clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In win over Illinois, Northwestern proves its worth — and improvement

The ‘Cats slayed a major dragon in front of a sellout crowd Wednesday evening.

@NUMensBball on Twitter.

Entering 2023, there appeared to be little firm ceiling on Northwestern men’s basketball. Situated at 10-2 with its only two defeats to Auburn and Pitt, two very quality opponents, the team effectively controlled its own fate as to how far it went. Optimism was palpable that finally, this would be the team to make it back to the Big Dance.

Then, reality was delivered like a blow from Mike Tyson. The Wildcats were trounced 73-57 by Ohio State on New Year’s Day, shooting a porous 28.4% and scoring only 17 points in the first half. Granted, the Buckeyes are a talented team and are now ranked, but this result provided little but anxiety-inducing memories of disappointing past NU seasons.

Enter Wednesday. Bitter rival Illinois rolled into Welsh-Ryan Arena, a team that Northwestern had not beaten in nearly four years — or the length of a full presidential administration, if you’re looking for an equivalent time span.

Swarmed by a sea of orange and raucous “ILL-INI” chants in its own building, the home fans and team donning white easily could have been fazed. To describe the contingents of fandom as warring factions may not be apt enough.

Nevertheless, the Wildcats came out to a sold Welsh-Ryan Arena, played their tried and true form of basketball and, in so doing, prevailed over their in-state foe for the first time since Jan. 6, 2019.

It was far from a perfect, mistake-prone performance from Northwestern. The ‘Cats shot only 32.1% from the floor, and the team’s offense — for much of the first 30 minutes, anyway — was carried by a stellar night from Chase Audige.

However, NU emerged victorious due to two major facets: defense and free throws.

For one, the Wildcats forced 15 Illini turnovers, seven more than the home team compiled. Likewise, Chris Collins’ team poured in 22 points off of turnovers, whereas Illinois had a meager four points in that same category. Beyond forcing mistakes, NU’s stingy D swarmed to the basketball and disrupted Brad Underwood’s squad’s flow, particularly slowing down Coleman Hawkins (10 points on 4-of-11 shooting), Terrence Shannon Jr. (nine points on 3-of-8) and Skyy Clark (just 1-of-6).

Possibly the biggest determinant in the outcome was from the stripe. The ‘Cats shot a gaudy 40 free throws, sinking 32 of them, while the Illini were granted only 10 opportunities for easier buckets. Whether through drawing contact or technical fouls, Northwestern put itself in superior position for simpler points, which it capitalized on.

I would be remiss to not acknowledge that 2022-23 has been a very topsy-turvy season for Illinois, which has already beaten No. 6 Texas and No. 10 UCLA. At the same time, the Illini are now 0-3 in Big Ten play and have heaps of questions regarding consistency, execution and, frankly, locker room morale.

But, the Illini are still an extraordinarily talented team, and a program that had tormented Northwestern for four full seasons. To be able to defeat your rival and protect home court is nothing to scoff at.

That brings me to my next point: that past Collins squads very likely would have squandered this precise type of contest.

After NU led 31-27 at halftime, the Illini roared to an 8-0 run, leading 37-33 with 17:03 left in the game. Momentum had been utterly sapped from the home side, and the deafening Illinois fans were literally on their feet.

Northwestern didn’t flinch, though. Down 40-36, Tydus Verhoeven sank a jumper, and Audige, Brooks Barnhizer and Ty Berry drilled threes to put NU back on top 47-43 — a lead it would not relinquish.

At 11-3 and 2-1 in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have a largely unblemished record thus far. In fact, if the season ended today, the ‘Cats would finish ranked 56th in Kenpom rankings.

Instead, the 2022-23 campaign extends well into March. While Northwestern has shown flashes of being a tournament-caliber team, it has yet to consistently play efficiently on offense and defense.

“Are we perfect? No,” Collins remarked postgame. “We can be ugly at times. But, I tell you what. Our team has a lot of heart. They’re a really together group, and they love playing with each other and for each other.”

With a road date with No. 15 Indiana on deck Saturday, Collins recognized a quick turnaround and a continued sense of urgency, one that will be maintained during a brutal conference stretch. While the rest of its season story has yet to be written, Northwestern provided a long-term building block by exorcising its orange demons on Wednesday night — a major stepping stone in returning to meaningful play in March.