Illinois’ loss to Northwestern on Sunday night was eerily similar to a horrible stretch for the Illini last season. On January 12, 2013, John Groce’s squad was thumped in Madison by the Badgers — a 23-point loss where its offense had no answers for Bo Ryan’s defensive schemes. That was followed up by a home loss to an injury-plagued Northwestern squad, which along with a previous home loss to Minnesota, represented an early three-game losing streak in conference play. On Wednesday of last week, Groce’s offense again could not find a decent shot in Madison, losing 95-70 to the Badgers, and the team looked completely off in scoring just 15 points in the first 24 minutes of the game in Evanston. Losing to an unimpressive Wildcats squad puts the Illini in a tough spot because they are about to enter a tough seven-game stretch where they will be favored to win just one of those games — a home contest against Purdue. The Illini really needed to enter that stretch with at least three Big Ten wins and the most recent loss very well could put a dent in their ultimate postseason plans.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Illini have a 73 percent chance of beating Purdue tonight. But the next few games include match-ups against Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. And their “winnable” game after that stretch is a road game against Penn State in Happy Valley — not necessarily a guaranteed win, either. Extrapolating over the next few weeks, the Illini could easily end up with 3-7 league record by February 9, with a must-win game coming against the Nittany Lions to salvage their season. They were in a similar spot a year ago, but were able to dig themselves out with a home buzzer-beater against Indiana and a tough win over Minnesota on the road (thanks largely to D.J. Richardson’s scorching shot). Is there a reason to panic yet in Champaign? Absolutely. It is troubling that Rice felt no sense of urgency over the first 20 minutes of the game in Evanston, as he was held to zero shots from the field. When he was able to eventually find his offense, he forgot to play defense by letting the Wildcats’ Tre Demps hit a couple of wide-open shots from beyond the arc. Not to pick on Rice, but as the best offensive player on the team, he needs to set the tone by driving to the basket and assuming a leadership role over the next few weeks if the Illini hope to win road games at Indiana or Penn State.