EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Bill Carmody always has pointed to the Big Ten as being a long road whenever someone has brought up the importance of individual games.
His simple answer has been that every game is significant in the Big Ten, and he repeated that heading into Saturday's home game with Illinois.
"We've played six games in conference, there's 18 [total games] and then there's a tournament," Carmody said before practice on Thursday. "Every game is very, very important. Everyone is in the mix. You have Michigan State and Wisconsin, and everybody else has two, three, four losses. You have to wait a little longer to know."
Yet, Carmody and his Wildcats do realize they are entering an important stretch. With a Big Ten record of 2-4, Northwestern could find itself with a 2-7 mark halfway through the conference season if it loses to Illinois and then stumbles on the road at Minnesota and Michigan State next week.
"Two-and-five is one thing," Carmody said of Northwestern's potential record after playing Illinois. "Three-and-four? Okay."
Northwestern junior Michael Thompson understands what's ahead for them.
"We're going on the road to Minnesota and Michigan State; both teams are really good, and they're very tough at home," Thompson said. "This home game, we will have a lot of fan support, so we just have to go out there and hope we get the victory and get some momentum going into next week.
"This next game is very important. It's a kind of a like a rival game for us, an in-state game. At their place, we felt as though we played good. We just felt we lost it at the very end. We're just going to go in with the same mentality: try to battle them and come out with the victory."
Northwestern did hang with Illinois when they first met on Dec. 30 in Champaign. In what was a back-and-forth battle, Northwestern led by as many as 10 points in the second half, but the Illini rallied and won 89-83 in overtime.
In the win, Illinois was able to take advantage of Northwestern's lack of size and exploit its 1-3-1 zone. Illinois center Mike Tisdale scored a career-high 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and forward Mike Davis had 20 points and 17 rebounds.
"We didn't really play good defense against Illinois and Michigan State," Northwestern center Luka Mirkovic said. "It's one of those things you learn from your mistakes. We realized we had to work on it, and we did it. We'll be ready."
Carmody's other concern from the first game was the Wildcats' anxiousness to jack up 3-pointers. Northwestern shot 47 3-pointers and made 16 of them.
"We shot fast," Carmody said. "We clearly have to take more time."
As an added motivation, Northwestern is looking to get rid of the taste from its 76-56 loss to Ohio State on Tuesday. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 9-0 lead and built it to 40-17 by halftime.
"To be honest, I don't know what happened there," Mirkovic said. "It was just a bad start. We just had a bad game. We need to bounce back, and we will."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.