Jan 8, 2014; Madison, WI, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Rayvonte Rice (right) looks to pass as Wisconsin Badges guard Josh Gasser (left) defends at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin defeated Illinois 95-70. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball: #23 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview and Live Thread

It’s gameday for the Illinois Fighting Illini. It’s time to wash the taste of Wednesday night’s first half out of our collective mouths, and quite frankly, there couldn’t be a better opponent than the Northwestern Wildcats. Chris Collins’ Wildcats are the only team in the Big Ten currently below .500 on the season (7-9), and Big Ten play has not been kind to them so far this season.

Northwestern has started the Big Ten portion of their schedule 0-3 with losses by 27, 23, and 26 points respectively. Only one of those losses came on their home court, but they have dropped 2 other games at home during the non-conference portion of their schedule (Illinois State and Depaul). So, they aren’t exactly protecting their home floor, especially from teams within the state of Illinois.

The Wildcats have 6 players who take a majority of their minutes, but nearly all of the Illini’s attention will be focused on one player in particular, Drew Crawford. The 6’5″, 215 pound, senior guard/forward is the focal point for everything the Wildcats try to accomplish on the court. Crawford leads Northwestern in minutes per game (33.9 mpg), scoring (15.7 ppg),and rebounding (6.9 rpg), and is second on the team in 3 point percentage (36.5%), and blocks per game (.9 bpg). He is currently on an 8 game run where he has not been held to single digits in scoring. In fact, he has only been held to single digits in scoring once in fifteen games. Rayvonte Rice, welcome to your defensive challenge for the day.

The other player I’d like to take a second to highlight for the Wildcats is 7’0″ sophomore Center Alex Olah. He blew up in the Wildcats first Big Ten game this season against who else but those Wisconsin Badgers. Olah finished the game with 23 points on 10-14 shooting with 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and 1 assist in 29 minutes. Why is this significant? Simple. He will be matched up with Nnanna Egwu when the Illini are in man defense today, and Egwu has not had a solid start to Big Ten play to say the least. Against Wisconsin, Egwu played 28 minutes, but finished with 4 points on 2-9 shooting and 10 rebounds. Keep an eye on Olah because he’s proven he can get the job done if given the chance.

Three Things I’d Like To See Tonight:

1. Start fast, play consistently, and finish strong – The headline really says it all. The Illini need to come out firing on all cylinders today and put the Wisconsin game behind them. I don’t want to see any long dry spells scoring the basketball against the lowly Wildcats. Go straight for the jugular, and don’t come up for air until the final buzzer sounds.

2. Find Joseph Bertrand more shots – Joe has reeled off 4 straight double digit scoring efforts, but he’s still not getting enough looks at the rim. He was 7-10 last game, finishing with 18 points and 9 rebounds. When a guy is hitting 70% of his shots it’s up to the rest of the team to recognize what’s happening and feed him. If Bertrand gets into the zone early today I’d really like to see Illinois run some offense specifically for him.

3. Impose their Identity – For whatever reason, Illinois decided to try and keep pace in the first half of the game with Wisconsin by launching threes early in the shot clock. That’s not who they are, and at this point they should know it. This team is best when it attacks. When they recommitted to attack mode Wednesday night they played Wisconsin to a 45-45 second half. Sure, threes will happen, but that’s not where this offense starts. It starts with high percentage looks from penetration and the threes will follow as defenders sag in to stop the attack. Take the opening tip, and jam it right down NU’s throats for the entire game. When the Wildcats leave the floor at Welsh-Ryan tonight they should know what Illinois basketball is all about.

The Skinny:

When: Sunday, Jan. 12th @ 6:30 pm CST

Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena – Evanston, IL

TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)

Announcers: Eric Collins (Play by Play) & Mike Kelley (Analyst)

Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have! I-L-L!

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.

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Tags: Illinois Fighting Illini Joseph Bertrand Nnanna Egwu Rayvonte Rice

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