Illinois kept its NCAA tournament hopes alive by trouncing in-state rival Northwestern 86-60 Saturday night. With the win the Illini snapped both their three-game losing streak and Northwestern’s four-game winning streak.
One of ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s "Next Four Out", Illinois came out determined to make an impression on the selection committee. Behind physical defense and hot shooting the Illini jumped out to an early lead and kept Northwestern at arm’s length the rest of the way. Here are the takeaways:
Did Illinois Expose the Zone?
The Illini couldn’t have started any better against Northwestern’s zone defense, sinking their first four three-point attempts. The Wildcats just weren’t sharp on their defensive rotations early, especially out of doubled teams, and Illinois took advantage, skipping to open shooters on the wings. From our perch behind the Northwestern bench, we could hear Collins constantly rip into his guys about sluggish rotations, bad communication and poor close-outs.
Give the Illini credit, they used cuts and crisp passes to engineer plenty of open looks and they knocked them down, hitting 14 threes. But the Wildcats simply didn’t execute as well as they did during the recent winning streak. I wouldn’t be too quick to abandon the zone if I were Chris Collins, though. Illinois shot it extremely well and most of the rotation lapses we saw are fixable.
Another Game, Another Drought
Despite Illinois' hot start, Northwestern hung with the home team for the first four minutes of the contest. Then, as has been the case with Northwestern this season, the Wildcats went over 10 minutes without a field goal. By the time Dave Sobolewski ended the dry spurt with a lay-up at the six-minute mark Northwestern was down 15. The Cats can’t continue to dig themselves in huge holes. When shots aren’t falling NU needs to go inside to Alex Olah or attack the basket and get to the line. These droughts are destructive and frankly inexcusable, and they can’t continue if this team is to make any sort of a run in the Big Ten tournament.
NU Needs to Rebound
The Wildcats only mustered three offensive rebounds to Illinois’ 14. When your offense isn’t clicking, offensive rebounds provide extra opportunities. Northwestern’s struggles on the glass really hurt them on both ends of the floor. To pick up momentum heading into the conference tournament, the Wildcats will need to rebound in more ways than one when they take on Michigan Tuesday.