A senior night loss would doom Illinois basketball's NCAA hopes

By Alex Roux

It flew by, didn’t it?

Sixteen up and soon to be 16 games down at State Farm Center during the 2014-15 Illinois basketball season. Wednesday night’s final home game against Nebraska (13-15, 5-11 Big Ten) will include goodbyes, some more fond than others.

After Wednesday, there will be no more Rayvonte Rice in an Illini uniform at home. No more Nnanna Egwu. No more Ahmad Starks. No more Ryan Schmidt (we hardly knew ye).

And at long last, no more glaringly grey and empty lower level “A section” seats that have cursed State Farm Center in recent seasons by giving the arena a permanently half-empty look to TV audiences, no matter how full the place actually is. 

Soon after Illinois’ four seniors pose for pictures at midcourt holding framed jerseys Wednesday, a basketball game will get underway, and it’s a critical one for head coach John Groce and his Illini.

 If they drop this one to the Huskers, you can forget about an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

In January, Nebraska beat Illinois 53-43 in Lincoln, Neb., in the first meeting between the two teams this season. 

Nearly two months later, their outlooks for the rest of the year are drastically different. The Illini are on the fringe of the NCAA tournament, while the Huskers are looking to stop an end-of-season tailspin.

In the first meeting, the Illini shot an ugly 27.3 percent from the field in their second game without an injured Rice. 

It was the Illini’s worst overall performance of the season, and still stands as their worst-ranked loss. Illinois (18-11, 8-8) doesn’t have any truly bad or embarrassing losses on their resume, but with Nebraska’s current RPI ranking of 124, the defeat is definitely a blemish Groce wishes the team could undo.

The main reason for the Huskers’ poor RPI is the simple fact that they’re not a very good basketball team. They were severely overrated in the preseason and have taken a step back under head coach Tim Miles following last season’s NCAA tournament appearance. They’re 0-8 in conference road games this year, and have dropped six straight games heading into Wednesday.

Being at home on Senior Night, Nebraska is a team Illinois should beat. But it’s foolish to overlook any team in Big Ten play, especially one you’ve already lost to. Especially one with a talented player like Terran Petteway.

Petteway is tearing up the league for the second consecutive season, averaging 18 points a game, while gunning for another All-Big Ten first team nomination. 

He’s the type of player who can give a bad team a chance to rise up and win on any given night, because he’s capable of dropping 35 or 40 if he really gets going. 

Shavon Shields isn’t far behind at 14.9 points per contest, but outside of Shields and Petteway, the level of production drops off for Nebraska. If the Illini can contain those two, they’ll almost certainly win.

Illinois’ defense has improved as the season has progressed, and Groce has worked to instill a tough defensive mindset in his players. 

A solid defensive effort has come to be expected, but the offensive side of the ball is much less certain. 

If the team plays at a level approaching the efficiency it showed in Saturday’s 86-60 blowout win over Northwestern, Nebraska will face a similar fate. But any casual fan could tell you that this season, Illinois is prone to going cold at inopportune times.

Seniors Starks, Rice and Egwu truly are competitors, and I would expect them to play with intensity Wednesday. Normally I wouldn’t expect the crowd to match that intensity with a 9 p.m. start time, but the University has given away several thousand free tickets to students to help do the job.

Check the calendar: it’s March. But an Illini slip-up Wednesday would silence the madness before it really had a chance to begin.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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@aroux94