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Illinois 89, Northwestern 83

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Well that was frustrating.

Northwestern rallied from 6 down with 3 minutes left in regulation to force overtime, but couldn't get a stop in the extra session and eventually lost their Big Ten opener to snap their 9 game winning streak. 

There's so much to talk about I don't even know where to begin. I guess I'll start with the first half, when the 'Cats shot the lights out from 3 point range, hitting 11 of 23. You knew that wouldn't last though, and sure enough they hit just 5 of 24 in the second half. At times there was some very poor shot selection, this wasn't like the NC A&T game when they also jacked up 47 threes, in that game NC A&T just didn't guard anybody, in this game there were a lot of forced shots early in the shot clock with a hand in the face. When NU was shooting in rhythm on kickouts after taking it inside, the shots were going down, but when guys just dribble up the court and launch 25 footers, that's a big problem.

Down the stretch in regulation, Northwestern took the ball inside very successfully and rallied to force overtime. Both Shurna and Crawford had nice finishes inside, and Mirkovic tied the game with 15 seconds left with a tip in. I was very very impressed by the poise of this team late in the game; after Tisdale dunked over Nash to give the Illini a 6 point lead you could really feel the game slipping away, but the 'Cats hung tough. They had two chances to win the game in regulation, one when their pressure forced a wild Illini pass with the game tied. Had they corralled the loose ball, they could have held for the final shot, but Mirkovic couldn't gain possession and eventually fouled Tisdale. Then when Thompson stole the ball in the final seconds, he just missed a runner from halfcourt. The smart play there probably would have been to call a timeout, but with so little time left and the turnover so unexpected, it's hard to blame Thompson.

Now in the overtime, Northwestern was fine on offense, but just could not get a stop. When Tisdale fouled out with 2 minutes left, I felt sure the 'Cats were going to win, but still the defense couldn't stop them. Much of the failings on defense has to be blamed on Bill Carmody. He stuck with the 1-3-1 zone way too long in the 2nd half when the Illini were shredding it. Finally he went away from it in the last few minutes and sure enough Northwestern rallied to tie it. Then, absolutely inexplicably, he went back to the 1-3-1 for the first 3 possessions of overtime, and sure enough it led to 3 easy baskets for Illinois. I really have no idea what the hell he was thinking, the 1-3-1 wasn't really forcing turnovers and if it's not doing that, teams are going to get easy shots, especially a team with a smart guard like McCamey and two very good big men in Davis and Tisdale. Tisdale in particular was just killing them inside, I would have really liked to see them go man to man and then double TIsdale immediately when he caught it in the low post. With how automatic he was when he caught the ball, gotta make someone else beat you.

Carmody also really annoyed me by calling timeouts at random times during NU possessions, one in particular where Marcotullio was driving into the line and for some reason Carmody called for a timeout with 16 on the shot clock and the offense seemingly in rhythm. Overall a poor job by Carmody, however I did like his substitutions, going more with Rowley who had probably his best game of the season, getting a career high 7 rebounds and doing a good job moving Tisdale away from the basket on defense. I also liked him going small at the end of overtime when NU needed a three or a quick steal on defense. Their press forced a turnover and Marcotullio got a great look at a three to tie it, but it just didn't go down.

I really liked the job Northwestern did rebounding the ball. While they got outrebounded by 7, thats very deceiving because the 'Cats missed a lot more field goals than Illinois. They rebounded 75% of the Illini misses, and rebounded just over 25% of their own misses. Davis and Tisdale both had huge rebounding games, but it was a solid team effort for NU as 4 different players had at least 7 rebounds. Of course all those missed shots for Northwestern was definitely a problem, as NU shot just 33% from the field on the game. The problem wasn't from three, as 34% from long range is a decent percentage, but just 12 for 37 on 2-pointers is unacceptably bad. Many times they had makable shots near the basket and couldn't finish. That 2 point percentage definitely needs to improve in a hurry. The bright side on offense was just 3 turnovers in 45 minutes, an incredibly low total. 21/3 team assist to turnover ratio is very impressive.

John Shurna was fantastic on offense with 27 points, scoring in all sorts of different ways. I would still like to see him post up more, it seemed when he caught it inside he was double-teamed a lot, which opened things up for everyone else. Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio both hit big shots late in the game, and I loved Crawford's putback dunk in the final minute. What I especially loved about it was how he calmly got back on defense as though he'd been there before, this kid is calm under pressure and has a bright future ahead of him.

The biggest disappointment on offense for the 'Cats was definitely Juice Thompson. He had just 7 points on 2 for 10 shooting. While he did distribute the ball nicely with 8 assists, he was often looking to pass instead of to score. He is too good a scorer to defer that much, this team badly needs him to be more assertive on the offensive end the way he was down the stretch against Tennessee State, NC State and Stanford. To make things worse, he sat out the final 15 seconds or so with an apparent ankle injury. It didn't appear to be too serious, but with just two days off until the big game Saturday against Michigan State, its unclear whether he'll be 100% by then. If not, the 'Cats could be in trouble. 

A quick note: I saw a lot of complaining about the refs in the comments. While the refs in the Big Ten suck, they didn't cost NU the game here, the lack of defense in the overtime and much of the 2nd half did. There were a couple calls in Illinois' favor, but I remember a couple going NU's way as well, most notably when Thompson bowled over a defender on the way to the hoop and the refs somehow called a blocking foul. You're not going to get the calls on the road in the Big Ten play, gotta get used to it.

Looking ahead to Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten season, there's no doubt in my mind the pieces are there to compete every night. How many wins that will lead to is unclear, but tonight Northwestern got productive minutes out of all 7 members of their rotation, even from Kyle Rowley of all people. The biggest question mark going forward to me is the lack of depth, and if Thompson is out for any length of time they're screwed, but I have to say there's still reason to get excited about this team. 

Thankfully we can immediately turn our attention to the Outback Bowl on Friday. Rodger's got you covered for all things Outback, and I'll be flying down to the game tomorrow afternoon. When I get back, lots of content coming up on Michigan State.

and Goddammit Carmody, know when to get out of the 1-3-1. Sorry, couldn't help myself.