"Our State. Our Team," Illinois likes to respond.
Two simple marketing slogans say a lot about the mindsets of two programs that compete on and off the field over things like fans and turf, to name a couple. The state of Illinois' Big Ten bragging rights will again be on the line Sunday night when Northwestern plays host to the Fighting Illini.
The Wildcats boast wins in the teams' two most recent matchups dating back to last season. However, they'll meet a sizzling Illini team in midst of a three-game win streak, which includes a signature victory over then-top-ranked Indiana. Under new head coach John Groce, often-streaky Illinois appears to have found its mojo once more.
"They're playing as well as they played in November and December," said Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. "They're beating good teams and shooting the ball well. It's not a completely different team but they're certainly playing at a higher level."
Northwestern heads into the game severely shorthanded, with Jared Swopshire's season-ending injury the latest setback in a season full of them. Alex Olah remains questionable with concussion symptoms. Only nine players are likely to be in uniform for Sunday's game.
Nevertheless, the gritty Wildcats push onward, and Thursday's team effort in a loss to Ohio State showed they wouldn't be folding anytime soon. Illinois will face a team determined to put up more than just a fight.
"The last few years we've seen some very good games between the two of us," said senior guard Reggie Hearn. "We know that they're hot right now, but I think we also have been playing pretty well as a team. I think it'll be another good game in the span of the rivalry."
Behind 20 points from Hearn, Northwestern knocked off the Illini 68-54 in Champaign January 17. Although the Wildcats feature a different-look rotation, their philosophy will remain largely the same. The challenge will be executing in the same manner with a relatively untested lineup.
"Our defense was awesome," said point guard Dave Sobolewski, who tallied 10 points and six assists in the first victory. "We knocked down open shots to start the game. We played really tough, got to the loose balls and rebounded well. If we can do those same things, we feel like we've got a good chance."
With such a short bench to work with Thursday, Bill Carmody surprised many by turning to a 2-3 zone, a gamble intended to keep players out of foul trouble and challenge Ohio State's shooters. Illinois' reliance on the three-ball could make that strategy difficult to pull off.
"When they're playing well, [D.J.] Richardson and [Brandon] Paul are making threes," said Carmody. "Now [Tyler] Griffey's really feeling good. That's their offense—they were banging threes and beating good clubs, and that's what they're doing now."
Both sides will be well-prepared on Sunday. In a growing rivalry, neither will lack motivation. And given Illinois' large Chicago fan base, it's safe to say Welsh-Ryan will be louder than normal, one way or the other.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere in here," said guard Tre Demps. "[Probably] a lot of Illinois fans, but with this kind of rivalry I think both teams can be excited. I think we'll be ready to go."
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