Northwestern threatens Illinois' latest chance to keep a good thing going

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Illinois head coach Bruce Weber talks with his players against Minnesota during an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Illinois is hoping its game Sunday against Northwestern in Champaign doesn’t turn into Groundhog Day, where it again loses after beating a top-10 opponent.

The Illini (16-6, 5-4 Big Ten) beat No.  9 Michigan State 42-41 in Champaign on Tuesday, but the last time they upset a highly ranked team – Ohio State on Jan.  10 – they went on a three-game losing streak.

How the Illini respond after the Michigan State upset could predict the rest of the Big Ten season. Heading into this week – with games coming up at Indiana on Thursday and at Michigan on Saturday – they need more signature victories to quiet critics who want coach Bruce Weber fired and to all but assure themselves a bid in the NCAA tournament.

The Illini also need to have better shot selection. They shot only 32.6 percent against Michigan State and had to come from behind after blowing a six-point lead.

‘‘They played a bunch of one-point games, too, and I don’t think there will be any surprises,” said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, who’s trying to keep the Wildcats from being swept in the season series. ‘‘Their team is pretty athletic, and they have the big guy [Meyers Leonard] in the middle.”

Matching up with the 7-1 Leonard is going to be a problem for NU (13-8, 3-6), which is trying to make do with a limited bench. Center Luka Mirkovic is day-to-day with a sprained left ankle that has kept him out of two games, a 58-56 loss to Purdue on Jan. 28 and an 84-74 victory against Nebraska on Thursday. Mirkovic did practice during the week.

Guard JerShon Cobb is also out with discomfort in his left leg, and Carmody isn’t sure when he’ll return. Cobb practiced during the week but was limited.

Carmody used only six players against Nebraska, with Davide Curletti coming off the bench, playing 28 minutes and contributing eight assists. John Shurna played the entire 40 minutes and scored a game-high 28 points, while Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski each logged 38 minutes.

Weber knows he has to take Crawford and Shurna out of their games early. Shurna is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.4 points per game; Crawford is third at 17.4.

The last time the teams met, a 57-56 Illini victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Jan. 4 in Evanston, Shurna scored the bulk of his points in the first half and was limited to a three-pointer at the end of the game. Weber had put Brandon Paul on Shurna in the second half and might call on Paul earlier this time.

‘‘You have to stop [Crawford and Shurna],” Weber said. ‘‘I think Brandon has the strength and length to compete with [Shurna]. They’re just very good at threes and alley drives. I will bet you money that Northwestern will jump on the 1-3-1 and will sit on it until we figure it out.”

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