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Lackluster Illini out of college basketball’s Top 25 with 1-4 start

Auburn center Rob Chubb right battles for rebound with Illinois forward NnannEgwu during first half an NCAA college basketball game

Auburn center Rob Chubb, right, battles for a rebound with Illinois forward Nnanna Egwu during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: February 3, 2013 7:14PM

Ranked 10th in the nation a month ago and 23rd last week, Illinois dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday without so much as one measly vote.

That’s what happens when a team starts the Big Ten with a 1-4 record, including an ugly 74-51 rout at Wisconsin and a sluggish 68-54 home loss to Northwestern in its last two games.

Now the Illini must try to bounce back Tuesday night at Nebraska (7:30 p.m., BTN, 560-AM), the scene of one of the most traumatic losses in school history.

Outscored 36-4 at the end of the first half and start of the second half, Illinois was humiliated 80-57 on Feb. 18, 2012, in Lincoln. Players, notably Meyers Leonard, welled up in tears in a defeat that opened the floodgates for the dismissal of coach Bruce Weber.

“We haven’t talked about that [game],” first-year Illinois coach John Groce said Monday. “That’s irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the game [tonight].”

Of more immediate concern is Illinois’ free fall.

In the most dramatic sign of the decline, the Illini, who in December led the nation with 10.8 three-pointers per game, have made only 8 of 58 three-point shots in their last three games.

Illinois’ three-point defense also has been brutal. During its three-game losing streak, its opponents are 27-for-53 from beyond the arc.

Making 14 percent of their three-pointers while allowing their opponents to make 51 percent has put the Illini in danger of becoming the first Maui Invitational champion to miss the NCAA tournament in 26 years.

But that’s the least of their worries. After their trip to Lincoln, the Illini play five consecutive ranked opponents. This season could look a lot like last season, when Illinois lost 12 of its final 14 games.

“I can’t control some things,” said Groce, uninterested in the ominous schedule. “We need to play well. That’s really important. We need to come out aggressive and execute better and play well. Then that other stuff takes care of itself. And I anticipate us playing better than we’ve played the last couple games.”

Toward that end, Illinois’ four team-elected captains called the semi-obligatory players-only meeting. Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Sam McLaurin and sophomore Tracy Abrams presumably stressed the need to play better.

“The fact that they’ve gotten together to hold each more accountable is a great sign,” Groce said. “We don’t have an effort issue. For the most part, these guys are giving us everything they’ve got. But at some point, you have to execute, too. When a guy sets a back screen, you have to help. Or it’s going to be a layup.’’

The list of execution woes is lengthy.

“Can’t run into screens. Have to make open shots. Can’t turn the ball over 18 times like we did on Thursday,” Groce said. “It’s not rocket science. You have to take care of the ball and have quality possessions on offense. Affect field-goal percentage and/or turn the ball over [on defense]. The great thing for them is they’ve played some really good basketball this season. They know they’re capable of playing better. Now it’s up to us to play and coach better.”

For a team that’s playing like it has seen a ghost, that’s easier said than done. Especially on the road in the Big Ten.

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