PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Northwestern

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Tuesday's matchup between Illinois and Northwestern.

Illinois (15-12, 5-9) vs.

Northwestern (20-7, 9-5)

Date & Time: Feb. 21, 7 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois has won back-to-back road games after the win at Iowa on Saturday.
  • The Illini will look to win back-to-back Big Ten regular season games for the first time since 2015.
  • Illinois has lost three straight at home.
  • The Illini are 21-22 in Big Ten home games during John Groce's tenure.
  • Illinois defeated Northwestern 68-61 in Evanston earlier this month.
  • The Illini have swept Northwestern in the regular season once since 2010.
  • Illinois is 67-14 against the Wildcats in Champaign during the series.
  • Northwestern is coming off a 69-65 win at home against Rutgers.
  • The Wildcats are one win away from breaking the school record for a single season.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas finished with 12 points and two assists on Saturday at Iowa. He also had a career-high four turnovers. But the freshman makes plays. He had a huge block late. And he posted a +14 in the plus/minus, which was higher than anyone in the game.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands got off to a slow start on Saturday, but he finished strong by totaling nine points, four rebounds and two steals in the second half. His four made threes were the most he's hit in a game since mid-January.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill stepped up with a team-high 21 points and eight rebounds at Iowa. He also added four assists and two steals. Hill surpassed Eddie Johnson on the all-time scoring list to become seventh in program history. He is 18 points away from passing Demetri McCamey for sixth.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke has been one of Illinois' most consistent players of late, and he stepped up with a big game on Saturday. He made five of his eight shots for 12 points, and he also added five assists. Finke tied a season-high with 30 minutes of action, and he might deserve his first start since November.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan totaled six points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 34 minutes against Iowa. He didn't play particularly well for the bulk of the game, but he certainly upped his game late with clutch boards and timely denials at the defensive end.

Bench

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols gave the Illini two points and two boards off the bench on Saturday in 10 minutes of action. He was limited with four fouls, and he also had two turnovers. He had played 20-plus minutes in the four previous games, which included a nice nine-point spark off the bench at Northwestern.

Leron Black (R-SO): Stating the obvious, Black is not the same player that Illini fans saw consistently in the nonconference and even for stretches in January. He had two points and three rebounds in only eight minutes with four fouls on Saturday. He has had six rebounds combined in the last three games, and he has scored in double figures once in the last nine games. Might be time to do something different and bring him off the bench.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams hit one of his four three-point attempts at Iowa, and he also added an assist and a steal. He got the start, but he only played four minutes in the first half and 14 minutes overall. Abrams played 16 minutes off the bench against Northwestern the first time around.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate struggled during his time on the court on Saturday after sitting out the two previous games. He totaled two turnovers and two fouls, which were all he recorded in the stat book. Illinois was -10 during the seven minutes he was on the court.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan has not played since the opening minutes against Northwestern in the first matchup. He got the start and played four minutes, but he has not seen the floor since then.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has not played in each of the last three games. His last action on the court was against Minnesota, when he scored five points with three fouls and two turnovers in 10 minutes.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams has gone seven straight games without recording a minute. He played three minutes at Michigan on Jan. 21. That's all that he has played through the last 11 games.

Northwestern Starters

Bryant McIntosh (JR): McIntosh had 18 points and six assists on Saturday against Rutgers. He is averaging 13.9 points and 5.9 assists per game on the season. His shooting percentages are down, as he is only shooting 27.4 percent from deep. But he can score it. He's totaled more than 20 points in six Big Ten games.

Scottie Lindsey (JR): Northwestern's leading scorer returned on Saturday after missing the previous four games with mono. As you might expect, Lindsey didn't look like his usual self for much of the game. He went 2-of-8 from the field and 1-of-6 from three for six points and four assists in 24 minutes. Prior to his absence, he had scored in double figures in all but one Big Ten game.

Vic Law (SO): Law posted 16 points and nine rebounds against the Illini in the first meeting, as he hit four treys. He had eight points, five rebounds and two steals on Saturday. Law is a versatile contributor ranking second on his team in points, rebounds and assists during Big Ten play, and also first in steals.

Sanjay Lumpkin (SR): Lumpkin was scoreless with three rebounds in 30 minutes against Illinois the first time around. The 6-foot-7 forward has been inconsistent with his offensive production. He had 15 points in a win against Indiana late last month. But he also went scoreless the last time out against Rutgers.

Dererk Pardon (SO): Pardon has scored in double figures in each of the last three games. He has gone 15-of-20 from the field during that stretch. He finished with 12 points and eight boards against Rutgers on Saturday. Pardon is fifth in the conference with 8.4 rebounds per game during Big Ten play.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Replicate the fight. Illinois' performance at Iowa on Saturday was anything but pretty. That being said, the Illini battled with a level of energy and toughness that enabled them to have a shot to win at the end. They did the same at Northwestern earlier this month. And Illinois will need to bring it again on Tuesday night. Groce said he could see a look in his team's eyes following the win at Iowa. Lucas said that look shows that this team has a lot of fight left, despite what some may say about this season on the outside. Illinois did not have that type of effort and bite the last time they played at home against Penn State. And as a whole, they have been inconsistent with performances from one game to the next. But if they come ready to battle -- which leads to successes at the defensive end and in the category of hustle plays -- they should make this a game.

2. The right combos. The Illini got the most out of Lucas, Coleman-Lands, Hill, Finke and Morgan down the stretch at Iowa. That unit was +8 in the final five minutes and 12 seconds, as they managed to produce during key spots at both ends of the floor. Lucas has played 33 minutes in three straight games. That should continue. Finke played 30 minutes on Saturday. He needs to be on the floor. And playing those two specific players together helps each one. Finke spaces the floor and opens up lanes for Lucas to drive. And Lucas' ability to penetrate collapses the defense and allows kick-outs for open shots. Finke is knocking down open looks as good as anyone recently. Groce needs more of that. And he needs less of the combos that hurt his team. Namely, Abrams and Tate on the court together. That shouldn't happen, and yet, here we are in February. And Tate in general does not justify playing time without Lucas in foul trouble.

3. Close. This game should go down to the wire, as it did in Evanston. Illinois has been able to win back-to-back road games because they closed down the stretch. Winning teams are able to do that consistently. That has been a weakness of this team in the past. But maybe it's not too late for an old dog to learn new tricks. The Illini finished out the first meeting against Northwestern on a 7-0 run. The Wildcats didn't make a basket in the final 3:31 of the game. Illinois' defense executed in big moments by putting pressure on the ball, rotating soundly and forcing some turnovers. When the intensity ratchets on Tuesday and the game is on the line, can the Illini do the same things?

Prediction

Northwestern has never won 21 games in a season. That could change on Tuesday. Illinois hasn't won back-to-back Big Ten regular season games in what feels like an eternity. That could also change. This Illinois team has said the right things. They still believe. They want to fight. We'll see if it holds true. Numbers say Northwestern should win this game. They're a better team. Illinois can't win two in a row. They've also lost three straight at home. Vegas has the Wildcats as a 1.5-point favorite. But Lindsey being sub-100 percent helps the Illini. And Illinois did well on McIntosh the last time by forcing him to take 20 shots to get his 21 points.

This team has been frustrating this season. Frustratingly inconsistent. Frustratingly noncompetitive in some games. And with a good portion of fans just wanting a clear eval on what will happen next for this program, don't be surprised if this team adds a little more frustration by being predictably unpredictable.

Illinois 68, Northwestern 64


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