Illinois enters Thursday night’s game with a 12-3 overall record while Northwestern enters with a 9-3 record. To many of those watching the pregame show on ESPN2 it might seem they’re in for a matchup of two similar teams, but the truth is it seems these two squads are moving in opposite directions. After Illinois lost a big showdown non-conference match with Missouri they rallied to post two straight Big Ten wins versus Iowa and Wisconsin. After Northwestern lost a big showdown non-conference game with St. John’s they beat Mount St. Mary’s but in doing so saw star player John Shurna go down with a debilitating ankle injury and then promptly lost two Big Ten games to Purdue and Illinois. Now, Illinois has a chance to start a serious run at the Big Ten title with a victory while Northwestern hopes simply to tread water in the Big Ten instead of drowning.
Why is Illinois 2-0 in the league and Northwestern 0-2? Some people would say an easier schedule, which might be a factor, but I think a lot of has to due more with depth on the Illini roster and that is the first key factor in looking at Thursday’s game. The Illini athletic department game notes list a starting five for Thursday of McCamey, Richardson, Cole, Davis, and Tisdale, but in other contests Coach Bruce Weber has started Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond in addition to using Tyler Griffey and Meyers Leonard a lot off the bench. Northwestern’s game notes list a starting five of Thompson, Cobb, Crawford, Shurna, and Mirkovic. The only other Wildcat to start a game has been Alex Marcotullio, but he wouldn’t have started if not for JerShon Cobb beginning the year with a hip injury. What does this information tell us? That Illini essentially have seven “true” starters (Paul and Richmond were both Illinois High School Player of the Year) and two regular reserves that might start for a number of other teams (I certainly would consider Meyers Leonard if the Illini wanted to trade him for Mirkovic). On ther other hand, Northwestern really only has the five starters and often times Mirkovic is simply filling space because he’s 6-11. Making matters worse for NU, the lack of depth forced a clearly injured John Shurna to play 39 minutes on Monday against Michigan State. I know people will say Shurna wouldn’t play if he couldn’t help the team, but watching him grimace in pain as he hobbled to a 1-of-11 shooting night and was leaped over by Draymond Green for the game’s critical rebound I felt about as discouraged as I ever have for a single player. I’ve often said NU isn’t tough enough to win in the Big Ten and I still believe that, but that wasn’t Shurna’s problem. On Monday night John showed more toughness than any NU player I’ve ever seen, but that toughness wasn’t enough to overcome a serious physical aliment that probably would keep most athletes on the bench. Getting back to Thursday, I guarantee if Mike Davis were as hurt as Shurna that even if Davis wanted to play Illinois would start Richmond or Griffey and not think twice. That’s problem. Bill Carmody knows Mike Capocci is such a non-threat that he’d rather see Shurna play hurt.
Obviously depth isn’t an area where Northwestern is going to be able to out dual the Illini, but two other key areas exist that might give NU a chance. The first is three point shooting. Both these teams are in the top-20 nationally in team three point percentage. Shurna is NU’s leader, but the ‘Cats have a collection of other competent shooters as well and I’m looking for Michael “Juice” Thompson to step up. Illinois as a team makes 42.3% of their threes led by Demetri McCamey at 52.2%, but I actually think D.J. Richardson (45.5% 3PT) has the best looking release on his shot of any Big Ten player. Another solid shooter for Illinois to watch out for is Bill Cole who at 6-9 can release over shorter small forwards. If Northwestern is to beat Illinois they don’t have to out shoot the Illini percentage wise from three, but they have to make more. If I were NU I would try to get up at least 30 threes with the goal of making at least 14. Last year NU set a Big Ten record vs Illinois with 47 three point attempts.
Another key area where NU needs to outplay Illinois is ball security. As a team Illinois is impressive with 258 assists against 197 turnovers. However, that’s all McCamey. D.J. Richardson is only other Illinois player with an assist to turnover ratio better than 1.4-to-1. Last year NU beat Illinois in Evanston because they extended their defense and made McCamey give up the ball early. This forced one of the other guys to try to initiate the offense and they often seemed to panic and force a shot. A similar strategy could give NU an edge. It’ll be a gamble to use the 1-3-1 zone early because Illinois can hit threes, but as one of my all-time favorite television characters would say, “sometimes, you have to roll a hard six.”
The last key area of the game will be inside play. Last year Illinois used a solid inside game to beat NU at Assembly Hall, but the Illini needed to put out an APB for Mike Tisdale in Evanston and the Wildcats got away with a W. Luka Mirkovic has to be psychical and play a good game versus Tisdale because if NU has to go to Davide Curletti it won’t be pretty against the 7-1 Tisdale. He’ll just be too big for Curletti.
The on paper matchup in this game is actually closer than I expected, but the paper doesn’t account for John Shurna’s injury or Illinois having a home court advantage. I hate excuses, but the truth is that Northwestern probably beats Michigan State with Shurna healthy. His injury is just another in a long line of bad breaks for Northwestern that as far as I remember started with the Rex Walters led transfermania of the early 90s and has continued through this season with the Kevin Coble exit and now Shurna's ankle injury late in a meaningless game when the Wildcats had almost a 30 point advantage. Eventually I think NU’s luck is bound to turn, but I don’t think it’s going to be an immediate occurrence. I predict: Illinois, 76 Northwestern, 62