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With tourney dreams fading, Illini basketball needs signature victory

Ohio State v Illinois

Ohio State v Illinois

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Updated: February 6, 2013 10:19PM

Once ranked 10th in the nation, Illinois now stands 10th in the Big Ten.

With No. 1 Indiana, a team Illini fans love to hate, coming to Champaign on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN), life won’t get easier any time soon for the slumping Illini. On Sunday, there’s a trip to raucous Williams Arena, where No. 18 Minnesota is 12-1.

Grim as it looks for a team that has lost seven out of its last nine, bracket expert Jerry Palm stands by his current projection that the Illini will sneak into the NCAA tournament.

‘‘I don’t see how Illinois doesn’t make the tournament at this point,’’ Palm told the Sun-Times. ‘‘Beating Indiana would be nice. That would take the pressure off. But they can’t lose any more of the Northwestern-at-home type games. They have to take care of business when it’s time to take care of business.

‘‘To put it succinctly, what Illinois has to do to make the tournament, in three words: Stop screwing up. Losing to Northwestern at home is screwing up.’’

Palm’s current bracket, which is posted at, is not a crystal ball of where teams will be at selection time. Rather, it’s based on what the selection committee would do if it were picking the field of 68 right now (ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Illinois among his first four out.)

A positive for the Illini is that they have some really good wins (Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State) and they don’t really have any horrible losses.

Noting that Florida State once made the NCAA tournament despite a 6-10 ACC record, Palm won’t put a number on how many wins Illinois needs the rest of the way.

‘‘It depends on what other teams do,’’ Palm said. ‘‘[A Big Ten record of] 8-10 might do it; 9-9 might not. It also depends on which wins Illinois gets. But at some point, they have to turn it around.’’

That’s pretty much what John Groce and his players are saying.

Allowing Wisconsin and Michigan State to shoot a combined 70 percent (24-for-34) in the second half is ‘‘atrocious,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We have a lot of holes in our defense that we have to patch.’’

The first-year coach made his point by benching his best player, Brandon Paul, for not being diligent on defense.

‘‘We have to play harder. That’s the main thing,’’ Nnanna Egwu said. ‘‘It’s a mentality. You can’t let it be acceptable for [opponents] to score the way they have been.’’

Even if Illinois digs in, its margin for error is miniscule if it wants to get to 8-10. Even if it wins all of its remaining games (including trips to NU and Iowa) against unranked opponents, it would still need to steal a Top 25 win at Minnesota, Michigan or Ohio State.

A win over the Hoosiers would take away the need for a Top 25 road win. It also would provide momentum for a team that desperately needs to find some two-hour energy.

‘‘If you’re a competitor and you like challenges,’’ Groce said, ‘‘and you’ve got the No. 1 ranked team coming into your building, you’d think we’d play with great effort.’’

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