Illinois travels to face the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington Thursday night. The Hoosiers are 18-6 on the season, having defeated powerful Kentucky and Ohio State at home in their best season in recent memory. Visitors rarely win in Assembly Hall, and this is just the first of four away games in the next five for the beleaguered Illini squad.
After Indiana, they travel to Michigan. A home date with Purdue is followed by road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Illini coach Bruce Weber knew about this long in advance, but that doesn't make it any easier to survive.
"When I initially looked at the Big Ten schedule, I knew this would be a tough stretch for anybody, including us. It's a big challenge to play four of five on the road with the great balance in the league. We have to really step up and find a way to get three wins. That's all there is to it."
Fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament, the Illini must find a way to win games. The odds are severely packed against them tonight. While the Hoosiers struggled the past three years, their squad members gained valuable experience. They paid their dues. Now they have a talented big man in Cody Zeller (6'-11", 230) to compliment their perimeter marksmen. Weber says it is hard to double up on Zeller because of Indiana's outside excellence.
"He's a difference-maker for them. They've got older guys, guys who've been in the system for awhile. They understand how to play. Zeller makes a big difference. That was the thing they were missing last year when they lost a lot of close games. They really didn't have the true inside threat.
"He's versatile, and in a way he's similar to Meyers (Leonard). He has good mobility and can run the court. He has pretty good skills and can score around the basket. For Meyers to go against Zeller, it will be a good matchup.
"With certain lineups, you can help with some guys. But at other times, when you've got a Jordan Huls (6'-0", 181) shooting threes well, and also Christian Watford (6'-9", 225) at times, and then when you get (Matt) Roth (6'-3", 185) in there, how do you do it? He's shooting 55% from three, so you've got to find him. You have to play one-on-one."
A look at the statistics demonstrates clearly the problem at hand for the Illini. Besides Roth, Huls is hitting 48.5% from three, Will Sheehey (6'-6", 200) 44.8%, Watford 43.8%, and Derek Elston (6'-9", 225), who backs up Zeller, enjoys 56.3% marksmanship from deep.
Overall, the Hoosiers are shooting a remarkable 49.5% from the field on the year and are even better at home. Zeller leads the team with 15 points a game. He is followed closely by Watford, Hulls and Victor Oladipo (6'-5", 214), all hitting double figures. Sheehey and Verdell Jones (6'-5", 195) aren't far behind at 9 and 8 points a game respectively. Elston and Roth are close to five a game.
The environment alone will provide a test for the young and desperate Illini team. The fans are right on top of you, and they don't like Illinois.
"It's a difficult place to play, and they have great fans. They've really stuck with them. They haven't won a lot of games over the last few years, but they've been as loud and boisterous as they've ever been. So you've got to give them credit for sticking with them."
Guard Brandon Paul believes the Illini can overcome the crowd.
"It's definitely tough over there. The fans are always real close over there, it's a huge atmosphere for them. But it can be done. I'm looking forward to it."
Leonard is also aware of the difficulty playing at Indiana.
"It's extremely intense. It's very loud; they have really good fans. I think their fans have more confidence in them this year than they had last year. I've heard people say they expect to be louder for Illinois than they were against Kentucky. It's going to be a big-time game. We just have to battle through the ups and downs and come out on top."
Illini wing Joe Bertrand echoes similar sentiments.
"The crowd is real good for them. They always make it hard for the other team. It's a great atmosphere, one of the toughest places to play. We've got to be focused and stay in our foxhole, stay together and pull that game out."
At least there are strong feelings on both sides. Weber hopes his team rises to the occasion in its yearly competition with a major rival. This is their only opportunity for bragging rights this season.
"It's one of our least favorite teams. We have an intense rivalry with them. It's a border war. It's a big game, and it goes way beyond my years. It's even more important this year because it's a single game. You don't get them back at home."
Can Illinois find a way to pull out a victory? Odds are severely against them, but Weber says it can happen under the proper circumstances.
"You need someone unexpected to give you a boost of energy and spirit by making shots early. That's what you need to win on the road and have a special game.
"I hope there's some consistency. We've got to battle and have that special intensity, that special will to win. It doesn't guarantee a winning game, but it gives you a chance."
Complicating matters is the pressure Illini coaches and players feel from fans over their inability to pull out close games and their perennial bubble status regarding the NCAA Tournament. Players want to win as badly as the fans, but the pressure can be counterproductive. Players tighten up and play worse under those circumstances. Of course, there are a number of Big 10 teams in the same boat.
"I'm frustrated when we lose, and we've had so many close games. From the beginning, we have had an inexperienced team. Only D.J. (Richardson) and Brandon had played major minutes. Now Meyers has become a major factor. Joe Bertrand, Tracy Abrams for a freshman. We hoped Sam (Maniscalco's) ankle would have been good for him to have a good year. Hopefully he can give us something down the stretch, for his own sake and for our sake.
"The hardest part probably is that we been so close over the last three seasons. It takes a toll on everybody. We've had 17 to 18 games that have been within six points, and the last eight have been under five. It's heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching for fans. I still think we have tremendous fans. I went to a high school game (Wednesday), and they were taking pictures of me and asking for autographs.
"What you need to do is keep a good spirit and stay positive with some young guys that are still learning. But there's a fine line, you still have to be demanding."
A recent concern for fans is the lack of substitutions during games. Weber faces a dilemma over whether to risk more losses by giving his young bench minutes or risk losing games at the end because his starters are tired. At least, his bench players appear to be accepting their limited roles better than some fans assume.
"They've really worked hard in practice. They've been great. Our young group works out very hard. After the (Northwestern) game, I talked to Nnanna (Egwu). The first thing he said was, 'I'm just so disappointed we didn't win the game.'
"It's a great group of freshmen. They have a special bond. They understand how much they have to get better and where they're at, and they're working it. Sometimes they have as much spirit on our team as anybody.
"Mike Shaw has been so encouraging, he has really helped everybody. He's the one who really hasn't gotten any minutes, but he's been as good a leader for the group as anybody."
Speaking for the whole team, Leonard claims the Illini haven't gotten down on themselves.
"We're okay. A couple of us sat down Tuesday and just talked. We realize that yet again, it's kind of a breaking point. We've got to try to steal a couple on the road. We were upset that Northwestern could come in here and beat us. It's unfortunate, but life goes on.
"We're certainly not going to get down on ourselves and allow that to be a determining factor for us against Indiana. Obviously, it's going to be a tough stretch for us. We've just got to try to fight through it. We have the talent, we have the players, but sometimes we just don't put it all together."
They need to put it together quickly to have a chance against the Hoosiers.