To say Northwestern has had trouble stopping Big Ten opponents' primary scorers this season would be an understatement. The Wildcats have been prone to scoring outbursts by other teams' top players throughout conference play — note the 15-plus-point performances from Ohio State's JaQuan Lyle, Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine, etc. — you get the point.
That doesn't bode well for Chris Collins's team (16-9 overall, 4-8 Big Ten) on Friday against in-state rival Illinois (11-13, 3-8). Northwestern has has lost six of its last seven games and is now on the brink of falling out of even the NIT picture, even after a very strong start to the year in nonconference play. That aim will become even more difficult if the Wildcats can't fend off the Fighting Illini, who swept the two-game season series from Northwestern last year.
Led by Malcolm Hill (18.9 points per game) and Kendrick Nunn (16.7), the Illini have the second- and seventh-best individual scorers in the Big Ten. The dynamic duo's combined 35.6 points per game is higher than any other tandem in the Big Ten.
"Obviously those two guys can have huge games and [they] have," Collins said. "You can't allow them to both go nuts on you."
The overall product from Champaign, outside of Hill and Nunn, hasn't been great, though, as the Illini have been decimated by injury. Also, key supporting pieces have vastly underperformed, putting almost all of the scoring pressure on John Groce's top two options.
Mike Thorne, Jr., the team's third leading scorer (12.9 points per game) and best rebounder (8.5 rebounds), had surgery on a torn meniscus back in November and has played in only one game since. He went 1-for-6 in 16 minutes against Indiana on January 19 and has been on the shelf since. Also, promising sophomore small forward Leron Black has been limited to eight games this season due to a recurring knee injury.
Even recently, Nunn has been dealing with a hip injury that has limited his athleticism and overall game while big man Michael Finke hurt his knee on January 31 against Wisconsin (he missed a game before returning last Sunday in a loss to Iowa). This has all come after an offseason in which point guard Tracy Abrams suffered a season-ending Achilles tear, Darius Paul was kicked off the team after an arrest during the team's trip to France and former walk-on Mike LaTulip decided to redshirt and transfer.
Injuries like those are obviously difficult to overcome, but Groce's team has still vastly underachieved on the court, especially on the defensive end. The Illini rank 241st in the nation in raw defensive efficiency, including 314th in three-point percentage allowed and 268th in two-point percentage allowed. They started their season by giving up 93 points in a loss to North Florida, and it hasn't gotten much better aside from a shocking 84-70 thumping of Purdue a month ago. Groce's job might be in jeopardy if Illinois can't pull it together somewhat down the stretch.
Three matchups to watch
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn vs. Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps
Hill and Nunn both get their points in bunches, but they get them in different ways. Hill loves playing with his back to the basket and either facing up or backing down his opponent. Listed as a guard despite being 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Hill presents a major matchup problem for Northwestern's guards, both of whom he holds significant size advantages against. Northwestern will have to work hard to prevent entry passes to Hill or else he will pick the defense apart by hitting mid-range jumpers or getting to the free throw line, where he shoots over 82 percent on 7.5 attempts per game.
Nunn, although bothered somewhat by his hip, is an athletic slasher who can also knock down the three at a decent clip (38 percent). Northwestern will have to take away his driving lanes, and that starts up top with good rotations and communication from McIntosh and Demps.
On the other side of the card, as per usual, McIntosh and Demps have to play well if their team wants to defend its home court successfully. The Wildcats have had major trouble scoring inside the three-point line, and Northwestern's top guards will have to be efficient from outside while also not turning the ball over.
Dererk Pardon/Alex Olah vs. Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan
Finke has impressed as a freshman, showing an ability to score the basketball both inside and out. The Champaign native scores nearly nine points per game in under 23 minutes and he's shooting over 38 percent from three. Northwestern has a tendency to lose shooters, especially those who pop out to the corner, and whoever is in Finke's area will have to be aware of his shooting ability; Collins mentioned him as a guy who "presents a lot of problems." Morgan likewise can face up, but not out to the arc. Although he averages only seven points per, Morgan has gone for double figures in three of his last five outings.
Aside from a meaningless banked-in three from Olah, Northwestern got a grand total of eight points from Pardon and Olah against Ohio State; Pardon was scoreless on just two shots. Northwestern was able to stay in it with three-pointers and offensive rebounding, but the lack of a post presence really hurt the Wildcats as did their inability to break the Buckeyes' aggressive press. Establishing post scoring early will be important against the Illini, who are relatively short on depth inside without Thorne or Black.
Jalen Coleman-Lands vs. the Chameleon defense
Coleman-Lands is another freshman who has impressed for Illinois and he has been on a tear lately, scoring 43 points in Illinois' last two games. He poured in 26 in a triple-overtime win against Rutgers and then 17 in a loss to Iowa on 14-for-30 shooting over that span.
"He's a great shooter and he's always ready to shoot," Collins said. "He aggressive, he's hungry, he's one of the better freshman in the league in terms of shooting and scoring the ball. And when he gives them that third scoring punch they're tough to beat."
What's unique about Coleman-Lands is that he's very much a one-trick pony. Of those 30 shots, 25 have been from behind the arc and on the season, approximately three-quarters of his shots have come from three. That doesn't necessarily bode well for the Wildcats, who are 11th in the Big Ten in opponent three-point percentage during conference play. If Coleman-Lands heats up, beating Illinois will be a much more difficult task.