The Illini head to Evanston (which is not Chicago) for an 8 p.m. matchup with Northwestern on Thursday night. The Wildcats sit at 6-3 (3-2) with wins over No. 23 Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State to start out their conference slate. However, life on the road hasn’t been kind to Chris Collins’s squad losing by 5 to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City and by 19 to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. The polls generally like the Wildcats, with them sitting at No. 19 before their two losses and receiving votes after, but the advance stats aren’t too kind. Kenpom has them as the 56th best team in the nation.
For some reason, I want to view this as a boxing match or MMA fight, but instead of scoring by round, I’ll score by positional matchup. I’m by no means a huge boxing/MMA expert, but for some reason I’ve gotta do it. If you don’t like it, yell at me on Twitter. If you do, also yell at me on Twitter. If you’re indifferent, also yell at me at Twitter. I’m bored, give me something to do. It’s difficult to say who on Illinois matches up with their Northwestern counterpart because Underwood rotates players all over the place, but you can yell at me about that too.
Point Guard – Boo Buie: 11.9 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.9 RPG – Born Daniel Richard Buie, Boo is a solid point guard who has a wide range of performances this year. For instance, he poured in 30 points against Michigan State, but against its big brother in Ann Arbor, he went scoreless, and against Iowa, he was held to 2 points. Otherwise, he hovered around 10 PPG in the other games and has been pretty consistent assist-wise. Is he better than Trent and Belo? Maybe. The issue is that Trent and Belo are extremely different guards, and Buie is a slightly larger, slightly slower happy medium. I might be overcompensating for my orange-tinted glasses, but I’ll score this 10-9 Northwestern.
Shooting Guard – Chase Audige: 12.6 PPG, 1.8 APG, 3.9 RPG – The William and Mary transfer is currently the second-leading scorer on the squad. He’s an extremely athletic and rangy guard who hit dagger after dagger to finish off Northwestern’s win at Indiana. However, the amount of shots he uses to create those points is concerning. He does only shoot 38% from the floor and 62% from the line, which is very comparable to Adam Miller’s numbers so far. Considering Adam plays at the 3 more often, I’m factoring Ayo and Trent into this a bit as well. I’m giving the Illini a 10-9 win here.
Small Forward – Miller Kopp: 14.4 PPG, 1.7 APG, 2.7 RPG – The man with the second-best spoonerism on the team has easily the best stroke. He’s shooting an eye-popping 54% from downtown. From the game in Champaign last year, I remember he had a knack of hitting tough shots that juuuuust kept Northwestern within reach. He’s likely going to be Da’Monte’s assignment, and an Illini win likely hinges on how well DMW can keep him locked down. He’s going up against mainly Ayo here with a bit of DMW and Adam mixed in. I’ll give this one a slight edge just based on Ayo being an All-American while Killer Mopp is only All-Big Ten. 10-9 Illinois.
Power Forward – Pete Nance: 11.7 PPG, 1.7 APG, 6.1 RPG – Pete is a long, lanky, athletic forward who can stroke it from the outside at time. Sound familiar? Yep, that’s almost an exact description for Coleman Hawkins. If necessary, Giorgi could suffice in a pinch. Nance is an extreme mismatch for most teams, but the Illini have something that could work to slow him down, at least on paper. It’s not going to be enough to sway me away from giving Nete Pance, the best spoonerism on Northwestern, the advantage. 10-9 Northwestern.
Center – Ryan Young: 9.0 PPG, 1.4 APG, 6.2 RPG – I’ll start with the kind words first: Ryan Young’s post moves are very well developed. He is a big enough body to possibly make Kofi a little uncomfortable in the post. Now, a little less kind: Kofi should absolutely destroy him in the post. Young isn’t big enough to affect Kofi’s new and improved hook shot, and Kofi is leaps and bounds more athletic than Young. Again, I say Kofi “should” win this matchup just to cover my tracks a bit, but not enough for me to score this 10-8 Illinois.
So that all comes down to a 48-46 Illinois win based on personnel. Beyond that, this comes down to three main questions: 1. Can the Illini win in the backcourt, which probably will require stopping Kopp? 2. Can they find a way to neutralize Nance? 3. Can they exploit Kofi’s massive advantage in the post? If those can be answered with somewhat affirmative answers, an Illini win seems inevitable.