February 5th, 2011, 12:00 CT.
Welsh-Ryan Arena, CBS Broadcast
Riding a tough three-game losing streak, Northwestern faces yet another challenge, when they face rival Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The Wildcats have dropped their last three games, all against top-25 opponents. Their most recent loss came at the hands of #1 Ohio State. But following their one-point loss to the Buckeyes, the Wildcats have a week of practice under their belt, and should be ready for the Illini.
Less than 24 hours before gametime, Northwestern received a big break. Northwestern doctors confirmed that junior forward John Shurna has passed his concussion test, and is cleared to play in Saturday's game. Shurna missed the second game of his career against Ohio State, from a concussion suffered in Northwestern's loss to Minnesota.
The Wildcats' leading scorer is expected to play on Saturday, giving Northwestern's offense a much-needed boost.
Illinois has had their own set of problems recently. Since their blowout win over Northwestern on January 6th, the Illini are 2-4. In addition to that, the Illini are 1-5 in their last six games away from Assembly Hall.
Saturday's game at Welsh-Ryan has been sold out for weeks in advance, and promises to be a tough challenge for the Illini. On the national spotlight (CBS) in front of a raucous crowd, can the Wildcats pull off an upset for a much-needed win?
Last time these two teams met, it was a game to forget for Wildcat fans. In their last meeting, everything went Illinois' way. The Illini set a school record for field goal percentage in a game, and beat the Wildcats 88-63.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE WILDCATS: Michael Thompson
In last Saturday's loss to the Buckeyes, Northwestern got a glimpse at how special of a player Michael ‘Juice' Thompson really is. The senior carried the ‘Cats to overcome a 12-point deficit against the top-ranked team in the nation.
With Shurna likely to be rusty against the Illini, Thompson is the key player for Northwestern. But Juice needs to be great on both sides of the court, to slow down Illinois guard Demetri McCamey.
The Wildcats need Juice to have one of his better scoring outputs of the season, to hang with the tough Illini. On the other end, the Illini go as Demetri McCamey goes. If Thompson can slow down McCamey, he will slow down the entire Illinois offensive unit.
KEY FOR THE ILLINI: The Mikes
In their first meeting, Illini center and forward Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis combined for 25 points their blowout win. The two Mikes outplayed Northwestern's big men, which was a huge part of their success in that game.
If the Illini are smart, they should again try to attack Mirkovic with Tisdale and Davis. Tisdale and Davis are both upperclassmen, and Bruce Weber knows how to get the ball in their hands. In Mikrovic's defense, he has vastly improved since that embarrassing loss.
Bruce Weber needs to count on his upperclassmen if his Illini hope to make a run to the tournament, and Tisdale and Davis are both key players. The Wildcats need to shut down these two potent weapons.
KEY TO A WILDCAT WIN: Tempo
In Saturday's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, Northwestern devised a perfect gameplan to nearly take down the top-ranked Buckeyes. Northwestern completely owned the time of possession in the game, and completely controlled the tempo of the game, holding the Buckeyes to a season-low 58 points.
The Wildcats were clearly shorthanded against the very talented Buckeyes, but were able to hang in that game till the bitter end.
Facing another talented opponent, Bill Carmody would be wise to roll out a similar gameplan, and slow down the tempo of the game against a fast-paced Illinois offense.
The way to do that is take care of the ball on offense, by taking the shot clock down to the final seconds. On defense, the Wildcats need to slow down Demetri McCamey, and give their best defensive effort of the season.
Northwestern came so close to beating Ohio State, but the Wildcats showed how tough they can be. With a perfectly-executed gameplan, and a little help from the returning John Shurna, the Wildcats can upset the the Fighting Illini.