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Three keys for Northwestern to defeat Illinois

Can the ‘Cats stop Illinois’ multi-faceted offensive monster.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 02 Northwestern at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After losing a heartbreaker on the road to Nebraska, Northwestern has a chance to boost its resume at home against a stout — and with Terrance Shannon Jr. back in the lineup — revitalized Illinois squad. This matchup is important, especially with the lack of likely Quad 1 opportunities left on Northwestern’s schedule (at Purdue 1/31 and at Michigan State 3/6). For a chance to tack on another season-defining tally in the win column, the ‘Cats will need a much different result than the last time these two teams met — a 96-66 Illinois victory in Champaign. If the Wildcats don’t want history to repeat itself, here are three keys they need to zone in on to have a chance against Brad Underwood’s squad.

Limit Illinois’ size and speed advantage

When these two teams played the first time, Illinois’ Terrance Shannon Jr. was unavailable after being suspended in late December due to rape charges. With a court issuing a temporary restraining order, Shannon is back, which adds another head to the Illini’s offensive hydra; nonetheless, Domask is the scorer Northwestern can’t allow to dominate for the second time. In the season’s first meeting between these two teams, Domask’s game-high 32 points, six assists and five rebounds slammed the door shut on any chance of a Northwestern second-half comeback.

The 6-foot-6 SIU transfer only connected on one triple, but thanks to his craftiness and handles, Domask was unstoppable in the mid-range game. On this play, his ability to beat Barnhizer off the bounce and connect on the short jumper put a lot of pressure on Northwestern’s defense.

Working on smaller defenders to get inside, Domask’s finishing was sublime in the first contest. Backing down Buie is a clear advantage for the Illini guard, not to mention spinning away from the double team and swishing the short corner hoist is impossible to defend.

Throw in Shannon, Quincy Guerrier and Dain Dainja, all physical players who can add significant offense too, and Northwestern will have its hands full again with the speed and physicality the Illini possess.

However, Coleman Hawkins may be the hardest player for this Northwestern team to match up against. At 6-foot-10, the forward can stretch the floor and nail threes; throw in his’ superior speed over Northwestern’s bigs and he’s just downright difficult for the ‘Cats to defend.

This is a simple pick-and-pop, but because of Hawkins’ speed, he’s able to blow by Luke Hunger and attack the rim easily for a one-handed throw-down. If any of the ‘Cats’ bigs are slightly behind the play or late on a rotation, that play is impossible to stop.

A 35.1% three-point shooter on the season, Hawkins’ ability to run away from NU’s centers in the half-court offense is problematic. Here, he slips to the corner and connects from deep in Nicholson’s face.

Add in his ability to rebound and finish through traffic, and Hawkins is the kind of multi-dimensional player that Northwestern’s defense struggles to slow down. Here he outmuscles Nicholson on the boards and gets the second-chance bucket to fall through the contact.

With Hawkins’ unique blend of size and speed, Northwestern’s roster has a difficult time containing him. Northwestern’s big men don’t have the athleticism to keep up with him. Even a versatile defender like Brooks Barnhizer will struggle to guard Hawkins due to a significant height disadvantage.

Thus, Collins navigating through the size and speed of Illinois’ athletic lineup is a must for Northwestern to have a chance for revenge.

Don’t be afraid to switch up the defense

Since bringing Chris Lowery on board last season, Northwestern’s heart and soul has come from its feisty post-trap scheme. The ‘Cats love to double the short corner and low post, causing offenses to swing the ball quickly and ultimately commit turnovers. Last year, the scheme proved huge, with the ‘Cats finishing as the Big Ten’s third-best scoring defense and being the defensive identity that catapulted the squad to the NCAA Tournament.

Without Chase Audige — the reigning Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year — and Robbie Beran, another capable defender, departing this season, the Wildcats’ defense has regressed, allowing almost five more points per game than a year ago. When the sides met on Jan. 2, the Fighting Illini easily solved Northwestern’s patented post-trap.

Domask’s smart, probing dribble attracts two Northwestern defenders, immediately opening up the runway for Guerrier to drive down and slam home a dunk. If the ‘Cats get caught ball-watching, it could be a recipe for disaster.

With Illinois’ speed, even when the trap concept works — this time forcing a looping pass back to the top of the key — it puts slow defenders out of place, essentially allowing a Luke Goode dribble and burst to the rack to end in two points for Illinois.

The problem with the post-trap scheme is that more often than not, it leaves NU’s defenders out of place and late on rotations, serving good looks at the rim to opponents on a silver platter. There’s nothing wrong with using it sporadically — after all, it’s one of Northwestern’s biggest defensive hallmarks — but against a squad as fast, physical and athletic as Illinois, it simply puts the Wildcats out of position more often than not.

Rather, heavy usage of a 2-3 zone could play to Northwestern’s strengths. Not only does a 2-3 defense bait opponents into shooting threes, but forces teams to pass through pressure rather than dribbling downhill where they can use their size and speed to their advantage. Not only is Illinois eleventh in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage, but not allowing Shannon, Domask, Hawkins or Guerrier to use their above-average physicality in man-to-man situations would help protect the paint for the ‘Cats’ inconsistent interior defense.

Find balanced offense behind Buie

Although Buie’s 2-of-15 performance against Nebraska played a big role in Northwestern’s loss in Lincoln, Agent Zero has been phenomenal at home, averaging 23.3 points per game at Welsh-Ryan Arena in conference play. Sluggish games show he’s human, but a balanced offensive attack is critical if Northwestern wants to remain undefeated at home against Big Ten competition.

Barnhizer’s career-high 24 points and Ryan Langborg’s 15 points against Nebraska were healthy signs for a ‘Cats offense that has sputtered at times this season. Ty Berry needs to consistently provide offense, especially from deep — where he’s shooting a paltry 23.5% from deep in his last three games. Usually a barometer for Northwestern’s wins and losses this season, the senior guard’s last three double-digit performances have all resulted in wins for the ‘Cats. On the other hand, tough offensive games against Wisconsin and Nebraska have ended in losses.

The lack of bench scoring is problematic too, putting even more pressure on Buie to provide the offense. With Martinelli and Nicholson the only two regulars getting significant time off the bench, their low offensive ceiling means it’s up to the quartet of Buie, Barnhizer, Berry and Langborg to carry the load.

This game will be won or lost by Northwestern’s ability to defend Illinois’ diverse and talented offensive attack, but NU’s scorers and shotmakers have to be firing on all cylinders to complement the defensive effort.