Thursday, February 3, 2011

State Rivalry Ready for Showcase Saturday at Welsh-Ryan and on National TV

NU's Nick Fruendt and U of I's Bill Cole last year at Welsh-Ryan

The state of college basketball in the state of Illinois is so-so at best this year. The University of Illinois is 15-7 and ranked #24 in the nation, but the rest of the state’s teams have been very disappointing. Northwestern’s 13-8 record features no victories of substance and their failure to execute in crunch time against Michigan State (X2) and Ohio State have a number of fans already conceding that this will not be the ‘Cats year to make tournament history. The state’s non-Big Ten teams aren’t much better. The third best team in the state based on RPI is Southern Illinois who is just about .500 overall, but who would be in the play-in game of the MVC tournament. Basically, 2010-11 hasn’t been a great year in Illinois hoops, but the game Saturday between Northwestern and Illinois still has major significance for both teams.

For the Wildcats the game is yet another chance to post a win against a team that is better than bad to average. For U of I, it is a chance to win on the road against a conference foe, something critical to tournament seeding, but something the Fighting Illini haven’t done anywhere except last place Iowa (though Michigan State says that’s still impressive). Which event would mean more? Well, at this point Illinois, despite causing their fans some undo frustration at times, is still in the NCAA Tournament as probably a mid-tier seed. Northwestern has also caused fans some frustration, but unlike U of I, isn’t in the NCAA Tournament at this point. In fact, they probably aren’t even in the top half of the NIT. Therefore, I think this game is more critical for Northwestern. Ideally, that would translate to a strongly pro-NU crowd in Welsh-Ryan, but I doubt that will be the case. NU tried to limit ticket sales to pro-NU fans for this CBS telecast by attaching tickets to this contest to other games, but they tried the same for the Wrigley Field disaster and plenty of Illini fans made it inside the Friendly Confines. Part of that is because of the ticket brokers and scalpers and part of that is because NU fans bring their Illini friends/family members/co-workers to games with them. Regardless, I’d expect a neutral site environment on Saturday. Hopefully, NU’s student sections will be fairly full and will help drown out any rowdy I-L-L-I-N-I chants.

As far as the game itself, Illinois won handily in Champaign about a month ago. During that contest John Shurna labored due to his injured ankle and the Illini’s guards didn’t miss. Now, Shurna’s status for the contest is uncertain due to a concussion just over a week ago at Minnesota, but Illinois’s guards had hit something of a shooting slump until Tuesday at home against Penn State. In that contest, U of I found early three point baskets against Penn State’s 1-3-1 zone, much like they did NU’s on Jan. 6th and used those early makes to open passing lanes inside to Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. Given that Illinois is a 40% three point shooting team with 40%-plus guys in Demetri McCamey, D.J. Richardson, and Bill Cole, I seriously doubt that NU will even attempt to play their own 1-3-1 again. Instead, you’ll likely see the Wildcats go switching man-to-man and much like the game plan vs Ohio State, keep their guards on the perimeter for the most part. That’ll mean Illinois will have to either attempt contested threes or will have to put the game into the hands of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Against the Ohio State duo of Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale the Wildcats inside defenders Luke Mirkovic, Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci did a good job being physical. The Buckeye duo got points, but they had to work for them. NU also did a good job of being judicious with the double team action and therefore not letting Ohio State’s John Diebler and William Buford get open threes. I expect to see the same Saturday. Davis and Tisdale are going to get points, but if McCamey, Richardson, and Cole don’t, I think NU will consider it a victory defensively.

On the other side of the court, I think NU will slow the game down of offense as they did versus Ohio State. Some fans are worried about NU playing this type of game because they remember old Wildcats teams doing this and playing close, but struggling to post wins. Things are different with this group, though. In, say, 2006-07 the Wildcats would play slow and with shot clock running down the ball had to go to Kevin Coble. If anybody else took that late shot, even if it was a wide open look, it was really a victory for the defense. Now, though, when NU runs the clock down it really doesn’t matter who gets the open look—and in NU’s offense an open look will exist. That makes this team much tougher to defend and though it’s hard to argue with playing quick when you look at huge wins over Georgia Tech, Iowa, and Indiana, it seems to make sense when Juice Thompson says NU is better when they slow it down because anybody on NU’s roster can make a jumper and most teams hate to play 30 seconds of defense. Plus, if NU continues to go to the class with all five players they might make teams play close to 60 seconds of consecutive defense.

This year has been a tough one to pick games, but it really shouldn’t be. NU has basically followed the script as they are still 13-0 against teams who have RPIs worse than their own and 0-8 against teams with better RPIs. Therefore, the script for this game says Illini victory, but a couple things might through the script off. One reason is because of how poorly Illinois has played in road Big Ten games. Not only are they just 1-3 overall, they haven’t really played well in their three losses. That could through the script away and make one lean towards NU, especially after Northwestern used the raucous home environment to take Ohio State to wire. Of course, there is also the issue with John Shurna. Will Shurna play? Does it even help NU if he does? After all, Mike Capocci’s physical defense would seem a better option against Mike Davis than Shurna’s questionable health. Of course, Capocci’s 11 points vs OSU were a season high and Shurna can go for 30 in the blink of an eye if he’s healthy. My guess is that Shurna plays, but gets less minutes because of Capocci’s much needed defense. Still, some productive minutes by Shurna will be critical because NU has been in a shooting slump and he can lift the team out of that. If Shurna plays I think that takes pressure off of Drew Crawford and production from Crawford generally equals wins for NU. I predict: Northwestern, 55 Illinois, 51

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