Illinois outplayed Northwestern in a 66-50 win last night in front of a sparse, but energetic, State Farm Center crowd.
Defense was the story of the night, as the Illini swarmed and scrapped and held the Wildcats to 32.1% shooting overall and 22.2% from three. They corralled 12 more rebounds, swiped 6 steals, and blocked 4 shots. Northwestern missed some open shots, but Illinois played with a frantic energy on the defensive end that seemed to rattle Chris Collins’ crew.
In a game they only trailed for seconds, Illinois didn’t put the Wildcats away until the second half. First half foul trouble plagued both teams, as Te’Jon Lucas got whistled for two quick ones just minutes into the game and was subbed offense for defense the rest of the way. Michael Finke and Kipper Nichols also picked up two first half fouls. On Northwestern’s side, forward Vic Law was whistled three times in the first half, rendering him mostly ineffective. After jumping out to a 13-5 start in the first 6 minutes, Lucas came out and the Illini offense stagnated, going nearly four minutes without a point. Northwestern got within one, and Illinois maintained a one-possession lead for much of the rest of the half. Going into the locker room, the score was 33-32 Illini.
After scoring the opening bucket of the second half, Illinois went on another of their patented field goal droughts, going dry for 4:26. During that time, Northwestern pulled within one, but that’s as close as they would get the rest of the way. With 9:03 remaining, Vic Law made a free throw to narrow the margin to four. The Wildcats wouldn’t score another point for nearly 6 ½ minutes as the Illini built a 16-point lead. Northwestern scored just 18 points in the second half on 5 made field goals. That’s some bad shooting and some pretty darn good defense.
Not much went right for the Wildcats. Their big three of Law, Scottie Lindsey, and Bryant McIntosh combined to go 7-32 (21.9%) and score 21 points. Law never got into the flow of the game after his first half foul trouble, and he eventually fouled out with 3 points. McIntosh played pretty well, scoring 16, but it took him 17 shots to do it and he was 0-4 from three. Lindsey was a nonfactor, scoring 2 on 1-11 shooting. Mono takes a while to recover from, and he’s still playing himself back into shape.
Illinois got a balanced effort, as all five starters, led by Malcolm Hill’s 18, scored at least 8 points. Maverick Morgan, Leron Black, and Michael Finke combined for 25 rebounds, and Kipper Nichols swatted 3 shots. Illinois’ offense is not a well-oiled machine: they shot 40% overall, 33.3% from three, and 64% from the free-throw line, but it was enough to get the job done with a tenacious defensive effort. Had Illinois played this kind of defense all season, or even just after the new year, the postseason outlook would be very different.
Illinois’ recent improvement may cause some to wonder whether John Groce may be retained after all. It’s often pointed out that Groce’s teams struggle in January and then improve in February. I thought I’d check it out.
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The numbers show that Groce does, indeed, struggle in January. His February and March records aren’t that great, either, but look more impressive after the January doldrums. Is the improvement we’re seeing with this Illini team evidence of a program turnaround, or is it simply a reflection of Groce’s usual pattern? Thus far, it looks familiar, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.