I have no idea what to make of this Northwestern team and based on the various comments I’ve read from fans and the media neither does anyone else. Right now Northwestern is 11-3 through 14 games. They’ve played 10 teams they were almost certainly better than and won those 10 games. They’ve played two teams (Ohio State and Baylor) who they were almost certainly worse than and lost those games. And they’ve played two teams (Creighton and Seton Hall) who they were probably about even with and split those two games. Being able to consistently beat teams they are better than is a good step in the right direction for NU and losing to teams that are better is no shame, but the key to making the NCAA Tournament is going to be posting a better than .500 record against teams who NU matches up with evenly. The best way to that better than .500 mark is to win the contests at Welsh-Ryan and steal a couple on the road. In the end that would probably give NU 9 or 10 Big Ten wins and the result would be the NCAA Tournament.
The above paragraph becomes important because Illinois is one of those teams that NU is pretty even with. Sure, Illinois might have more flat out talent, but when the teams hit the court (especially in Evanston) the combination of a home court advantage and a more fine-tuned offensive system should even it out for NU. That means as Glenn said in the comment to the picture below, this really is a must-win game for NU!
The 12-3 Illini enter this contest coming off a road loss to Purdue and holding just a 3-3 record away from home. In other words, the Illini have been strong at Assembly Hall, but average away. NU holds that strong 46-3 record versus unranked opponents at home since 2008.
This is a pressure game for Illinois as well with them losing to Purdue and barely beating Minnesota at home. Their once promising could slip away if they drop this contest to the ‘Cats. It’s also a big game for Bruce Weber who despite his 205-89 career record is taking a lot of heat from Illinois fans for the team’s lack of postseason success and inability to compete for the league title in recent years. If Illinois is going to compete for anything this year they need to focus on getting 7-1 center Myers Leonard the ball. Leonard puts up 13.4ppg and 8.3rpg, but he shoots 61% from the floor. If he got the ball more he could average 20ppg with ease. The problem is it seems at times Illinois isn’t sure what type of team they are. Are they inside team with Leonard scoring in the post and Brandon Paul (12.3ppg) driving the lane or are they a jump shooting team with D.J. Richardson (40.6% 3PT) and Paul taking outside jump shots? What they should probably be is an inside-outside team that gets Leonard going early and then kicks to ball outside for open looks because aside from Richardson nobody on the Illini has much success shooting from the arc. The numbers look like this for the rest of Illinois’s projected starters:
To me that means NU should start in the 1-3-1 until Illinois proves they’re going to have an above average shooting game. The ‘Cats need to pressure the ball in that 1-3-1 and clog driving lanes, but a solid 1-3-1 that forces outside shots from people not named D.J. Richardson could be a recipe for success.
On offense I think we can probably assume Luka Mirkovic isn’t going to have a ton of success scoring on the block versus Leonard. That’s fine. Move Luka to the high post and let him distribute the ball to Shurna and Crawford who can attack the basket matched up on Griffey and Richardson respectively. If that works Illinois will have to sag into the lane and then the Wildcats can look again to Dave Sobolewski and Alex Marcotullio to boost the scoring from behind the arc.
Finally, I’ll say that the last key to this game for NU is intensity. That’s why Alex Marcotullio has to be a big factor. Without referees Big Ten basketball would basically be a street fight (it almost is anyway) and Alex is the only NU player who when you look at him has a facial expression that looks as if he just stepped off the set of Rocky V. If Alex can get the rest of the ‘Cats to have the same intensity on defense and the glass that he has I expect to see a Northwestern win. I predict: Northwestern, 70 Illinois, 65