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Three things to watch as Northwestern men’s basketball takes on #24 Illinois

The Wildcats have a chance to kick the Illini, ranked for the first time in five years, right back out of the top 25.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

After securing their first conference win of the season against Nebraska, the ‘Cats (6-10, 1-5 B1G) failed to capitalize on the momentum and fell to Iowa on Tuesday night. Northwestern’s schedule does not get any easier as they travel to Champaign this afternoon to face a ranked Illinois team (12-5, 4-2) in what will be NU’s fifth game in just 14 days.

Here are three things to watch as two Big Ten squads from the Land of Lincoln go head to head this afternoon:

Can the ‘Cats stay out of foul trouble?

Ever since Anthony Gaines went down, Northwestern’s defense has not been consistent. It certainly does not help that the ‘Cats only has eight scholarship players available thanks to the continued absence of Boo Buie, meaningvehead coach Chris Collins is running a significantly pared-down rotation.

An uptick in minutes for every player along with breakdowns on defense has resulted in a drastic increase in fouls committed. Take the Indiana game, for example: Robbie Beran fouled out, Pete Nance and Miller Kopp had four fouls each, and Pat Spencer and Ryan Young had three.

Northwestern’s defense cannot afford a player fouling out of a game and cutting into their already short rotation. Against Iowa, that came to fruition, as a dominant center in Luka Garza was able to take advantage of NU’s foul trouble, with both Young and Jared Jones fouling out and Beran picking up three personals.

With an aggressive zone defense that often leaves shooters wide open, Collins has to figure out a way to stop opponents from scoring so easily. The Wildcats are one of the tallest teams in NCAA and they have the right personnel to be an extremely good defensive squad at some point. What they have shown so far in Big Ten play should not be indicative of NU’s defense going forward, but it also could be much worse.

If the recent foul trouble continues against Kofi Cockburn, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and the physical Illini, no defensive effort will be enough to slow them down.

Who will be Northwestern’s second option on offense?

Ever since Buie went down with an injury, Kopp has been the only consistent source of scoring for Northwestern. The ‘Cats lack a true second star on offense, and often find themselves settling for a contested shot at the end of the shot clock because of it.

We have seen flashes of offensive potential from each of the current starters, especially Spencer, but consistency has been an issue throughout the season. And as the schedule gets more difficult, more ugly losses are on the way until someone else can step up on the offensive end. Watch out for Robbie Beran to be that player.

Beran was given his starting role during the Minnesota game. In the four contests the true freshman has participated in since, he has averaged nine points per game on 47/33/75 splits. With his length and a smooth shot, Beran is capable of scoring from anywhere on the court, and he certainly seems to be settling into Big Ten action. As he gets more comfortable with his role, the freshman forward could blossom into the second offensive go-to that Northwestern has been searching for.

Another in-state rivalry upset on the cards?

Illinois is ranked for the first time since 2014 this week, and is angling for what would be their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013. It has certainly been a while since the Fighting Illini have been nationally relevant, but this season seems different. They are currently riding a three game winning streak behind clutch play from Ayo Dosunmu and impressive team efforts in quality wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and Rutgers.

On the other hand, Northwestern is on pace to have their worst season since 2008, projected to win right around three conference games. With the Big Ten looking like the most competitive conference in the nation, NU has a realistic chance at not winning another game going forward.

This narrative seems familiar...

Less than two months ago, Northwestern’s football team pulled out their only conference win against Illinois in a season that featured an uncharacteristically bad Wildcat squad and a surprisingly good Fighting Illini.

Can Northwestern fans remain optimistic to hope for the same thing to happen this afternoon at the State Farm Center as took place just a couple of months ago at next door Memorial Stadium? We’ll find out at 4 p.m. Central.