Illini aim to tame Wildcats

By Lucas Deal

The Illinois men’s basketball team will try to end its first losing streak in over two years when it welcomes Northwestern to the Assembly Hall at 7 p.m.

The Illini opened the first half of the Big Ten season with a 6-2 record, but have since lost at home to Penn State and at Ohio State to fall to 6-4; one and a half games behind Iowa with only six to go.

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“We lost a game we were supposed to win, Penn State,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said Monday. “That wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst part was having to wait another week to play at Ohio State. It lingered.” He added that the two losses have put Illinois’ back up against the wall if it plans to challenge for first place.

“Are we going to be in the thick of the race, or are we going to be floundering?” he asked after Sunday’s loss in Columbus.

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    A win over Northwestern (12-10, 4-6) could spring the No. 14 Illini (20-4) back into contention while a loss would seriously threaten Weber’s chances of being the first coach to win three straight conference regular-season titles in his first three seasons.

    One thing Weber knows for sure is that his team must open tonight’s game aggressively, and not fall behind like they did against the Buckeyes.

    “You create luck by your energy level and competitiveness,” he said. “Did we battle with the energy I anticipated against Ohio State? No. Did they hit shots which were just ungodly? Yes. But all we can do is take care of ourselves.”

    This will be the second time the Illini have faced Northwestern this season. Dee Brown had 18 points and eight assists to lead the Illini to a 58-47 win over the Wildcats in Evanston last month.

    In the first game, Illinois held Northwestern and Big Ten scoring leader Vedran Vukusic to a season-low five points on 1-of-14 shooting, a performance Weber hopes his team can duplicate.

    “Their offense goes through Vukusic, and we did a nice job on him,” he said. “They’ve had some positive games (recently) and they’re a team coming off two wins, I hope our guys know that.”

    Illinois has won its last five games against the Wildcats dating back to a 70-60 loss in Evanston in 2004, which also happened to be the second game of Illinois’ last losing streak. The Illini have an incredible 73-9 record since the loss.

    “We are very excited by the success we’ve had,” Weber said of the past three seasons. But that success has also made this losing streak even harder to comprehend.

    “People are alarmed, we’re alarmed,” he said. “It’s something we’ve got to deal with and we’ve got to figure out what to do. We need great fan energy and positive energy on Wednesday. That would probably be the best medicine.”