U of I vs. NU: A Preview of Chicago’s Big Ten Teams

The state of Illinois will find itself divided come Sunday's matchup between Illinois and Northwestern.

The state of Illinois will find itself divided come Sunday’s matchup between Illinois and Northwestern.

This Sunday will mark another chapter of the University of Illinois and Northwestern Rivalry. After the Wildcats went into Champaign this past November and stole a game from the Fighting Illini’s abysmal football program, U of I fans are excited to get revenge on what will likely be a double digit affair or, at the very least, a W in the ever-important Big Ten schedule.

The two teams could not come into the game on a more different path. The Fighting Illini have showed potential early in the season with a near win over #15 Oregon and an upset victory over then #23 Missouri. In fact, with a 2-0 start coming into this week, the Illini earned a #23 ranking, their first Top 25 appearance of the season. Northwestern, on the other hand, hasn’t just lost – they’ve lost often… and ugly. First, it was devastating losses to in-state rivals Illinois St. and DePaul. Then, it was absolute thrashings in their first three Big Ten games to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. Some Wildcat fans (Yes, there are a few out there), are already starting to look ahead to their February 8th home meeting with Nebraska, just to make sure they don’t put up the dreaded goose-egg this year in conference play. But, that begs the question: can a more meaningful game like this put the fire in them to surprise a few folks, and actually win one at Welsh-Ryan arena? Let’s examine.

Northwestern Coach Chris Collins

Northwestern Coach Chris Collins

Northwestern came into the year with its typical hype: “Will this be the year they finally get over the hump and make it to the NCAA Tournament?” All signs had presumably been pointed in the right direction. A new, fresh, cerebral coach in Chris Collins was coming home; combo Guard Jershon Cobb was coming off his one-year suspension; and Drew Crawford was coming back for one last hurrah after shoulder surgery. Nevertheless, what those optimistic Wildcat fans failed to realize was that the “NU Era” was going to be a work in progress. Collins can only do so much with what he was given. Sure, Crawford, Cobb, and even Center Alex Olah (23 points on 10-14 shooting against Wisconsin) have shown promise when healthy, but together it’s simply not enough. Former Coach Bill Carmody surrounded Collins with mediocre 2-star recruits that were able to hide their lack of talent through the Princeton offense.

Unfortunately that is no longer the case. Collins fast-paced offense has, naturally, resulted in more shots being attempted, but in Northwestern’s case, that means more shots missed. The Wildcats rank 281st in three-point percentage (31% – down from 159th last season) and 265th nationally in effective field goal percentage (47%), which pegs them dead last in the Big Ten in both categories. To really drive this point home, take Junior Captain Dave Sobolewski. A former All Big-Ten Freshman, who shot 34% from three last year, now has his shooting woes exposed, as Sobolewski’s knocking down an appalling 17% – yes, 17% – of his threes, which is completely inexcusable and unacceptable for a Big Ten starting point guard. If Wildcat fans truly want to see some good basketball, they’ll be best served taking a drive over to Saint Rita High School and watching Top 70 Recruit Victor Law lace it up, as he’ll be joining the Wildcat program next fall. With Law and another 4-star recruit Brian McIntosh coming in, the future is bright for Northwestern. For now, they’ll just have to wait – something they’ve certainly grown accustomed to over the years. 

Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten's third leading scorer.

Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten’s leading scorer

Meanwhile, Illinois who, in the second year of the John Groce era, has continued to impress. Groce came in last year to an experienced team that could have easily made his first-year coaching the orange and blue a living nightmare. Instead, they listened to him from the start, rallied around his contagious passion and energy, and found themselves just minutes away from a Sweet 16 berth. After losing key seniors such as DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Tyler Griffey, many thought this would be a rebuilding year before the Illini were experienced enough to contend with Groce’s first official recruiting class. Instead, with key transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, along with another year of experience and development for Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand, the Illini have put together a legitimate squad that finds themselves right in the middle of the pack of the top-heavy Big Ten. There is no disputing that Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin are the elite of the group, but I think you’ll find that, as this team continues to grow together, the sky is the limit for them, and there’s no reason they can’t contend with Iowa and Michigan for that fourth spot. After an absolute embarrassment on Wednesday night at the hands of Wisconsin, you better believe Coach Groce will have his Illini as prepared as ever for a bounce back win and, most importantly, their first Big Ten victory outside of State Farm Center.

At the end of the day it would be a great story to see Coach Collins win his first Big Ten game in Evanston, but the fact remains: the Cats will continue to struggle. The Illini are going to shoot… and shoot often. Rice and Abrams will have big games, and the Illini will prevail in the first chapter of the Groce vs. Collins era.

Final score: Illini-72 Northwestern-58

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Posted on January 10, 2014, in B1G Hoops and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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