Can Illini Maintain Focus For Northwestern?

The Fighting Illini basketball team renewed its quest for a Big 10 championship by topping Michigan State. The team fires up for top opponents. The question now is, can the Illini maintain that level of intensity for a return match against Northwestern Sunday in the Assembly Hall? The Illini won a close one in Evanston, but that will be reversed without great effort.

Illinois ended a three game losing streak by out-fighting a strong Michigan State team Tuesday. Coach Bruce Weber appreciated the effort his players put out to achieve success.

"We played very good defense; obviously, it was a physical game. I kind of laughed that the Blue-Out was a black and blue game.

"I thought we had a pretty good game plan defensively. We did some things we haven't done before or hadn't been tried against them. I thought our kids went out and really executed it well. It wasn't a thing of beauty, but when you get three stops at the end against Michigan State and hold them to 24%, it was a pretty good accomplishment.

"I think the whole tone of the game was set by Tracy Abrams, diving on the floor, throwing his body at a loose ball. That became contagious. If we would have done that a few other games, we'd be up at the top of the league. I hope we've learned from those other games and are making progress."

Which team will show up for the Northwestern game Sunday at the Assembly Hall? Will it be the team that used hustle and athleticism to outlast strong Ohio State and Michigan State teams? Or will it fall flat like in Happy Valley? Weber wants to know the answers also.

"It was a good win. Now, where do you go from there? We talked about maturity game number two. After our Ohio State win, we did not respond very well at Penn State. Our immaturity cost us there, and you still could have won the game. But we didn't.

"Now how do our guys respond? Do we keep playing this hard, do we keep defending and then hope some shots fall in? Somewhere here, we have to make some shots. I hope it's Sunday afternoon."

The Illini have hit only 6 of 38 three point attempts in their last two games. That poor percentage won't win many games or put fear in opponents. Northwestern has gone almost exclusively to a zone defense recently, and Weber knows a zone will face his team Sunday.

"I would bet money that Northwestern will jump out in a 1-3-1 zone, and they're going to sit in that until we figure it out. We've had some success against them and against their zones, but we are going to have to do it on Sunday."

If anything, the Illini need to eschew the three pointer in favor of attacking the hoop and setting up teammates for midrange shots. But the temptation will be great to jack up a bunch of open three pointers, hoping that doing the same thing will somehow produce different results.

Unfortunately, several Illini are non-threats from the outside, so opponents sag to clog the middle and dare them to shoot. When someone asked Weber how to counter defense used against Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams recently, he didn't stop with those two.

"And Sam (Maniscalco), and, and... One, you make some shots. The other thing is, we have to move the basketball. What's more, we have to move bodies. Whether you like to watch Wisconsin or not, that's what they do. They continually move the basketball side-to-side. Sooner or later, a guy gets a layup because somebody got lost, or the defense gets screwed up."

Like what happened with Chester Frazier several years ago when opponents didn't respect his outside shot, some Illini become hesitant and uncertain when ignored. Weber says Bertrand is particularly vulnerable now that opponents have blocked his patented drives.

"The one way we've gotten stagnant when people haven't guarded us, I think they just freeze. I hope you learn as it goes. Joe has got to learn to catch and shoot. Find gaps. We have to create space when that happens. And if we make shots, it makes it tougher to do that."

The Illini also have a challenge defensively against the Wildcats. John Shurna leads the Big 10 in scoring, and Drew Crawford is right behind.

"We have to do a good job of defending Shurna and Crawford. They're the leading scorers in the league. When they get going and start making threes, they're very tough to deal with."

Brandon Paul did yeoman work on Shurna second half of the game at Evanston. He feels he can perform a similar function Sunday.

"I was just aggressive. I didn't let him catch the ball easily and made him take pressure shots. My goal is to hold him under 10 points. That's what I'm looking forward to doing."

Besides their two main scorers, the Wildcats pose problems for young teams with their Princeton-style offense. It takes awhile to teach younger players how to defend them properly according to Weber.

"They're very good at threes, and they're very good at lane drives. They put you in a bind, they get movement, movement, and then they're going to drive you and kick. The better contain that you have, the better. And then you have to know who the shooters are. You have to guard."

Northwestern played only six players in its last game, and that trend may continue. But those who play are experienced.

"(Luka) Mirkovic has been hurt. We don't think he's going to play, although we don't know that for a fact. He gave them inside presence. I think they still rely on Shurna and Crawford. (David) Sobolewski has been very solid. I think the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league.

"I think since (Reggie) Hearn has played major minutes, it allows him to do some things. (Davide) Curletti had the huge game against Michigan State where he played really well. He's a very physical, aggressive guy. And then (Alex) Marcotullio has been a real solid guard that can make some threes."

Illini chances are enhanced if they can force the Wildcats to use their bench.

"You hope they can get where they have to go into their depth. That's why I think they'll play 1-3-1 and keep themselves out of foul trouble. Make us shoot the basketball."

D.J. Richardson's wrist is feeling better. He hopes to break out of his recent slump; he has been taking extra shots to get his form back. He agrees with Weber on the importance of maintaining maximum effort every game the rest of the season.

"We want to keep getting better in practice. Take no steps back. We came out and played hard against Michigan State and Minnesota, and we've got to play hard this weekend against Northwestern."

Paul is encouraged by the effort in practices this week.

"We really fought against Michigan State, played hard. We won it at the end, and we are trying to capitalize on it. We really got after it in practice getting ready for Northwestern. Like coach said, this is a character game. We've got to fight it out for all 40 minutes.

"Northwestern is a good team, and they're not going to be easy to beat. We've got to focus on what we need to do to play better than we did last time at their place."

Paul hopes a vocal crowd will help remind the Illini to play tough Sunday.

"We are more focused; we can't afford to lose another home game. I think the fans always do a great job showing up for us. Every play is gonna count."

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