leonard for a ball-handler, generally with Brandon Paul. I'd estimate half of their offensive sets ended with him rolling and an additional quarter with him popping. It's a very NBA-style offense, which makes sense since Leonard is an NBA center. He's 7-foot-1, the result of a late growth spurt that turned him from a guard to a center - notable in his game, as he retains a lot of the athleticism of a smaller player and a little bit of the touch. However, despite all the action designed for their marquee player, the team almost NEVER actually looked for him. He finished with four shot attempts and only seven points.

The reason for lack of a performance was several-fold. First off, the team's ball-handlers just are not great passers. Maniscalco is the only guard whose assist-to-turnover ratio doesn't sit around 1-to-1. Purdue hedged or switched all of the pick-and-rolls, meaning Leonard had unimpeded ability to roll to the hoop, but the Boilermakers focused on pressuring the ball-handler's ability to actually get off the pass. When they did, it was often off-target. Secondly, Illinois' lack of shooters meant that Purdue could ignore the perimeter and sag into help roles in the paint, making entry passes difficult and ensuring several people would be around Leonard when he did receive the ball. Pick-and-roll offenses rely on good shooters to prevent this - think about Mike D'Antoni's Suns teams that always had between three and four guys shooting 40 percent from deep as teams abandoned the perimeter while trying to stop Amar'e Stoudemire on the roll - but when you're running a pick-and-roll with D.J. Richardson and Meyers Leonard, nobody on the floor shoots over 30 percent from three, and the opposition can focus their entire defense around crowding the paint. What ended up happening against Purdue is the majority of the team's possessions ended up with Paul or Richardson trying to hoist mid-range jumpers, and although they're both good at that, they had 28 shots to Leonard's four.

Am I saying that Meyers Leonard will struggle against Northwestern? No, in fact, having watched them run the same set against Northwestern last year, well, I'd bet he murders NU's front line. But if Northwestern goes to great lengths to limit his touches - which I know can be done - it's a game.

Names?: I love brief NU recruiting target Nnanna Egwu, the person about whom the song "What's My Name" by Rihanna was written.

Can NU win?: In short, yes. As always, it will come down to how well NU shoots, but this team isn't the monstrosity Baylor and Ohio State were. Northwestern will have a shot, its up to them whether or not they pull it out.

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