The Fighting Illini, coming off a tough home loss to No. 5 Iowa, have had six consecutive days off to try and prepare for Saturday night's clash against the Wildcats. But perhaps more important than the game preparation was the time available for the team to heal, both mentally and physically. It's no secret that John Groce's squad has been ravaged with injuries, so perhaps this week off was a chance for guys like Mike Thorne Jr, Michael Finke, and Kendrick Nunn to recuperate. There have been rumors circulating that Thorne might be available against Northwestern:
#Illini Groce: Mike Thorne has been doing "some segments" of practice recently.— Derek Piper (@DPiperScout) February 12, 2016
His presence would be a big help to an Illinois roster that is incredibly depleted in the front court. The orange and blue have, however, won two straight road games. Both have been in overtime (one extra session at Minnesota and three at Rutgers). If they're able to win this weekend it would mean their first three-game conference road win streak since 2014, when they beat Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa.
On the other side of the things are the 16-9 Wildcats, who are coming off a close loss to Ohio State in Columbus. While they had an incredibly strong start to the season, Chris Collins's team has lost six of their last seven games and are just a game up on the Illini in the Big Ten standings. Even though many were pegging them to reach the NCAA tournament in 2016, it will now be a big uphill climb as we head towards March for Northwestern, who now looks more destined for the NIT than the Big Dance. They're led by guards Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps, who average 14.8 and 14.7 points per game respectively. When those two are knocking down shots from beyond the arc, the Wildcats are a dangerous team. Though they don't have as much of an inside presence, Alex Olah is grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game and is making solid contributions from within the paint.
This matchup is more crucial for the home team as they try to get off the bubble and into the field of 64, but there is always some extra motivation when Illinois and Northwestern face off. The Illini took both the home and away games in this rivalry series last year, but this is the only matchup between these two in 2015-16, so whoever wants the bragging rights will have to win this one.
My Pick: Malcolm Hill and a (hopefully) healthy Kendrick Nunn versus Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps will be a good back court matchup to watch. These games are seemingly always close, but I think ultimately the home-court advantage helps the Wildcats pull away for a narrow victory, 68-63.
Let us know who YOU think is going to win in the comments below!