Illini basketball faces hot Northwestern squad

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Illinois’ Ahmad Starks (3) runs point during the game against Maryland at State Farm Center on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. The Illini won 64-57.

Ahmad Starks knows that it’s now or never. 

The senior point guard for the Illinois men’s basketball team has never made the NCAA tournament. With the Illini on the bubble for the second straight year going into their final conference games, the team knows a win against Northwestern on Saturday night at State Farm Center would be crucial. 

“This one’s in front of you,” Starks said. “If you let the game in front of you slip then it’s all bad news. We’ve got to take care of business tomorrow.”

Standing between Illinois (17-11, 7-8 Big Ten) and a much-needed win is Northwestern (14-14, 5-10), a team that has improved tremendously since the last time the two teams met and is currently riding a four-game winning streak. 

In their last four games, the Wildcats have received major contributions from their younger players, much like the Illini did last year. Although Illinois was heralded as one of the best shooting teams in the country coming into the year, it has been Northwestern that has buried 45 threes in its last four games. 

“They have a better rhythm to their offense compared to last time,” Hill said. “Their younger guys have gotten a lot better. They’re more confident on the offensive end.”

While Northwestern has strung together late-season, recognition-garnering wins, Illinois has dropped its last three games to teams above it in the Big Ten standings and tried to hold on to the NCAA tournament bubble.

Head coach John Groce attributes Northwestern’s recent success to the team’s improved shooting and confidence. 

Groce echoed Hill’s statement and said that the Wildcats are getting more solid contributions from their younger guys as the season has progressed, just as the Illini did last year.

“Different guys are doing it,” Groce said. “They’ve got some young guys that have stepped up and played well for them. They’re really clicking offensively.” 

Just as was the case last week, Groce said the Illini will need to put in a stronger effort defensively if the team wants to end the losing streak and get back on track against the Wildcats 

 “We’ve got to get back to being that team that plays really hard without fouling,” Groce said.

Groce added that while the Illini know the dangers of playing a hot team like the Wildcats, they aren’t shying away from the moment.

“We’ll have our hands full,” Groce said. “But we’re looking for the challenge.” 

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