Last Updated: 2017-03-07
On a busy Tuesday night in college basketball, no team has as much to lose as the Northwestern Wildcats. The Wildcats will host in-state rival Illinois, as the Fighting Illini look to go to Welsh-Ryan Arena and deal a serious blow to Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Illinois has lost six of its last seven games, yet money is coming in on that side in advance of this Big Ten battle in Evanston. Northwestern opened as high as -6.5, but sharp action has pushed this number down to 5.5 at several shops, with a total of 133.5. Readers looking for a new sportsbook to grab college basketball futures for March Madness or to shop around for lines can use the promo code ‘BTB’ at Galaxy Sports for a 100 percent deposit bonus up to $300.
It hasn’t been a good year for John Groce’s team, especially in conference play, but the Illini can play spoiler on Tuesday. Illinois is 13-11 straight up with an 8-13 ATS mark, but it’s the 3-8 straight up and 3-8 ATS in conference play that really stands out. The Illini have also struggled on the road, with a 3-7 SU and ATS mark on the college basketball highway. Northwestern is 18-5 straight up and 15-5 against the number. Without a real signature win, every game is so important going forward for Northwestern. Coming off of an 80-59 blowout loss to Purdue six days ago, Northwestern cannot afford a slip-up at home here against a mediocre Illinois bunch.
The Fighting Illini can’t score. Illinois has cracked the 70-point mark just once over its last seven games and that’s a big reason why six of those games have been losses. John Groce’s team does play very good defense, as the team ranks 65th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, but Illinois is 120th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Many would be surprised to see Illinois 80th in KenPom’s rankings, but they’ve also played a brutal schedule that included West Virginia and Florida State in the non-conference. It’s weird to think that Illinois, who was a fixture in the NCAA Tournament in the 2000s, only has two Big Dance berths this decade and none since 2013. There are some whispers that Groce is on the hot seat and it looks like Illinois will miss the tournament again, barring a miraculous Big Ten Conference Tournament run.
It’s all about the lack of offense for Illinois. Malcolm Hill has done his best to push the team forward, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of help. Hill has scored 17 points per game and he’s taken 128 more shots than anybody else on the roster. The offense clearly goes through him and he’s shooting 43 percent. Maverick Morgan is the only other player in double figures with 10.3 points. He’s shooting 58 percent from the floor. Jalen Coleman-Lands has fired away at 36 percent from deep, but he’s only made 18 two-point shots. Illinois’s defensive numbers looked a lot better in the non-conference. Big Ten opponents are shooting 47.2 percent.
Northwestern is a top-30 team per Ken Pom and that’s something really special for one of the few major conference programs in the country that hasn’t made it to the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern is on a four-year drought from any postseason play after last reaching the NIT in 2012. The Wildcats won 20 games last season for the third time in seven years, but they’ve never won more than 20 games. Northwestern is already 18-5 this season, so it seems like the chances are good to set a new record in wins, but it feels like that won’t matter unless the team ends the NCAA Tournament drought. This would be a really bad loss for Northwestern, but this seems like a weak year in the mid-majors, so the Wildcats could still get in with a few wins after this one.
What makes this game so tough and what is driving the line movement is that Northwestern’s star player Scottie Lindsey is listed as out with mono. Lindsey missed his first game of the season against Purdue and Northwestern got crushed by 21 and it wasn’t even that close. Northwestern shot 35 percent and had just eight assists without Lindsey. It could be even uglier in Madison on Sunday if Lindsey can’t go. There’s a lot more pressure on Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh, who are both having excellent seasons with over 13 points per game. McIntosh has 5.6 assists per night as well. McIntosh has only shot 38 percent from the floor and 28 percent from deep, but he’s a 91 percent free throw shooter, so maybe he can put this game away at the line.
College Basketball Free Pick: Northwestern Wildcats -5.5
The line move is definitely understandable here, but the absence of Scottie Lindsey was already built into the line. He’s probably worth somewhere around 1.5 points, maybe two with how bad Northwestern looked against Purdue, to the line. We’re getting some value on a desperate home team in a rivalry game on its home floor. The Wildcats have also had a lot of practice time with six days off to get acclimated to playing without Lindsey and Chris Collins has made adjustments. This feels like an overreaction with an Illinois team that is awful on the road.
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