Barring a legitimate miracle, the 2019 Big Ten Tournament will mark the second consecutive disappointing season for Chris Collins and Northwestern men’s basketball. The Wildcats (13-18, 4-16 B1G) lacked the talent, depth, and resolve to consistently compete against Big Ten foes this year. But that does not mean Northwestern is incapable of stealing a couple of games in the United Center this week and shaking up the NCAA Tournament picture. The first obstacle in their path is Illinois (11-20, 7-13 B1G), the No. 11 seed and a sleeper team in this tournament that has looked relatively strong after an 0-5 start to conference play. Prior to tipoff on Wednesday night at 8pm, NBN Sports takes a look at this matchup from all angles to see if Chicago’s Big Ten Team can end the season on a high note.
The Illini have lost five of their last six, and are limping into this tournament just as much as the Wildcats are. Second-year coach Brad Underwood has a more effective offense at his disposal, ranked 78th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, but a less effective defense, at 97th. Overall, Illinois is ranked 78th by kenpom.com, eight slots lower than Northwestern at No. 70.
The most exciting player on the roster is freshman and leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu. The 6’5 guard from Chicago is averaging over 14 points a game and about four rebounds. The key forward is another freshman, Giorgi Bezhanishvili from Georgia (the country).
However, this season marks the lowest winning percentage for Illinois since 1974-75, so morale in Champaign is low just as it is in Evanston. The Illini, however, have better prospects for next season. It is worth noting that the Illini are 37-16 all-time at the United Center, although they have dropped their last two. They will almost certainly attract more fans than the Wildcats.
Whereas Illinois is a young team with just one senior on the roster (Aaron Jordan), this game has the potential to be the final collegiate game for Northwestern’s best players, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. Law and Pardon led Northwestern to their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance two long years ago, and will not go down without a fight. If Law gets his shot going and Pardon continues to be a monster in the paint, expect Northwestern to win.
The teams split two matchups this year, with the ‘Cats pulling out a 68-66 win in Evanston in January and the Illini earning a 81-76 win at the State Farm Center in Champaign less than two weeks ago. As the scores indicate, Northwestern stands to benefit from a defensive battle, while Illinois’ superior explosiveness give them the advantage in a shootout.
This matchup is as low-stakes as they come in the Big Ten Tournament. However, we can expect a competitive matchup with a good atmosphere. It’s crazy for anyone who has watched Northwestern this season pick them to win this game, but hey, at least it’s the last time I would be wrong. Vic Law scores 20 coming off an injury, Dererk Pardon demonstrates why he should have made an all-Big Ten team, and the Wildcats advance.
Prediction: Northwestern 71, Illinois 68