Northwestern-Illinois Preview

Cracking the Top 25 in late December certainly isn’t any

guarantee that Northwestern will be participating in its first NCAA

tournament, but it’s an awfully significant – and rare – head

start.

Ranked for the first time in 41 years, the No. 25 Wildcats look

to record their first 10-game winning streak in nearly eight

decades Wednesday night as they open their Big Ten slate with a

visit to perennial nemesis Illinois.

Northwestern (10-1) is the only BCS conference team without an

appearance in the NCAA tournament, and its hopes of ending that

drought looked dire when it lost two key seniors, Kevin Coble and

Jeff Ryan, to season-ending injuries.

Instead, nine straight wins since a 67-54 loss to Butler on Nov.

18 have earned the Wildcats their first spot in the AP poll since

January 1969.

“It’s nice recognition for what the guys have done so far,”

coach Bill Carmody said. “I hadn’t even thought about it, to tell

you the truth. I think it’s good for the guys. You’re going along

all this time and it’s someone saying, ‘you guys have done pretty

well so far.'”

Northwestern has won with defense (58.9 points per game allowed,

second in the conference) and by taking care of the basketball

(11.5 turnovers per game, among the nation’s top 25), but it’s also

shown it can score even without Coble, who averaged a team-high

15.5 points in 2008-09.

Junior point guard Michael Thompson (16.7 ppg) leads the way,

but sophomore forward John Shurna (15.9) has been the team’s most

pleasant surprise. Shurna scored 22 in a 70-62 win over Stanford on

Dec. 19, then had a career-high 29 – shooting 12 of 16 – in a 74-54

victory over Central Connecticut State on Dec. 22.

The Wildcats went 5 of 22 from 3-point range but connected on 22

of 29 shots from inside the arc. Their two-point field-goal

percentage (55.6) is among the nation’s top 20.

That’s all led to a start that’s Northwestern’s best since the

1982-83 team opened 11-1. It hasn’t won 10 in a row since the

1930-31 team started with 14 straight wins.

“It just shows that our team is very mature. Everyone stepped

up, we came together,” Thompson said. “We’re just working hard and

having fun doing it.”

Staying in the Top 25 could be a major challenge for the

Wildcats. They’ve lost 10 straight to Illinois (8-4) and have

dropped their last seven in Champaign by an average of 22.8

points.

These teams played a tight contest in their lone meeting last

season, but that loss in Evanston ranked among Northwestern’s

toughest to swallow in years. The Wildcats led 57-43 late in the

second half before Illinois rallied to win 60-59 behind 21 points

from Demetri McCamey.

“I’ve been in it 30 years now, and (that’s) one I’ll definitely

remember for a long time,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

Weber will want to forget the Illini’s last two contests.

Following a four-game winning streak, Illinois fell 70-67 to

struggling Georgia on Dec. 19 and 81-68 to Missouri on Dec. 23.

McCamey leads the Illini in scoring (14.1), assists (5.4) and

steals (1.7), but they’ve been successful when freshman guard D.J.

Richardson has played well. They’re 1-4 when Richardson scores 11

or fewer, and he’s shot 28.2 percent in those games.

Northwestern, which hosts No. 11 Michigan State on Saturday, has

lost three straight conference openers. Illinois has dropped two of

three.