Over the past three seasons, the Wildcats and Fighting Illini have split the regular season series each year. During that time, all but one of those contests have come down to crucial final possessions that decided the outcome.
In 2012, the road teams came out of the other team's stadium victorious. Meyers Leonard blocked Drew Crawford's shot at the buzzer in Evanston, while John Shurna and Reggie Hearn helped the Wildcats end their losing streak in Champaign.
Both Leonard and Shurna are no longer with their respective teams, however both squads do return pretty much everyone else. Illinois does have a new head coach this season in John Groce, while Bill Carmody remains on the Wildcats sideline.
Pretty much each of the matchups I'm about to describe were a toss up. While both team's starting lineups are still to be determined, the backcourts seem to be set while the frontcourts could change. Now, who is Chicago's Big Ten team?
As a freshman, Egwu averaged 1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds in only 9.8 minutes playing behind Leonard at center. After Leonard's departure for the NBA, the slim Illini frontcourt may call on Egwu to take a much bigger role as a sophomore.
While you can't expect Egwu to take the same leap that Leonard did between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he will be improved. What Egwu lacks in experience, he will make up for in shot blocking, effort, and hustle.
Cerina joins the Wildcats after redshirting last season, in accordance with NCAA transfer rules. As a sophomore at TCU, Cerina averaged 5.4 and 4.1 rebounds in 20 minutes of playing time. He also averaged three fouls, a high number for only playing half the game.
While Cerina will help the Wildcat frontcourt, the rugged play of the Big Ten could make him miss the run-and-gun style of the Mountain West. Cerina's sophomore year numbers were nearly identical to that of his freshman season, leaving little room for improvement.
While Cerina is more accomplished than Egwu at this point in their careers, Egwu's potential gives him the edge over maxed-out Cerina. Cerina could even have some competition winning the starting center role, as the Wildcats have finally added some size to their roster.
Edge: Illinois (Egwu)
Before transferring to Illinois, McLaurin played at Coastal Carolina. As a fifth-year senior, he will not have to sit a season before playing for the Fighting Illini. This is the second straight season that Illinois has picked up a graduate player named Sam, although fans hope this one will work out better.
McLaurin averaged 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds last season in almost 30 minutes a game. He has steadily increased his production every year, and while the Big Ten may give him an adjustment period, he has the skill necessary to compete and perform well.
Swopshire is in the exact same position as McLaurin, coming to play in Evanston for only one season. During his time at Louisville, Swopshire was a part of a Final Four and Elite Eight team and brings a winning culture to Northwestern.
Swopshire sat out the entire 2010-11 season and has never really recovered from the injury. Both his minutes and production were nearly half of what they were as a sophomore, and he lost the explosive leaping ability that he once had.
While Swopshire played in a tougher conference than McLaurin, McLaurin was much more productive a year ago. If Swopshire becomes his old self this could change, but for now I'm picking McLaurin in this battle.
Edge: Illinois (McLaurin)
Paul certainly had an up-and-down junior season. Scoring 43 points in an upset win at home against Ohio State may have been the worst thing that ever happened to him, though. Paul and Illinois sputtered down the stretch last season, capped off by a four point and seven turnover effort against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.
Paul still averaged 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists and should be Illinois' top player as a senior. He definitely has the skill set needed to thrive in this league—he just needs to play smarter. Cutting down his 3.4 turnovers per game would be a start, while he also needs to take the ball to the basket more than just launching contested three pointers.
After solid freshman and sophomore seasons, Crawford broke out as a junior and averaged 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in nearly 35 minutes of PT. He and Shurna also formed one of the nation's top scoring duos.
Crawford now becomes the go-to-guy as a senior. He's at his best when he is driving to the basket, although he shot an impressive 41 percent from deep last season. If the Wildcats decide to play small, Crawford could even see some time at power forward.
Unlike in 2009 when Paul edged Crawford in Illinois' Mr. Basketball voting, Crawford gets the slight edge here. While both players are extremely talented, Crawford is a much more consistent and team-oriented player.
Edge: Northwestern (Crawford)
Richardson shared the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors with Crawford back in 2010, but Richardson has not improved nearly as much in the following two years. In fact, Richardson averaged more points as a freshman (10.5) than his current career average (10.1).
His numbers through three seasons in Champaign are all very close, although his three-point percentage has gone down each year. Richardson rarely takes the ball to the basket, yet has been shooting too inconsistently to count on each night. He is a solid player defensively, though.
Cobb missed a majority of his sophomore season due to injury, but his play down the stretch last year should leave Wildcat fans optimistic about his future. Cobb scored 13, 24, and 19 points in consecutive games in March after only returning from his injury in mid-February.
Cobb needs to become Northwestern's second scorer, which I believe he'll have no problem doing. He can create for himself and has a decent outside game, although his jumper is a tad flat. Cobb also anchors the top of the 1-3-1 zone that Northwestern is famous for using.
Although Richardson's numbers having been slightly better the past two seasons, he has also played a lot more than Cobb. While I don't see Richardson improving anymore, I see Cobb becoming a breakout player this year—assuming he can stay healthy.
Edge: Northwestern (Cobb)
Abrams became the Fighting Illini's starting point guard after the New Year as only a freshman. Abrams averaged only 4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 21.1 minutes, but doesn't get enough credit for his on-the-ball defense.
Abrams is also a great leader and sometimes appeared to be the only player who cared when Illinois' losing streak piled up last season. Although not a big time scorer, Abrams should be more productive in all areas as a sophomore.
Despite fading down the stretch a year ago, Sobolewski was selected to the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team. He ran the Princeton offense as a true freshman and helped ease the pain of losing Michael "Juice" Thompson the year before.
Sobolewski averaged 8.3 points, 3.7 assists, and 2.6 rebounds a year ago, while also averaging only 1.4 turnovers in 35.2 minutes of action. Sobolewski has started every game in his collegiate career thus far and hopes to keep that streak alive.
While I see more potential and room for improvement in Abrams' game, Sobolewski is too solid and perfect for Northwestern's offense to argue against here. Sobolewski outplayed Abrams as freshmen, so until that changes, Sobo gets the nod.
Edge: Northwestern (Sobolewski)
Despite close calls in each matchup, Northwestern is given a 3-2 edge. Both team's strengths are their backcourts, which made each decision difficult. While Bill Carmody has not gotten Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament yet, no other Wildcats coach has either.
John Groce comes to Champaign after a stint as the head coach at Ohio University where the team advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012. Despite Groce's success, Carmody has more experience as a head coach in the much more competitive Big Ten. Groce does, however, have experience in the Big Ten, as he formerly assisted Thad Matta at Ohio State.
The only sure bet off the Illinois bench in 2012-13 is Joseph Bertrand. Tyler Griffey and Myke Henry should also expect to see the floor every game. Northwestern, on the other hand, may have their deepest team ever.
Alex Marcotullio has been a key reserve—and even an important starter sometimes—his whole career. Reggie Hearn also started every game last season, even as a former walk-on. Freshman Kale Abrahamson could also see significant playing time.
As much as it pains me to do this, I am going to predict a better season from Northwestern than Illinois this upcoming season. As a recent graduate and lifelong fan of the U of I, though, I realize that the team is in a rebuilding stage. My current projection has Northwestern finishing eighth in the Big Ten, while Illinois lands in 10th.