It’s win or go home time for hundreds of college basketball teams across the country. The Northwestern Wildcats and Illinois Fighting Illini have both had disappointing seasons, and one of these two teams will see their season end in the first round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament on Wednesday night. The winner will extend their season by at least one more day and will face the Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday night.
Senior Vic Law might not play for Northwestern during the Big Ten tournament. He suffered some cuts on his shin after colliding with Carsen Edwards midway through the second half of the Wildcats’ season finale, and he is considered questionable to play. He has been Northwestern’s leading scorer this season, averaging 15 PPG. Jordan Ash suffered a season-ending knee injury at the start of the season.
Illinois has not had Anthony Higgs for the entire season due to a foot injury, but the Illini look fine on the injury front otherwise.
Illinois is the No. 11 seed in the Big Ten Tournament after finishing the season 7-13 in conference play, while Northwestern was the worst team in the conference at 4-16. Accordingly, the oddsmakers have the Illini favored by 2.5 points coming into tonight’s game. There has been early sharp action on the over and the total has moved from 135 to 136.5 as a result.
What’s at Stake?
Neither team has a chance of making a postseason tournament without winning five games in five days to take down the Big Ten Conference Tournament, so the season is literally on the line.
It’s been a bittersweet year for Northwestern as many of the stars on this team were a big reason why the Wildcats qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their history two years ago. They would like to forestall the inevitable and get a few more wins before the seniors call it a career.
Illinois will be looking to carry some momentum into next season after an impressive three-week run through January and February. The Illini earned some respect with upset wins over Maryland and Michigan State and earned their lone conference road win against Ohio State at that time too.
Northwestern is one of the coldest teams in the country. The Wildcats looked like they could make the NCAA Tournament again after an 8-3 start with three wins over power conference teams, but they derailed over the latter half of the season. They lost 11 of their last 12 games to end the year.
These teams met twice during the regular season and split their meetings. Northwestern got the better of Illinois in a 68-66 nailbiter in Evanston in early January, while the Illini turned things around with an 81-76 win in Champaign just 10 days ago.
Terrible shooting has been the story of Northwestern over the last two months of the year. The Wildcats have been one of the worst shooting teams among power conference squads, and only one player is shooting better than 40 percent from the floor. As a whole, Northwestern is sinking just 31 percent of its threes.
It’s no surprise that player is going to be key for Northwestern here. Senior center Dererk Pardon is averaging 13.9 PPG and is the second-leading scorer on the team behind Law. He is hitting 57.4 percent of his field goals this year, and even that is significantly lower than his career average. Pardon hit 61 percent from the floor in each of his three previous seasons, but he has had to take more shots this year with the entire team struggling to hit baskets.
As for the Illini, they have been more efficient on offense. Their top four shooters are each hitting at least 40 percent, and they are an average three-point shooting team too. However, they don’t have a lot of size, and they could have trouble starting Pardon if the big man really gets going.
I don’t see it happening for Northwestern. Illinois will keep Pardon from doing too much damage by focusing on him, and the Illini will do enough on offense to advance.