Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Northwestern Wildcats Pick & Prediction JANUARY 2nd 2024

In his 10-plus seasons as Northwestern’s head coach, Chris Collins has accomplished some things that once seemed impossible in Evanston. He has led the Wildcats to their first two NCAA Tournament appearances and their first two wins over a top-ranked team, which includes Purdue’s only loss this season. However, Collins is still waiting to enjoy his first victory on Illinois’ home floor. The Wildcats are 0-7 in Champaign with Collins at the helm. But today’s Big Ten game presents a terrific chance for Northwestern (10-2, 1-0) to claim a road win over No. 9 Illinois (10-2, 1-0) as the Illini figure out how to beat a good team without All-American guard Terrence Shannon, Jr. Illinois’ leading scorer (21.7 ppg) was suspended indefinitely Thursday after being charged with rape in Kansas. In the Illini’s first game without Shannon, they drilled FDU 104-71 Friday night with six players in double figures. But the Knights showed up in Champaign with one of the five worst defenses in Division I according to – and their run-and-jump style didn’t require Illinois to execute a half-court offense in order to score. The Wildcats, on the other hand, will show up with the nation’s 52nd-best defense per KenPom.

Though they lost all-Big Ten defender Chase Audige to graduation, their defensive efficiency numbers haven’t dropped much. They’re limiting foes to 41.4 percent shooting from the field – the exact same as last year – and forcing turnovers on 21.9 percent of opponents’ possessions (compared to 21.3 percent last year). “I think the formula for us is pretty simple,” Collins said. “We have to take care of the ball. We can’t have live-ball turnovers. When we have live-ball turnovers, we can’t get our defense set. We’ve got to make people play against our half-court defense.” Underwood agrees with that sentiment – calling NU “an elite defensive transition team” – but also believes his players’ unique skills force opponents to make difficult defensive choices regardless of whether Shannon is on the floor. Illinois might be the only team in the nation with a starting center (Coleman Hawkins) who averages nearly 5 3-point attempts per night while the starting point guard (Ty Rodgers) has not taken any 3-pointers and never will unless the shot clock’s hitting zero. Hawkins hit 5 3-pointers Friday against FDU – and Northwestern will have to decide whether 7-footer Matthew Nicholson guards Hawkins or 4 man Quincy Guerrier, who also doesn’t mind living beyond the 3-point arc. “The stuff we’re doing has really been based on matchups,” Underwood said. “We have the ability to create a lot of matchup problems. Truthfully, it starts with Coleman – how teams match him. I truly think Quincy (Guerrier) is turning into an all league-type guy. He’s a guy we can take advantage of mismatches.” Meanwhile, Illinois must figure out how to stop Northwestern point guard Boo Buie, whom Underwood describes as the “best guard in the Big Ten.” When Northwestern played at Illinois last year, Buie scored 32 points in the first 28 minutes to give the Wildcats a 50-36 lead with 12 minutes to go. But Buie made just 3 free throws the rest of the way as Illinois rallied for a 66-62 victory to keep Collins winless in Champaign. This year, Buie has better 3-point shooters around him as Princeton transfer Ryan Langborg (13.0 ppg) and fourth-year wing Ty Berry (10.8 ppg) are both shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. “They go as Boo goes, but they still have some veterans,” Underwood said. “It is about keeping him off-balance…but you can’t give a lot of help. He’s got elite shooters in Ty Berry and the transfer from Princeton might be the best shooter in college basketball. I mean, if he’s got a clean look, he does not miss.”

–Field Level Media

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