David Banks, USA Today Sports

PREVIEW: Illinois at Northwestern

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' road matchup at Northwestern on Tuesday.

Illinois (13-11, 3-8) at

Northwestern (18-5, 7-3)

Date & Time: Feb. 7, 7 p.m. CT

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois has lost three in a row and six of their last seven in Big Ten play.
  • Malcolm Hill is four points away from passing Mark Smith (No. 9) and Brandon Paul (No. 8) on the all-time scoring list.
  • The Illini are 0-5 on the road this season, and they've lost nine straight dating back to last season.
  • Illinois is 11-30 in Big Ten road games during John Groce's tenure.
  • The Illini are 132-40 all-time against Northwestern, and 61-26 in Evanston.
  • Northwestern is 6-5 against Illinois since 2010.
  • At 18-5, the Wildcats are off to their best 23-game start in school history.
  • Northwestern has won 30 of their last 35 home games, including a 12-1 mark this season.
  • The Wildcats lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense at 38.7 percent.
  • Northwestern will be without their leading scorer Scottie Lindsey (15.4 ppg) for the second straight game.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had three points, four assists and no turnovers on Saturday against Minnesota. He was just 1-of-5 from the field in his 27 minutes on the floor. He's shot just 19 percent (4-of-21) in his four consecutive starts.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands went 0-of-10 from the field and 0-of-8 from three in a scoreless outing on Saturday. That was the first time all season he has failed to score a bucket. He's averaging less than 6 points per game over the last six games.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill had 13 points, six assists and four rebounds in 31 minutes against the Gophers. But he was 0-of-7 from three, and just 5-of-18 from the field overall. Hill made some costly errors late in the game, as he was trying to do too much.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black had four points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes on Saturday. That was his best effort on the glass since reeling in 15 boards on New Year's Day against Ohio State. But his lack of consistent offensive production has hurt a team in need of just that.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan finished with his first double-double of Big Ten play on Saturday with 12 points and 11 rebounds. He also had three dunks, which is a rarity on this Illini team. Morgan has scored in double figures in nine of the last 10 games.

Bench

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols provided one heck of a spark off the bench against Minnesota by scoring 13 points and hitting all five of his shot attempts in his 12 minutes in the first half. But oddly, he was the fourth man off the bench in the second half -- but still scored a career-high 16 points.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke hit a pair of shots for four points in his 15 minutes of action on Saturday. He had just one rebound during his time on the court, though. Finke is shooting 54.2 percent from the field in Big Ten play, but he's scored more than six just three times in 11 conference games.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had two points and an assist in 12 minutes against the Gophers. He's played double-digit minutes in five straight games. He is a liability offensively, but Illinois' lack of productive depth at the position puts him on the court.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne hit both of his shot attempts for five points in 10 minutes on Saturday. But he had three fouls and a pair of turnovers. He played five minutes in each half. The big man is a shell of his pre-injury self from last season.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams played a season-low three minutes against Minnesota, as he missed a three and picked up a foul. He played just one minute in the second half. Abrams is shooting 23.8 percent in Big Ten play, while picking up more fouls than assists.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan played three minutes in the first half on Saturday, but he didn't register any stats. He played three minutes in the previous game against Wisconsin as well. He's made one shot since the start of December.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams sat out his fourth straight game on Saturday. He's played three minutes combined in the last eight games, and he didn't leave the bench in seven of those. Remember when he was a top-50 get in the 2015 class?

Northwestern Starters

Bryant McIntosh (JR): Despite being an unranked, three-star prospect out of high school, McIntosh has been an enviable point guard from Illinois' perspective. He leads the Big Ten with 5.6 assists per game this season. He's a very capable scorer as well. McIntosh has scored at least 20 points in three of the last five games.

Isiah Brown (FR): Brown scored 11 points in the first start of his career at Purdue last Wednesday in Lindsey's absence. He had to play 34 minutes due to a lack of backcourt depth. Brown is shooting 34.4 percent from the field in Big Ten play.

Vic Law (R-SO): After missing all of last season, Law has been a huge part of the Wildcats' success this year. He is second on the team with 13.5 points per game, while also contributing six boards per contest. He has gone cold recently, though, as he's made just two of his last 19 shots in games against Purdue and Indiana.

Sanjay Lumpkin (R-SR): Lumpkin is the definition of a solid role player. He is averaging seven points and 6.6 rebounds per game on the season. He plays with a high motor, he defends, he attacks the backboard and he's capable of knocking down the perimeter jumper. He has been consistently good for the Wildcats recently.

Dererk Pardon (SO): Pardon missed eight games with a hand injury earlier this season, but he has been plenty productive in his return. He is third in the Big Ten with 9.1 rebounds per game in conference play, and he's also second in blocked shots. He had 19 points and 22 rebounds against Nebraska late last month. He also had a game against Rutgers with eight points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Narrow focus. Groce talked on Monday about how he wants his team to forget about the past and not focus on the future. Just play in the moment. This Illini team has to be discouraged. They have to hear all the outside noise about the disappointment of this season, almost certainty that they won't be dancing and that their coach is probably on his way out. But with all of that right at the surface, can they lock in against a top-five Big Ten team on the road? Groce said that Monday was one of the best practices his team has had all season. The Illini will need to carry that over and play with controlled emotion. How much fight does this beaten-down team have left?

2. Be within striking distance at halftime. Illinois has played five games on the road in the Big Ten. Each time, they've been down by double digits heading into the locker room at half. During their last road trip, the Illini found themselves down 45-25 at Penn State after the first 20 minutes. Indiana was up 15-0 in Bloomington before Illinois could blink earlier this season. The road woes have been ugly, and Groce's team has seemed dead by half in most of them. Northwestern was up 12 at half against Indiana in their last home game, and they didn't look back from there. Illinois can't afford that if they want a shot down the stretch.

3. Find some offensive confidence. The Illini shot 32.8 percent combined in their two losses last week against Wisconsin and Minnesota. They scored 43 points and 59 points respectively in those games. They also shot 9-of-43 (20.9 percent) from three last week. Granted, those were the top two teams in the conference in defensive efficiency. But it doesn't get significantly easier on Tuesday. Northwestern is fourth in the conference in defensive efficiency, and they are eighth in the country in effective field goal percentage defense. They're also seventh nationally in shot-blocking percentage, and second in the conference in three-point field goal defense. Illinois had some open looks from the outside last week, especially against Wisconsin. But they couldn't knock them down. The Illini need to move the ball and see some shots go down. Illinois will surely try to get Morgan going, but until guys hit shots consistently on the outside, expect teams to continue to trap the post. It's important that Groce puts his best lineups on the floor as well. We'll see if 'looking at it' changes anything in terms of his substitution patterns.

Prediction

The composite spread in Vegas lists the Wildcats as a 5.5-point favorite against the Illini, who have been easy money on the road. Lindsey's absence is a break that Illinois can use. But that doesn't take away the fact that Northwestern is still simply a better team with plenty of confidence. Despite having individuals with offensive talent, Illinois will probably struggle against another strong defensive team. And they should find themselves at 12-12 on the season against D-1 teams at the conclusion of Tuesday night.

Northwestern 72, Illinois 58


Illini Inquirer Top Stories