Big Ten tournament provides Illini basketball its last chance


Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) rises for a jump shot during the game against Purdue at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, on Saturday. The Illini lost 63-58.

By Sean Neumann

The Illinois men’s basketball team is hoping for a postseason miracle when it travels to Chicago this week to play in the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) is set to tip off against Michigan in the second round Thursday. The winner will face No. 6 Wisconsin, the top seed in the conference tournament.

The Illini are on the bubble for multiple college basketball bracket analysts, including ESPN and CBS.

With a win or two in the Big Ten tournament this week, Illinois would increase its chances at making it into the NCAA tournament after missing out last season.

But with a blown 13-point lead against Purdue on Saturday, and a three-game losing streak late in the season has undermined the Illini’s tournament hopes.

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Depending on threes

A key factor in Illinois’ success this week against Michigan, and potentially Wisconsin, is its 3-point shooting.

Living and dying with the three ball has been a common theme for Illinois teams under head coach John Groce over the past three years, and it has affected the Illini again in this season.

In its last four wins, Groce’s team has shot an average of 38.3 percent from behind the arc; in its last four losses, 25.8 percent.

Illinois shot as high as 48.2 percent down the stretch, draining 14 threes in an unruly beatdown of Northwestern at home on Feb. 28. That’s the same team that shot a miserable 12.5 percent from long range on Feb. 22 in a seven-point loss to a Michigan State team Illinois had already proved it could beat.

The Illini have shot 35.9 percent from downtown against the Wolverines this year, a favorable number looking at its recent trends. In its only matchup with Wisconsin, Illinois shot 36.4 percent due to an 0-for-5 second half. In the first half, the team shot 66.7 from behind the arc.

Rice lifting the team late

Senior guard Rayvonte Rice has been on fire in the last five games. Rice has averaged 20.4 points per game, dropping 25 and 23, respectively, in his last two outings. Since returning to the Illini lineup in mid-February, he has averaged 16.5 points per game.

“He’s a huge part of our team,” senior center Nnanna Egwu said after Illinois’ win over Nebraska on Wednesday. “He shares the ball and picks the spots when he needs to take over.”

After the win over Nebraska, in which Rice scored 23 points, the Cornhuskers’ head coach Tim Miles told him he wasn’t going to miss him and Egwu.

“Ray’s just such a powerful player,” Miles said.

With the season on the line in a “win or go home” atmosphere, Illinois will need all the power Rice can provide to re-energize the team for a last-ditch postseason push.

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