Illinois guard Brandon Paul (#3) drives on Northwestern big man Luka Mirkovic (#12) during the Illini's overtime victory against the Cats to start Big Ten play last season.

Fighting the Fighting Illini: Previewing Bill Carmody's Northwestern Wildcats

After moving to 2-0 in Big Ten play with victories against Iowa and Wisconsin, and regaining some lost ground in the top 25, the Illinois men’s basketball team prepares to host instate, conference rival Northwestern tomorrow night. The game tips off at 8:00 p.m. CT and will be aired on ESPN2.

Here is a look at coach Bill Carmody’s 9-3 Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern Wildcats Season at Glance

Northwestern is 0-2 in Big Ten play, but that statistic is misleading.

Northwestern’s first two games were against two of the top teams in the conference, and the Wildcats were in both contests.

Against #11 Purdue in West Lafayette on New Year’s Eve, the Wildcats battled the Boilermakers until the very end and were only down 6 with under five minutes remaining before E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Ryne Smith proved too much and pulled away for a double-digit victory.

On Monday night, the Wildcats hosted the # 19 Michigan State Spartans, with this game going down to the wire.

Northwestern made a jumper to pull within one with under 15 seconds remaining. After Michigan State made two free throws, Northwestern missed a last-second three, allowing the Spartans to escape with a three-point victory.

The Wildcats were 9-1 in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but that record is also misleading. The Wildcats did not play a single team from the top 25 prior to Big Ten play, and their only matchup of any significance was against St. Johns, a game which they lost 85-69.

Record: 9-3 (0-2 in the Big Ten)

Combined Record of Teams Northwestern Has Beaten: 57-73

Combined Record of Teams Northwestern Has Lost to: 34-8

Best Win: None. Northwestern has not beaten any teams of real quality, and the average record of the teams they have beaten is sub-.500.

Other Impressive Wins: Georgia Tech (11/30/2010) Not that the Yellow Jackets are a great team, they are 7-6 having yet to play a single ACC game, but NU’s win did help the Big Ten take the Big Ten/ACC challenge for the second straight year.

Game the Wildcats Would Like to Have Back: Michigan State (1/3/2011)

Down by three with a chance to tie the game and go into overtime, the Wildcats threw up two bad shots that were not close and allowed Michigan State to escape. The Wildcats are still the only team from a BCS school to never make it to the NCAA tournament, and while this year’s team has the talent to change that, Northwestern will need to beat quality teams if it wants to hear its name come March.

Northwestern Players Familiar to Illini Fans: Northwestern returns most of its lineup from last season, with the Wildcats led by outstanding junior forward John Shurna (6-8/215). Averaging a team-high 21.2 points per game, Shurna has been hobbled by a sprained ankle in Big Ten play and has not looked the same, scoring 11 points in both losses to Purdue and Michigan State. A credit to Northwestern’s resiliency, the Wildcats have played tough in its first two Big Ten games even with Shurna limited. The heart and soul of the Wildcats, senior point guard Juice Thompson (5-10/190) is second in scoring (14.8 ppg) and first in minutes (35.8 minutes per game), assists (4.5 apg) and steals (1.8) on the team. Without doubt the most athletic guard on Northwestern, sophomore Drew Crawford (6-5/205) has picked up where he left off after his outstanding freshman season, scoring 14.6 points per game. While his game isn’t much to look at, junior center Luka Mirkovic (6-11/248) provides a physical presence that bothered Illinois center Mike Tisdale during last season’s game i Evanston. Other returning players who are part of Northwestern’s rotation include junior forward David Curletti (6-9/238), sophomore/southpaw three-point threat Alex Marcotullio (6-3/180), rugged senior Mike Capocci (6-6/195) and fifth-year senior Jeff Ryan (6-6/205), who sat out last year with a knee injury.

Key Freshman: JerShon Cobb (6-5/180) is averaging 6.5 points per game in 21.6 minutes for the Wildcats.

Recognizable Departures: With gritty senior Jeremy Nash having graduated but Kevin Coble returning, the Wildcats were expected to be even better this season than the last two campaigns, when Northwestern was a couple of wins away from the NCAA Tournament. However, Coble left the team in July due to a disagreement with head coach Bill Carmody about the rehabilitation of his foot. After leading NU in scoring at 15.5 points per game during the 2008-2009 season and then missing last season with a foot injury, the senior Coble figured to be the shot in the arm that the Wildcats needed to make the NCAA Tournament. With Shurna hobbled, NU certainly could have used Coble right now. Northwestern also lost junior center Evan Rawley, who transferred in the offseason. While raw, the rotund Rawley actually pushed Tisdale around quite a bit during NU’s victory against the Illini last season.

Recapping Northwestern vs. Illinois Last Season: Northwestern played the Illini very tough in the 2009-2010 season. The teams split the series, with each squad winning at home.

Bombing away from three-point land, the Wildcats had the lead for much of the game in Champaign thanks to a poor shooting night by the Illini, but Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis put the team on their backs as the Illini won 89-83 in overtime. Review the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

In Evanston, Illinois led for almost the entire game but fell flat in the final minutes as Northwestern stormed back for the 73-68 victory. That loss (along with a home loss to Minnesota) likely cost Illinois a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Then Illini juniors Tisdale, Davis and Demetri McCamey all had bad games during the loss in Evanston. Review the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

Tomorrow’s Prediction: Illinois 80, Northwestern 70

With the two Mike’s getting back into a rhythm and Shurna struggling physically, Illinois stands a much better chance in this one.

Tisdale has to be careful to avoid foul trouble, and Davis needs to crash the boards, but Illinois should have no trouble in the post.

What the Illini need to do is guard the three.

Last season, Northwestern set an Assembly Hall record for most three points attempted and most three points made by an opponent in their overtime loss, and the Wildcats are once again a deadly threat from deep.

However, Illinois is clearly the better team, and the Illini should take care of things at home.

What I Would Like to See from the Illini on Thursday Night

1. Run at the three-point line. Illinois struggled defending the three during last season’s conference home opening win against NU and even in Sunday’s victory against Wisconsin. While the Badgers were atrocious from three, NU will hit open shots if the Illini don’t recover or rotate quick enough.

2. A bounce back from the seniors. In Evanston last year, Tisdale, Davis and McCamey were brutal. Tisdale got pushed around by Rawley and outhustled by Mirkovic, Davis was a no-show, and McCamey was very sloppy. Illinois needs its seniors to be much better and ultimately set the tone early on Thursday night.

3. Go inside early and often. Tisdale needs to set up in the post, as opposed on the perimeter, as another big game could be in store. Tisdale will also need to be much tougher than he was during the second meeting against NU last year. McCamey would be well-served to penetrate the lane (like the Wisconsin game) as often as possible, and Davis should be ready to hit his mid-range jumper.

4. Outhustle the Wildcats. Illinois is the more talented team on paper, but NU is scrappy. If Illinois doesn’t come out ready to play and get on the floor, NU could hang around and pull off an upset. Illinois will need to maintain the focus and intensity it showed for 40 minutes against Wisconsin.

5. Cut off NU penetration. D.J. Richardson will need to contain Thompson, who is crafty at getting into the lane and kicking out to open teammates at the three-point line.

Alright.

Writing Illini will not be doing a live blog of tomorrow night’s game to prior obligations but will provide a recap shortly afterward.

Until then.

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Tags: Bill Cole Brandon Paul Bruce Weber Crandall Head D.J. Richardson Demetri McCamey Illini Illini Basketball Illinois Illinois Basketball Illinois Fighting Illini Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball Jereme Richmond Joseph Bertrand Meyers Leonard Mike Davis Mike Tisdale Northwestern Northwestern Basketball Northwestern Wildcats Tyler Griffey University Of Illinois

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