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Preview: Illinois at Northwestern

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Northwestern is back in action tonight, hosting Illinois at 7 PM central. Wayne Larrivee and Jim Jackson have the call on Big Ten Network.

These teams last met December 30th in Champaign, with Illinois winning 89-83 in overtime. You can read my recap of that game here, and see the box score here. There were two big stories from that game, the dominant inside play of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis for Illinois (combining for 51 points and 28 rebounds), and the Big Ten record tying 47 3 point attempts by Northwestern. Two very contrasting styles, with Illinois easily getting it inside vs NU's 1-3-1 zone, and Northwestern firing away from the perimeter against the Illini's passive man to man defense.

Since we last saw Illinois, they have gone 3-3, with wins over Indiana, Iowa and Penn State, and losses to Gonzaga, Michigan State and Purdue. The Illini are now 12-7 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, and very much need a win to help bolster their NCAA tournament resume. Jerry Palm was quoted extensively in the Sun Times yesterday, and said that tonight is "basically an [NCAA tournament] elimination game." I'm not willing to go quite that far this early in the season, but there's no doubt that a loss would seriously damage either team's NCAA chances. Illinois is hurting resume wise due to some bad non-conference losses to Utah, Bradley and Georgia.

The player to watch for Illinois has to be Tisdale, the junior center. He had a career game against Northwestern last time out with 31 points and 11 rebounds. He is very talented, but also very inconsistent as his last 7 games his point totals are all over the map (31, 4, 7, 27, 16, 2, 4). He is also prone to getting in foul trouble which has often limited his minutes.

While Tisdale was the key to Illinois' win last time, the Illini's best player is junior guard Demetri McCamey. McCamey has stepped up his game of late, as he had 25 in the win over Penn State including some clutch shots down the stretch, and had a season high 28 to go along with 9 assists last time out in the loss to Purdue. NU fans probably best know him for hitting the game winner last year in Evanston when Illinois rallied late.

The rest of their starting five consists of junior forward Mike Davis, and freshman guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Davis is one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten, and is talented on offense but is inconsistent. Paul has a lot of athleticism and potential, but needs to work on his shot selection as he often forces it up and thus is shooting just 35% from the field. Richardson continues to bizarrely shoot much better behind the arc than inside of it, as he hits on 45% of his threes but just 36% of his twos.

On defense, Northwestern needs to completely abandon the 1-3-1, as Illinois killed it last time. Instead, a man to man or more passive zone approach should be more effective. Illinois does not take many threes, instead preferring to attack the basket, so Carmody should try to force Illinois into shooting jump shots, or at the very least keep Tisdale and Davis from dominating inside.

On offense, Northwestern needs to make a bit more of an effort to get the ball inside. I have no problem with taking a lot of threes as the 'Cats have plenty of guys who can knock them down, but 47 attempts was a bit excessive especially since they took a lot of bad shots in the 2nd half. I'm sure Bruce Weber and Illinois will emphasize perimeter defense, so hopefully the dribble drives and backdoor cuts will be there.

Northwestern badly needs a win here, and to get one Michael Thompson will have to be a factor on offense. He's only scored in double figures twice in Big Ten play, and not coincidentally NU won both those games. He almost always does a good job running the offense, but his shot has been inconsistent. I think he has to return to the All Big Ten level he played at during non-conference play for Northwestern to make a run and contend for an at-large bid.

For the first time this season, the 'Cats are favored to win a conference gane, albeit by only 1 point. It won't be easy for Northwestern tonight, but given Illinois' struggles away from home this season (2-6), I think Northwestern gets it done tonight.

Northwestern 68, Illinois 62

As long as Carmody doesn't play any 1-3-1 for long stretches, Northwestern should be able to get some stops. Look for John Shurna to have another big game, and hope the 'Cats can hang on late if they get a lead.