Northwestern Trip Presents Stiff Challenge

Reeling from a two game losing streak, the Fighting Illini basketball team travels to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats 7:00pm Saturday. The Illini squeaked by NU at home in overtime, so they will have a battle on their hands.

Both Illinois and Northwestern are in two-game slides, so both will play like their backs are against the wall. It is an important game for the Illini, as they have three road games out of the next four.

"We have a big stretch coming up starting with Northwestern on the road, a team that has played pretty good basketball all season," Illinois coach Bruce Weber reminds. "They got it handed to them a little bit the other night but have played well at home. We had a hard-fought game with them at home in the Big 10 opener, an overtime game where they shot a lot of threes.

"They won't shoot as many threes, at least they have cut that back it looks like. But they're still pretty efficient. They have three pretty good players in (John) Shurna, Drew Crawford and (Michael) Thompson. And then some guys that have really played their roles.

"They have some players that have worked at it, they've improved, they understand the system, they're committed. Their kids really worked at it this summer. They have some dedicated guys in the program, and it's really showed up big with their success."

The Wildcats have a strong perimeter game, but they are still able to compete for rebounds. The Illini lost the board battle to Purdue Tuesday, but NW grabbed 19 more rebounds than Purdue in their last encounter. Weber knows his Illini need to continue working on rebounding.

"If you go back, they beat us pretty handily. At least, they got a lot of offensive rebounds. Shurna makes an effort to go to the glass, (Jeremy) Nash goes to the glass now. Even Luka (Murkovic) does. So you've got some guys you've got to pay some attention to and block out. They are definitely more aggressive on the boards than they used to be."

Freshman guard Drew Crawford has come on like gangbusters in recent games and is now Northwestern's second leading scorer. But it is the 6'-8" Shurna who is their mainstay according to Weber.

"He earned a spot on the (USA) team. He played real well. I think that was a big confidence builder for him. Shurna's got a little orneriness to him. He doesn't back down, and he definitely showed it last summer when we were at Colorado Springs. They won the gold medal too, and he was part of that. Both Coach (Chris) Lowrey and Matt (Painter) said he did a great job for them."

The Illini will have to play a full 40 minutes and get contributions from all five starters and the bench to win. It would also help if they play smart on defense, something they've done only periodically thus far in the season.

Several Illini players commented on the Northwestern game Thursday.

* Brandon Paul: "They're a good team. They play good at home, and it's gonna be a tough one. We found a way to win in our house, and now we've got to go to their place and play smart. Play all 40 minutes.

"Their offense is very creative. They do a lot of screens and cuts. We've got to be focused on defense. If you fall asleep, they're gonna get a basket.

"We've got to get one back. We shouldn't have lost at home. I feel this is one of the biggest games. We just have to key in on one game at a time.

"I've got some friends coming to the game. I'm looking forward to playing in front of the crowd. It's gonna be a tough crowd, but the place is gonna be packed, and we really need this one."

* Mike Davis: "They're coming off a two game skid, so you know they're gonna be ready to play. Ohio State took it to them, so their coach is gonna get after them this week. Saturday night is gonna be a tough game for us if we don't come out ready. We need to jump on them early.

"We have to come prepared. They play four guards and Luka down low. I'll have to guard a wing player. Nash had a pretty good game against me last time.

"We have three out of four on the road. I think if we play our game and play Illinois basketball, we can win all four. Our goal right now is to win those four and come out 8-2 after those four games."

* Demetri McCamey: "We know we're playing against a good Northwestern team. We've got really good teams in this league. It's real competitive.

"We need Mike (Tisdale) and Brandon to come along and provide some scoring for us as well as defensive stops and rebounds they're good at. We're gonna need to be good as a whole against Northwestern."

* Mike Tisdale: "Yeah (good first game is a confidence boost). I'm not going in there thinking I have to score 31, but just being a contributor would be helpful for a change. I've just got to be ready to play and stay out of foul trouble.

"Their coach is a really intelligent guy. He knows what he's doing. He's gonna try to change it up a little bit, make it awkward on us. They know how to change, and they're good."

* Jeff Jordan: "They're a good team. We definitely need to contain them, and we need to contest their threes as well. They're obviously good shooters.

"We're gonna need to come in and bring a lot of energy. Our guys are definitely gonna need to guard and as much as possible contain their offense because they're gonna bring it to you.

"They run a lot more than they've done in the past. We've got to take into account all the things they've improved on, just try to do our best to stop them. They've been playing well all year. Hopefully, we can come in with a lot of energy and match them.

"I definitely think we're gonna have to shade the three point line a little more. You always have to guard for the backdoor because their offense is so potent. We've got to take into account their dribble penetration and their threes.

"Yeah, it's crazy (having so many UI fans in the stands). It's a fun environment. The gym's not as big as you'd expect it to be, but it's a split environment. It gets real loud in there and echos. It's always a fun game for us.

"Drew's been playing well. We've got to watch him. He's even gotten better since we played them. So you've got to account for him and obviously Mike Thompson and Shurna. We just have to do our best to contain them as much as possible."

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