Men’s Basketball: Northwestern hosts Illinois for next chapter in unpredictable rivalry


Daily file photo by Aleah Matthews-Renner

Alex Olah attempts to block an opposing player. The senior has not started Northwestern’s past two games as coach Chris Collins went with freshman Dererk Pardon in his place.

Max Schuman, Assistant Sports Editor

Men’s Basketball

In the Big Ten, a conference known for regional rivalries between big state schools, it sometimes feels as if small, private Northwestern is left out of the fun.

But when the Wildcats (16-9, 4-8 Big Ten) welcome Illinois (11-13, 3-8) to Evanston on Saturday, NU will write another chapter in an in-state series that is arguably the team’s closest thing to a rivalry.

With the two schools separated by just a three-hour drive and with both programs in competition for local recruits every year, more than bragging rights are at stake in the sole matchup between the two squads this season. However, struggles in Big Ten play by both teams dampens the showdown’s appeal.

The Cats have lost six of seven games, stumbling to the finish line after a 13-1 start to the season left fans dreaming of postseason glory. Their most recent defeat, a 71-63 loss at Ohio State, with a late Buckeye surge putting the game out of reach for NU, was a disappointing one, coach Chris Collins said.

“I thought we really played well,” Collins said. “I thought we were ready to play. I thought we were doing the things we wanted to on both ends.”

Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini have struggled this season despite boasting the second-highest scorer in the conference, guard Malcolm Hill. In particular, injuries have hit Illinois hard and will likely play a factor in the matchup with the Cats — forward Mike Thorne, Jr., the team’s leading rebounder, is questionable for the game with a knee injury, while the Fighting Illini’s second-leading scorer, guard Kendrick Nunn, has struggled mightily in two games since his return from a hip injury.

But the team will have had six days to recover following a loss to then-No. 5 Iowa on Feb. 7, and Illinois coach John Groce said the time off was much needed.

“We’ve had some guys play a lot of minutes, and we’ve got some guys that are dealing with some nicks and knacks and ailments and hurts and injuries,” Groce said following the Iowa loss. “So we want to give us an opportunity to get some of our guys healthy.”

Despite the additional rest time, the Fighting Illini’s difficulties this season will likely make NU the home favorite Saturday. But recent series history indicates that being the favorite doesn’t guarantee anything.

In the 2012-13 season, the Cats took on a No. 23 Illinois squad on the road and led throughout, cruising to a 68-54 win. NU followed that up the next year with an ugly 49-43 home victory over the Fighting Illini, who were ranked No. 23 in that matchup as well.

The series has also had a penchant for drama in recent years. In the 2010-11 season, former Cats guard Michael Thompson scored 22 points with big shots late in the game to put away a No. 24 Illinois, 71-70. The next season, the Fighting Illini blocked a last-second layup attempt by former NU forward Drew Crawford late to preserve a 57-56 win.

And even though neither team has high hopes for a run in the postseason this year, the matchup doesn’t lack for stakes. Illinois is just a half-game behind the Cats for 10th in the conference standings and a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Although it may not be a classic rivalry in line with Duke-North Carolina or Kentucky-Louisville, recent seasons have seen NU and the Fighting Illini battle in dramatic, evenly-matched contests frequently. For two in-state conference adversaries, that’s as close to a rivalry as can be.

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