I think both Northwestern and Illinois wish their last games were as fake as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend. Unfortunately they were both all too real. Illinois lost badly at Wisconsin and Northwestern played a total clunker of a game vs Iowa. As a result both teams sit at 1-3 in Big Ten play. Illinois is still a top-25 team based a solid non-conference schedule, but if they can’t get through this week with a couple wins then that ranking is likely to disappear. Northwestern is still looking for anything resembling consistent offense and until they find it they are likely in huge trouble.
Both teams have struggled because they are too dependent on outside shoots. I think Illinois’s trio of Tyler Griffey (7.8ppg 40%3PT), D.J. Richardson (11.1ppg), and Brandon Paul (18.1ppg) are better shooters than NU’s trio of Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn, and Kale Abrahamson, but neither group has been consistent enough to win regularly in conference play by simply depending on outside shoots. Illinois has Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand who average 12.1 and 9.3 points per game respectively that should be able to drive and score inside, but neither has done so consistently. On the Northwestern side, Bill Carmody has tired to get his point guard, Dave Sobolewski, to be more aggressive and drive when openings exist. Sobo’s done some nice things attacking the basket, but the reality is that he’s not a super strong finisher and can get blocked rather often. Illini center Nnanna Egwu might be less of an offensive threat than NU’s Alex Olah, but he can block shots at almost 1.5 a game and as result, I worry about NU entering the paint on drives. I’d like to see if the ‘Cats can isolate Olah to try and work his hook shot or try and get Tre Demps into the game to shoot his floater. Of course, the Princeton Offense should theoretically create some chances for backdoor cuts, but I actually haven’t seen many of those in NU’s recent action. That’s probably a credit to how well scouted teams are in Big Ten play. It was interesting to note, though, that former Wildcat star Jitim Young recently said players need to take more chances on throwing backdoor passes. Perhaps this group is too worried about turning the ball over that they’re missing opportunities to make plays. Of course, with Coach Carmody’s quick hook this season I might worry about being pulled if I turned the ball over too.
Prediction: This game really isn’t a very good matchup for Northwestern (of course, I thought the Iowa game was a good matchup and we saw how that turned out) I struggle to see how NU can play 1-3-1 with the Illini’s shooters, yet, NU doesn’t play intense enough defense to make me believe they’ll stop Abrams and Bertrand from getting into the lane to score or setup Paul and Egwu for dunks. If I’d seen any evidence that Northwestern could actually play defense in man-to-man with intensity I’d say they have a shot, but I haven’t. I’m honestly shocked Coach Carmody hasn’t gone back to the matchup zone he used with great success early in his time at NU. Of course, NU could go crazy and hit a bunch of threes which might win them the game, but overall in the Big Ten defense wins. Just look at Wisconsin did to Indiana last night by playing defense. Illinois, 74 Northwestern, 60