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Northwestern vs. Illinois: What to Watch

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)  

The collection of wins Illinois has compiled thus far, both in the nonconference portion of the schedule and Big Ten play, is an illustrious group of top-30 RPI groups and conference title contenders. Starting all the way back in November with an utter  demolition of Butler in the Maui Invitational Final, and strengthened by conference wins over Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota, the Illini plucked a handful of resume chips and are just now beginning to round back into form after a mid-league lull saw them drop six and seven games and descend into an NIT-bound trajectory. Their last “bad” loss, if you can call it that, came against Northwestern at home. And the Wildcats didn’t just beat Illinois, they took Assembly Hall by storm, harassed shooters on the perimeter and executed on the offensive end. The final result, a 68-54 win, is one this Illinois team won’t soon forget. In this age of Chicago-branding tug-of-war, there is no love lost in the Land of Lincoln Rivalry. Rest assured Groce’s team will be ready to make amends for the decisive dominance Northwestern unfurled on the Illini in Champaign.

By now, you know of the calamitous string of injuries that has afflicted Northwestern this season. First it was Drew Crawford’s torn labrum. Then Reggie Hearn was forced to miss a few games with an ankle injury. Alex Olah’s concussion (he is doubtful for Saturday) and Jared Swopshire’s season-ending knee injury were just the latest casualties. The gradual attrition leaves Bill Carmody with some dizzying roster calculus to sort out.

He passed his first test Thursday night. The Wildcats used just nine players against Ohio State Thursday night, stayed on top of the Buckeyes throughout most of regulation time and eventually gave in in the closing moments. The Wildcats were severely disadvantaged, but made the most of an inexperienced and undersized group to not only match but nearly topple one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defenses. Meanwhile, John Groce’s team is playing some of the best basketball of its season, having won three straight and started to regain the three-point marksmanship that made it one of the hottest teams in the country in November and December. Sweeping Illinois, and further unnerving Illini fans hoping to secure NCAA Tournament inclusion, would give the Wildcats a nice personal prize to distinguish an otherwise disappointing season. Playing NCAA Tourney spoiler is fun for any team. With Illinois, there’s added incentive in unsettling their at-large prospects and making the hated in-state rival sweat out these final weeks of conference play.

Since They Last Met 

The disappointment of a 14-point loss to an in-state rival was quickly forgotten, at least temporarily, when the Illini thrashed Nebraska on the road five days later. Next came a brutal stretch of what arguably stands to be the three best teams in the Big Ten this season: Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Two of those games were at home, sandwiched by a road game at MSU, none which were wins. The Illini came up empty when they could least afford to, had fallen to 2-7 in conference play, and all the optimism of a 12-0 start was slowly but surely giving way to a deep pessimism.

Most Illinois fans took the negative view – that the Illini were on the brink of repeating the second-half collapse that lead to former coach Bruce Weber’s firing. Those fans were wrong; Not only did Illinois beat Indiana at home on a crazy last-seconds baseline inbounds play. It followed up on the road with a four-point takedown of Minnesota, then steamrolled Purdue at home for good measure. After a four-day respite, the Illini will try to preserve their win-streak at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Key Matchup: Reggie Hearn vs. Brandon Paul

When Illinois beats good teams, Paul is usually a major part of the equation. Paul dropped 20 points against Butler, 35 against Gonzaga, 19 against Ohio State and 35 against Indiana. Oddly enough, in the Illini’s two most recent wins (at Minnesota, home against Purdue) Paul registered a combined 13 points and saw his shot attempts plummet. That’s disappointing for Paul individually; inconsistency is not a desirable commodity in the eyes of NBA front office types, last time I checked. Collectively, Illinois couldn’t be more thrilled.

Beating two solid teams, one a brutal trip to the Barn, with your best player essentially detached from the offense, leaves open the possibility that Paul – if he trends back towards his offensive mean, and the supporting cast alongside him does its part – could bring the Illini back to their early nonconference heyday. Paul is a big and physical guard with a dazzling array of individual skills. I don’t think Hearn can guard him straight up, but his singular efforts will be crucial if Northwestern hopes to prevent Paul from breaking out of his recent offensive swoon. Because if Paul regains his stroke, and the rest of the lineup stays hot, the Illini are tough to stop.

Prediction: Illinois 70, Northwestern 63

I liked the aggressive approach Northwestern brought to Value City Arena. The final score (69-59) obscures the hard-fought tussle these teams waged over 40 minutes. In the end, Ohio State’s talent and depth overwhelmed a spunky nine-man rotation. The question is, can Northwestern bring that fearlessness to Evanston, and recall it for part two of this in-state rivalry? Yes and no. Northwestern will continue to play hard, and continue to find ways to maximize whatever players it has available, and Carmody will squeeze every bit of value and explore every marginal improvement to keep his team in games. That will keep Northwestern within striking distance all night, and I expect the final outcome to be decided late in the second half. This game will be decided by one or two possessions. Northwestern could pull it out.

There’s a difference between “could” and “will”, obviously. And the latter term, in this predictive sense, applies to Illinois. Eventually, the Wildcats’ underdog’s mentality will run its course, the emotional fire will wear off, the unifying togetherness needing to overcome severe personnel disadvantages will recede, and the Illini’s talent and depth and suddenly-hot long-range shooting will take over. Illinois will escape Northwestern with a win, but it won’t be easy. Nine players or no, these Wildcats will challenge Illinois throughout.