Illinois on the cusp of back-to-back losing seasons in Big Ten

Illinois+Kipper+Nichols+%282%29+goes+up+for+a+layup+during+the+game+against+Minnesota+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Saturday%2C+February+4.+The+Illini+lost+68-59.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Kipper Nichols (2) goes up for a layup during the game against Minnesota at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 4. The Illini lost 68-59.

By Lucas Wright , Staff writer

Five games are what stand between the Illinois men’s basketball team and the end of the regular season.

The Illini are also five games under .500 in conference play.

In order to break even in conference play, the team will have to do something it hasn’t done since 2013.

The Illini have not won five-straight games since knocking off No. 1 Indiana in February of 2013, kicking off a five-game winning streak that helped catapult Illinois into the NCAA Tournament.

Three of the Illini’s last five games are on the road, including a rematch with Iowa, but the final two road games are against Nebraska and Rutgers. The Huskers and Scarlet Knights are a combined 6-19 on the season in conference play and currently accompany the Illini in the bottom three of the Big Ten.

Although Illinois has fared better at home this season, the team will play host to Northwestern and Michigan State for its final two home games. Each team is in the top five of the conference and will be looking to cement its place in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament by the time it comes through Champaign.

The home matchups will likely be the most challenging for Illinois, but the team has already beaten Northwestern on the road and Michigan State is 2-4 on the road this season.

The Illini youth have out-shined the upperclassmen

Coming into the season, most of the focus was on Illinois’ experienced roster, which includes six seniors and graduate students, but lately, the underclassmen have been stepping up for the Illini.

Freshmen Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols have worked their way into the starting lineup, bumping seniors Jaylon Tate and Michael Thorne Jr. from the rotation. Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Michael Finke has been among the best in the Big Ten in three-point shooting.

This trio, along with Jalen Coleman-Lands, Leron Black and the highly anticipated recruiting class of 2017, Illinois seems built for the future. But for now, the team will need more production out of its senior leaders if it wants to have a chance to finish the regular season strong.

Illinois doesn’t match up on the defensive end 

Illinois is last in the conference in blocked shots, averaging just 2.3 per game. Lacking a true rim protector has led to Illinois getting dominated inside throughout conference play, and not generating momentum from a big stop or block on the defensive end has led to difficult stretches for the team.

The Illini are also 12th in the conference in steals per game, with the defense having trouble forcing turnovers inside and around the perimeter.

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