Two rivals from the Prairie State will face off Thursday when No. 12 Illinois visits host Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. (Northwestern vs. Illinois, Thursday, January 7, 7:45pm, WGN Radio 720 and our digital streams https://wgnradio.com/on-air/)
After losing to Rutgers on Dec. 20, the Fighting Illini (8-3, 4-1 Big Ten) have won three straight conference matchups over Penn State, Indiana and Purdue.
Illinois beat the Boilermakers by eight points, but the margin of victory could have been much larger. The Fighting Illini shot a dismal 40.9 percent (9 of 22) from the charity stripe.
“I was not the free-throw coach today,” coach Brad Underwood said.
It was Illinois’ lowest free-throw percentage in a game this season by 20 percentage points. On the season, the team has shot 68.1 percent from the line.
Ayo Dosunmu has had a tremendous start to the season for the Fighting Illini, averaging 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. On top of that, he is shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Dosunmu hasn’t been doing it alone. Last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn has avoided a sophomore slump and is averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 66.7 percent.
The Wildcats (6-3, 3-2) jumped out to a 3-0 conference start that pushed the team into the top 25 for the first time since 2017. However, Northwestern dropped out of the rankings after losses to Iowa, 87-72, and Michigan, 85-66, last week.
“Sometimes we can talk about the things we didn’t do, and certainly we can do better in certain areas,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “But this was an example of Michigan being the better team tonight.”
Northwestern has five players averaging at least nine points per game. Miller Kopp leads the team with 14.4 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field and 54.3 percent shooting from 3-point range.
The Wildcats are getting great production from their two primary big men. Ryan Young averages 9.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game off the bench, while Pete Nance averages 11.7 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Illinois has won the past four matchups between the two schools, but each game was decided by eight points or fewer. That closeness has been a recurring theme since Collins was hired in 2013. Since the 2013-14 season, the Fighting Illini and Wildcats have played 12 times with Illinois winning eight times.
In the NET rankings, Illinois slotted in at No. 5 Wednesday, while Northwestern was at No. 50.
–Field Level Media