Northwestern Wildcats (12-12, 7-6) vs. #23/#24 Illinois Fighting Illini (19-5, 10-3) Saturday, February 28, 2004 at 1:30 PM CT Assembly Hall, Champaign, IL
The Fighting Illini have many good reasons for wanting to beat the Northwestern Wildcats in Champaign on Saturday afternoon. It's the final home game of the year for Illinois and the rest of the players want to make sure to give lone senior Jerrance Howard plenty of playing time in front of an appreciative Illini Nation. Also, the Illini need to win to keep pace with Michigan State in the race for a Big Ten conference championship. Plus, it's always good to defeat an in-state rival.
However, there is one motivating factor that is most likely first and foremost in the thoughts of the Illini players: REVENGE.
Northwestern upset the Illini in Evanston on January 14th by the score of 70-60. The loss knocked Illinois out of the Top 25 and they only recently made their way back in to the rankings.
In that game, Illinois built a 12-point lead in the first half and went into the break leading 38-29. The Illini shooting game went cold in the second half when Illinois continuously settled for three-point shots that failed to fall. Backup forward Davor Duvancic scored a career-high 22 points to guide Bill Carmody's squad. Wildcats Jitim Young scored 15 points while T.J. Parker added 13 points.
Dee Brown was the top scorer for Illinois with 19 points on 7 of 18 shooting from the field. Bruce Weber's team could only manage to shoot a dismal 38% field goal percentage.
However, that was then, and this is now. This Illini team is playing like a completely different group than the one that failed to perform at Welsh-Ryan Arena in January. Illinois has won seven straight games and is close to winning at least a share of the Big Ten conference title and getting a strong seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Illini are coming off a dominant performance in Iowa City on Wednesday night. The Fighting Illini ruled the court and the Orange Krush ruled the stands as Illinois thrashed Iowa 78-59. Illinois' trifecta of starting guards, Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head combined for 47 points, 23 rebounds and 20 assists. If they did that on an opponent's home court, imagine what they will do in front of the orange-clad faithful in Champaign on Saturday.
With upsets over Illinois and Wisconsin, Northwestern has proved that they can beat the elite teams in the Big Ten. But, with the way the Illini are playing, it would take the Illinois National Guard to keep them away from a conference championship. Look for things to go as planned on Saturday as the Illini close out another successful campaign at the Assembly Hall.
Patton's Prediction: Illinois 82, Northwestern 59