Pre-gamin’: Illinois vs. Northwestern

7:00 February 7, 2017

TV: BTN

Radio: 97.5 FM WHMS 1400 AM WDWS

Questions Worth Asking

  1. How will the minutes be divided from here on out? What will the lineups look like? We’ve seen Groce finally turn over the majority of the point guard minutes to Te’Jon Lucas. Lucas hasn’t put up Freshman of the Year numbers, but his court vision and improving on-the-ball defense show he’s the best option at the position. Now Kipper Nichols has shown that he can bring an energy and athleticism the Illini sorely need. Here are his basic numbers the past five games:
  Minutes Points Rebounds
Vs. Minnesota 23 16 6
Vs. Wisconsin 22 4 2
@ Penn State 16 8 6
Vs. Iowa 16 4 2
@ Michigan 17 4 3

For the most part, these numbers are about what you’d expect from a forward coming off the bench, but part of what Nichols brings isn’t going show up on the stat sheet. He scraps under the basket for every rebound in spite of a height disadvantage in the paint. Illinois needs his motor. And Illinois also needs Jalen Coleman-Lands to rediscover his shooting touch. There are some good pieces on this team, they just need to be used in the correct combinations. One of the biggest indictments of Groce’s work this year is his inability to find and commit to those combinations. In addition to the regular starting lineup, I’d like to see Kipper play the 3 – even though Groce says he’s still learning the position – with Leron at the 4, Mav at the 5, Malcolm at the 2, and Te’Jon running point. Depending on defensive match ups, of course, but Northwestern isn’t a real tall team. As long as they aren’t in foul trouble, either Malcolm or Te’Jon, preferably both, should be on the floor at all times. These are your initiators, and they make both big men and shooters like Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke better because they put them in position to succeed.

  1. Is the timing of this game an advantage or disadvantage for Illinois? Northwestern was riding a six-game winning streak last week until they got smacked in the mouth by Purdue 80-59 on Wednesday. After the Illini come to town tonight, the Wildcats pay a visit to #7 Wisconsin on Sunday and then host #21 Maryland on Wednesday. That’s three ranked teams out of four games. Will playing the cellar-dwelling Illini be a letdown for the Cats? Might they look ahead to the next two big games on the schedule and overlook the Illini? Northwestern is also without their leading scorer, Scottie Lindsey (15.4 points/game), for the second straight game as he battles illness. On the other hand, the Illinois game is the only one in this stretch in which the Wildcats will surely be favored. Lose to the Illini, and Northwestern could easily fall prey to a four-game losing streak. That’s the last thing a team wants when it’s seeking its first NCAA tournament invitation. Ever. This is a big game for the Wildcats.
  2. How will the Illini respond to the growing sense that John Groce is in his last season at Illinois? Players and coaches talk about staying focused and taking the season one game at a time, but they know the primary narrative around the team right now is the temperature of Groce’s seat. Evaluation of potential replacements has already begun in depth on some sites. As Illini Inquirer basketball writer Derek Piper maintains, this is an awkward situation for everyone from the current coaching staff and players to recruits and the AD’s office.* How the Illini handle the additional pressure and distraction will determine the direction their season goes from here. Bruce Weber’s last team crumbled, and it was hard to watch, let alone experience. It may be too late for them to save their coach’s job, but they can still try to play better basketball, set a tone for next year, and make some positive memories.

Final Thoughts

This is a must-win game for both teams. We can say that about every Illinois game since Penn State; so far, they’re 0-3 on must-wins. There’s a lot of negative energy around the Illini program right now, and that’s tough on everyone involved. It may be a relief to get out of town for a day and just focus on the game at hand. And this is a winnable game. Even though the Illini have yet to win on the road and the Wildcats are likely a tournament team, Illinois has the players to compete with Northwestern. If Illinois plays well, and Groce gets the right lineups in there, the Illini could keep this one close. Northwestern should win, but I don’t think Illinois will make it easy on them. Cats by 5.

*Piper’s article is premium, but I think you can get a free trial to access the inside info on Illini Inquirer. If Illinois does end up going through a coaching search this spring, I recommend getting your free trial then. The guys over there do a good job getting scoops, interviewing key players, and analyzing and writing up their conclusions.

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