Illinois men’s basketball struggling as season wears on

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill drives to the basket during the game against Wisconsin at State Farm Center on Tuesday.

By Lucas Wright , Staff writer

Illinois men’s basketball has eight games to go, but the team is at 3-7 in conference play.

Preseason projections showed that Illinois would need to finish at least at .500 in conference play to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament, but fantasies of the postseason aren’t a thought at this point.

In order to get to .500 Illinois would have to go 6-2 over its final eight games, four of which are on the road. The Illini have yet to win on the road this season and are 11-30 all-time under head coach John Groce on the road in Big Ten play.

The once-projected “easier” back end of the schedule is no more for Illinois either. With the emergence of Northwestern, which the Illini still have to play twice, the schedule appears to be working against Groce’s squad throughout the rest of the season.

Even upcoming games that fans would expect the Illini to win, like against Iowa, which Illinois already beat by double digits, and against the worst team in the league, Rutgers, are on the road.

Minnesota comes to town

The next chance for Illinois to salvage a win comes this weekend at home against an equally struggling Minnesota. At 3-6 in Big Ten play, the Gophers are up just half a game on the Illini, and have been in a massive rut during conference play.

Minnesota opened the year 15-2, including a 3-1 start to the conference schedule, but have since seemingly fallen off a cliff, with five straight losses.

Minnesota doesn’t have the kind of names that jump out on the stat sheet, but the team is led by a solid guard in junior Nate Mason. Mason is averaging over 15 points a game in Big Ten play, along with over five assists and two steals.

While the Gophers aren’t a strong shooting team, coming in at 43.3 percent from the field on the season, they are holding their opponents to 38.9 percent. If Illinois wants to get back on track, they are going to have to bust out of the current shooting funk and do it against a strong Minnesota defense.

Hill gets a taste of his own medicine

In possibly his best and most efficient performance of the year on Jan. 25 against Iowa, Malcom Hill held Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok to only 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting.

However, in Illinois’ matchup with Wisconsin, he was shut down by fellow Big Ten star Nigel Hayes. Hill was held to just 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting in 35 minutes of play, and he didn’t make it to the free throw line once.

The defensive shutdown by Hayes proved crucial in the 13-point win over the Illini, as a solid night from Hill would have put the Badgers in serious jeopardy of an upset.

“Their defense was solid,” Hill said. “I think we had a lot of good shots we just missed (Tuesday).”

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