After a seemingly endless 8 days, #25 Northwestern (don't think I'll ever get tired of putting a number in front like that) is back in action tonight, opening up their Big Ten schedule at Illinois. Tip off is at 8 PM central time, and the game is being televised by the Big Ten Network, Wayne Larivee and former Illini All-American and boxer Kendall Gill have the call. Michigan State vs. Texas-Arlington is on BTN right before this, so it better not run long like Wake Forest vs UNC-Wilmington did a couple weeks ago, or heads will roll.
The Illini come into this game with a disappointing 8-4 record, and are on a two game losing streak. Most recently, they lost to rival Missouri on a neutral court. I saw the second half of that game, and was not impressed at all with Illinois. They turned the ball over a ton and didn't play as a team, I saw a lot of trying to go one on one and not a lot of passing. Illinois has struggled away from home, as they're just 1-4 and have losses to Utah, Bradley, and SEC bottom feeder Georgia. Their lone road win was a dramatic comeback at Clemson. It seems they have a tendency to erase large deficits on the road, all Northwestern fans remember last year's debacle when the 'Cats choked away a double digit lead in the last 5 minutes at Welsh-Ryan to Illinois.
Of course the flipside to Illinois' poor record away from home is that they are undefeated at home at 7-0. That record isn't too impressive though when you consider Vanderbilt is the only decent team they've faced at Assemby Hall. But still, it's quite the homecourt advantage. Northwestern hasn't won there since 1999, a season Illinois finished last in the Big Ten.
As for their roster,it's a balanced attack on offense, with 5 players averaging double figures. Demetri McCamey (who hit the last second shot in Evanston last year) is their leading scorer. He averages 14 points a game and is second in the Big Ten in assists with just over 5 a game. 7'1" center Mike Tisdale could cause problems inside for the Wildcats front line. He's not a conventional 7 footer in that his offensive game is more mid-range jumpers than it is lay-ups and dunks, but he shoots 60% from the field and 89% from the line, so he's effective. Northwestern will also have to neutralize the Big Ten's second leading rebounder in Mike Davis, who is averaging nearly 10 boards per game.
While the above three will of course play a big role, to me the key to this game for Illinois will be the play of highly touted freshmen back courtand D.J. Richardson. Both players are athletic and can shoot from the perimeter. Richardson in particular is very dangerous from outside at 49% from 3, yet strangely he's at just 38% on 2 pointers. He has struggled in all 4 of the Illini losses, so it will be important to slow him down. Paul sparked the comeback against Clemson with 20 points, but he's been very inconsistent this season.
For more on Illinois, scroll down the page for some insight from Hail to the Orange blogger Joe Kutsunis.
Vegas is not drinking the Northwestern kool-aid the way the national media has, as Illinois opened as 7 point favorites, and as of about 1 PM central the line has now moved to 8. While this is higher than I expected, I'd really prefer not to hear complaining from NU fans about a lack of respect. People won't believe in this team until they start winning consistently in the Big Ten. Instead of being upset about the ranked team being an underdog, just bet NU +8 and laugh all the way to the bank if you really believe NU should be favored.
As for my pick (and remember I'm 4-0 against the spread picking NU games), I'm pretty worried about this game given how well Illinois has traditionally played at home, and Northwestern's relative lack of road experience. At times this team lost their composure in the 2nd half against NC State, and the Illinois crowd will be much more hostile than the Wolfpack fans were. As I said previewing the NC State game, I'd like the 'Cats at home or on a neutral court against Illinois, but I can't bring myself to pick an NU win tonight.
Continued after the jump....
Illinois 70, Northwestern 66
This should be a great game, but in the end the homecourt advantage and superior depth will give Illinois the win. I really really hope I'm wrong.
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