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Illini try to get back on track against Michigan State

Illinois' Tracy Abrams (13) drives around Michigan's Caris LeVert (23) during first half an NCAA college basketball game Sunday Jan.

Illinois' Tracy Abrams (13) drives around Michigan's Caris LeVert (23) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/John Dixon)

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It’s clear now that it was a mistake to make lofty assumptions based on the unexpected 13-1 start that saw Illinois rise to 10th in the nation.

With a 2-5 slog out of the Big Ten gate, the Illini are in danger of becoming the first Maui Invitational winner to miss the NCAA tournament since Vanderbilt in 1987.

The road doesn’t get any easier Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN). Illinois travels to No. 13 Michigan State, which is feeling prickly after losing 75-70 at Indiana.

``What’s the biggest difference right now vs. earlier in the year?’’ coach John Groce said Wednesday. ``It’s really two things. One, we have to impact the game more defensively; we did that better early on. But I thought Nebraska was our best defensive game of the year, and we defended ball screens really well on Sunday [vs. Michigan].’’

The other reason Illinois is struggling is the real key, he added.

``It’s probably not what people want to hear because it’s not real complex,’’ Groce said. ``What’s the biggest difference? Shot-making. We probably had more defensive miscues and mistakes earlier, but we overcame some of those things because we were making shots at such a high level.’’

A 37 percent three-point shooting team in its nonleague games, Illinois has dipped under 25 percent, and is making 5.6 treys a game after pouring in 9.4 during its 13-1 start.

That has contributed to a 14-point scoring decline. More importantly, after outscoring opponents by nearly 12 points a game, Illinois is being outscored by 5.1 points a game.

Some reasons for the offensive decline are obvious. For one, in a Big Ten that’s having a banner year, the competition is a lot stiffer.

For another, in shooting the lights out early, perimeter players Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams probably kindled unrealistic expectations that they would continue to do that.

An even bigger concern is interior play. While Illinois’ frontline trio of Nnanna Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey are making strides, they’re in for another challenging matchup. The Spartans lead with a pair of heavyweights, Derrick Nix, a 6-9, 270-pound senior, and Adreain Payne, a 6-10, a 240-pound junior, and follow with talented and over-sized youngsters.

The short version is that Illinois’ fast start inflated impressions of its talent. Groce, who’s built a remarkable bond with his new team, won’t talk about the shortcomings of players who are giving him everything they have—even if it isn’t enough in a tough league.

``It’s Jan. 30. We have who we have,’’ the coach said. ``I don’t sit back and say, `How do we compare with blank and blank?’ I’m more like, `OK. This is who we’ve got. Are we making them better? Are they getting better?’ That’s what we can control on Jan. 30. It is what it is.’’

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