Northwestern returns to the court on Saturday night (7:00 CT, WNUR) to take on in-state rivals Illinois. With a record of 16-9, Northwestern is squarely on the NIT bubble, meaning a loss to a team with the poor resume that Illinois has would hurt their case. This will be the only meeting of the two sides this year, which puts in-state bragging rights on the line at Welsh-Ryan.
Northwestern enters the game with just one win in their last seven games, a 82-58 win against cellar-dwelling Minnesota a week and a half ago. Northwestern’s losing stretch has included poor performances against the top-class of the conference. Thankfully for Northwestern, Illinois is most assuredly not one of the better teams in the Big Ten.
Northwestern will need to establish Bryant McIntosh early and often, as well as look to take advantage down low with a combination of Alex Olah and Dererk Pardon. Illinois’ strength is on the wings, giving Northwestern an opportunity to look down low to complement the play of McIntosh.
As always, shooting will be a key for Northwestern, especially given the fact that Illinois is one of the worst 3-point defenses in the country. Illinois allows opponents to shoot 37.9% from downtown, which is 314th in the country. If Northwestern can knock down shots, something they’ve struggled with at times this season, they can certainly have success.
On the defensive end, if Northwestern’s permitter defense is up to snuff, Illinois will struggle to score. The Fighting Illini feature three talented guards, but not much else on the offensive end. Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Jalen Coleman-Lands will give Northwestern trouble, as have other guards this year. Illinois will have success if they spread out the Northwestern defense, forcing the ‘Cats to shift their zone, which they had issues with against other teams with strong guard play.
While Northwestern may be out of the NCAA Tournament conversation barring a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, there is still lot to play for this season, with Chris Collins looking to finish his third season in charge on a high note. There is perhaps even more to play for for Northwestern’s younger players, who are looking to gain valuable experience down the stretch heading into what will be a big 2016-17 campaign.