Illinois coach Bruce Weber makes it sound easy: The Illini have to win some games in February, and that’s all there is to it.
The Illini begin a tough stretch Thursday, when they head to Indiana for a matchup with the 23rd-ranked Hoosiers (7, BTN, 560-AM). Four of Illinois’ next five games are on the road.
“We gotta win the fight, and the fight has to come with the intensity and battle and the will to win,” Weber said. “[Indiana] is not one of my favorite teams, and there’s no doubt we have an intense rivalry with them. It’s a border war with Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, and they’ve battled through the years. It’s a big game, and it goes beyond my years.”
Illinois (16-7, 5-5) has won five of its last six against Indiana, but the Hoosiers are surging with upset victoriesover No. 1 Kentucky onDec. 10 and Ohio State on Dec. 31, both at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
A key matchup is going to be 6-11 freshman forward Cody Zeller against 7-1 center Meyers Leonard. Zeller leads Indiana in scoring at 15.1 points per game and rebounding at 6.4, and his field-goal percentage of 64.9 leads the Big Ten and is fourth nationally.
“I said since the beginning of the year, Indiana and Iowa, even though they were in the bottom of the pack last year, they were going to be factors, and it’s come true,” Weber said. “Zeller makes a big difference. That’s what they were missing when they got close last year. He’s similar to Meyers.”
But Indiana coach Tom Crean doesn’t want to make comparisons between the big men.
“I don’t look at them in the same light, and I don’t know Meyers like that,” Crean said. “I’m not good with comparisons. The game comes down to how Indiana plays against Illinois. If there is one common theme, I’d say they’re both pretty skilled for their size.”
Going to Indiana (18-6, 6-6) and then to Michigan on Saturday might put Weber in a better environment, away from Illini fans who want him gone at the end of the season. Weber, though, says he doesn’t hear the critics.
“I thought our fans have been great,” Weber said. “The hardest part is that we’ve been so close over the past three seasons, and that takes a toll on everybody. It’s heart-wrenching for me and for the fans. But I went to a high school game [Tuesday night], and no one threw anything at me – at least that I know of.”