Illini need to move on from losses and focus on North Carolina State

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Elisabeth Neely

Mike Thorne Jr. (33) prepares to dunk the ball to score against McKendree.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Columnist

The past week has been a struggle for John Groce and the Illini who find themselves in the midst of a three-game losing streak.

During the Fall Break, Illinois fell to Winthrop, West Virginia and Florida State. There wasn’t much consistency between the losses. For each game, Illinois had a different way of losing.

With about three minutes left in the second half, a 10-0 run by Winthrop forced overtime. Eagles guard Keon Johnson scored 38 points, which led to the Illini’s loss. Turnovers killed Illinois against No. 25 West Virginia. The Illini coughed the ball up 24 times, which resulted in 34 points for the Mountaineers. Finally, bad shooting deflated Illinois’ chances of beating Florida State. Against the Seminoles, the Illini shot 32 percent from the field goal.

“We’re good,” forward Leron Black said. “We’re just going to keep moving forward. Can’t change nothing that happened in the past. We just keep moving forward, trying to get the next win.”

Just like Black said, the past is in the past — learn from the games and move on. Illinois can’t afford to drop four straight losses. On Tuesday night, the Illini will have a chance to reverse the trend against North Carolina State.

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    The Wolfpack are coming to this game 5-1. After playing three games in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands, this will be their first true road game. The sole loss for NC State was against No. 10 Creighton.

    While it’s still very early in the season, this game can certainly have a big impact on Illinois. I wouldn’t consider it a make or break game, but a 5-3 record feels a lot more comfortable than a 4-4 record.

    To hang with the Wolfpack, Illinois will need to have a good defensive game. As a team, NC State averages 83 points per game and has five players averaging double figures.

    Wolfpack freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. averages about 20 points per game and is coming off a 30-point performance against Loyola. Match Smith Jr. up with one of the Illinois veteran guards — like Jaylon Tate or Tracy Abrams — and there could be trouble for NC State.

    The Wolfpack are vulnerable right now. NC State might boast a 5-1 record, but it very well could have been 3-3 since they only won by two points against both Loyola and Georgia Southern. Both schools are coming off of below .500 seasons.

    I expect a big game from Illini center Mike Thorne Jr. from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Throne Jr. was hoping for a scholarship offer from NC State while in high school, but he never received one. His dad is an NC State fan himself.

    “It’s the state school; it’s from the area from where I’m from — there’s going to be a lot of pride on the line for that game,” Thorne Jr. said in October during Illini Media Day. “I want to win that game.”

    This season, Thorne Jr. has only started one of seven games and averages about 14 minutes per contest. He averages about six points and five rebounds per game.

    Thorne Jr. has yet to show what he is truly capable of. Before the game, when he tore his meniscus in his left knee, Thorne Jr. was averaging about 15 points and nine rebounds per game.

    He hasn’t looked like himself and rightfully so. Recovering from a meniscus tear is no easy task. Thorne Jr.’s conditioning isn’t what it once was, and he looks timid at times. But playing with a little extra motivation might help him break out of his shell.

    The return of Black is going to be a big factor for Illinois as well. Black played in Illinois’ last three games after sitting the first four due to suspension. He averaged 10 points and eight rebounds in his last three games. He’s been playing well and has to be itching to contribute to an Illini win.

    A win for Illinois can swing momentum and improve morale. Not to mention an Illini win will help the Big Ten out in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The last time Illinois won a game in the challenge was 2012 when the Illini beat Georgia Tech 75-62.

    NC State is on the ropes. Illinois has a great chance to get back in the win column.

    Maybe if other Big Ten teams see Illinois contributing this year, they will ease up on the Illini come conference play. That would be nice.

    Matt is a Junior in Business

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    @MattGertsmeier