Northwestern game enters “must-win” territory

Assuming Illinois is on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, no game is truly a “must-win” until a champion is crowned in March at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. 

But Wednesday night’s matchup with Northwestern is about as close to a must-win for the Illini as you can get. 

Illinois is currently 1-3 in conference play and 11-6 overall. The Illini are 0-4 in true road games this year, and just 3-6 away from State Farm Center if you include neutral-site games. A loss Wednesday would mean falling to 11-7 and 1-4 in conference play and that might end up being too deep a hole to dig out of. If they hope to make the Big Dance, they’ll have to pick up some wins away from home. 

While the Northwestern game is essentially a must-win game, it’s also likely Illinois’ best chance  to pick up a road victory. Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois, is often invaded by Illini fans, who regularly appear to make up half the crowd at the home of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Wednesday night will be no different, and should provide an environment similar to a neutral-site game.

The Wildcats are rebuilding under second-year head coach Chris Collins, and they currently sit at 10-6 with no quality wins on their resume. However, they did take Michigan State to overtime in East Lansing. Illini fans also know the trouble Northwestern teams have given Illinois since head coach John Groce has been in charge.

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Groce went 1-2 against Northwestern in his first two seasons, and is going up against the Wildcats shorthanded tonight. With Illini leading scorer Rayvonte Rice still sidelined with a hand injury, look for Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to be asked to carry most of the offensive load. No matter who does the scoring, Illinois will have to shoot better than it did against Nebraska (27 percent from the field) if it wants to beat Northwestern.

The Wildcats rely on junior Tre Demps and freshman Bryant McIntosh on the offensive end, with both hovering around 12 points per game. If they haven’t already blocked the scarring memory from their minds, Illini fans might remember when Demps sank three crucial 3-pointers down the stretch of last year’s 49-43 loss in Evanston. Demps is only shooting 28 percent from three this year, but this guy is a proven Illini-killer. Containing him and McIntosh will be challenging, and it will be key to an Illinois victory. 

It’s unfortunate that the Illini are already encountering virtual must-win scenarios, but that’s the spot they find themselves in. Much like the Maryland game was a huge confidence boost, the Northwestern game has the potential to give the Illini some momentum heading into back-to-back home games with Indiana and Purdue. 

Since Illinois is short on bodies, it has to thrive on effort and desire, which can easily diminish if the losses pile up too high. Bracketology experts already have the Illini on the outside looking in. I don’t even want to think about the tough road to the NCAA tournament if Illinois loses Wednesday to the Wildcats.

As long as Groce and Co. take care of business Wednesday, we can shelve the doomsday predictions for another day.

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