NU's last men standing refuse to quit

Northwestern's lineup is depleted, with injuries injuries taking a toll on the team. However, those Wildcats still standing refuse to quit on this season. With that, hope remains.

You could make a starting lineup of injured Northwestern players.

If Jershon Cobb were an able point guard, that team might be competitive.

But the last men standing refuse to flinch.

The heated matchup with No. 13 Ohio State showed their resilience and dedication. It let Bill Carmody flex his coaching muscles, and you get the sense they're having fun proving everyone wrong.

When athletes hit Twitter after games, the results are mixed. Some seem preachy and clichéd. Others ring perfectly true, like when Dave Sobolewski tweeted yesterday: "Don't act surprised. We'll fight with whoever's healthy."

And so they have. The Wildcats prepare for Illinois, a team they beat 68-54 in Champaign on Jan. 17. This Sunday night, the rivalry returns to Evanston. Once again, NU has given its fans reasons for hope.

Demps Is Back

Tre Demps entered the starting lineup on Jan. 23. He was consistently scoring in double-digits at the time, and Kale Abrahamson struggled to make an immediate impact.

Oddly, his performance began to tail off. Before yesterday, he averaged 7.6 points as a starter on 32 percent shooting. Then, knowing that he needed to produce against Ohio State, he stepped up.

Demps scored 16 points, including a career-high four triples in the close loss.

"Obviously, I have to be a little more aggressive," Demps said. "I wanted to be able to make plays."

Kale Abrahamson also had what was arguably his strongest outing of the season. The freshman hit a trio of three-pointers. Carmody expected to include James Montgomery III in the rotation last night. He didn't have to.

"Kale and Tre were playing so well that I didn't think about putting him in," Carmody said.

Demps has been inconsistent in the past. The knock on him remains the same. He can be erratic and take too many shots. But if they're falling, Demps knows he can be an impact player on the offensive end.

It's time for him to make that a pattern.

Steady Defense

Illinois travels to Evanston hoping to build on an impressive three-game win streak. It began with a season-altering win against then-No. 1 Indiana on a memorable last-second layup.

They kept the momentum, winning at Minnesota and against a rapidly fading Purdue team. John Groce's team has learned to win any way it can, on the heels of several offensive threats.

NU held Illinois to 15 percent shooting from behind the arc in their last meeting. The Illini – then nationally ranked – fell behind by 15 points at the half and never responded to the surprising defensive intensity. Sobolewski said the Cats will take the same approach.

"It's going to take a great effort on the defensive end to beat these guys and slow them down," Sobolewski said.

Carmody, who has been coaching out of his mind in recent games, found success with the 2-3 zone against Ohio State. You can understand why the players trust he and his staff to make the correct adjustments.

"They've done an awesome job with schemes," Sobolewski said. "We feel comfortable doing whatever they think is the best."

Putting Pieces Together

More questions lie ahead. Whereas Ohio State had little idea of what to expect from NU on Thursday, Illinois can plan for the new-look Wildcats. A team with nine healthy players has obvious limitations.

Not only that, Illinois is playing its finest basketball of the season. Backs against the wall, with a 2-7 conference record, the Illini knocked off the best team in the country and refused to look back again. They are much stronger than the team NU faced just one month ago.

"It's not a different team," Carmody said, "but they're certainly playing at a higher level."

The Cats have been forced to adjust on the fly. After Drew Crawford underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, they nearly lost to Texas State – whose record fell to 7-18 last Saturday.

With surprise performances, especially the one from maligned center Mike Turner, NU avoided any post-injury letdown.

Regardless of who plays, Hearn knows the team can stay motivated. One thing is in their favor.

"We still have our team identity going forward," Hearn said.

They know they can still make it interesting.

Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline

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