CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Following a bounce-back win after a two-game skid, the Illini are looking to stay on track against their in-state Big Ten rival Northwestern.
With back-to-back stinging losses against Penn State and No. 17 Indiana, Illinois toughened out a much-needed win over an inferior Minnesota team Monday night. RJ Melendez, whose season has been full of struggles, proved to be the unlikely hero against the Gophers with his first-career double-double.
“We as coaches, myself, have never given up on RJ,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “We’ve always been in his corner, no one’s wanted him to do well more than us.”
Looking ahead to the Wildcats, the Illini have a tough matchup against yet another ranked Big Ten opponent. Northwestern is led by its guards who take a ton of shots. The Cats score 20% of their points from the line and their bench is very productive.
Despite the challenges ahead, Illini players are welcoming the difficult matchup.
“That’s a very good backcourt, older guys, smart, they can play,” said freshman guard Jayden Epps. “I feel like it’ll be a great challenge for us.”
This is a very different Illini squad from the last time they played the Wildcats. That Jan. 4 game was the last in which freshman guard Skyy Clark played before taking a leave from the program.
“We were going through the entire process of restructuring and redoing some things,” Underwood said. “I hope we’re doing it better [now].”
With just four regular season games remaining, Illinois is looking for a strong finish ahead of the postseason. In order for tournament success and a run in March, the Illini need to just take things one day at a time.
“Coach always just tells us take it game by game,” Epps said. “The next game is the most important game so we can’t look at the tournament or seeding.”
While the players may not be paying much attention to standings (or so they say), a string of wins to close out the season would give the Illini a much better starting position in the Big Dance just a few weeks from now.