BY JIM COTTER
It’s amazing what a little bit of success can do to the morale of a basketball team.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team was mired in the midst of a losing streak that saw them drop six of seven games, and the outlook for a return to the NCAA Tournament looked bleak at best.
But that is all in the past now, as the Illini have won their last three games, including quality wins over No. 1 Indiana and at Minnesota.
The Fighting Illini (18-8 overall, 5-7 in Big Ten play), take on the Northwestern Wildcats later tonight in Evanston, and they are trying to avenge a 68-54 defeat at home that put the Illini near the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
In that game, Wildcat transfer Jared Swopshire scored 12 points, and hit several key shots for them. But Swopshire is now lost for the season, and Northwestern has just seven healthy scholarship players on their roster.
As for the Illini players, that first meeting with Northwestern is still fresh in their minds.
Illinois senior transfer Sam McLaurin praised the Wildcats the first time around.
“They carved us up pretty well, and they also shot the ball well,” McLaurin said. “We need to learn how to play better against these teams that have beaten us the first time.”
Illini senior D. J. Richardson, who has been playing well during this stretch of games, thinks that the depleted roster for Northwestern won’t affect them too much.
“Any time you have a team of seven or eight guys, and you know you’re not going to get subs that much, you just pretty much focus on playing basketball.” Richardson said.
In the first game against the Wildcats, Richardson scored 21 points for the Illini in the loss.
Illini coach John Groce thinks that his team has progressed in the past few weeks, and is making strides.
“We are a better team the second time around than when we played them (Northwestern) the first time,” Groce said. “I don’t think that we have reached our full potential, which is a good thing.”
The Wildcats (13-12 overall, 4-8 in the Big Ten) have had their share of adversity this season, already losing Drew Crawford for the season with an injury and JerShon Cobb to academics. Now, with the addition of Swopshire to that list, it really puts Northwestern at a disadvantage.
Groce is amazed that despite all of the missing pieces for the Wildcats, that they still continue to play well.
“They (Northwestern) played very well the other night at Ohio State, and we will certainly have our hands full with them,” Groce said.
Game time this evening with Northwestern is set to tip-off at 6:30 p.m. and can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as on WDAN AM 1490 and WDNL FM 102.1 and statewide on the Illini Sports Network.