Illini basketball can’t afford setback at home against Rutgers

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill signals to his teammates during the game against Penn State at State Farm Center on Saturday. The Illini won 60-58.

Illinois’ basketball season teetered dangerously close to the cliff’s edge Saturday at home against Penn State when it trailed 58-56 with one minute to play.

The Illini avoided falling off the edge, but squeaked out a 60-58 victory in a game that demonstrated how delicate a team’s season could be. A loss to Penn State would have been a devastating blow to Illinois’ NCAA tournament resume. With eight losses already, the Illini would have had a nearly impossible road to an at-large tournament berth if they had fallen to the Nittany Lions at home.

But Malcolm Hill (27 points, Co-Big Ten Player of the Week) was the hero, the Illini won and John Groce’s squad still has a reasonable path to the Big Dance. They’ll face another Big Ten bottom-feeder in Rutgers on Tuesday at State Farm Center, and it will be another game where an Illini loss would be crippling.

Each season, every team loses games it shouldn’t. Occasionally, powerhouses play down to weaker competition and get beat. Even Wisconsin lost to Rutgers last month (though senior center Frank Kaminsky was out with an injury).

But Illinois is in “avoid-bad-losses-at-all-costs-mode” at this point in the season, and it’s in this position due to factors both in and outside of its control.

Obviously, the injury situation has been unique and unfortunate. Tracy Abrams would probably have started every game at point guard for Illinois this season, but he’s out for the year with a torn ACL. Leading scorer and rebounder Rayvonte Rice went down with a hand injury nearly a month ago and shooting guard Aaron Cosby has missed time with an eye injury. The Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana losses all might have had different outcomes if Groce had a full roster at his disposal.

However, the other part of the Illini’s current high-stakes situation stems from some cringe-worthy early season struggles. If they could have maintained the lead they held nearly all game over Oregon at United Center, they’d have one less must-win game down the stretch. If they could have avoided an epic second-half collapse at Michigan, a completely different tone could have been set early on in conference play.

And Rice and Cosby may already have been able to return from injuries to the court, but were slapped with indefinite suspensions from Groce due to what sounds like transgressions that were entirely in their control.

But it doesn’t matter how Illinois has gotten to this point; what matters now is what’s ahead. Wins at Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa or even Purdue might be considered unlikely, and if the Illini can pull any of those off, great. But they need to take care of business in the games where they have a good chance to win, which includes every home game remaining on the schedule.

We’re now halfway through the Big Ten season, with Illinois sitting at 14-8 overall and 4-5 in conference. Its formula for making the NCAA tournament is as follows: avoid bad losses and steal one (maybe two, but that might be a stretch) of the four remaining road games.

So how do the Illini avoid a bad loss Tuesday against Rutgers? They’ll have to contain the Scarlet Knights’ two biggest scoring threats, Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack. Both are averaging roughly 14 points per game, and Rutgers’ offense production drops off considerably as you move them down the roster.

The Scarlet Knights are a poor 3-point shooting team and have pretty good size, so don’t be surprised to see John Groce implement a heavy dose of 2-3 zone on Tuesday. It seems like Rice and Cosby will be suspended for this one as well, so a zone would also help keep Illini legs fresh as Groce uses a short rotation once again.

There are no guaranteed wins in Big Ten play, but a home game against Rutgers is as close as Illinois will get to an automatic “W” for the rest of the season.

If the Illini hope to remain relevant down the stretch, they can’t afford to stumble.

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