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Illinois tips off rugged stretch against No. 2 Michigan

Player-of-the-year candidate Trey Burke is averaging 17.8 points 7.2 assists for No. 2 Michigan. | Carlos Osorio~AP

Player-of-the-year candidate Trey Burke is averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 assists for No. 2 Michigan. | Carlos Osorio~AP

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Updated: February 28, 2013 6:47AM



No. 1 Duke’s upset loss Wednesday at Miami means No. 2 Michigan will be poised to become the top-ranked team in the country if it wins Sunday at Illinois.

But the No. 1 mission for the Illini (15-5, 2-4 Big Ten) as they begin a difficult five-game stretch is to mind their own business.

‘‘For us, it’s about 80 percent us and 20 percent opponent right now,’’ first-year Illinois coach John Groce said Friday. ‘‘That’s how you have a chance to get better, especially with a team that’s learning a system and developing the habits we want them to have.’’

D.J. Richardson’s career night (30 points, 6-for-9 three-point shooting) headlined the Illini’s 71-51 victory Tuesday at Nebraska. But Illinois is concerned about living up to its toughness-and-togetherness motto as it heads into five games that feature four ranked opponents and Wisconsin, which blew them out Jan. 12 in Madison, Wis.

‘‘I can’t hang my hat on [the Nebraska game],’’ Richardson said. ‘‘We came out together. The T-and-T showed. We have to keep coming out the same way. Be aggressive. Throw the first punch. We have a lot of ranked opponents coming up, but every team in the Big Ten’s good.’’

When the Illini got off to a 12-0 start, it looked like they had a chance to contend in the Big Ten. That expectation was diminished by their 1-4 league start, but the effort they showed in defeating Butler and Gonzaga might serve them well if they can keep it going.

‘‘We see what we can do when we come out and attack right away,’’ said center Nnanna Egwu, who had eight points and a career-high 10 rebounds at Nebraska. ‘‘When we started 12-0, we got comfortable. We kind of relaxed. We thought that just by going out there, we were going to play well, and it came back to bite us.

‘‘At Nebraska, we knew we had to go back to the way we were playing. In Maui [early in the season], we threw the first punch every game. We have to continue to play that way.’’

Top performances will be needed the next couple of weeks. After Michigan, Illinois will face No. 13 Michigan State, Wisconsin, No. 7 Indiana and No. 12 Minnesota.

The Wolverines (18-1, 5-1) are led by player-of-the-year candidate Trey Burke, who’s averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 assists, Tim Hardaway Jr. (16.2 ppg), Nik Stauskas (12.6 ppg) and Glenn Robinson III (12.1 ppg).

‘‘Obviously, Michigan is a load,’’ Groce said. ‘‘[Burke] is a great kid and terrific player. His assist-to-turnover ratio is disgusting. I think the last player in the Big Ten to average 17-plus points and seven-plus assists was Magic Johnson.’’

In that light, if the Illini are going to step up their game, they couldn’t be choosing a better time.



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