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About Last Night: Northwestern Rises Up Against Illinois -- What It Means Going Forward

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

The team that upset No. 23 Illinois at Assembly Hall Thursday night is not the same team that took the floor Sunday night against Iowa and played its most distasteful and disjointed offensive basketball of the season. Nor was it the same team that crumbled in the face of Minnesota’s athleticism and glass domination nearly two weeks ago. No, this was a different Northwestern team, playing inspired basketball on both ends of the floor, willing to put behind the rough opening to Big Ten play and fight off an in-state rival in one of the fiercest home gyms in the country. This was Northwestern picking up its most important victory to date.

Detractors will point to Illinois’ recent slide, or its woeful three-point shooting – the Illini have hit eight of their last 67 three-point attempts – and how all those long range misses can throw a three pint-heavy offense into complete flux. I get all of that. After a hot start in the nonconference, Illinois is fading fast. Had it come in November or December, this win would have felt like something more.

But don’t let the Illini’s own problems obscure the breadth of Northwestern’s accomplishment. If Illinois was struggling entering Thursday night’s game, Northwestern was on life support. The Wildcats season was in danger of nose-bombing into irrelevance. They weren’t just losing games. They were being tossed around on both ends of the floor, with no schematic recourse for alleviating mismatches or generating reliable scoring. After the Iowa game Sunday, Bill Carmody was visibly frustrated after a 70-50 beat down. He challenged his veterans. He brushed off Dave Sobolewski’s poor shot selection, cognizant of the offense’s inability to score consistently, saying Sobo was being put in situations where, “he’s feeling like: who am I going to pass to?”

From Sunday to Thursday, a few things changed. The passive and often unassertive Jared Swopshire found his comfort zone, just like he did, perhaps not coincidentally, when the Wildcats shocked Baylor in Waco. Reggie Hearn looked springy and active and energetic for the first time since spraining his ankle, and the numbers bear it out, too: In 39 minutes, Hearn scored 20 points while taking just seven shots (he finished 9-of-10 from the line) for a hyper-efficient 166 offensive rating. Sobolewski was controlled and poised at the point. And Alex Marcotullio, who struggled much of the season shooting threes (10-of-42 before Thursday night, or 23.8 percent), found his long-range stroke.

It was an unexpected reversal from the uninspiring effort we all witnessed at Welsh Ryan Sunday night, and a strong counterpoint to the notion the Wildcats would limp into the Big Ten cellar without their two best players. If anything else, Northwestern showed it’s not calling it quits on a season promising little in the way of postseason rewards.

It won’t get any easier from here. On Sunday, Northwestern will take on one of the nation’s best offenses, and a vastly improved defense, in its first game since a befuddling home defeat to Wisconsin. Indiana will enter Sunday seeking a swift and convincing dismissal of the Wildcats. On the surface, there’s no logical motivation to expect a different outcome; Indiana is a better, more-balanced, well-rounded team. Northwestern may not be able to handle the Hoosiers’ balanced offensive attack, their future lottery pick at center (Cody Zeller), their precocious freshman point guard (Yogi Ferrell), their frenetically-disruptive wing slasher (Victor Oladipo). What’s important for Northwestern is not so much that it beats Indiana – though a win over the Hoosiers would shine a new positive light on the Wildcats’ season – but  that it doesn’t erase Thursday night’s win with another clunker – that they don’t revert to the dull brand of basketball that lead to crushing defeats against Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa.

We’ll have more on the Indiana matchup over the next few days. For now, digest the Illinois win and allow yourself to reconsider the position – one I’ve heard all too often in the wake of Sunday’s loss – that Northwestern isn’t worth your viewing attention the rest of the season. The season probably won’t end the way all Northwestern fans so fervently desire, but there’s plenty of basketball to be played, and this Wildcats team, incomplete and depleted though it may be, is not inclined to rue the day and cede ground to the challenges of the nation’s best conferences. The Big Ten landscape is brutal, but Northwestern won’t fold amidst the immense competition.