Though Illinois and Northwestern are in two very different places right now, they'll be looking for the same thing Sunday night in Evanston.
Both teams could use bounce-back performances when the rivals meet for the lone time this season. The Illini are coming off a horrific, 95-70 blowout loss to No. 4 Wisconsin on Wednesday, while the Wildcats are looking to rebound from a season's worth of disappointing performances. The Illini are ranked and looking to pile up some Big Ten wins, the Cats still looking for their first Big Ten win. Two different directions, but the same goal: win.
"It's going to be an exciting game. I think the biggest thing is just be ready for the atmosphere, be ready for the excitement in the building. We really have to be excited for this game and come in and be ready for a 40-minute fight," Northwestern senior Drew Crawford said earlier this week.
The Illini were embarrassed Wednesday at the the Kohl Center, something not uncommon for foes of the Badgers in their home arena. But Wisconsin poured in 95 points, nearly 35 points higher than the Illini had been letting up per game. Illinois has thrived on defense so far this season, though that game was not an example of that style of play, with the Badgers going on a 20-0 run in the first half to put the game out of reach early. For the Illini, taking care of business against a weak Northwestern team would show that Wednesday's defeat was simply the product of playing one of the nation's elite teams. It could show that the No. 23 ranking handed out to the Illini on Monday should still be there a week later.
To do that, the orange and blue could use another big performance from Rayvonte Rice, still leading the Big Ten in scoring with 18.8 points per game. Rice poured in 19 points and hauled in nine rebounds against the Badgers, a great stat line in a game that was well out of hand for the duration.
On the defensive side, a bounce-back performance seems likely, as Northwestern has been the conference's lowest-scoring team.
Chris Collins' Northwestern team, meanwhile, could use a win — any win — in a season that's been plagued with losses. The Cats are losers of seven of their past 10 games, including all three Big Ten contests to date. And, despite a trio of tough opponents in Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, the deficits in those three games have been huge. Northwestern has lost the three tilts by a combined 76 points. Offensive ineptitude hasn't helped. Crawford ranks 12th in the league in scoring with 15.7 points per game, but the rest of his team is averaging just 48.9 points per game.
"Outside of Drew, guys are struggling to put it in the basket, and we've got to find some more consistency with some other guys and take some of that off Drew's plate so he just doesn't get worn out every game," Collins said on Monday's Big Ten coaches teleconference.
It's why a win against rival Illinois would be so huge. The Cats, while they had their problems out of conference, as well, don't get any kind of break during the Big Ten schedule. After the Illini it's Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and so on. The tough games just keep on coming. While John Groce needs to get his team a win to keep things going, Collins needs one to get something started.
"Certainly you don't want to bank yourself on having all these moral victories. That's not really how I operate," Collins said on the teleconference. "It's a bottom line, you go into a battle, and you either win or you lose. So that's been tough, especially the last couple games. But I did see a lot of progress from our first game to our second game. The guys are fighting. Our attitude is good. I feel like we are executing, we're just having a hard time putting the ball in the basket right now, which just wears on you mentally as a player. I remember when I played, you go through a stretch where you're having a hard time scoring, no matter what it affects the other areas of your game.
"There has been progress. I love the attitude of our guys. No one has stopped fighting, we're still preparing hard. Guys are still excited to play, and it's my job to keep that going. And we need to then show some signs with wins. You want to see progress, but at the end of the day you've got to do it for 40 minutes and you've got to win a game. So that's our next challenge, and in this league that's not easy. Every game you play, you're playing great teams, you're playing teams that are really well coached, well prepared. So it's going to take great effort on our part to be able to get that done."
The Wildcats and Illini tip off at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.