The Matchup: Illinois (19-5) @ Northwestern (13-8)
Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)
TV: ESPN2 (8:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM
Fun Fact: Every Northwestern team to play in the post season has defeated Illinois.
About the Game
Aside from Illinois holding a #22 national ranking and six more wins, these two teams are pretty even numbers wise. They excel in similar areas and have similar problems. Both teams pass with precision and are willing to work to find a good shot while striving to play shutdown defense. The major difference defensively is Illinois will play man-to-man while the Wildcats will play the zone. The results, however, have been near identical. NU averages 65.3 ppg on offense and allows 59.8. Illinois scores 67.0 ppg and allows 56.5. Another area where the two teams are similar is in rebounding. Despite featuring the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, Mike Davis (7.8 rpg), Illinois is actually only +0.3 for the year in rebounding margin. Of course, that is still way better than NU’s -5.5. Based on Northwestern’s game at Iowa, it seems reasonable to conclude that how well the Wildcats keep Davis and his front court teammate 7-1 Mike Tisdale (11.0 ppg 3.8 rpg) off the glass, especially the offensive glass, might be the difference in the game. Northwestern’s starting center, Kyle Rowley, matches the large Tisdale for size, but there is some question of who on NU’s roster can match the athletic Davis. Fan favorite Ivan Peljusic might the closest player NU has to an athletic equal of Davis. However, Peljusic has seen limited action of late.
Another area where fans should look for the game to be decided is three point shooting. Illinois plays excellent defense on the perimeter as they hold their opponents to just 28.2% three point shooting. As was the case at Iowa and Michigan, Northwestern fans know the Wildcats can’t win if their three point shots are not falling. Also of importance, is how well Illinois shoots the three, because Northwestern will play a 1-3-1 zone for a portion of the game. Illinois currently shots 35% from three, but their ability to throw pin-point passes (#1 in the nation in % of field goals assisted on) is what should worry Northwestern. Unlike other teams who can’t find an open man and panic when trapped, the Illini excel at making an extra pass. This means Illinois may be better equipped than most NU opponents to find an open shooter in the corner against the 1-3-1.
Northwestern’s above .500 record will probably serve to even out a crowd which in years past has been strikingly pro-Illini. Hopefully, with the student sections rocking, Illinois will actually feel as if they are on the road. This feeling is critical because the Illini are 1-4 on the road in the Big Ten and have not shot well. It is also worth noting that three Illinois starters have never been to Welsh-Ryan Arena which does present a very different shooting background than most Big Ten arenas. Finally, Northwestern should be more motivated for this game. After the loss to Iowa, the NCAA tournament is on the line for Northwestern against Illinois. Given that fact, the 'Cats should be up for this game. Northwestern, 66 Illinois, 61.
Also: Check out this link for Chicago College Basketball's take on the NU center position: http://www.ootp-baseball.com/chicagobasketball/?p=451