Illinois, Wildcats to stand United (Men’s Basketball)

Jim Martinho

The benefits to Saturday’s Northwestern-Illinois game at the United Center are obvious.

Thousands of Illinois alums in Chicago can root for the orange-and-blue without making the three-hour trip downstate to Champaign. NU gets to play in front of a national television audience for the second time this season. And both squads get to grace the House that M.J. Built.

Everybody wins, right?

Not exactly.

The only game between the Wildcats (10-13, 2-11 Big Ten) and the Fighting Illini (17-4, 8-4) this season was supposed to be an Illinois home game. But due to a scheduling conflict with a high school wrestling tournament, the game was moved to the United Center — 140 miles from Champaign.

“That’s something we do not like, but we didn’t have a choice,” Illini coach Bill Self said.

Illinois’ Assembly Hall hosts the state high school wrestling championships every year, but did not have a contract signed when the Big Ten made its schedule for this season, Self said. When the contract was later signed, the game was moved to the United Center and the Illini were left with only seven true home games.

With Illinois locked in a four-way race for the Big Ten title in a year when home teams have won 47 of 66 conference games, Self realized the significance of missing a home game due to scheduling.

“That’s not a good deal,” Self said. “I don’t think you ever want to be in a conference race when you’re playing one less home game than everybody else, regardless of who it’s against.”

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody downplayed the move to the United Center but said he’d rather the Cats play Illinois in Chicago than face a hostile crowd in Champaign.

“I’d prefer to play them in the United Center than Champaign,” he said. “I don’t know what their winning steak is down there or whatever, but they play better when the crowd gets behind them. Most of the people (at the United Center) will probably be from Illinois so I don’t know how much difference it will make.”

The chance to avoid a true road game is a blessing for the Cats, who have yet to win a Big Ten game away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. NU has lost all six of its conference road tests by an average of 15 points.

The Cats primary concern will be Illini senior Brian Cook, the Big Ten’s leading scorer (20.6 points per game) and leading Player of the Year candidate. The 6-foot-10 forward will pose an inside challenge for NU’s Jason Burke, who has the task of guarding him in the Cats’ match-up zone.

Self said Cook’s offseason regiment of strength training and better nutrition left him stronger and better suited to absorb the physical abuse dealt to a Big Ten big man. A day before Cook and the Illini beat Michigan State by 30 points, Spartans’ coach Tom Izzo praised Cook’s improvement.

“He is so much better in getting himself in the post and taking more of a physical pounding,” Izzo said. “He can score now inside and outside when before he was more of a perimeter guy. Down the stretch he’s been incredible.”

NU (10-13, 2-10 Big Ten) at Illinois (17-4, 6-4)

2 p.m., Saturday

United Center