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    A Look Ahead - Illinois

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  Special Contributor Skip Myslenski previews Northwestern's game against Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday.


    * Point Dave Sobolewski took to cyberspace shortly after the 'Cats inspired performance Wednesday night at Ohio State. "Essentially, no matter who's healthy, we'll play with whoever we've got," he said when asked just what it was he tweeted.


    And why did he feel he had to send out that message?


    "I know what people are thinking," he said. "We're going to fold with all these injuries, just like they thought when Drew (Crawford) got hurt. That's not the case. We'll be OK. We'll keep fighting, keep defending, keep playing hard. We're not going to back down. No matter who we've got, no matter who's healthy, who's hurt, we're going to continue to play 'til the final buzzer of the last game of the year."


    * Pick any of the familiar analogies. The wounded animal. The cornered prey. The disparaged performer who gets no respect. Each of those images now befits the battered 'Cats. Yet even after their loss to the Buckeyes, and even with streaking Illinois set to visit Welsh-Ryan on Sunday, there is about them that sense of defiance reflected in Sobolewski's tweet. Yes. They may not have Crawford, their senior leader. And, yes again. They may not have Jared Swopshire, who was playing at an inspired level when he blew out his knee at Iowa. And, yes a third time. They may not have seven of the players on their original roster of 16.


    Still, says guard Reggie Hearn, "We're playing like a team that has nothing to lose. We've had so many injuries, everybody knows that, but we still have a lot of fight left in us. I think ever since Drew went down, it took us a couple games to find our rhythm, but we found it and now--even with Swop going out, which was a big blow--I think we have our team identity.


    "We're a resilient team. Like I said, we've had these injuries. But we're not going to use that as an excuse. I just think, overall, we have the intangibles of heart and hustle. That's something you've got to have in this game, and that's something we'll continue to bring to the table every night. We're not going to give up. We're going to continue to work hard and push through any adversity and do everything we can to make this a good season."


    * 'Cat coach Bill Carmody is not given to histrionics or florid speeches. "I have a low pulse rate. I'm pretty calm about it. You go with what you're given. That's what you do," he will say when asked about his feelings during this injury-ravaged season. But later, when asked about Sobolewski's tweet and that attitude of defiance we sense in his team, he recalled his message to it before it faced the Buckeyes.


    "I told them, 'OK, you're not expected to win going to Ohio State. People think you're going to get crushed,'" he said here. "I said, 'Look, all the coaching staff has played a lot of basketball. All you guys have. You've all been in games in the playground, in the park, in high school, AAU, where you've been underdogs. Not quite David and Goliath. But no way. And you win. So what's different about this?' So I said, 'You gotta compete. That's all there is to it. You play hard. You have ability. That's all you've got to do. Compete. Then see where it ends up after 40 minutes.'"


    * True freshman Kale Abrahamson competed against the Buckeyes and nicked them for 13 points in his 34 minutes of work. Redshirt freshman Tre Demps also competed against them and finished with 16 points in 32 minutes. In a perfect world, a world full of healthy 'Cats, neither would have seen that much time. So one other point Carmody made a day after that game is worth noting as well. "These guys were recruited," he reminded here. "Even though we played three freshmen in the starting lineup, they were recruited to play. Now they're getting their chance and I think they played well."


    * The 'Cats, a month ago, played better than well when they defeated the Illini down in Champaign. They defended with purpose. They drained open shots. They built an early lead and controlled the game to the end. Illinois is playing at a higher level than it was back then. Still, if the 'Cats hope to sweep their in-state rival, they must again follow that formula. They must defend with purpose, drain their open shots and control the game's tempo with their offense.


    * Illinois is averaging eight three-point field goals a game, second best in the Big Ten. The 'Cats are averaging 7.8, third best. That is another Xs-and-Os area to watch on Sunday.


    * Carmody says center Alex Olah, who missed the Ohio State game after suffering a concussion at Iowa, "Doesn't have a headache and is feeling better." But he was not certain if he would be cleared to play against the Illini.


    * But, in the end, the playbook and healthy bodies are peripheral issues with these 'Cats. For now, with them, the bottom line is their intransigence, their refusal to buckle under all the adversity that has befallen them. "We've really made it a priority to come together and, through the adversity, to continue to play as hard as we can and come out each night and give it our all," says Sobolewski, who shall get the last word here. "(The Ohio State game) obviously didn't end up the way we would have liked. But we fought. We fought hard."

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