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Northwestern hosts Illinois: pre-game talking points

There are only a few games on Northwestern’s Big Ten schedule that can be classified as “winnable.” Thursday night’s game at Iowa was not one of them, nor was the Wildcats’ home tilt with Wisconsin on January 2.

Sunday’s game at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Illinois, who is ranked no. 49 in Ken Pomeroy's team ratings and is coming off a 25-point loss at Wisconsin, is definitely “winnable.” Whether Northwestern will actually win could hinge on two of the following three things.

Can Northwestern get going on offense?

It seemed a fair bet that Northwestern would struggle to consistently score early in the season as it adjusted to Chris Collins’ motion-based system. But the Wildcats don’t appear to be improving. They rank 277th in the country, and last in the Big Ten, in offensive efficiency. They are scoring just 0.87 points per trip against conference opponents, rebounding 21.2 percent of their misses and shooting 22.2 percent from three-point range.

And it’s not as if the Wildcats’ are making up for their offensive woes by locking down their opponents; the 1.26 PPP they’re allowing against Big Ten competition ranks last in the conference.

To beat Illinois, a good defensive team (ranked no. 38 in defensive efficiency), Northwestern will probably need to a) shoot the lights out, and b) play at least passable defense. Option a is a possibility, but I’d rather examine something of substance, rather than stake Northwestern’s chances of pulling an upset on better shooting, which, duh.

The first thing Northwestern can do to help its offense is give Alex Olah more touches. He has been one of the Wildcats’ most efficient scorers during conference play, posting offensive ratings of 144, 151 and 150 against Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, respectively Here’s a more detailed breakdown of how much Olah has improved this season.

As much as getting Olah the ball more often could boost Northwestern’s offense, the Wildcats would benefit even more from their senior leader and best player, Drew Crawford, breaking out of the slump he’s mired in. Crawford has scored in double digits in all of Northwestern’s Big Ten games, but he hasn’t shot better than 43 percent from the field, grabbed more than six rebounds or posted an offensive rating higher than 90 (he also got T’d up against Iowa). If Northwestern beats Illinois, it will likely be because Crawford has a big game.

Attacking Illinois in transition could also go a long way for Northwestern. According to Synergy Scouting data, The Wildcats are scoring 1.064 PPP on transition possessions, while the Illini are allowing 1.145.

Containing RayVonte Rice

After winning two games against Indiana and Penn State to open Big Ten play, Illinois was humbled in a blowout loss at Wisconsin. Drake transfer RayVonte Rice (18.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Illinois’ best player, scored 19 points against the Badgers (after going for 15 and 29 in the Illini’s previous two games), but needed 21 shots to do it. Rice has not scored fewer than 15 points in any of the Illini’s three Big Ten games, and he’ll probably put up more than that against the Wildcats.

But if Northwestern can at least force him into low-percentage shots, Illinois’ offense – which ranks eighth in the Big Ten in points scored per possession against conference competition and features few other proven scorers – could stagnate.

Uniforms

There have been positive reviews and negative ones. I’m not sure which side I stand on. I think it’s cool that Northwestern’s players were able to help design the uniforms they’ll wear for a big rivalry game, but I also understand why some Wildcats fans aren’t thrilled about seeing their favorite team’s uniforms turned into a cluttered collage of random items.

A lot of fans want their team’s threads to be clean and tidy – school colors, numbers, names, that’s it. So it makes sense that there would be some resentment toward Under Armour’s decision to veer from the purple-and-white standard in favor of a radical, urban look – like there was when it, mistakenly or not, splattered what appeared to be streaks of blood across Northwestern’s special edition Wounded Warrior football uniforms.

https://twitter.com/JMRosenblat/status/421730928151375873

Whether you like the “By the Player” uniforms or not, Under Armour has already accomplished its goal. Northwestern is beginning to develop a reputation for sporting controversial uniforms, and while that’s probably not what the athletic department hoped for when it agreed to a contract with the apparel provider, I suppose it’s better than no publicity at all.

People associate Oregon football with a seemingly endless supply of sleek, futuristic uniform combinations; maybe the Wildcats will come to be known for wearing non-traditional/sometimes-ugly gear. Is that such a bad thing? Not for Under Armour. People, and not just Northwestern people, are talking about the uniforms the Wildcats will sport tonight. That wouldn’t have been the case had Northwestern decided to wear its normal purple-and-whites.