The Fighting Illini drive north on I-57 on Saturday to play the Northwestern Wildcats (9-8, 2-6). The Wildcats lost 72-70 at Michigan on Wednesday, while Illinois is coming off its worst offensive performance in a win since January 2020.
The Illini hold a commanding 139-43 all-time record against their in-state rivals, including a record of 64-28 in Evanston. Illinois has won the past six games in the series.
Despite its history, Northwestern isn’t a pushover. Both of its conference wins so far came on the road – one at Maryland and one at Michigan State.
The leader of this Northwestern team is senior Pete Nance, a 6-foot-10 forward from Akron. Nance is averaging 16.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG, and 2.9 APG on 44.0% three-point shooting and 51.8% from the floor.
Junior Boo Buie runs the point and typically guards the opposing point. He had 30 points in an upset at Michigan State last year and 12 in this year’s upset. He’s currently averaging 15 points and 5.5 assists per game. Chase Audige and Ty Berry add 11.5 and 7.6 points per game, respectively.
The Wildcats don’t play much zone and rely on a lot of ball screens. In the past, Northwestern has started three forwards and two guards to cover up a consistent height disadvantage. This year, they’ve primarily gone with two guards and three forwards, perhaps due to the departure of Miller Kopp. Kopp was second in scoring last year for Northwestern, but he transferred to Indiana in the offseason.
Robbie Beran, a 6-foot-9 forward rounds out the starters, but he’s been overshadowed lately by center Ryan Young, the Wildcats’ sixth man. Young is getting 10 points and 4.6 rebounds per game on only 18 minutes per game. In the win at Michigan State, Young got 18 points and 8 rebounds.
Why Has Northwestern Underperformed?
Northwestern has been in a lot of close games. In fact, they’ve only lost one game by more than eight points all season. They’ve also been surprisingly good in several categories. Per game, they’re second in the Big Ten in assists, fourth in points and steals, and sixth in rebounds and offensive rebounds. They’re also sixth in FT% and seventh in 3P%.
So, why have the Wildcats lost so many close games?
Likely, it’s because they don’t get calls.
Going into Michigan game, they were -67 compared to Big Ten opponents at the free throw line. Every opponent has taken and made more FTs than them. To this neutral observer, it seemed like the refs in the Michigan State game did everything they could to help the Spartans win.
What It Means for Illinois
The Illini will have to take Northwestern seriously. Nevertheless, Illinois is the better team and should be favored to win on the road with or without Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo. The revelation of Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk has been so important, especially in Kofi’s absence.
Even without Kofi, the Illini now have three players capable of playing various iterations of the “5” in Big Ten play. They can play defensive small ball with BBV at the stretch 4/5, or a more offensive lineup with Hawkins in that same role. And against the bigger centers in the conference, they can use Omar Payne either by himself or with Coleman Hawkins. Likely, the latter option won’t be necessary against Northwestern.