Men’s Basketball: After tough overtime loss, Northwestern ready for Illinois


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Tre Demps elevates for a shot over a defender. The junior guard leads Northwestern in scoring but is focused on his defensive game against Illinois.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern is convinced there won’t be a hangover from its close overtime loss to Michigan State last Sunday.

“Win or lose, you have to do that in this league,” coach Chris Collins said about moving on. “If you’re not ready to play, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, where you’re playing, you can throw out the names on the jerseys … You have to play at a high level to win.”

For the Wildcats (10-6, 1-2 Big Ten), that will be especially true Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena as they take on an Illinois (11-6, 1-3) squad that has quietly impressed this season. The two are seemingly equal in record, but all of the Fighting Illini’s losses have come away from home against quality opponents. The team also has a win over No. 14 Maryland to hang its hat on.

Fortunately for the Cats, Illinois’ path to victory is greatly complicated by the absence of Rayvonte Rice. The star shooting guard broke his hand in a practice drill January 5 and is out indefinitely, according to media reports. Through 15 games played, he was averaging 17.2 points per game, the fourth highest total in the conference.

“(Rayvonte) was such a focal point as their leading scorer and go-to guy,” Collins said. “The thing about (Illinois) is they have a lot of guys who can hurt you.”

Collins’ point is well supported by the Fighting Illini’s signature win over the Terrapins coming without Rice. The stats also agree there is plenty of talent down the roster.

Shooting guard Malcolm Hill is second on the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game, more than any NU player, and is supported in the back court by point guard Kendrick Nunn, who sports an impressive 41 percent shooting percentage from three-point range.

Rounding out the lineup down low is Nnanna Egwu, a 6-11, 250 pound center who averages 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. But despite the matchup challenges, the Cats are convinced they’ll be up to the task of defeating their in-state rival.

“It’s a new opportunity tomorrow,” freshman guard Bryant McIntosh said. “I’m excited for it. I think it’ll be a fun game, good atmosphere.”

Specifically, the young point guard cited increased pressure on defense as a specific area for improvement. NU had just one steal in 45 minutes of basketball against Michigan State.

“We have to look to be a little more aggressive defensively,” McIntosh said. “You have to anticipate a little bit more, look to be aggressive and get in passing lanes. It’ll come.”

In light of the Cats’ unusually good shooting performance against the Spartans, much of NU’s preparation seems focused on the defensive side of the ball. Normally stout defensively, the team has given up more than 80 points in each of its last two games.

Junior guard Tre Demps believes the Cats’ biggest challenge is doing a better job of defending screens.

“Our ball screen defense has to improve,” he said. “Starting with the guards getting over the ball screens, and obviously against Illinois we’re going to see a lot of that.”

Only three days removed from its loss to Michigan State, NU is working on specific improvements and seems focused and ready to take on a tough Illinois team at home. The Cats bested the Fighting Illini last season 49-43, and this year’s team will be looking to continue the streak.

“We’re capable of playing with just about anybody in this league,” Demps said. “We have to continue that momentum … and use (the Michigan State game) as motivation.”

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