Men’s Basketball: What To Watch For: Northwestern hopes to keep win streak alive Thursday at in-state rival Illinois

Aayushya Agarwal, Senior Staffer

When No. 21 Northwestern and in-state rival Illinois clashed in early January, there was a sense that something special was brewing in Evanston. Redshirt senior guard Chase Audige’s 21 points and senior guard Boo Buie’s 15 points led the Wildcats to their first victory in five years against the Fighting Illini on Jan. 4. 

Seven weeks later, both teams are red hot — but one is burning brighter than the other. NU, riding a five-game winning streak, collected momentous victories over No. 1 Purdue and No. 14 Indiana. Yet, both the Wildcats and Fighting Illini have won exactly nine of their 13 matchups since their January face-off. The Cats are one game back from first place in the Big Ten standings and have a two-game advantage over Illinois.

Following Sunday’s 80-60 rout over Iowa, Buie commended his squad’s mission and connection and how NU plays for pride and joy. Now, as March gets ever so closer, Buie and the team travel south to Champaign, searching for a season sweep and to continue proving skeptics wrong. 

Here are three questions ahead of Thursday’s in-state matchup versus the Fighting Illini. 

1. Can Chase Audige balance staying aggressive with playing smart? 

A few days ago, Audige fell into foul trouble against Iowa. The redshirt senior picked up his second foul midway through the first half and ended with four, logging just 21 minutes in Sunday’s contest. Audige played all 40 minutes at Wisconsin, registering 38 and 39 minutes respectively in wins over Ohio State and Purdue this month. While Sunday night’s minute reduction for Audige did not impact the Cats offensively, there is no guarantee that something similar will unfold in March. 

Audige plays an aggressive brand of basketball. The guard ranks second in the Big Ten in steals per game and maintains active hands in the passing lanes. In his squad’s previous matchup versus Illinois, Audige recorded four steals and a block and catalyzed the Cats’ 22-2 second half run. He has also recorded at least a steal or block in nine straight games, making his presence on both sides of the floor vital for the Cats’ success. 

However, on Sunday, Audige saw the risks of overaggression on the defensive floor first-hand, picking up a few fouls on reach-ins. This forced him to the bench for most of the second half.

“A lot of the fouls I committed (on Sunday) were on times I was reaching-in when I shouldn’t have,” Audige said. “I just need to try to play smart with getting steals and being in passing lanes but also staying true to our principles.” 

In a tough road environment in Champaign, Audige will need to remain mindful of foul trouble, especially if he commits an early foul. NU’s recent success has largely relied on the veteran guard’s ability to remain on the court. If Audige can ensure he minimizes risks at times they may not be needed and be able to stay on the court for a longer stretch of time, there is no question: The entire squad will reap the benefits.  

2. Will the Cats be able to continue to match up well defensively against the top offenses in the Big Ten? 

It has been no secret that NU imposes its identity on the defensive end. Over the past two weeks, the team has shut down high-powered conference offenses, limiting Indiana to shoot 3-for-11 and Iowa to shoot 3-for-24 from three. On Thursday, the Cats will face another top Big Ten offense in Illinois that they already contained once this season. 

Back in January, NU held the Fighting Illini to 60 points, forcing 15 turnovers and limiting the Illini to 8-for-28 shooting from deep. Through keeping Illini shooters off-balance and scrambling for loose balls, the squad only surrendered double-digit points to two Illini scorers, guard Matthew Mayer and forward Coleman Hawkins. Stopping these players will be imperative to the Cats’ success on Thursday. The Illini duo has caught fire as of late, with Mayer recording consecutive 20-plus-point performances and Hawkins reaching double digits in five of his past seven games. 

Looking ahead to Thursday’s matchup versus Illinois, coach Chris Collins shared the uniqueness of Illinois’ offense. 

“We’re playing an Illinois team that’s very long and athletic,” Collins said. “They have big guards, they have long wings. They have multiple positions where they can score. They have a dominant big man in Dainja that if you don’t bring down help, he can have a big night down in the post. We have to stay true to our principles and continue to really play hard and connected.” 

In order for another defensive successful showing, Collins’ squad will need to continue doing what has worked best — doubling in the post and playing aggressive help defense. In wins over Purdue and Indiana, the Cats escaped with wins by minimizing the impact opposing star big men had. Despite the length difference, the Cats defended as a team. This will need to hold on Thursday to ensure the Fighting Illini do not use their versatility on the offensive end to make it difficult for NU. 

3. Will NU be able to maintain its well-rounded offensive production? 

The Cats’ starting backcourt fuels their offensive production, sparking both wins and losses. In NU’s home loss to Michigan earlier this month, the team relied heavily on Buie and Audige, with the two attempting 35 of NU’s 56 total shots. This caused the team to go on several minute-long scoring droughts and be held scoreless from deep in the second half. 

However, many of NU’s most convincing wins saw the ball spread around more and several players contribute on the offensive end. In Sunday’s victory over Iowa, junior guard Ty Berry scored 16 points and sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer tallied 12 points. Graduate student forward Tydus Verhoeven and junior center Matthew Nicholson poured in eight and nine points, respectively. At the same time, Audige and Buie only attempted 18 of NU’s total 55 shot attempts, and the squad had 15 total assists. 

Looking ahead to Thursday, the Cats will find success if they continue spreading the ball around, ensuring players outside of Buie and Audige remain involved offensively. With opposing defenses now aware of NU’s tendency to keep the ball in the hands of its starting backcourt, it is even more imperative that other players stay ready to contribute on the offensive side of the floor. Berry spoke on how he approaches these evolved opposing defensive gameplans. 

“For me, it’s more about taking my shots when I have them and taking what the defense gives me,” Berry said. “Most teams try to take away Boo and Chase, as any team should because they’re really good. Boo and Chase do a great job of finding me when I’m open and telling me to stay aggressive.” 

When the two squads matched up several weeks ago, Berry was the only other NU scorer to reach double digits besides Audige and Buie, scoring 13. The junior forward had a career night in a victory against Nebraska earlier this season, scoring 26 points. If NU wants to ensure it puts up points in a hostile Champaign environment, the team will need to continue to get players like Berry, Barnhizer and senior forward Robbie Beran involved. 

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