A win Saturday will help Illini win Chicago

Illinois head coach John Groce signals to the team during the game against Illinois-Chicago at the United Center on Dec. 28, 2013. Groce and the Illini head back to the United Center on Saturday to play Oregon.

It’s only December, so it’s too early in Illinois’ basketball season for a true must-win game.

But a loss to Oregon on Saturday at United Center in Chicago would hurt, and it would hurt badly.

It would be a crushing blow to the Illini’s nonconference resume that the NCAA tournament committee will review come March.

Illinois does have two losses in its first nine games, but they’re losses no rational fan should be ashamed of. A ranked Miami squad took care of the Illini in its own house, and Villanova is simply better than John Groce’s team right now.

But a loss to Oregon would not sit well with this fan base, nor should it. Even though it’s technically a neutral-site game for both teams, the United Center is Illinois’ unofficial home away from home. And for an Illini basketball program (and athletic department) that is desperately trying to cement itself as Chicago’s college team, losing at the UC is not acceptable. 

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    When Bruce Weber’s No. 12-ranked Illinois team lost to the UIC Flames at United Center in 2010, it marked the official collapse of Illini basketball’s reign in the Windy City. Prior to that epic 2010 embarrassment, Illinois had been 32-9 at the House that Jordan Built since 1994. Now, Groce has been tasked with rebuilding the Illini’s image in Chicago from the ashes Weber left behind.

    Including Big Ten Tournament games, Groce is 3-1 at United Center since he took over as Illinois head coach. However, in his first two annual “home” games in Chicago, the schedule didn’t offer the Illini or Chicago fan base much of chance for excitement. Weak Auburn and UIC squads were their opponents in 2012 and 2013, and Illinois didn’t exactly blow the doors off those teams. Early-afternoon start times further diluted the games’ atmosphere. 

    On Saturday, the stage will be set. Oregon gives the event legitimacy as a big-name opponent, even though its played like an average basketball team so far this season. The start time is at 6 p.m., which is more convenient for fans attending the game. And despite the two early season losses, Groce looks like he has his most complete team yet in his tenure at Illinois. 

    United Center offers an Illini basketball environment that can’t be replicated at State Farm Center, or anywhere else. The crowds are larger, louder and younger. When Illinois is rolling, the UC gets rocking. 

    Considering the circumstances, Illinois should win this game. At 5-3, Oregon isn’t exactly the toast of college basketball, though they can be a solid team. But if Illinois wants to make as much noise as this columnist thinks it can this year, Oregon is simply a team it needs to beat. It’s the Ducks’ first visit to United Center since they fell to the 2004-05 Final Four-bound Illini, but Oregon did beat the Illini last year at Portland’s Moda Center.

    The Ducks enter the game with losses to VCU and Michigan teams that were ranked at the time, and they also lost at home to Ole Miss. 

    The Ducks score the ball well (80.3 points per game) share the ball well (17.4 assists per game) and rebound extremely well, as their total rebounding rate of 44.9 per game is fourth-best in the country.

    However, the Illini are the better defensive team, and Oregon’s defense doesn’t have anyone that can contain Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill. The Ducks also aren’t especially tall, and their roster has seen a lot of turnover the last several seasons with transfer and eligibility issues playing a role. 

    In this era, when teams like Duke, Michigan State and Kansas are in featured matchups at the United Center as well, it’s imperative that Illinois tightens its grip on its often-apathetic Chicago audience when it has the chance.

    Oregon is just one game, but it’s simply a game Illinois has to win. 

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.