21 January 2010

Countdown to Illinois at Northwestern

Northwestern (13-5, 2-4 Big Ten) hosts Illinois (12-7, 4-2) on Saturday January 23 at 7:00PM Central. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network and radio coverage is on WYLL-AM and wgnradio.com.

Illinois leads the series 126-34. Last year the two teams met just once with the Illini winning the game at the Welsh in stunning come-from-behind fashion. The Illini currently hold a ten game winning streak over the Wildcats. Over the past three decades Northwestern has managed to beat the Illini just five times. In one notorious game during the Kevin O'Neill regime NU managed to score only 6 points in a half against the Illini.

The most recent Northwestern victory over the Illini came at the Welsh during the 2003-04 season when Jitim Young was still donning the purple and white. That game also occurred during Bruce Weber's first season with the Illini and sent Illini beat writers into a tizzy as they questioned whether Weber could hack it at the Big Ten level. It's odd how these same journalists suffered from a serious case of amnesia the very next season when the Illini nearly won it all behind the stellar play of Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head.

Some Wildcat fans like to point to last year's Illini game as the one that cost NU its first ever an NCAA bid. We're not so sure about that unless one also includes the second half meltdown loss to Purdue at the Welsh. In the Illini game NU led by 14 points with 5 minutes to go and 59-50 with just over two minutes left in the game. The Illini closed the game on a 10-0 run and won the game on a last second shot by Demetri McCamey. The Illini heroics overcame a dismal 2-12 effort from the charity stripe and spoiled Luka Mirkovic's impressive debut as a starter in which he recorded his first career double-double.

Earlier this season Illinois narrowly defeated NU down in Champaign. Northwestern held a large second half lead but once again surrendered the lead before a last ditch three pointer by Alex Marcotullio sent the game into OT. The story of the game, however, was NU's inability to stop Mike & Mike (Tisdale and Davis) down low.

Carmody Court can not stress enough how important this game is to Northwestern's NCAAs aspirations. Why? As we previously wrote, the Illini are a direct competitor for a NCAA bid. Don't take our word for it. According to the bracket project's bracket matrix NU is the fourth team out and the Illini the fifth.

A loss to the Illini would seriously damage NU's hopes for an NCAA berth as both teams appear destined for the bubble. Two losses to the Illini would make it impossible for the selection committee to pick Northwestern over the Illini since head-to-head is a primary consideration when deciding between bubble teams.

Northwestern could conceivably recover from a loss but this is highly unlikely since it would require NU to win one of the following games: at Minnesota, at Michigan State, at Wisconsin. Good luck with that. The other possible avenue would be a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, but that doesn't seem likely as we would expect NU to quickly wear down with its short bench.

Illinois also need to win this game because of its non-conference performance. The Illini lost five games in the non-conference including three bad losses to Utah, Bradley, and Georgia. The Illini partly balance those losses with a nice win at Clemson in which the Tigers inexplicably folded in the second half and a good home win over surprising Vanderbilt.

The Illini's Big Ten schedule is the yin to Northwestern's yang. The Illini have a easy first half to their schedule and then run the gauntlet during the second half. The difficult second half conference slate could be viewed an opportunity for the Illini to make amends for its non-conference blemishes. Still the Illini have to be nervously looking at what lays ahead and consider this game as a must win to give themselves some NCAA tourney wiggle room down the road.

What to expect? Northwestern needs to solve its interior defense problems to win this game and make the heralded Illini freshmen guards beat them. Luka Mirkovic has shown some promise of shoring up the interior since the game in Champaign, but his most recent game at Ohio State was forgettable to be kind. Which Luka will show up on Saturday? If Luka doesn't bring it then will Rowley or Curletti step up into the void? The answer to those questions will go a long way in deciding this game and NU's NCAAs hopes.