Five Thoughts: Northwestern-Illinois

On Northwestern's win and what it means moving forward.

— This is the kind of signal we have been hoping for from the Wildcats this year. They are going to be fighting to avoid double digit conferences losses all season, but having a win or two like this was always going to be one of the main indicators of whether season turned out as a success or a failure. Twitter was full of people claiming that Collins was out-coaching Illinois' John Groce, who is among the better coaches in the conference. Illinois entered the game 248th in the country in three-point shooting percentage, and the defensive game plan was clearly geared around forcing Illinois to beat the Wildcats from beyond the arc. The Illini were, of course, unable to do so, going just 4-19 from three and missing their first 12 attempts from deep. Credit goes to the interior defense for defending without fouling and creating an imposing enough presence in the lane that Illinois wasn't able to neutralize the defensive strategy. Holding a ranked opponent to 43 points, even at home, is nothing to sneeze at, and tonight was a major result for Collins and his staff.

— The effort Tre Demps put in tonight on defense and on the boards was one of the most tenacious performances I have ever seen from a Northwestern guard, if not the most tenacious. From his first appearance in the game, Demps was like an unchained animal attacking the glass, and it manifested in 8 rebounds for the sophomore from Texas. Demps, who has been maligned for being a black hole at times on offense, also dished out 5 assists to go along with his 3 massive three-pointers late in the game. Demps may never exhibit the sort of shot selection Northwestern fans would like, but if he continues to play so hard on defense and to improve on his tendency to dribble with his head down, he will continue to play more minutes and higher quality minutes. Demps is maturing incredibly as a basketball player this season, and could be the most improved Wildcat by the end of the season.

— Northwestern's best lineup, when everyone is at their best, is Cobb-Demps-Crawford-Lumpkin-Olah, and I think we can all feel comfortable agreeing as much. While he didn't face on-ball pressure until late in the game tonight, Cobb looks like a better ball-handler than Sobolewski even if it takes away some of his energy for creating shots for himself and others in the half court. If Demps's decision making continues to improve, then he can also be trusted as a ball-handler to create a point guard by committee look for this five. I expect Sobolewski to continue starting when he comes back (Collins admitted that he likes Demps off the bench after the game), but I expect Northwestern to use this group to finish close games going forward.

— Despite giving up 14 offensive rebounds, Northwestern's rebounding was a huge part of their victory. I didn't keep an exact tally, but I believe that at least half of Illinos's offensive rebounds turned into another missed field goal attempt under heavy defense, so even as Northwestern had some struggles on the defensive glass they didn't allow Illinois to make them pay for it. Crawford and Demps had 8 rebounds apiece, Alex Olah had 7 and Sanjay Lumpkin added 5 of his own as the Wildcats pulled down 6 more defensive rebounds than Illinois despite surrendering 10 more on the offensive end. Northwestern was outshot 64-43 by Illinois, so they were expected to have more defensive rebounds, but doing so required a tremendous amount of good positioning and effort, and the Wildcats put that effort in.

— Northwestern ended up shooting just 10-17 from the free throw line, while Illinois shot 3-6. While Northwestern's poor free throw shooting was inexcusable, their ability to keep Illinois away from the free-throw line was a huge part of the upset victory. A huge part of this was Alex Olah rotating at a faster pace than usual, and his off the ball defense has showed continued improvement. Kale Abrahamson was also fantastic on defense, against Jon Ekey especially, and his strong play helped the entire team perform well on that end. Northwestern is playing active team defense, and the frontcourts struggles have often made it impossible for the backcourt players to redeem the Wildcats. The Wildcats not only defended against Illinois, but did it without fouling. Being able to do just that on a consistent basis is the only way this team can avoid a dogfight in the Big Ten cellar with Nebraska and Penn State.

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