Loss to Michigan State makes Iowa matchup crucial for Illini

By now, Illinois basketball fans should know that with this year’s team, nothing comes easy.

Ever since Kennesaw State (the last creampuff opponent on Illinois’ schedule) left State Farm Center with a blowout loss at the hands of John Groce’s squad in late December, almost every Illini win has been a difficult, grind-it-out affair. Ironically, a January victory over then-No. 11 Maryland was one of Illinois’ least stressful Big Ten victories to date. Even games against Big Ten doormats Northwestern and Penn State went down to the wire.

The Illini had a chance to make things easier on themselves Sunday against Michigan State. A second win this season over the Spartans would have paved a clear path to the NCAA tournament, and their tourney resume would likely have been able to withstand potential road losses to both Iowa and Purdue.

But Sparty got revenge Sunday for an early February home loss to Illinois, leaving the Illini’s postseason picture uncertain with a 17-10 overall record and 7-7 mark in conference play. Now Illinois travels to Iowa for a Wednesday matchup with the Hawkeyes, and a third straight loss would put the Illini on the wrong side of the bubble with only three regular season games remaining.

While Illinois has consistently induced cardiac arrest, the Hawkeyes have been feast or famine. They have some good wins (over Ohio State, twice, and blowouts over Michigan and then-No. 17 Maryland) and some head-scratching losses (Minnesota, Northwestern). Iowa enters Wednesday’s game following back-to-back blowout wins over Rutgers and Nebraska.

A big part of Illinois’ fate depends on which version of Fran McCaffery’s Iowa team decides to show up at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes can be dangerous, capable of threatening teams from inside and out. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and guard Peter Jok shoot 40 and 37 percent from 3-point distance, respectively. Centers Gabriel Olaseni and notorious eye-poker Adam Woodbury provide the muscle inside.

And 6-foot-9 senior Aaron White (14.7 points, 7.1 rebounds per game) does it all, stretching opposing defenses with his size and ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim.

But there’s a reason Iowa is on the NCAA bubble at 17-10, just ahead of Illinois in the Big Ten at 8-6. Just like the Illini, the Hawkeyes aren’t a complete team yet, and are running out of time to figure things out.

With four games remaining for both teams, Wednesday will likely be a huge swing game in determining each team’s postseason fate. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the winner end up in the Big Dance, while the loser is relegated to its second NIT appearance in the last three seasons.

Illinois has looked shaky since leading scorer Rayvonte Rice returned to the lineup from an injury and subsequent suspension. The Illini are 1-2 and have averaged a lousy 51.3 points per game with Rice back, and really need to figure out their identity offensively.

Since Illinois played well in Rice’s absence, the challenge for Groce has been to integrate Rice properly into what had evolved into a decently productive offensive attack led by sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Instead, the offense has looked stagnant and unimaginative in the last three games.

I’m not saying Rice is hurting the team. He’s a phenomenal player and the Illini need him if they’re going to make any sort of meaningful postseason noise. But they need to figure out a way to produce offensively with him in the lineup. If they do, Illinois could be scary.

The Michigan State result on Sunday saw Illinois come out on the wrong end of a close one, which seemed to be the Illini’s calling card early in the season when they were still incapable of closing out games. As the season went on, however, Illinois gained confidence down the stretch of games, turned up the clutch factor and squeaked out a good amount of narrow victories in Big Ten play. The Iowa game will be in a tough environment and will almost certainly be another close affair.

Even though we know nothing comes easy for this Illini team, we also know they play best under Groce when their backs are against the wall.

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