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Northwestern vs. Illinois preview: analysis, players to watch, prediction

The Wildcats look to get revenge against Illinois.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

After an important but uninspiring 4-point, comeback victory against Rutgers, Northwestern (20-7, 9-4 Big Ten) will look to return to form on the road against Illinois (15-12, 5-9 Big Ten).

Two weeks ago, the Fighting Illini took advantage of a Scottie Lindsey-less Northwestern offense that looked lost without its leading scorer. Illinois won 68-61, outscoring the Wildcats by seven in the second half. But that was at Welsh-Ryan, and the Wildcats head into tonight’s game 5-2 in conference play as road warriors.

With Lindsey back in the rotation and Northwestern searching for a couple more wins to solidify its resume and punch an ever-elusive ticket to the ‘Big Dance’, here’s everything you need to know about the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois at a glance

  • Record: 15-12 (5-9 Big Ten, 3-4 at home)
  • RPI: 67 (NU is 37)
  • KenPom: 72 (NU is 33)
  • Good wins (ranks from KenPom): vs. No. 41 VCU (neutral), vs. No. 27 Michigan, at No. 33 Northwestern
  • Bad losses: vs. No. 116 Winthrop, at No. 80 Penn State, vs. No. 80 Penn State
  • Head coach: John Groce, fifth season. 90-69 with Illinois, 32-52 in nearly five seasons of Big Ten conference play. Previous head coaching position(s): Ohio

Players to Watch

  • Malcolm Hill, senior guard (16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.8 apg)

Hill was the leading scorer (putting up 14 despite a scoreless first half) when Illinois upset Northwestern just two weeks ago, and the senior is coming off a 21-point outburst in Saturday’s win over Iowa. He’s the undeniable offensive leader of this team, taking over 12 shots per game as well as getting to the line nearly five times per game. Although his numbers are down a bit from last season, the senior has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor.

  • Maverick Morgan, senior center (10.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 56.7% from field)

There is a drop-off of seven points per game after Hill, but Morgan is the second leading scorer on this team. The senior played a big role last time these teams met, logging 36 minutes and notching 11 points. For his size, Morgan is a rather ineffective rebounder and carries a tough 12.4 defensive rebounding percentage, but his offensive game is versatile and he can hit the mid-range jumper. He’s Illinois’ best offensive presence down low.

  • Jalen Coleman-Lands, sophomore guard (8.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 36.4% from three)

Coleman-Lands is a streaky scorer. He’s finished in double digits ten times this season, but he also disappears at times. He went 0 for 10 from the field against Minnesota, and scored just five points against Northwestern. The sophomore is a high volume shooter with a quick trigger. He has scored 12 points in consecutive games.

  • Michael Finke, sophomore forward (7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 41.6% from three)

Finke wasn’t its leading scorer, but he’s probably the biggest reason why Illinois was able to beat Northwestern. When the Wildcats seemed to get any momentum going, Finke would bury a three. He had 11 points in the game, all in the second half, and added three steals. Finke isn’t much of a rebounder — he and Morgan trail forward Leron Black (6 rpg) in that department — but the sophomore has the ability to impact the game with his outside shot.

  • Te’Jon Lucas, freshman guard (4.8 ppg, 2.7 apg, 1.4 turnovers per game)

After paying sporadically at the beginning of the season, Lucas has firmly established himself in the rotation, most recently as a starter. The freshman had one of his best games of the year against Northwestern, scoring 11 points with 6 assists and 5 rebounds. Since then, Lucas has added back-to-back double digit scoring performances, and it seems that Groce now favors Lucas as his point guard to the ageless Tracy Abrams. Lucas is an exciting player, but he’s also very inexperienced and turnover prone.

Game Analysis

The more I looked at Illinois’ performance this season and their advanced stats, the harder it was to believe that Northwestern lost to the Illini just two weeks ago. In its last two games, Illinois lost to a bad Penn State team by 13, and escaped an equally bad Iowa team by four. Offensively, the Illini lack the depth to score with most teams in the Big Ten, and defensively, they don’t force turnovers or block shots. Lindsey is back and has one game under his belt, so look for Northwestern’s offense to improve greatly upon the 0.88 points per possession it scored in the previous matchup. McIntosh won’t feel the need to press as much, he simply isn’t going to turn the ball over six times again. If Law can again slow down Hill and the Wildcats can get Dererk Pardon more involved offensively, Northwestern will be able to split the season series.


  • KenPom prediction: Northwestern 67, Illinois 66
  • My prediction: Northwestern 72, Illinois 60