Indiana coach Tom Crean has done a remarkable job with a team filled with newcomers and walkons. Despite their poor record (6-17, 1-10 in Big 10 play), the Hoosiers haven't given up on themselves but continue to fight every game. Illinois coach Bruce Weber is impressed.
"I am amazed how he (Crean) has continually got them up for games. They have great enthusiasm, and they play very hard. They play well in the first half, and it takes a toll. They catch teams with their guard down a little bit, no matter what the coaches say, and they're able to jump on them, especially at home.
"They've had 20 point leads, 8-10 point leads against good people at home. He gets them to play at a high level. They had Minnesota by one point in the second half at Minnesota Tuesday night. Minnesota goes on a 14 or 12 to 2 run to ice the game in the last 10-11 minutes.
"He's done a good job with them. Their freshmen make mistakes, they turn it over, but they don't hang their heads. They keep coming back. They play a little bit loose and free because there isn't a lot of pressure. They're all learning and trying to figure it out."
Illinois won easily in Champaign, 76-45. The Hoosiers were mad afterward and eager for redemption. Weber realizes the return matchup will not be a cakewalk.
"The big thing was we shot it so well early. We dumped on them, and they turned it over a few times. And then they were never able to respond.
"Michigan State jumped on them the second half Saturday. But theyve been in most games, at least into the second half. Shooting makes you look better, but we haven't shot real well on the road. They beat Iowa by a bigger margin than us right after us."
Indiana's leading scorer is Devan Dumas. He missed the bus and was not in the starting lineup the first time around. And then he sprained his ankle in the first half. He did not play in Indiana's last game as he was suspended for throwing an elbow in the game before that. Weber expects Dumas to be back in the lineup Sunday.
"Dumas had a huge game against Iowa with 27 points, 5 of 5 from three. When they played Northwestern down to the last possession, he played well. He made shots for them in that game. He's their go-to guy. I'm not sure what the situation is with him with playing. We've just got to prepare for him to play in the game on Sunday."
Champaign's own Verdell Jones III has also picked up his game of late. Showing more muscle definition with his slender body, Verdell is asserting himself more on penetrations and showing confidence with his outside shot. Being a long time Illini fan, he will certainly be fired up for this matchup.
Another fired up Hoosier will be fellow freshman Matt Roth from Washington, Illinois. A great natural shooter, he exploded recently against Ohio State by depositing 9 of 11 three point attempts plus two free throws for 29 points. He made some from beyond the NBA three point line as he became unconscious. If he gets off to a hot start, look out.
The game is a sellout, and the Indiana crowd is always hostile toward a visitor, especially bitter rival Illinois. Forward Mike Davis knows it is a tough place to play.
"They've gotten better since we played them last time. They're a good team at home. It's gonna be crazy. It's a heated rivalry, the Eric Gordon situation and all that. It's gonna be a great game."
Illinois center Mike Tisdale also understands the difficulty of facing the Indiana crowd.
"Anytime you play Indiana at their place, it's tough. It's a big crowd, and they get loud. You've got to fight hard. After the last game, they're gonna come out and be ready to play. We've got to do the same."
Guard Trent Meacham expands on the same theme.
"I'm sure it's gonna be rowdy. It's gonna be a lot tougher this game. We're gonna expect a hostile environment. They're gonna come out with everything they have, and we have to come out with the same intensity.
"They're playing everybody tough. They just beat Iowa. It's not gonna be an easy game. I think we knew that even after the last time we played them."
Illinois players can repeat the coach's mantras. The real questions are, can they really take Indiana seriously despite their meager record? And can they bounce back with energy after the emotions associated with the Northwestern comeback? Coach Weber wants to know that also.
"They watch, they know, but can they convince themselves? That will be the key thing."