Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber is working to help his players learn from their mistakes at Purdue and regain the form that helped them to some big early wins. It was tough for them to watch that loss, but it was a necessary evil.
"A disappointing performance against Purdue, especially when you had a chance to catch them when Robbie Hummel was a little slowed. Their other guys stepped up. We didn't play with great energy, and we didn't take care of the ball again.
"For some of our guys, it was a really tough environment to play in. A learning experience. Hopefully we can come with better energy Wednesday night."
They will need every bit of energy they can muster to subdue Northwestern at home. They have two outstanding players plus a style that is difficult to counteract on short notice.
"They have two very good players in John Shurna (6'-9", 215 senior) and Drew Crawford (6'-5", 210 junior), the leading scorers in the league. An experienced big man in Mirkovic (Luka, 6'-11", 245 senior), who can be physical at times. And then the young freshman point guard Sobolewski (Dave, 6'-1", 185) has played well, been pretty much solid all year. He had a couple big scoring outings for them. It will be a good challenge for us."
The Wildcats miss their point guard leader from last year, and promising sophomore Jershon Cobb (6'-5", 205) is just rounding into form after early injuries. It is possible the Illini can take advantage of a deeper bench.
"They lost Michael Thompson. Sobolewski so far has been pretty productive, but he's not as good as Michael Thompson. The question will be whether they have some depth. They've had some injuries with Cobb and a couple other guys. If they can get where they have 7-8 guys, I think they can be just as productive as they were last year."
Northwestern has never played in an NCAA tournament before. But the last few years they have been good enough to knock on the door, especially at home.
"They haven't had a chance to make the big jump and get into the NCAA tournament, but they're very competitive in the league in the last 5-7 years. You've got to deal with their system. They've done a better job of identifying players in recruiting that fit their system and developing those guys.
"They're a tough opponent to deal with for anybody. And then when you add in it's a huge game for them...it's a rivalry game, so you have to add that into the mix."
Shurna leads the league in scoring at 18.7 points a game. He also pulls down 6 rebounds, hands out nearly 3 assists a game and shoots .429 from the arc. Crawford isn't far behind at 17.9 points a game. He hands out more than 2 assists a game and is also an excellent three point shooter. Sobolewski raised his scoring average to 8.8 with a 20 point outburst against Penn State. He also has a better than 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Mirkovic is next on the team at 7.7 points a game. He averages more than four boards and 2 assists. Junior starting guard Reggie Hearn (6'-4", 210) averages 5 points a game. Junior Alex Marcotullio (6'-3", 185) sees plenty of time in the backcourt. Senior Davide Curletti (6'-9", 230) relieves Mirkovic. Senior Batavia native Nick Freundt (6'-5", 205) also sees playing time.
Weber would love to use more of his bench. But Northwestern's unique style requires more preparatory work than may be available to the Illini this week.
"One, can they guard their stuff and recognize it? They had a chance to go against Richmond, so it's not totally new. Richmond had some pretty good quality players, but now you're going up against a Shurna and a Crawford. They are set up well in the system.
"If we can use our bench and get after them, I think it could be an advantage for us. But when they go in the game, they've got to recognize situations. The other thing, you've got to deal with all of Northwestern's different defenses and how they react to that."
The Illini have problems of their own to resolve. Opponents are recognizing individual weaknesses and game-planning against them. And they are double and triple-teaming center Meyers Leonard, who could beat them singlehandedly if given the opening. The Illini did a poor job getting Leonard the ball at Purdue, and Leonard's emotions got the better of him.
"We've just got to perform better. We didn't get a whole lot out of Meyers. Some of that was how they guarded him, and then I think he let it get to him a little bit. We've got to get back to where he's running the court.
"We've got to get it inside, but if they're gonna pack it in we're gonna have to go from outside in, move the basketball. We're gonna have to do a better job of seeing him when he's open and recognizing situations."
Leonard says he has to be more mature each game despite the physical play working against him.
"That's the way it is. Everyone knows they're gonna try to come at me, get me frustrated. I've got to be ready for it, be stronger especially on the road. I know I'm not gonna get any calls."
The Illini hoped Sam Maniscalco could solidify the team as an experienced point guard. But he is a fraction of his former self due to chronic complications from two ankle surgeries. He is becoming a nonfactor during the Big 10 season.
"I think it's day to day right now," Weber laments. "He's had limited practice. He continues to meet with the trainers and doctors, looking for any possible way to keep him going. He had made some progress, but that one stretch right before Christmas probably took a toll on him.
"You hope he doesn't have to sit out. He will gut it out if he can, but if it gets to a point where he can't really use the ankle, there's a chance we may have to sit him."
Primarily due to all the youth on the team, the Illini are still learning offensive complexities. If opponents take away the things they do well, they struggle finding alternative paths to scoring.
They will work on overcoming Purdue's defensive tendencies, but the Wildcats may present a new set of problems. If so, there is concern whether they can adapt within the structure of the game to counter those defensive decisions and prevent another loss. Junior guard D.J. Richardson summed things up well.
"Yeah, they did a pretty good job of adjusting during the game. We need to change the mindset of the game and do different things without the coach having to tell us. We've got to be better basketball players."
Leonard says the team is not giving up on the season. Far from it. The Purdue embarrassment makes them more determined to improve.
"We're hungry, definitely. We're gonna move on from it and get better. I just know we have to put forth more effort. We weren't very aggressive at Purdue. We struggled and had some bad body language, including myself. We're working hard in practice, hoping to get back to our old style."
Illini junior Brandon Paul reminds that no one on the team has won a game in the Chicago area.
"A win would be our first one. That's something we look forward to."
It's a big game, one the Illini need for multiple reasons.