Eastern Illinois (0-0) at Northwestern (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, November 9, 8:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Welsh-Ryan Arena (8,117) -- Evanston, Illinois. Television: BTN. Home Record: EIU 0-0, NU 0-0. Away Record: EIU 0-0, NU 0-0. Neutral Record: EIU 0-0, NU 0-0. Conference Record: EIU 0-0, NU 0-0. Series Record: Northwestern leads, 1-0.
GAME NOTES: The Northwestern Wildcats will attempt to put the memories from a poor showing last season behind them, as they tip off the 2013-14 campaign with a matchup against the Eastern Illinois Panthers at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
In Jay Spoonhour's first season as EIU's head coach in 2012-13, the team went just 11-21 overall and 6-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Despite the disappointing record, however, the Panthers were still good enough to qualify for the OVC Tournament for the first time since 2010, although they lost to Southeast Missouri State in the first round, 78-68.
Northwestern had shown sustained success recently, finishing with 17 or more wins each year from 2009-12, but last season the club went a disappointing 13-19 overall (4-14 Big Ten), a record which prompted the firing of 13-year head coach Bill Carmody. The Wildcats, who are the only team from a major conference to never make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, hired former Duke assistant Chris Collins to take over the program.
In the only previous meeting between these two teams, Northwestern defeated Eeastern Illinois on Dec. 18, 2011, 87-72.
While EIU managed to score just 60.4 points per game a season ago, there's hope for improvement in 2013-14 thanks to the return of three starters. Sherman Blanford (10.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Josh Piper (10.2 ppg) are both experienced forwards, with Piper adding a nice touch from beyond the arc (52- of-134, .388). Alex Austin (9.3 ppg) will be the top option in the backcourt after averaging 9.3 points per game as a freshman. Luke Piotrowski (6-foot-11. 240 pounds) was granted a waiver from the NCAA making him eligible this season after transferring from Richmond. He'll join his brother Mat (7-foot-2, 265 pounds) to form one of the most physically imposing frontcourts in the OVC.
Northwestern should see an improvement this season if Drew Crawford can stay healthy. The 6-foot-5 swingman was averaging 13.5 points per game in 10 contests last season before being lost for the season with a shoulder injury. The Wildcats were 7-3 with Crawford in the lineup and just 6-16 without him. Dave Sobolewski (9.8 ppg) returns as the team's point guard after tallying more than twice as many assists (127) as turnovers (60) in 2012-13. Jared Swopshire (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Alex Olah (6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 0.9 bpg) make up sturdy foundation in the frontcourt. JerShon Cobb, a former top recruit at guard, was suspended all of last season for violating team rules but is slated to make his long-awaited return.
With a new head coach and a solid core of returning players, the intrigue surrounding this year's Northwestern squad is high, and while it remains to be seen if the Wildcats can make a surprise run in a tough Big Ten, they should have no problem getting off to a 1-0 start.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 72, Eastern Illinois 61
11/09 10:38:32 ET