The Fighting Illini men's basketball team will have yet another challenge today when it faces its cross-town rival, the Northwestern Wildcats. Last year on January 14, 2004 the Illini went to Welsh-Ryan Arena and lost 70 to 60 to the home team. That game had Illini fans nationwide questioning Weber's coaching abilities and whether he was the right man to lead the Illini. These days things sure have changed. Not only are the Illini faithful on the Weber bandwagon, but now some are saying he's one of the best X's and O's teachers in the college game today.
Northwestern lost the last time out to the Michigan Wolverines 71-61. The Wildcats were led by Vedran Vukusic who scored 22 points for the Wildcats (8-7, 1-2). T.J. Parker tied his season high with 18 points and Mike Thompson added 12 for Northwestern, which has dropped two straight after winning seven of eight. Thompson has been a nice addition to Northwestern. According to Michigan St. Head Coach Tom Izzo, Thompson (an Illinois native) has been a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats this year.
Northwestern likes to slow things down and try and make other teams play their style of ball. The Illini rank fourth in the Big Ten in team defense, allowing teams to shoot just 41% from the field. The Illini are only behind Michigan, Indiana and Ohio St. Today their defense will be tested; however, if you remember the game back in December when the Illini played Georgetown, the Hoyas ran a similar offense and the Illni beat them 74 to 59. "One of the reasons we put Georgetown on our schedule this year is to prepare us for the Northwestern game during the Big Ten stretch," said Head Coach Bruce Weber.
Today the Illini will be led by senior guard Luther Head. Head is averaging 15.8 ppg, 45% from the three-point line and 83% from the charity stripe. Head is also turning heads nationally. He's becoming the team's marked man and just recently Jay Bilas of ESPN said Head is a first team All-American right now. Head is coming off beating Penn St. 90-64 in Assembly Hall Wednesday night with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
My prediction on today's game: Illinois 72 - Northwestern 61.