Now it gets real for the Northwestern Wildcats. After feasting on some tasty cupcakes over the last two weeks, Northwestern gets their first legit test from the Illinois State Redbirds. The game is being dubbed as the “Battle for Illinois” but when you look at what these two teams can accomplish in the big picture, it is really so much more.
“Eye On The Enemy”: Illinois State
This was a strange off season for Illinois State. After a nice season where they got into the NIT, former head coach Tim Jankovich quit to join Larry Brown with the SMU Mustangs.
Insert Dan Muller. He takes over a squad that lost Nic Moore to transfer and they are still trying to find a viable replacement. Freshman Kaza Keane looks to be the man so far. He’s more of a scoring point but has tailed that back to fit more into Coach Muller’s system.
As expected though, this time will live and die with their front court. Jackie Carmichael is a legit stud. The 6’9 power forward is a beast who can score with his back to the basket but also has a nice face up game. I think he’s a pro who reminds me a bit of Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson. Jon Ekey is back as well. He’s a big who can step out and shoot the 3. Tyler Brown has had an outstanding start to his senior campaign. The former JUCO player is an excellent 3 point shooter who could give Northwestern’s zone fits.
Bill Carmody‘s squad is starting to find itself. The Louisville Cardinals transfer Jared Swopshire has done a bit of everything for the Wildcats so far and seems to have Carmody’s trust in his complex Princeton offense. That’s huge because it will take pressure off scorer Drew Crawford who has already logged a significant amount of minutes.
For the first time in ages, Northwestern has a competent big man. Alex Olah has shown he isn’t afraid to bang inside with the other team’s big men.
I expect the Wildcats to try their 1-3-1 zone as their primary defense in this one. While Carmody has tried to use primarily a man-to-man defense this year, a 1-3-1 that is extended past half court could give a freshman point guard (Keane) fits and lead to turnovers. If it doesn’t and the Cats go back to the man-to-man, I expect Swopshire to check Carmichael. While he’s giving up an inch of size and 30 pounds of weight, he’s versatile and has a high basketball IQ.
Northwestern’s resume up to this point tells us absolutely nothing. Even their recent victory against the TCU Horned Frogs wasn’t impressive by any stretch. The defense only looked good because of the ridiculously slow pace TCU employs. Illinois State went on the road and beat the Drexel Dragons in overtime with their star Damion Lee active. The Dragons should compete for the CAA title and could cause a major upset in “March Madness”. Saying that, I think the multiple weapons Northwestern can offer on the perimeter will be enough but this one should be close. Northwestern 72-65.
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