Pruitt could return for conference matchup Sunday

By Jeff LaBelle and Jason Grodsky

If the Illini’s guesswork Friday is any indication, senior center Shaun Pruitt might – scratch that – could play in Sunday’s game against the Northwestern Wildcats.

Slapped with a suspension, the big man sat the bench and watched his teammates fall to Ohio State 64-58 Tuesday night and may be held out again if the coaching staff deems it necessary.

As of Friday’s practice, teammates could only speculate if their anchor would see the court against a wildcard Wildcats team, one that played well against Michigan State Thursday but remains winless in the conference.

“I’m not sure that he is (playing), but if so I know he’ll be a help to us on offense,” guard Calvin Brock said.

“I really don’t know,” guard Trent Meacham added minutes later. “I would think he would (play), but I have no idea. Hopefully he will be but we’ll see what happens.

“Right now we just want to win on Sunday night and go from there.”

Illinois Assistant Athletic Director and team spokesman Kent Brown ruled out academics or violation with the law as reasons for the suspension.

“We haven’t talked about it as a team or with the coaches,” Brian Randle said. “We’ve been meeting periodically about keeping our spirits up, staying together as a team. Whatever, good things and bad things happen, we still go hard, we still play together.”

Pruitt’s suspension ended a streak of 87 consecutive starts, but the Illini’s biggest force inside could be back on the court Sunday against Northwestern if he has the attitude Weber is looking for.

“We hope he has a positive attitude and we get him back involved with us because we need him,” Weber said after the Illini’s loss to the Buckeyes. “But we need him with a good, positive attitude.”

Without Pruitt, the Illini lacked the inside scoring it has grown accustom to, getting only four points and three rebounds from replacement starter freshman Mike Tisdale.

Illinois will look for production inside this weekend against a Northwestern team that is last in the conference in every rebounding category. Northwestern is the only winless team in the Big Ten and rank last in the conference in field goal percentage defense (46.6 percent) and second to last in scoring defense (67 points per game).

But while the Illini’s biggest scoring threat and potential will be in the paint Sunday, it’s been getting the ball inside that has given Illinois the biggest problem in their last two losses.

The Illini have turned the ball over 34 times in the last two games against Purdue and Ohio State, 21 and 13 in each, respectively.

“It’s definitely been frustrating losing all these games,” Meacham said. “I think you have to stay positive and come to practice every day to work hard and improve.

“We got to pick it up.”

Unfortunately for the Illini, they welcome the team with the best turnover margin in the Big Ten to the Assembly Hall. The Wildcats own a conference best plus-5.47 turnover margin and 1.51 assist to turnover ratio. Northwestern is also second in the conference in steal, averaging just over nine per game.