Illini ready for Land of Lincoln showdown

By Jeremy Werner

Illinois has Indiana and possibly Wisconsin to butt heads with, but over the years, the Illini have lacked a true intrastate rival.

The Illini have dominated their in-state conference foe to the north, sporting a 125-34 all-time record against Northwestern. Illinois carries a nine-game winning streak against the Wildcats into Thursday’s matchup and have won three-straight games at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We’d like to get to the point where we can make that a real rivalry because they’ve beaten us an awful lot,” Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said.

But the Illini are preparing for a different type of Northwestern team this season on, of all days, the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

The Wildcats (13-8, 4-6 Big Ten) have won five of their last seven games, including four straight at home. Northwestern finds itself in the mix for a shot at its first postseason bid since a 1999 NIT appearance.

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“They’ve definitely been playing as well as they have since I’ve been at Illinois,” senior guard Trent Meacham said. “They’re a tough team, a tough matchup.”

The Illini will have to prepare for different looks on both sides of the ball. Northwestern runs a Princeton-style offense, stressing constant motion and backdoor cuts, and a 1-3-1 zone on defense.

“It’s a different style offensive and defensively,” Meacham said. “They really make you guard. Defensively, their half-court trap has been causing teams fits. We’re going to have to really get ready for them because it’s going to be a lot different ball game than we’re used to.”

Northwestern has notched some big victories this season, including home games against Minnesota and Wisconsin and at Michigan State, thanks to its high-powered offense. The Wildcats lead the league in 3-point percentage (39.1 percent).

“They shoot quick sometimes,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “They’re going to surprise you. It could be one pass and quick shot or they’ll fast break. And at other times, they’ll put the breaks on and run the offense for a while. Then you have to deal with that.”

The Wildcats are led by a trio of shooters. Senior Craig Moore (15.3 points per game) averages 8.5 3-point attempts per game and converts at a rate of 42.7 percent, third in the Big Ten. Junior Kevin Coble (15.2 points) has seven games of 20-plus points, including a 31-point performance in the Michigan State win, while sophomore Michael Thompson (10.0 points) is also capable of putting together big games.

Weber said he has not decided whom Illini defensive stopper Chester Frazier will defend, though the senior guard has plenty of experience guarding lanky scorers like the 6-foot-8 Coble.

“Those three guys are the main guys,” Weber said. “But when they win … it’s because the other guys make plays. That’s what we got to realize, that we can’t take anyone for granted. We haven’t played well on the road. They’re right behind us to be honest.”

Weber told his players that the Feb. 1 win against Iowa and this week’s games on the road against Northwestern and Indiana, three games that looked like gimmes when the schedule was released, are the most important games of the season. He said they could make the difference between Big Ten title contention and a middle-of-the-pack finish.

“We got to get these two (games), most definitely,” sophomore Demetri McCamey said. “These are going to make or break our season right here. Winning road games will help us get us momentum to finish the year off strong, so I think it’s an important week for Illini basketball.”