Illinois has looked capable of winning the Big Ten title when it’s played at home, but has looked nothing like a contender once it’s left Champaign.
Perhaps a trip to Evanston will help change that perception.
The No. 22 Fighting Illini have won every home game and lost every road game they’ve played since the beginning of January, a trend they’ll hope to change on Thursday at Northwestern, where they’ll look for their 11th win in 12 visits.
Illinois (19-5, 7-4) kicked off its conference schedule with a huge road win, topping then-No. 9 Purdue 71-67 in overtime on Dec. 30.
Since that victory, though, the Illini have looked like two distinctly different teams - one that’s unbeatable at home and one that can’t win on the road.
Illinois is 6-0 at Assembly Hall in conference play, winning by an average of 15.9 points. Coach Bruce Weber’s team was even more dominant on Sunday against Purdue, getting 14 points and 16 rebounds from Mike Davis and playing suffocating defense in pulling off a season sweep of the Boilermakers with a 66-48 victory.
“The key for us was our defense and our effort,” Weber said. “We were able to get stops and get out in transition and get the crowd into it, and eventually broke their spirit.”
Davis is one of four Illini starters that averages between 10.2 and 12.1 points, and his 7.8 rebounds per game are tied with Michigan State’s Goran Suton for the conference lead. But Davis has been battling tonsillitis lately, as well as a related case of Bell’s palsy, ailments that Weber said “took a toll” mentally on the sophomore forward.
Davis has posted back-to-back double-doubles, though, and said he’s feeling better than he has in weeks.
“I’m getting my wind back,” he said. “I’m getting better and been hitting the weight room a little more and getting stronger and healthier.”
The Illini will head to Northwestern (13-8, 4-6) looking to end a four-game road losing streak. They’ve lost by an average of 13.0 points in those contests, getting just 8.0 points per game on 30.8 percent shooting from leading scorer Demetri McCamey.
The last two losses were particularly ugly. Illinois finished with its lowest point total in more than two decades on Jan. 29 in a 59-36 loss to Minnesota, then struggled again offensively last Thursday, falling 63-50 to Wisconsin.
The Illini have allowed nearly 15 points more on the road in Big Ten play than they have at home, a surprising discrepancy for a squad that’s among the five stingiest teams in the country, yielding 56.5 points per game overall.
Defense has been Illinois’ calling card in recent years against the Wildcats. The Illini have given up 48.0 points per game in winning nine straight against Northwestern, and yielded just 37 points in each of the last two meetings.
Illinois has won three straight and 10 of 11 in Evanston since 1995.
The Wildcats aren’t slouches on defense, either, allowing an average of 59.8 points to rank in the top 25. They held Iowa to 35.0 percent shooting on Saturday, but the Hawkeyes hit 12-of-30 from 3-point range to sink visiting Northwestern 56-51.
If the Wildcats have a chance to beat their third Top 25 opponent this season, they’ll likely need more from Kevin Coble than their leading scorer has given them lately. Coble scores 15.2 points per contest, but is averaging 7.5 in his last two conference games.
Coble averaged 25.5 points in Northwestern’s previous two wins over ranked opponents. The junior forward has averaged 7.0 points on 34.6 percent shooting in three career games against Illinois.