Here we are, backs to the wall. The Illinois Fighting Illini are fighting for their Big Ten Tournament lives, needing to win five games in five days in order to earn that automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It all starts against the Northwestern Wildcats.
What worked last time? Do it again.
Familiar foes go at it for the second time in two weeks. Here’s what the Illini did well last time.
Make free throws: This likely will be a close game. Illinois lost the first game against NU in Evanston by just two points. When Illinois beat Northwestern a couple of weeks ago by five points, the Illini made 33 of 38 free throws. 87 percent in that game was much higher than the Illini’s season average of 70 percent from the stripe. Make ‘em count at the UC.
Crash the boards: Illinois did a rare thing the last time Northwestern and Illinois squared off. The Illini out-rebounded their opponent by 10. Aaron Jordan had 10 of the Illini’s 34 defensive rebounds. That type of energy, effort and straight-up fundamentals of boxing out have to continue if the Illini are going to win.
Who will step up and take control of this game?: Andres Feliz scored a career-high 26 points coming off the bench. Northwestern pulled to within three in the waning seconds in the last game, and the Illini needed every point from Feliz in order to secure the home win against the ‘Cats. Who will assume that role? Someone must, which leads us to the next point.
Trent Frazier: Illinois Basketball needs you
Trent Frazier is baaad man. He shares some clutch traits and a bout of fearlessness with former Illini guard Brandon Paul. It’s not even worth asking if you remember this, because you do:
If someone on the current Illinois basketball team is capable of doing what Brandon Paul did against Minnesota on March 14, 2013, it’s Trent Frazier.
Frazier has not been playing his best basketball lately and he is coming off of a horrible game. He was held to just three points at Penn State on Sunday, completely invisible in a game the Illini needed to win to avoid playing on Wednesday’s opening day of the tournament.
Illinois will not beat Northwestern if Trent Frazier doesn’t step up and carry this team when it desperately needs some points and some outside shooting. Trent is supposed to be the master at executing Brad Underwood’s offense. This is his time to shine.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili: Win the battle in the paint
There’s an interesting individual matchup when the Illini and Northwestern go at it. Starting centers Dererk Pardon and Giorgi Bezhanishvili are vocal leaders of their respective teams, and when both get going — whether it’s a big block on one end or cleaning up around the rim with a thunderous dunk on the other — it can make or break a sudden surge in momentum.
Giorgi wasn’t awful (12 points, seven rebounds) a couple of weeks ago against Northwestern. His four turnovers were clumsy mistakes and once again Illini fans were reminded that this larger-than-life personality is still just a freshman and still learning the nuances of the game.
His one-on-one matchup against senior Dererk Pardon is something to keep an eye on. Pardon has started 93 games as a Northwestern Wildcat and he’s improved with each passing season, looking to wrap a bow on what’s been a nice four-year career playing for Chris Collins at Northwestern.
Chicago Basketball Pride: Dominance over Northwestern is part of being an Illini. It must continue.
With all due respect to Northwestern’s head coach Chris Collins — what he’s done since taking the reins in 2013 and leading the ‘Cats to their first NCAA Tournament is remarkable — Illinois owns this Northwestern basketball program historically. Wednesday is the chance to prove it once again. Illinois leads the all-time series against Northwestern 97-27. That’s domination over a supposed rival.
The Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament is back in Chicago after a three-year hiatus (Indy in 16’, DC in ‘17 and New York in ‘18) and this is a game in Northwestern’s backyard and in both teams’ home state.
The United Center has not been too kind to the Illini as of late. Two important wins over the ‘Cats at the United Center in the Big Ten Tournament happened in 2003 and 2005 — those happen to be the last two Illini Big Ten Tournament titles.
Prediction: Illinois 71, Northwestern 63