No margin of error for Illini against Northwestern

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Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice goes up for a layup against Michigan at State Farm Center on Thursday. Rice had missed the past nine games with injury and suspension.

Illinois has been in this sort of position before.

A month ago, John Groce’s Illini hoops squad faced back-to-back Big Ten doormats at State Farm Center, in a situation where a loss would have meant everything bad and nothing good.

A month ago, Illinois (17-11, 7-8 Big Ten) took care of Penn State and Rutgers at home, and used those games as a foundation for a four-game winning streak that catapulted it to the friendly side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Now, with Northwestern and Nebraska coming to town to round out the home schedule, the Illini will have to take care of business against some of the Big Ten’s weakest teams, or else you can save your talk of tournament seeding for the NIT. 

First up is Northwestern (14-14, 5-10 Big Ten) on Saturday evening, and it will be no easy task.

The Wildcats are riding a four-game winning streak, and credit Chris Collins’ bunch for not completely giving up after a 10-game losing streak crippled their season. Most recently, they took care of Indiana at home, and three of their last four wins have come over teams Illinois has lost to (Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota).

It might be hard to believe due to Northwestern’s perennial parade of below average basketball, but Illinois hasn’t beaten the Wildcats at home since 2010 (the two teams did not play at State Farm Center in 2014). In fact, the Illini haven’t beaten the Wildcats twice in a single season since 2007. And after their first meeting on Jan. 16 in Evanston ended in a narrow 72-67 Illini victory, there’s no reason to expect that Saturday will be easy for the home team.

By now, Illinois should be familiar with the threat of this improving Northwestern squad. Tre Demps burned the Illini last season in Evanston, and Alex Olah (11.1 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) is always a load inside. But the Illini also have to be wary of the contributions that two freshmen, Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law, bring to the court.

McIntosh is Northwestern’s second-leading scorer and is Big Ten All-Freshman team material. He can handle the ball and hit from deep, and he scored 16 points against Illinois in the mid-January meeting.

Law had a quiet game against the Illini with only four points, but the Chicago-area product is dangerous. He scored 14 points in the win over Indiana and 17 the previous game against Penn State, and both he and McIntosh will have nothing to lose Saturday.

They’re both young, talented and confident, which should be scary for an Illinois team that has everything to lose and not much to gain.

For the Illini, the challenge will be to stop a three-game losing skid and handle the pressure of a scenario where a loss dooms any NCAA tournament talk. Groce also has to figure out a way to integrate Rayvonte Rice back into the offense in a way that is productive for sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Hill and Nunn have carried the Illini through January and early February, but haven’t looked the same lately.

Rice looked like he was close to his old self in Wednesday’s loss at Iowa, but Hill and Nunn were ice cold, shooting a combined 4-of-21 from the field. The return of starting point guard Jaylon Tate from illness should help Hill and Nunn feel more comfortable within the offense and create some good looks at the basket. It will be up to them to knock them down.

So, here we are. The Illini likely need to win their last three regular season games (Northwestern, Nebraska, at Purdue) mixed in with some Big Ten Tournament success to feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday. They’ll need to follow Groce’s mantra of taking things one game at a time, and that starts Saturday against the Wildcats.

With little to no margin for error, it’s not the most enviable position, but it’s the position they’re in. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. 

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