Illinois coach Bruce Weber has not been pleased with his team's road performance lately. He is looking to get his team playing on the road with the efficiency they played at home Sunday against Purdue.
"We need to see if we can carry that energy and intensity up to Evanston. It's a huge game for us and a huge game for them. We should have some fans there, so it should be a good atmosphere.
"We haven't played well the last two Thursdays, and we need to see if we can change that. I hope we got through to the guys after Wisconsin. I think the biggest message is we've got to come out and play hard and guard people."
The Wildcats have jelled this year under head coach Bill Carmody. Their talented upperclassmen have the intelligence and experience needed to run Carmody's unique offense, and their youngsters have provided a spark. Weber understands the difficulty of defending Northwestern, a team that has a higher scoring average than the Illini.
"They're scoring more points than they have. The unique thing with them is they are pushing it at times, and then at other times they'll run the clock like they have in the past. You've got to be prepared for both. They'll get a quick hitter out of their offense or a thirty second possession. It takes some discipline and toughness to be able to do that.
"We're not gonna be perfect. When you make mistakes, no matter what you've got to play basketball, you've got to react to help a teammate on defense. Or make the extra pass on offense and continue to attack them on the offensive glass. I think that'll be one of the keys to our success."
Northwestern is led by senior guard Craig Moore (6'-3", 185), junior forward Kevin Coble (6'-8", 210), and sophomore point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson (5'-10", 182). Moore is a three point shooter extraordinare who averages a team leading 15.3 points a game. Coble is perhaps the most multi-talented Wildcat and averages 15.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Thompson makes the offense run smoothly while adding 10 points and 3.9 assists per game.
Freshman forward Jon Shurna (6'-8", 210) and freshman center Kyle Rowley (7'-0", 280) round out the starting lineup. Shurna has been a big help to the Wildcats in his first season, averaging 7.2 and shooting well from the three point arc. Northwestern also gets help off their bench from Jeremy Nash (6'-4", 191), Luka Mirkovic (6'-11", 235), Ivan Peljusic (6'-8", 215), and Jeff Ryan (6'-6", 205) among others.
Weber discusses their talent.
"Moore is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. I hope he's gotten their attention. He's playing like a senior. He's playing very determined, very confident. He puts it up quick sometimes, and he's about 40% from three. That's pretty impressive.
"Coble's had huge games. We have had some success stopping him, but that was due to Brian Randle. Randle was a good matchup for him. And then Thompson had a good game against us last year. He penetrates and gets into the lane, he makes some threes. Those three guys are the main guys.
"When they've won, some of their guys off the bench have made plays. Against Wisconsin, Nash made a big shot down the stretch. We can't take anyone for granted. Each game, one guy will get eight. And then another game it's somebody else."
The Wildcats have made a statement defensively as well.
"Their zone is good. A year ago, when you lose you kind of lose your zest for the games. This year, they're playing their zone with a lot of energy. When Nash is at the point, it almost is like a trapping 1-3-1. They get a lot of steals and deflections out of it, which has created offense for them."
Bruce Weber likes and respects Bill Carmody, who has had a difficult time in Evanston.
"I think Bill is a good guy. For him to get those kids to respond the way they did after the Purdue game was really impressive. I always want the guys in our league to be successful.
"Bill has a tough job, everyone knows that. He's trying to keep his head above water, and he's got these guys playing well. It's tough to go against their scheme if you're not ready for it. They were 0-4 and were able to recover. That shows some character and toughness. I want to beat them Thursday night, but I hope he has success after that."
Illinois always has fan support in Evanston as Illini fans buy up extra tickets. But those tickets may be fewer this year, the result of a more competitive team. And the Northwestern student body is vocal and effective.
"I hope we have support. We've had it in the past. It's nice to go on the road and have people cheering for you. It gives you a little boost of energy.
"They've had some success, especially the last couple weeks, so I'm sure their people are excited. It's one of the best teams Bill has had in awhile.
"Their student section is a lot of fun. They're right on top of you. They are very humorous, I guess I will say tactfully. It's not an easy environment, and they have played well at home."
The Wildcats are 11-2 at home and playing with confidence. Weber knows it will be a tough assignment.
"We haven't played well on the road, and to be honest they're right behind us. They won road games at Michigan State and Minnesota. I hope our mental state is good. I don't want to go tentative and scared but aggressive and confident. I want to have a little bit of a knot in the stomach and good preparation."