It’s one of the biggest rivalries in Chicago sports… The Northwestern Wildcats (10-6 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) and the Illinois Fighting Illini (11-6, 1-3) will do battle on the hardwood for the first time this season on Wednesday night.
In recent years this rivalry has been one-sided, usually in favor of the Illini. But this time, things are more evenly matched. Aside from their win-loss records being almost identical, both teams are enduring losing streaks.
Illinois has lost three of their last four while the Cats’ have lost two straight. The Illini have been going through the motions offensively after losing their star player, senior guard Rayvonte Rice, to injury. NU on other hand has been struggling to find an offensive identity as a team.
Both teams are shooting just a little over 400-percent from the field, and they’re both allowing just over 60 points per game defensively. NU coach Chris Collins is dealing with the growing pains of developing five freshman who will eventually lead the program.
U of I coach John Groce is molding a team that’s experienced but inconsistent. Both teams starting centers -Northwestern’s Alex Olah and Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu– are physically imposing on paper, but don’t always impose their will when needed.
One of the more interesting match ups in this game will be between the two young forwards, Wildcats freshman Vic Law and Fighting Illini sophomore Malcolm Hill. Hill is Illinois’ leading scorer (13.9 points per game) with the absence of Rice.
Law is only averaging 6.8 points per game, but he’s improved his defense over the course of the season, and at 6-7 he’ll give Hill problems in the post. The strength of both teams is their guards. Northwestern’s Tre Demps (12.4 PPG) and Bryant McIntosh (12.2) are the Cats’ leading scorers.
Illinois has always leaned heavily on their backcourt, especially when Rice and Tracy Abrams are healthy. But with both players out, it’s now up to Kendrick Nunn, Ahmad Starks, and Aaron Cosby to shoulder the load.
Both teams are fighting for relevance, respect, and a postseason tournament berth. This nationally televised contest could set the tone for both programs for the remainder of the season. Here is how this game will be decided……
Both teams need to come out firing on all cylinders right out of the gate. They’ll need to be consistent on offense and stingy on defense. Northwestern needs another solid effort from Demps and McIntosch, a big game from Olah, double figures and a solid defensive effort from Law, and production from the bench.
Illinois needs someone other than Hill to provide scoring, a dominant effort from Egwu, another strong performance from Hill, and they must contain Northwestern’s guards. Both teams split this series last year, but this year that won’t be good enough if both teams want to play in March.
They may be similar now, but they’ll need to separate from one another in order to have success in the long run. Follow me on Twitter @GabeSalgado82