Though just a few hours away from one another, Northwestern and Illinois enter Sunday’s “Land of Lincoln” rivalry game worlds apart.
The Fighting Illini (18-8, 5-7) have reversed a mid-season slump by ripping off three straight wins and an upset against No. 1 Indiana, while the Wildcats (13-12, 4-8) have lost eight of their last 11 games.
Although they've lost four in a row on the road, the ‘Cats should find comfort returning to Welsh-Ryan Arena with a familiar Illinois team, who they handled 68-54 back on Jan. 17.
After starting 12-0 and earning an AP ranking, Illinois lost six of seven games before stunning the top-ranked Hoosiers Feb. 7. Despite missing leading rebounder Jared Swopshire and starting center Alex Olah, Northwestern played No. 13 Ohio State down to the wire Thursday, leading with under seven minutes to play before falling 69-59. With only seven active scholarship players, the ‘Cats will need to do a lot to top Illinois a second time this Sunday.
In their first clash, a huge reason for Illinois’ lackluster offense was struggles from behind the arc. Shooting just three-of-20 from the three-point range, the Fighting Illini were held in check all night.
For the ‘Cats to continue applying pressure on Illinois throughout the game, they’ll have to limit the open looks along the perimeter. Fighting Illini senior guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson lead Illinois in scoring at 16.7 and 12.5 points per game, respectively. Nearly half of both players’ scoring is attributed to three-pointers.
The pressure to keep Paul and Richardson from making threes will fall largely on the shoulders of guards Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski. Paul and Richardson were held to combined three-of-13 shooting from three in their loss to the ‘Cats.
Avoid second-half slump
Northwestern has lost the second half by double digits in four of its last five losses, turning hotly-contested first halves into bitter disappointments. The Wildcats went to halftime tied with the Buckeyes Thursday before losing 39-29 in the second half.
Illinois, on the other hand, has won the second half in each of its past four games.
How a team starts is not nearly as demonstrative of its skill as how it finishes, and Northwestern will need to play a full 40 minutes of solid basketball to overcome Illinois. While the Wildcats faded against their ranked opponent Thursday, Illinois knocked off No. 1 Indiana and No. 18 Minnesota last week by playing a complete game.
Get Hearn hot early
In the first 10 minutes of the first matchup against Illinois, Reggie Hearn scored 10 points, giving Northwestern a commanding 21-12 lead at half. Throughout the season, Hearn has proved to be a fairly reliable first option, leading the team in scoring with 14.2 points per game while also shooting 48 percent from the field.
If Northwestern can reprise its stingy defense from last time, getting Hearn off to a hot start early is all the ‘Cats need to blow the game open early and avoid a second-half pitfall.
Having pulled off a double-digit road upset earlier in the year against a slumping Illinois team, conventional wisdom would be to pick the ‘Cats in an easy victory at home. Yet mid-February Illinois is not the cold-shooting mid-January Illinois that Northwestern handled last time. Expect the Fighting Illini to play with swagger following a dominating week of basketball, making round two with Illinois much looser. But barring a second-half meltdown and with Hearn scoring early, Northwestern will break out at home in a squeaker.
Northwestern 71, Illinois 68