USA Today // Mike Granse

Pregame blog: Illinois at Northwestern

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper is getting you set for Illinois' rivalry road game at Northwestern on Saturday night.

5 minutes until tipoff

Here are tonight's starters...

On the other side...

Bryant McIntosh

Tre Demps

Sanjay Lumpkin

Aaron Falzon

Alex Olah

Olah against Morgan will be an interesting matchup. Morgan had the best game of his sophomore year against Northwestern with 10 points and eight rebounds last February. Olah had 14-and-12 and 18-and-5 in his two games against the Illini last season. And that was against Nnanna Egwu.

15 minutes until tipoff

Some good stats from our guy, Jeremy Werner.

Let's talk about some injuries. Feels like those haven't been discussed enough this year (insert necessary emoji). Injuries are certainly an excuse for this Illini program and why they have not played up to certain standards this season. But Northwestern has gone through their fair share of injuries as well.

For starters, Wildcats sophomore guard Vic Law has not played in a game this season after undergoing shoulder surgery in November for a torn labrum. Like Illini forward Leron Black, Law had a promising freshman campaign and he was primed to be a significant contributor this year. Northwestern big man Alex Olah also missed significant time with a foot injury. He was held out of the first five Big Ten games, and the Wildcats elected to burn the redshirt of freshman Dererk Pardon.

That didn't turn out so bad with Pardon, who posted 28 points and 12 rebounds in his first Big Ten game. Olah has started just two games in Big Ten play, but Pardon has gotten the start at center the last two games.

Of course, the Wildcats still don't compare to what the Illin have gone through. Illini big man Mike Thorne Jr. will join the street clothes crew for his sixth straight game.

35 minutes until tipoff

The Illini took advantage of the opportunity of being in Evanston last night, as head coach John Groce and assistant Paris Parham watched Evanston Township combo guard Nojel Eastern. The four-star guard had 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Seton Hall and DePaul were also there watching him. Eastern was recently ranked No. 55 in the 2017 class per the updated Scout rankings.

Illinois extended an offer to Eastern back in July 2014, as he and Jeremiah Tilmon picked up offers after the same July evaluation period. Northwestern has been chasing after Eastern as well. Marquette, Michigan State, Purdue and Xavier are among some of his other offers. He is going to have a big summer on the EYBL circuit with Meanstreets.

Back to this game, the Illini have the opportunity to win their third straight Big Ten road game. They haven't pulled that off since the end of the 2013-14 regular season. That year, Groce's team surged down the stretch with road wins at Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa. They finished with just seven conference wins, but Illini fans would take that finish in a heartbeat.

75 minutes until tipoff

Welcome to the latest edition of the Illini hoops pregame blog. Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper here at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.

Illinois (11-13, 3-8) is getting set to play their first game in six days - since losing 77-65 on Super Bowl Sunday against Iowa. Some time off was good for the Illini to refresh and recover. Kendrick Nunn (hip) and Michael Finke (knee) have both been dealing with contusions that they suffered against Wisconsin. Illinois head coach John Groce said on Friday that the goal this past week was to get his guys' minds and bodies right for this game.

At other times this season, Groce has resorted to intense practices to bring out the best in his team. But this week, he said they watched a lot of film and did quite a bit of non-contact drills and shooting on the court to stay fresh. The hope is that will result in an energized and inspired effort from an Orange and Blue squad that has been through a meat grinder this season.

On the other side, Northwestern (16-9, 4-8) comes into this game having lost six of their last seven games after a 15-3 start. Neither one of these teams has a win against squads not named Rutgers or Minnesota in more than four weeks. The Wildcats fell at Ohio State 71-63 on Tuesday.

This one will certainly be a battle, even though it might not be the prettiest one you can find. Oddsmakers have Northwestern as seven-point favorites tonight. But I'm got a different line of thinking. Check out my preview and prediction HERE.

More coming from Evanston.

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