Illinois-Northwestern: Battle to get off the Bubble

By Paul M. Banks and Paul Schmidt
Photo Credit: Illinois
PMB- Despite Illinois having a better conference record than Northwestern, this is actually more of a must win for them than it is for NU.  With some teams, you can judge their tournament chances long before their whole body of work is in. This is not one of them. The schedule just played out that way. January is murderous for these Cats, but February/March is MUCH easier. Take a look- once the second month begins, pretty much every game (with exception for the Kohl Center visit) is winnable for them.
PS – I’m sure that those games are winnable for the Cats, but they need to have some big wins on their resume come March.  Purdue at home is nice, and you and I have argued about the value of the Notre Dame win, with you believing it is worth something, but me thinking that ND’s basketball team is just as overrated as their football team is.
And it sucks for the Purple Weinies, but right now Illinois’ resume is better. They’ve got three solid wins — including one against those same Purple Weinies.
The problem is, Illinois’ losses are really bad. Bradley and Utah were awful losses, and while you can live with having the Michigan State and Purdue losses on your slate, you have to get some wins to counterbalance that.  I said a week ago that I thought the Illini HAD to have a split against Sparty and the Boilers in their four games — that just got a lot more difficult.
I guess, this is a must-win for the Illini, but NU isn’t that far behind in needing this victory.
Note: For more Erin Andrews pics, and Illini talk, check out our last Illini blog/exchange here 
PMB- Now that Illinois has both their first home loss and their first road loss out of the way (all their defeats previous to this past Saturday had been on neutral sites), they’ll start to play more loose and relaxed. Yes, I know that’s quite a solid theory I have there. Map out the road to 12-6 in the conference for me. Because that’s the only way they’re getting to the tourney this year. Unless they win 2 or more games in Indy in Mid March
PS – I’ve said all along that 10-8 is enough along with one win in the Big Ten tourney…there are just too many good wins on the slate with that record.  BUT…let’s take a look at the upcoming schedule:
at Northwestern, at Penn State, vs. Indiana, at Iowa, vs. Michigan State, at Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, at Purdue, at Michigan, vs. Minnesota, at Ohio State, vs Wisconsin.
So, in short, it isn’t just the NU game that is a must win for the Illini, it’s the next four.  They are all very…very winnable games, and they have to win them all. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure that the Illini could weather another terrible loss on their resume, and outside of the NU game, a loss to any of those 4 teams would qualify as bad, bad losses. That would put the Illini at 8-2 in the conference, and merely must go 4-4 from there on out to get to the magical 12-6 boundary.
With four home games in those last eight, I honestly believe that it is possible the Illini can do that.  Yes, even against Michigan State.
And when you think about it…it isn’t crazy that the Illini could win at Michigan too.  See, PB, I even got them to 13-5 for you.
PMB- Saying they can get to 13-5 is a lot different from actually getting there. To re-hash the tired cliche: x-factor in this game for both teams? I’m saying Drew Crawford for Northwestern, Mike Tisdale for Illinois. In the last game, Tis did not actually resemble Nick Smith II as he dropped 31 on the Cats. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Bill Carmody makes defensively for this game. And how Bruce Weber alters his game plan in the 2nd half to what the Wildcats take away. Regarding Crawford: the son of NBA referee Danny Crawford will have to provide a spark on the perimeter, because freshman Alex Marcotullio is in a horrific shooting slump, and Juice Thompson hasn’t been much of an off threat lately. If Crawford lights it up, Cats should win.
PS – I’ll go with two different x-factors: for NU, Juice Thompson, and for the Illini, Mike Davis. 
I don’t know what it is about Thompson, but the way he plays the game…I just want to punch him in the face.  He’s like the black Dugan Fife or Tom Coverdale . I was just playing NCAA College Basketball 10, and he even acted like a major douchenozzle in the video game!  I couldn’t believe it. If he plays his normal irritating style and keeps Demetri McCamey in check, the ‘Cats roll.
As for Mike Davis, the talented junior has been in a bit of a slump lately.  Now, it appeared that he came out of it in the second half against Purdue, but he clanged some long jumpers late in the game that were costly. If Davis goes back to what makes him successful on offense, i.e., playing 10 feet from the hoop or closer, then he gives Illinois the opportunity to win.  If he prefers to shoot from 15 to 18 feet, then trouble looms.
PMB- That’s funny about Juice! Really funny. I guess if he’s on a team you don’t like, he’s “annoying” and a “d-bag.” If he’s on a team you do like, he’s “gritty” and “a warrior”. McCamey has been CARRYING the Illini this year. He’s improved in all the major stats this year, and between points scored, and points assisted on, he’s accounted for literally 60% of Illini offense the past four games.
The first game between these two was an instant classic, a high-scoring overtime thriller that shattered all the negative stereotypes people have about Big Ten basketball. I was there for Illinois 89-83 OT win, but unfortunately I was very late because I was distracted by other things in my life, on the road trip from hell, returning from the holiday trip to hell. But it’s a new year, and we’re looking forward now. onwards and upwards. Time for your prediction?
Last year, and this is published on the NBC blog, I said ILL 61, NU 59. and the final was of course, ILL 60, NU 59. Damn I’m good, and I yes I did have to bring that up again. So this time I’m going to say Northwestern 78, Illinois 76. Yes, I’m aware Illinois has an 11 game winning streak over NU, tied for most in the Big Ten. (OSU currently has an 11 game streak over PSU) Yes, I’m aware Bruce Weber is 11-1 versus Northwestern, and ILL holds a 127-34 advantage in the series history.
However, seeing a Bruce Weber team surrender 56 points in the 2nd half to Purdue was demoralizing, and I just can’t trust them to defend anyone not named Penn St. or Iowa right now. 
PS- The Illini have so many questions right now, not the least of which is, “Can they play away from Assembly Hall?” Up until now, the answer has been no. 
However, this isn’t a true road game. There has never been a game at Welsh-Ryan that hasn’t had at least 50% orange in it, and I’m sure that tomorrow won’t be any different.  And while the Illini didn’t look good in any neutral site games, they certainly can do it in a place where, typically, they have played well.
That being said, this isn’t your fathers’ Northwestern team. These Wildcats are a plucky, and dare I say talented, bunch. They will be ready, no matter how much the crowd favors the Illini.
Still…I can’t shake that the second half of the Purdue game was a turning point. I don’t know why, as I have no evidence to prove it. But it just felt like…rock bottom.
Illinois 72, Northwestern 59.  The healing begins now, Illini Nation


  1. a big one in welsh-ryan today

  2. paulmbanks says

    I was a bit off in the score- but I did get the winner of the game right

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