Gameday Central | Northwestern at No. 13 Illinois; 1 p.m., BTN | Sports

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Follow along with beat writer Scott Richey all afternoon from State Farm Center as the Illini try to hold on to solo first place in the Big Ten:

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Class of 2023 point guard Kylan Boswell isn’t the only prospective recruit in attendance for today’s game. Class of 2023 forward Cooper Koch is also here with his dad, J.R., who played at Iowa in the late 1990s and then overseas for a few years. Cooper is a sophomore at Peoria Notre Dame and has offers from about a third of the Big Ten, Illinois included, so far in his recruitment.

Illinois recruiting target sharpening inside-out game

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How do Illinois and Northwestern match up from an analytics standpoint? Let’s take a look (using Bart Torvik’s numbers):

β€” The Illini rank 18th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Wildcats check in at 45th and 70th, respectively.

β€” That disparity hits a different level when it comes to effective field goal percentage (and EFG% allowed). Illinois’s EFG% is 53.9 percent, which is good for 36th nationally, and the Illini are ranked 13th in allowing their opponents to rack up an EFG% of 44.7 percent.Β 

Northwestern’s EFG% is 49.6 percent, which sits 190th in the country. The Wildcats’ opponents have put up an EFG% of 49.3, which puts Chris Collins’ team 145th nationally.

β€” The only area where Illinois isn’t at least near the national average is forcing turnovers. The Illini rank 327th nationally (out of 358 Division I teams) with a defensive turnover percentage of 15.4 percent.

β€” Northwestern has a one clear area where they fall among the country’s worst. The Wildcats don’t get to the free throw line that well (ranked 310th in free throw rate), and they also send their opponents to the free throw line frequently (319th in that side of free throw rate).

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Illinois lost its grasp on solo first place Tuesday with its double-digit loss at Purdue. It turned into a three-way tie at the top, with the Illini, Boilermakers and Wisconsin all claiming a piece of the early February Big Ten title race lead.

Five days later? Illinois is back in first place all by itself. Purdue got thumped by Michigan, and Wisconsin was the latest to experience how good Rutgers can apparently be at the “Trapezoid of Terror.”

Don’t be surprised if that’s how the rest of the last month of the Big Ten season plays out. The Illini’s half game lead on Purdue and Wisconsin is tenuous, and they can give it away if they don’t show up today against Northwestern. Back to a three-way tie, and Michigan State would only be a half game back itself.

Losing a home game to the 10th best team in the league is a surefire way to make the Big Ten title hunt even more difficult than it already will be. Because that’s still the goal for Illinois. Last year’s runner-up finish to Michigan (and that’s what it was) stung. Josh Whitman’s strongly worded letter to the Big Ten was evidence enough of that.

So don’t lose to Northwestern. Simple as that. Maybe. Illinois squeaked out a three-point win after Boo Buie’s buzzer-beating three that didn’t mean anything other than for margin of victory.

There’s extra motivation to win today, too. Class of 2023 five-star point guard Kylan Boswell β€” a former Urbana Middle School star β€” is on an official visit. Always a good idea to put your best foot forward with a star recruit on campus. (Even if Kofi Cockburn still committed after witnessing Illinois lose to Florida Atlantic).

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