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Thoughts on Northwestern's Upset Win at Illinois

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

After Sunday’s 70-50 home loss to Iowa, just about everyone was ready to give up on Northwestern basketball. So, of course, the Wildcats bounced back to beat No. 22 Illinois 68-54 on the road Thursday night, bringing some much-needed life to the program.

It was a complete team effort and a 180-degree change from the Iowa game on both ends of the floor. This team is still a long ways from even the NIT conversations, but this is the kind of game that can make the course of the season do a 180, as well. Here are our three thoughts on the game and also check out the box score for some pretty remarkable stats.

Outstanding first half offense 

In most years, fans have bemoaned Northwestern’s defense under Bill Carmody. This year, Carmody has pointed to the offense as the major reason or the struggles. NU has struggled with shooting and running its offense effectively, especially since Drew Crawford went down. Against Illinois, however, the Wildcats ran the Princeton offense to perfection — well, at least in the first half.

NU came out shooting hot from three, which caused the Illini to pressure the outside shooters. Typically, it’s a bad idea to pressure the outside against the Princeton offense because that leaves the defense susceptible to backdoor cuts. Iowa was able to pressure the three-point line and still close off the passing lanes. Illinois… didn’t. That allowed for a number of easy buckets for NU. It was the best the offense has run all year and it opened up shots all over the floor.

The offense struggled a bit in the second half, hitting just four field goals, but considering how often the Wildcats got to the free throw line, it didn’t matter. In Sunday’s game against Indiana, NU can’t afford to get in a track meet, so it will need to be methodical and efficient on offense once again. If the Cats’ offense looks like it did in the first half against Illinois, they’ll be able to stay in the game against the Hoosiers — or any game, for that matter.

Who was NU’s MVP?

I posed this question on Twitter with about five minutes left and suggested that it might be Jared Swopshire. Most people responded that it was probably Reggie Hearn, and it probably was by the end, as Hearn hit 9-of-10 free throws — many with Illinois in desperation time — to finish with 20 points and seal the win.

But Swopshire certainly has a compelling case. The senior, who has been criticized for being absent at times, sure showed up against the Illini, finishing with 12 points. He hit 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, but perhaps his most important play was an and-one on an impressive layup to stifle a potential Illinois run and essentially put the game away.

Or what about Dave Sobolewski? He had some turnover issues in the second half, but still finished with 10 points and 5 assists, and he had a big three-pointer in the second half.

Hearn probably wins player of the game by a hair, but the fact that there were so many deserving players is a feat in and of itself for NU. The Wildcats have been looking for someone to step up all year, and Thursday night they got three players to do just that. If those three can keep it up, NU won’t be as easy of an out for Big Ten teams as it appears.

Veterans stepping up 

All year we’ve been talking about the need for the freshmen to step up, but honestly, it’s tough to expect that from young players, especially big men like Alex Olah and Mike Turner. While Bill Carmody said he still needs to see more from his young players, he called out the veterans after the Iowa game, saying it was the Hawkeyes’ veterans — not their touted young stars — that won them that game, and NU’s veterans need to do the same.

The Wildcats’ veterans heard Carmody loud and clear, it appears. We’ve already mentioned how impressive Sobolewski, Hearn and Swopshire were against Illinois, and it deserves extra mention that this is the first time in awhile that all three were good at the same time. Swopshire and Sobolewski both played well against Penn State, but playing well against the Nittany Lions isn’t all that difficult.

This time, Swopshire and Sobolewski played well against a good team, and now Hearn seems to be back to normal after injuring his ankle in late December. NU even got solid contributions from senior Alex Marcotullio, who finally appears to have his three-point stroke back and finished with 12 points against Illinois. In order for NU to beat Indiana — or just about anyone else in the Big Ten not named Nebraska or Penn State — the veterans will have to continue to step up.

More tidbits:

- NU has struggled from the free throw line this year, but hit a whopping 26-of-31 free throws against the Illini. Hearn had 11-of-12 and Sobolewski, who struggles at the line, finished 5-of-7.

- NU has struggled to find shooters this year, while the Illini are known for their three-point shooting. However, the Wildcats finished 8-of-16 from beyond the arc, while Illinois was just 3-of-20. And here’s an even crazier stat via Chris Emma of Purple Wildcats: Illinois has only hit 8 of its last 67 three-point attempts.

- Thanks to Phillip Rossman-Reich of Lake The Posts for finding this: This is NU’s first two-game winning streak at Illinois since 1959 and 1961.

- NU played 9 players today. Carmody only played 6 in last year’s win at Illinois.

- If there’s one dark spot from this game for NU, it was center play. Olah finished with 2 points. Turner had 0 points and 5 fouls. However, Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu struggled, as well, finishing with 4 points and 5 fouls.