Abridged post probably here - in case you haven't heard, I'm commuting out to the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake every day for my journalism residency, and, suffice it to say, my sleep pattern is struggaling after a winter break filled with no work whatsoever. But a preview post it is, as I know you the people need to read as NU takes on No. 20 Illinois in Champaign. It's been a brutal beginning to the conference schedule - three games against ranked teams - but I think we all agreed before going in that going 1-2 would be a decent result from three tough matchups. NU has gone 0-2, but there's a distinct chance to salvage this start against the Illini.
Are they good?: Bro, you need to stop asking this about ranked teams. The i-l-l i-n-i are 9-3, with all their losses coming in games at neutral sites: an overtime loss to Texas, a loss in the Braggin' Rights game to Missouri, and a really shocking loss to UIC, the only real blemish on their schedule thus far, as the Flames are pretty mediocre. But quality wins over Maryland, Gonzaga, and UNC, as well as a 2-0 start to the Big Ten including a W over Wisconsin, show the Illini are legit.
Who they got?: Demetri McCamey doesn't get the respect he deserves, in my opinion, I consider him to be one of the best players in the nation, even though he was all-Big Ten. NU fans probably remember him from his game-winning bank shot two years ago at Welsh-Ryan, but he's so much more than that. His standout ability is his playmaking - he led the conference in assists last year, and is averaging 7.3 per game this season. He assists a disturbing 40.9 percent of buckets when he's on the floor, the 11th best number in the nation. But he's also a really superb scorer: he's 6-foot-3, big for a point guard, and uses his size well, but he's also a simply deadly shooter, shooting 52.2 percent from beyond the arc on the year - only six percentage points behind John Shurna, good for 16th in the nation. Northwestern will not stop him.
What are they good at?: Gunning. No. 5 in the nation from downtown, mainly because of McCamey, but D.J. Richardson also shoots 45 percent, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Mike Tisdale is one of the best 7-foot-1 3-point shooters in the nation. Looking at their kenpom numbers, it's really surprising this team is only 9-3, they're pretty much good at everything: one of the best teams in the country in getting blocked (6.7 percent of their shots) and one of the best at blocking shots (13.4 percent, exactly twice as much), top 100 in the nation in forcing steals, 3-point defense, offensive and defensive efficiency, forcing turnovers, not committing turnovers, not committing fouls, and pretty much everything else.
What are they bad at?: Two distinct things: drawing fouls - 328th in the nation in terms of free throws per shot attempted - and late game finishing. The Illini haven't played many close games this year, and the ones they have played have had mixed results. Overtime against Texas was a complete debacle, both the Texas and Missouri games saw really dumb intentional fouls allow the other team to crack the game wide-open, and against UIC, the Illini blew a decently-sized lead in the game's closing minutes to fall 57-54.
Us and them: Illinois and NU have been pretty evenly matched the past few years in their three games: in 08-09, NU looked like they had the game wrapped up only to see Illinois storm down from 14 down in the game's final five minutes and win 60-59 on the aforementioned McCamey jumper, as NU looked terrified of the Illini's late-game full court press. Then, last year, in Champaign, NU made it to despite missing an unbelievable 31 three-pointers, but the Cats fell 89-83 in overtime after allowing 31 points and 11 rebounds to
Shaquille O'Neal Wilt Chamberlain Dwight Howard Mike Tisdale. NU got revenge for those two last year in Welsh-Ryan with a 73-68 win on the strength of the best game of Jeremy Nash's career - 22 points, including superb (for Nash) 3-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc.
How can NU beat Illinois?: First off, keep Mike Tisdale under control. That guy was born to kill NU - a hard-nosed rebounder with size and shooting touch? Man, I really hate him. If he ends the night with under 20 points against NU, that's a success for Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti. Secondly, don't run the 1-3-1 against a team that shoots over 40 percent from downtown, because they'll murder it. McCamey, Tisdale, and possibly Mike Davis strike me as capable of creating their own buckets. Everybody else seems dependent on McCamey's creative abilities to score, in my opinion. Put some incompetent defender like Drew Crawford on McCamey and let him go to work - if he's the team's primary scorer, hopefully the other four guys on the team waste away.
Should NU beat Illinois? No, they just aren't as good and it's a road game. Kenpom gives NU a 19 percent chance at victory - I'd say that's pessimistic, but it isn't good.