In a rematch of a bizarre January conference game, two Big Ten squads trending in different directions in Illinois and Northwestern will meet on Tuesday.
TV schedule: Tuesday, February 16, 9:00 pm ET. BTN
Arena: State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois
In a late-night Big Ten showdown, the surging Illinois Fighting Illini will host the ailing Northwestern Wildcats in the second game between the two squads this season.
The Illini (14-5) enter the showdown having won five-straight, including stellar victories over Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin – but most recently having struggled in an overtime 77-72 win on the road over Nebraska. With no losses under their belt since January 16th, Illinois has climbed the ranks of the top-25, currently sitting at no. 5 – just behind fellow Big Ten schools Michigan and Ohio State.
In the Illini’s win over Nebraska, junior Ayo Dosunmu continued to cement himself as a legitimate National Player of the Year contender, pouring in a game-high 31 points (10-17 2PT, 2-6 3PT, 5-8 FT) to go with six assists and four steals. Sophomore big man Kofi Cockburn recorded another monster double-double, this time consisting of 21 points and 13 rebounds – while Trent Frazier and Adam Miller contributed double-digit performances with 10 apiece.
Northwestern (6-12), meanwhile, has spiraled since landing in the national polls back in December. After rallying for a 3-0 start in Big Ten play behind wins over Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State, the Wildcats have lost 11 straight games, with their most recent coming on Saturday in a 14-point loss at Rutgers, putting up a season-low in points in a 64-50 final.
Now sitting second from last in the Big Ten standings – just ahead of Nebraska – the Wildcats have struggled mightily to look like the Northwestern from December, and much of those woes ailed them in the loss to Rutgers. In an offensive struggle, Northwestern mustered just 0.77 points per possession – all the while recording shooting clips of 33.3% (2PT) and 31.6% (3PT). Anthony Gaines and Chase Audige were the lone double-digit scorers, registering 11 points apiece.
To put it bluntly, this game – and the stats leading up to it – weigh heavily in the Illini’s favor. Ranking fourth in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency, Illinois maintains the third-best 3P% (36.7%) and the best 2P% (54.5%). Northwestern is average offensively in both categories – but is abysmal on the defensive end, allowing teams to shoot 35.1% from long-range (11th) and 53.4% inside (13th).
Northwestern’s lone saving grace may be the fact that Illinois is actually worse in defending beyond the arc in Big Ten play, allowing teams to shoot 35.6% (13th) on long-range bombs. The Wildcats’ recent offensive woes, however, indicate otherwise – they have topped that average just once in their last five games, shooting 42.3% in a three-point loss at Penn State.
These two teams met earlier this season, on January 7th – in what was an absolutely bizarre showing by both squads. Coming off back-to-back losses to Iowa and Michigan, the Wildcats desperately needed a rebound – and looked to be in prime condition to do so, dominating Illinois in the first half and claiming a 43-28 lead heading into halftime.
However, the Illini hit the gas coming out of the locker room – and never let go – outscoring Northwestern, 53-13, in the second stanza to claim an 81-56 victory. Four Illini reached double-digits – the same four that scored double-figures against Nebraska – with Cockburn leading the way behind an 18-point, 12-rebound double-double. Northwestern, meanwhile, saw just Robbie Beran in the upper echelon, recording 11 points to go with five boards and four assists.
Barring a chaotic meltdown by Illinois, all signs point to the Illini coming away with their sixth-straight win – particularly as the Wildcats continue to struggle in rediscovering their identity.
Prediction: Illinois 78 – Northwestern 53