The Illini struggled mightily against Nebraska this past Sunday in their second game without Rayvonte Rice. As a team, Illinois shot 20.7% (6/29) from three-point range while shooting an abysmal 27.3% from the floor en route to an ugly 53-43 defeat. Tournament hopes are already on the brink, but Malcolm Hill and company now face a very manageable stretch of games--starting with Northwestern on Wednesday.
Northwestern (10-6, 1-2) is currently in the middle of another Northwestern-like season, but don't let that fool you--Chris Collins has brought in some talent during his second year on the job. Freshmen Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law have been starting for the Wildcats and are two of their major contributors as they're averaging 12.2 and 6.8 points per game, respectively. Junior guard and leading scorer Tre Demps (12.4PPG) also needs to be accounted for as he can get hot at a moments notice. This Northwestern team took Michigan State to overtime their last time out; they can be very dangerous if overlooked.
Illinois' last trip to Evanston ended in disappointment. Despite a major 'home-away-from-home' advantage, the No. 23 Fighting Illini lost 49-43 to the Wildcats thanks to three late 3-pointers from Tre Demps. It was Illinois' third loss of what would be an eight-game conference losing streak.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Aaron Cosby | JR
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Bryant McIntosh | FR
- Tre Demps | JR
- Vic Law | FR
- Sanjay Lumpkin | SO
- Alex Olah | JR
Keys to the Game:
1. Give Nnanna Egwu the ball
The Illini need to give the ball to Nnanna Egwu in order to have any hope of running a successful offense. It's as simple as that. According to former Illini and current ESPN analyst Sean Harrington, in their last game Illinois only scored 24 points on the 43 possessions in which Egwu didn't get a post touch. That's remarkably bad. However when he did touch the ball the team scored 10 points on 11 possessions. That's still obviously less than ideal, but it's about 2x better than the former.
Egwu is usually open all the time down low, but the guards don't even look to pass to him. That's pretty strange considering post touches would open up the outside shot later in the game. Egwu isn't the most efficient post player in the world, but just ask yourself; would you have rather him miss a 5-footer, or watch Starks/Cosby miss another contested three? I'll hang up and listen.
2. Don't waste possessions
Look for this to be another ugly, grind-it-out game that'll be decided late in the second half. Illinois' average possession length ranks 41st in the country, but they've been much slower since the injury to Rayvonte Rice; Northwestern is 243rd in this category. Every possession will count on Wednesday and Illinois has to get the most out of each offensive look. Luckily, ball control shouldn't be an issue as the Illini are only turning the ball over 15% of the time (4th) and Northwestern generates turnovers at a rate of 17.4% (295th).
Not turning the ball over is one thing, but putting up bad shots is another. Illinois' shot selection has been questionable the last few weeks and you don't need to look past the Nebraska game for an example. The Illini took 55 shots on Sunday and 29 of them came from long range. That's a lot, but the real problem is how and when those shots were taken. Of those 29 attempts, there were maybe 20 good looks; the others were either contested, or chucked up early in the shot clock.
3. Attack the basket
Northwestern is better than recent years, but the team still doesn't have the depth to compete with most teams. The Illini can take advantage of this by driving to the basket early and often to draw some quick fouls. The Wildcats are 179th in the nation when it comes to limiting opposing free throws--drawing fouls shouldn't be too hard. If the Illini can get to the line at a high rate, it's a virtual guarantee for points as the team's FT% of 78.3% is 3rd in the nation.
Another loss to Northwestern would be devastating for Illinois; not only record-wise, but perception-wise. It simply can't happen. Evanston has been a tough place to play in recent years as the Illini have gone 2-3 in their last five trips to Welsh-Ryan Arena. It's going to be a game dominated by defense, but I think the players will respond to the Nebraska loss in a positive manner.
Illinois 62, Northwestern 56