The Northwestern Wildcats came into Champaign Saturday night red-hot off four straight Big Ten victories, a feat that they had not accomplished in almost forty years. Though the Wildcats certainly had the ability to make a run against the slumping Illini, who had lost three straight prior, they were shut out the entire game. Northwestern's late season run came to an end, and the Illini solidified a much needed win that will certainly propel them closer to an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Fighting Illini came right out of the gates with lights out shooting. Within the first three minutes of play, Illinois had hit 4 threes to take a 12-2 lead, forcing the Wildcats to call a quick timeout. Though Northwestern went on a 7-0 run after that timeout, the Illini never looked back and hit nine first half three pointers to take a 22 point lead at halftime.
The second half was back and forth, but the Illini maintained their commanding lead and responded every time it looked as if Northwestern would go on a run. Illinois kept shooting and connecting, and they were able to put the Wildcats down with an 86-60 victory. Leading the way for the Illini was Rayvonte Rice with 19 points. At one point in the game, he scored 3 straight three pointers for Illinois in order to further extend their lead. Northwestern was led by Alex Olah with 18 points, and they got a nice contribution from freshman Bryant McIntosh with 13.
What We Learned
Illinois Needs Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill To Play Well
As crucial as the play of Rayvonte Rice is to this Illini team, the secret recipe to an Illini victory seems to be good games from Hill and Nunn. During Rayvonte Rice's mid-season injury and suspension, the Illini went 6-3 and relied heavily on the two sophomores to score huge victories. Some of these victories included games against Purdue, Maryland, and Michigan State. Every win that the Illini recorded featured a solid game from one of the two. Kendrick Nunn had a career-high 25 points in Illinois' first game against Northwestern, and Hill dropped 28, 27, and 19 points in games against Maryland, Penn State, and Michigan State,
In Illinois' most recent loss to Iowa, Rayvonte Rice had a stellar performance with 19 points off the bench, but the Fighting Illini weren't able to fight their way to a victory, as neither Kendrick Nunn nor Malcolm Hill played well. The two combined to go 4 of 21 from the field with 9 total points. In the win against Northwestern, both Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn came to play, as they scored 15 and 14 respectively for the Illini. Both bring efficiency and energy to their team when playing well, and the Illini need them to show up if they want to win games.
Northwestern's Zone Defense can be Dismantled by Good Shooting
As we've seen during their recent winning streak, the Northwestern Wildcats rely heavily on zone defense to stop their opponents, and it was no different in their game against the Illini. Unfortunately, the problem with zone defense is that it often leads to open looks for good shooters, and it was only a matter of time until a team lit them up from three point range. The Illini were two short of a school record with 14 three pointers on the night. Credit should be given to Chris Collins though, as he was determined to stick to his defensive game plan with zone pressure.
We saw flashes of this weakness in the defensive game plan in Northwestern's win over Indiana, as the Hoosiers were able to knock down 12 shots from behind the perimeter. As the defensive strategy has certainly given the Wildcats a boost recently, it is difficult to stick with the whole entire game, especially if the opposition is lighting you up from long range. Although Northwestern has found a high-degree success in its recent defensive adjustment, it may be best for them to experiment with varying defensive strategies.
Illinois is a Tournament Team when the Shots are Falling
It's been a roller coaster type season for the Illini. Dealing with injuries, suspensions, and a player who recently left the program, Illinois has been able to string together an impressive resume that has them on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. This Illini team is very similar to the Indiana Hoosiers in the way that both love to shoot the ball, more specifically from three point range. Illinois is tied for second in the Big Ten with 20 three point attempts per game. This statistic isn't necessarily bad, as long as the shots are falling. The part that can be difficult is seeing the shots rim out time after time. Illinois has proved itself when it can shoot the ball, but when the three pointer isn't going down, this team can run into some trouble.
As Northwestern's hopes of going to its first NCAA Tournament is down to winning the Big Ten Tournament, it will regardless be very interesting to see how this team responds, given its recent success. Chris Collins has his team moving in the right direction, and though they are a Big Ten bottom dweller for now, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Wildcats at the top of the conference in a matter of a few seasons.
Illinois' victory inches this team a little bit closer to the NCAA Tournament. The Illini find themselves just outside the Tournament in Joe Lunardi's "Last Four Out." The way that they close the season and preform in the Big Ten Tournament will be crucial to whether or not they'll receive a bid to go dancing.