What Happened Last Year:
The Illini swept the season series against their upstate rival over a two-week span last February.
Those two wins sparked the late-season NCAA Tournament run by Illinois. The first victory came in Evanston by a score of 68-61. The Illini shot 42 percent from three and had four scorers in double figures. A major highlight was the play of freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas who had 11 points, six assists and five rebounds. Northwestern played without its second-leading scorer, Scottie Lindsey, who sat out with an injury. The Wildcats relied on the late-game heroics of Bryant McIntosh to try and claw their way back, but they ultimately fell short.
The Illini also won the second matchup in Champaign. Scottie Lindsey returned for the Wildcats but struggled heavily and shot 1-for-11 from the field. Illinois held the Wildcats to 36 percent shooting and out-rebounded their rivals 42 to 27. Malcolm Hill led the way with 18 points.
How Illinois Can Win:
The lone matchup between these two teams will be a strange one. This will be Illinois’ eighth game of the season and first conference game.
Since the B1G Tournament is a week earlier than normal due to scheduling conflicts with Madison Square Garden, the game will be played on Dec. 1 in the midst of Illinois’ non-conference schedule. Also, due to the renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, this game will be played at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. In other words, the Northwestern game will be played in a non-B1G arena during non-conference season, a time when teams are typically still tuning up. This simply means neither team will have a lot of tape on their opponents, and really anything can happen.
Illinois needs to force Northwestern out of its comfort zone and speed the game up. Northwestern projects to finish in the top half of the Big Ten, but if Illinois can apply defensive pressure, force turnovers and win the rebounding battle, Brad Underwood’s team should have more than a puncher’s chance.
How Illinois Can Lose:
All of Northwestern’s key contributors are returning and Chris Collins’ team will be led by a senior backcourt of Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. Both guards averaged 14 points per game last year to lead Northwestern’s historic team in scoring. It is no secret that talented veteran guard play usually wins college basketball games. If both seniors play well it will be difficult for Illinois to stop Northwestern. Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are another year older and they both had breakout seasons last year. That is four very solid Big Ten upperclassmen the young Illini are going to have to contain. If Pardon dominates the boards and that senior back court goes for 30-plus points, it will be rough night for the Orange and Blue.
There will be a lot of hype surrounding the Northwestern basketball program this year after its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. I am not sure if they will live up to everyone’s expectations once the season is said and done, but I do think Northwestern will take this game from the Illini. The abnormally early game day and the veteran key contributors for Northwestern will be too much for a young Illini squad that will still be adapting to Brad Underwood’s system.