EVANSTON — Northwestern might not have picked up a victory Thursday at Ohio State, but the team earned a big thumbs-up from its coach, Bill Carmody.
On Saturday, Northwestern got another compliment from coach John Groce, whose Illinois team takes on the Wildcats tonight.
Northwestern faced a seemingly impossible task against the 13th-ranked Buckeyes, playing on the road and dealing with injuries that limited Carmody to just seven scholarship players, nine overall.
Still, Northwestern led much of the way and with two minutes to go the game was tied. Ohio State needed a 12-0 burst at the end to win the game, 69-59.
Carmody couldn’t have asked for a better effort.
“I said to them, ‘In your lives you have been in a lot of situations where you thought you were an underdog or that you didn’t have a chance.’ That’s not unusual for guys at this level,” he said.
“I told them to go out there and play your tails off and if you do that, then you’ll get people’s respect. I thought they did that.”
Northwestern’s roster has been shrinking all season. First the Wildcats lost projected starter JerShon Cobb to academics. Then the team’s leading scorer, Drew Crawford, was sidelined by a shoulder injury.
Just last week starting forward Jared Swopshire had his season cut short by knee surgery. Sanjay Lumpkin (wrist) and Chier Ajou (knee) have had season-ending injuries and against Ohio State center Alex Olah did not play due to a concussion. He’s questionable tonight.
Faced with a depleted roster, Carmody went to a 2-3 zone and freshman guard Tre Demps knocked down four 3-pointers as Northwestern kept the outcome in doubt until the final minute.
“We didn’t know what to expect coming through the door but I’m really proud of the way the guys competed,” Carmody said.
Groce said Carmody had a right to be proud and that the Wildcats’ effort proves they’ll be a formidable opponent tonight.
“It was unbelievable watching the tape,” Groce said Saturday. “I was really impressed with the way they executed. They made 11 3-pointers and other guys stepped up.
“Their system is so rock-solid. They are very precise. They take care of the ball and they can sometimes muddy up a game by limiting possessions and every possession becomes valuable.”
The starting lineup Carmody patched together at Ohio State included three freshmen, a sophomore and senior Reggie Hearn, who scored 20 points when Northwestern beat Illinois earlier in the season.
In discussing Illinois’ improved play, Groce has often pointed to a 71-51 victory at Nebraska on Jan. 22 as the turning point. Northwestern’s 68-54 victory over Illinois in Champaign was one game before the trip to Nebraska and it came at a time when the Illini were struggling to play well offensively or defensively.
Groce believes Illinois is better prepared to face the Wildcats this time.
“I think we’re a better team than when we played them in Champaign,” he said. “I feel like we’ve been getting a lot better. Guys are understanding what we’re asking from them. Are we playing the best we’ve played this year? I think we are.
“There’s still room for improvement. Actually, we had several defensive errors and some offensive miscues in the Purdue game,” he said about Wednesday’s 79-59 victory over the Boilermakers that was Illinois’ third win in a row.
“We probably had more mistakes against Purdue than we did against Minnesota or Indiana so we took a look at those and have tried to clean things up.
“We haven’t reached our full potential yet and that’s the fun part.”