The Matchup: #25(AP Poll) Northwestern (10-1) @ Illinois (8-4)
Location: Assembly Hall (Champaign, Illinois)
TV: Big Ten Network (8:00 PM December 30th)
Radio: WGN 720AM
Fun Fact: Northwestern enters this game as a ranked team (AP #25) for the first time since 1969.
About the Game
For the first time in probably a decade, the #25 Wildcats enter this contest as arguably the stronger team in the state of Illinois. The Illini have been very inconsistent. They have lost to Georgia and Missouri while beating Vanderbilt and Clemson. The Wildcats did lose to Butler, but have beaten Notre Dame, Iowa State, N.C. State, and Stanford since that loss. You also have to be impressed with NU’s resume, but you also have to say Illinois has been a much better team at home this year. They’re 7-0 in Assembly Hall thus far.
Part of the reason for the Illini’s better stats at home is probably the fact that freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are much more comfortable at home. They’re both talented (10.8 and 10.4 ppg), but they did have a lot of trouble facing pressure from Missouri. On the year Paul has 22 assists and 21 turnovers. Richardson is significantly better holding on to the ball with 35 assists and 19 TO’s, but still had trouble with the Tiger pressure. If I were Bill Carmody I would consider starting the game in the aggressive steal seeking 1-3-1 zone. You would run a risk that Richardson (49% from three), Paul (39% from three) and Demetri McCamey (39% from three) could pick the zone apart, but if they’re turning the ball over before they get shots it won’t matter. NU also should a good ability to get out of the 1-3-1 quick against Iowa State’s great shooters.
On the inside the Illini have two very talented players. However, both seem to prefer to play away from the basket. Forward Mike Davis is athletic and can go around defenders when he faces the basket. He can also step out to 15 feet and hit a jump shot. He’s also active on the boards with 9.8 rebounds per game. 7-1 center Mike Tisdale actually has more range than Davis. Although Tisdale hasn’t hit a three yet, he has shown 18 foot range. He also works inside with a nice hook shot that helps him covert 60% of his field goals attempts. Tisdale also averages 2 blocked shots a game, which at 7-1 isn’t a surprise, but it will greatly benefit the ‘Cats if Luka Mirkovic can draw him outside with some made threes.
A number of experts have implied that of NU’s first two Big Ten games the ‘Cats have a better chance at home against Michigan State. I disagree. I think NU has a great chance to pick up their first win at Illinois in a decade if they can produce turnovers and hold Illinois off the glass in order to prevent cheap baskets. The Wildcats will also need a good shooting day from their guards and Mirkovic, but I think they’re due for one after two rough days against Stanford and Central Connecticut. Northwestern, 71 Illinois, 64