Backpedaling Illinois talks over its problems

Backpedaling Illinois talks over its problems

There will be no residue from Thursday's disparaging loss clinging to Illinois today for its return to the Assembly Hall. Lon Kruger made sure of it, not letting the Illini leave Carver-Hawkeye Arena without a thorough once-over.

The Illinois coach and players set aside some time after the 22-point loss – Kruger's worst in 79 games at Illinois – to talk things over, then boarded a bus to catch their early Friday morning flight home.

By Friday afternoon's practice, all was well.

"It's the first time we've ever really had that situation, where the ballgame didn't really come down to the wire," Kruger said. "You want to address anything new that comes up like that."

For a team desperately seeking a change in direction, a return home is a start. Today's game against Northwestern is the UI's first at the Assembly Hall since a Dec. 12 victory over Eastern Illinois.

To readjust, the Illini on Friday moved their practice from the Ubben Basketball Complex to the Assembly Hall, the first time they've worked out there since students left for break.

Site doesn't worry Kruger as much as size.

Northwestern's 6-foot-11 center, two-time All-Big Ten choice Evan Eschmeyer, is coming off a 24-point, 15-rebound masterpiece in his team's upset of No. 16 Minnesota.

The UI held Eschmeyer to 30 total points in two wins last season, but the center has more help this season, his sixth at Northwestern.

"If we had an Eschmeyer-type to kind of look to, someone with that kind of experience ... but we don't so we can't dwell on it," Kruger said. "We have to get it done as a group. Each of us has to take responsibility."

For the second time in two weeks, the UI is on the brink of its first three-game losing streak under Kruger. The Illini ended its most recent two-game skid with a road upset at Clemson on Dec. 29, but has since lost at Indiana and Iowa.

The Illini (8-6) lead the Big Ten in turnovers and are last in scoring, a combination that bothers Kruger to no end.

"They're frustrated. It's not something they're trying to do, of course," Kruger said. "The answer is to work harder."

Or invite Northwestern over. The Wildcats haven't won at the Assembly Hall since 1979, the UI taking the last 19 games here.

But second-year coach Kevin O'Neill has the Wildcats playing their best basketball since their NIT year of 1993-94.

"We've made strides," O'Neill said. "We're a better team, but the whole league's better also."