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Land of Lincoln showdown pits Wildcats against Illini

A pair of teams hoping to reverse their fortunes in Big Ten Conference play get together in Champaign on Thursday night, as the Northwestern Wildcats pay a visit to the 23rd-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini.

Northwestern is 10-7 overall, but just 1-3 in conference following losses to Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa, with their lone victory coming at Penn State last week. The Wildcats are 2-1 in true road games, but they're taking on an Illinois squad that is 8-1 at home this season.

The Illini won the first 12 games of John Groce's tenure at the school, but an 82-73 loss to Missouri on Dec. 22 started the team on a downward trend that has seen it lose four of its last six. UI will try to put the brakes on a two- game slide with a win tonight, its latest setback coming at Wisconsin last Saturday, 74-51.

Groce will notch his 100th career victory if the Illini can get past the Wildcats.

Illinois owns a commanding 129-37 lead in the all-time series with its intrastate rival, and the Illini have won 28 of the last 30 meetings against the 'Cats at home. However, NU won last year's tussle in Champaign, snapping a nine-game losing streak there. Overall, UI has won 21 of the last 25 encounters between the two teams.

Northwestern is a middling offensive team, as it shoots 42 percent from the field, which includes a 36.7 percent showing from 3-point range, in averaging 65.8 ppg. The Wildcats have two active double-digit scorers in the form of guards Reggie Hearn (13.7 ppg) and Dave Sobolewski (11.5 ppg), and the team as a whole does a decent job of taking care of the basketball, turning it over 10.9 times per game. NU put forth its second-lowest scoring effort of the season in last Sunday's 70-50 loss to visiting Iowa, as Sobolewski (14 points) and Tre Demps (10 points) were the only two Wildcats to reach double figures. The team was off the mark all game long, hitting a woeful 29.4 percent of its field goal attempts, missing the mark on 21 of its 26 3-point tries along the way. The 'Cats were guilty of only nine miscues, but the Hawkeyes shot 46 percent from the floor and claimed a 43-33 rebounding advantage as it dominated the paint to the tune of a 40-18 scoring differential. Iowa's bench nearly doubled the production of Northwestern's, 40-22.

Illinois is a much better offensive team than its counterpart tonight, putting up 73.9 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .432 overall, .345 from beyond the arc, and .714 from the charity stripe. When the Illini play with their backs to the basket, they allow 66.3 ppg as foes connect on just 41.7 percent of their total shots, although the 3-pointer falls at nearly the same rate (.343) as it does for Illinois. Groce's club is losing the rebounding battle by a narrow 0.4 rpg, but it goads the opposition into more than 15 turnovers per outing. Brandon Paul has proven himself to be one of the better all-around players in the Big Ten by averaging 18.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per affair. Fellow guards Tracy Abrams and D.J. Richardson add 12.1 and 11.1 ppg, respectively for a team that is hoping to bounce back from its worst offensive showing of the season in the recent loss to Wisconsin. In that contest, the Illini, who fell behind 14-0 to start, shot just 35.3 percent from the field, missing all but two of their 14 3-point attempts, while the Badgers converted nearly half of their total shots, and drained 10 treys. Richardson was high man for UI with a season-high-tying 16 points, and Joseph Bertrand came off the bench to tack on 12 points and grab a team-high seven rebounds.