"I think we're a better team then when we played in game one, but we've got to communicate like we've been communicating and be as tough as we have been lately and resilient," Illinois Coach John Groce said. "Obviously we know it's not easy to win on the road, but our guys are looking forward to the challenge of playing Northwestern."
Northwestern defeated Illinois 68-54 at the Assembly Hall Jan. 17, earning the victory during a stretch of games where the Illini lost eight of 10 games.
The Wildcats jumped out to a 10-3 lead and built a 17-point advantage in the first half. The slow start frustrated senior Sam McLaurin as the Illini were unable to overcome the early deficit.
"I was thinking during the game, 'man, they're really carving us up right now,'" McLaurin said. "We couldn't stop anything they were doing. They shot the ball really well, too, so hopefully we can limit some of that."
Despite the previous result, the two teams appear to be on opposite paths heading into Sunday's matchup.
The Illini have won three straight, including upsets of No. 1 Indiana and at Minnesota and most recently a dominating performance versus Purdue. Groce says he's seen obvious improvement from his team since a Jan. 22 win at Nebraska, and there's still room to get better.
"I do feel like if you said to me, 'hey, do you feel like you're playing right now the best that you've played this particular year,' I think we are," he said.
"I think we've gotten better in a lot of areas, and I think the biggest thing is our guys are trusting the system more and one another more and starting to understand more what we're asking of them."
Northwestern, meanwhile, has dropped five of it's seven games since defeating Illinois. The Wildcats most recently played Ohio State with only seven scholarship players after starter Jared Swopshire had season-ending knee surgery. Swopshire was the fifth Northwestern player lost for the season, joining Drew Crawford (shoulder), Jershon Cobb (violation of team policy), Sanjay Lumpkin (wrist) and Chier Ajou (knee).
Despite the attrition, Illini senior D.J. Richardson said the game plan won't be tailored in an attempt to wear the Wildcats down. As evidenced by playing Ohio State close, the Wildcats are still playing at a high level.
"I know they're going to do a good job of running their system," Richardson said. "They're doing what they have to do to try to win. It will be an interesting game."
Entering the final portion of the regular season schedule, Illinois has previously played four of it's six remaining opponents. The rematch games have already begun -- the Illini are 2-1 in their second game against teams this season (wins against Minnesota, Purdue and a loss to Wisconsin). Starting with Northwestern Sunday, the Illini will make a push toward the Big Ten Tournament and beyond by beating the teams that they've already seen before.
"Obviously familiarity breeds contempt and knowledge of the opponent and what they're trying to do and you've played against their personnel before, but they've also played against yours," Groce said.