Can Illini Overcome Road Jinx At NW?

The Fighting Illini basketball team has proven it is tough to beat at home. Now, it must prove it can win on the road. With so many top teams losing away games, and the parity of the Big 10 at an all-time high, any travel date is fraught with peril. Northwestern has revenge on its mind as the Illini travel to Evanston for a Saturday game. The Illini must play extremely well to win.

College basketball coaches must be flexible to get the most out of their teams. Sometimes they must push, sometimes they must loosen the reins. Sometimes they must become intense to get players' attention, sometimes they must be nurturing parents and soothe frayed nerves.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber has recently been dealing with several players who are in slumps and losing confidence. He must find a way to encourage them and get them to forget their personal misery.

"We've had to do more of the massaging because we've had some guys in slumps. It's not just one guy or two, it's two or three or four. That's where you try to talk to them, 'Hey, you're fine. This is what you need to do.' You give them two or three things to focus on. I know Mike Davis has really done that, and it's helped him."

But Weber must also be a catalyst to help his team remain strong and focused in late game situations, especially on the road. The Illini could have won several additional games if they hadn't tightened up at crunch time. Weber has had to use a more demanding approach during recent practices to help them correct this problem.

"In practice, if anything we've cut back on practice but tried to be tougher and more demanding in what they do. We've got to get tough and have discipline, especially in gut-check time. If we can continue and be consistent, add that to our mix, the mental toughness, the discipline, the paying attention to details. If we can do all those things, we can have a good finish to our season."

That must begin at Evanston against Northwestern Saturday. Illinois had an amazing game at home against the Wildcats, who now are determined to reverse their embarrassing loss. Weber wants his players to remember what they did right at the Assembly Hall while preparing mentally for a tougher battle this time.

"It's gonna be a totally different game. Our guys know we lost (in Evanston) last year after having an 8 point lead midway through the second half.

"I talked to our guys about the fact we did something that in 106 years of Illinois basketball no one else has ever done, shooting 70 some percent. The part we have to remember is we did a great job defensively. We've got to match that energy. I don't expect us to shoot 70% again, but how did we get those shots? That's the other part we've got to remember."

The players appear to be getting the message. Senior center Mike Tisdale understands how much better the Wildcats play at home.

"We did play pretty well against them first time when we shot lights out. We can't expect it to be that way. We expect a tough game, a close game.

"It's tough to go up to Northwestern and win a game. Ohio State had trouble there. Going up there, we're gonna have to have the right mindset, play hard and try to get a win."

Brandon Paul also appears focused on the task at hand.

"We shot real well last time at home, but at their place they can turn around and shoot just as good as we did, if not better. We're prepared for that. We're gonna prepare to come out and play defense."

It appeared the Illini may have taken a couple teams lightly this season and paid the price. Weber reminds that no team in the Big 10 will lay down and let you walk over it without a fight.

"There's very good parity. When we lost to Penn State, everybody said it was a major catastrophe. It ends up they're a pretty good team. And after our loss to Indiana, they took Michigan State to overtime and beat Minnesota. The one definite is that it's more difficult to win on the road.

"It's still disappointing for us that both at Penn State and Indiana, we had chances to win ball games and didn't do that. It has put us in a difficult situation, and we're gonna have to have a great finish. I might add it's not just our league, it's around the country.

"We're gonna get their best shot. We're a big rival of theirs. It's a Saturday game, CBS, a lot of things at stake. I know we're gonna get their best shot, I hope our guys do too."

The Illini put on an offensive clinic against Northwestern first time, similar to the teamwork and ball movement they displayed in dispatching Penn State at the Assembly Hall Tuesday. They shot a high percentage, but they created many layups and dunks through teamwork. They must do the same on the road while emphasizing quality defense.

"We know what Northwestern's gonna do," Weber reminds. "We've got to emphasize our defensive concepts, especially when the noise gets going. Can you have the discipline to continue doing the things you need to do?

"We've done a better job rebounding, which allows us to limit the other team's points. Our defense has been pretty cut in. D.J. (Richardson) has to take that role of being a stopper. There were a couple games there where he was so worried about his shooting (he let it affect his defense).

"When you have D.J. and Brandon as two guys who can really limit top players, and then you have the smarts of a Billy Cole who can guard a variety of people, it definitely helps our defense."

Weber assumes NW star Jon Shurna will play despite a recent concussion and lingering effects of a high ankle sprain. He and two teammates can get shots in tough situations, something the Illini must guard against.

"Overall, he's the leading three point shooter in the country, and they rely on three-point shooting to spread defenses. Everybody shoots better at home, including their team.

"He can create a basket. Juice Thompson can do that, (Drew) Crawford can do it. If you have three guys who can go create a basket at gut-check time, it makes it much easier on your offense."

Who plays better in the clutch wins games. For Illinois, it is still a work in progress.

"In the gut-check parts of the game, we've got to make plays. Whether you've got a lead and you've got to sustain it, or (you're behind), making the plays, doing the little things that sustain, getting the stops. That's how you win on the road."

Demetri McCamey is the only Illini player who has demonstrated these abilities late in games. Unfortunately, Weber reminds McCamey is one of the Illini suffering through a mind-numbing slump.

"It's tough on him. He's frustrated. We're trying to get him to relax. I've talked to him about running the team and getting it to the people, let the game come to him. Try to focus on other things, other people, energy.

"Hopefully we can get him going. He's a key for us. He's a guy that can make plays for us. It would be nice to get him out of the funk."

Tisdale knows how big a rivalry this game is, especially for Northwestern.

"The rivalry means something. We're both Illinois schools, we're both in the Big 10. We're all gonna go in there hopefully with the right mindset they're gonna come ready to play. It should be an exciting game."

Paul will have family and friends in the crowd supporting him. He also realizes the importance of the rivalry.

"Yeah, definitely. It's an in-state team, and it's always been a big rivalry with us. We can't take them lightly. We've got to compete."

Freshman Jereme Richmond isn't familiar with the rivalry. He will have his supporters watching, but there is only one thing important to him.

"It's gonna be fun, but we've got to get a win. That's all I'm focused on right now. It's a familiar area, and there'll be family and friends in the crowd, but we've got to get a win. Coach is having us play one game at a time. We took care of Penn State, now the next one is Northwestern."

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