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Illinois, Northwestern need pick-me-up

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice leads Big Ten scoring 18.8 points per game but he’s coming off an ugly 7-for-21 shooting performance

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice leads the Big Ten in scoring at 18.8 points per game, but he’s coming off an ugly 7-for-21 shooting performance in a blowout loss at Wisconsin. | AP

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Illinois at Northwestern

The facts: 6:30 p.m., BTN, 670-AM, 560-AM

Updated: February 13, 2014 6:37AM

Even after a 95-70 defeat Wednesday at Wisconsin, Illinois is smoking hot compared to Northwestern.

The Wildcats (7-9, 0-3 Big Ten) are drowning in bad basketball. They’ve lost four games in a row and have been blown out in each of their three conference games. Two months into the season, they’re the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten. They’re the worst team in the conference at shooting and rebounding.

Players might have been feeling the lack of success during their last game, a 93-67 defeat Thursday at Iowa.

‘‘I thought [we] were fighting early in the game,’’ NU coach Chris Collins said. ‘‘We forced them into some turnovers. I thought they wore us down as the game went on.’’

The Illini (13-3, 2-1), fresh off a humbling tail-kicking themselves, merely will be trying to get back on the winning track Sunday in Evanston.

Everything went wrong for John Groce’s team at Wisconsin. Illinois surrendered a 20-0 first-half run against one of the true brutes in the best conference in the country. Their resolve, too, was suspect.

‘‘I didn’t like our fight then,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I certainly don’t want to say that’s typical. In fact, it’s not. It’s very atypical.’’

In a conference as strong and unforgiving as the Big Ten, Groce said, all players need to have ‘‘amnesia’’ at times. He expects the Illini to get right back to the things they’ve been good at. Above all else, that means playing with high intensity on defense.

‘‘I’m confident our guys will respond,’’ Groce said.

The Wildcats should have a decent chance in this matchup for the same reason every Illinois opponent can be confident. NU is the only Big Ten team that’s shooting at a lower percentage than the Illini. That’s the case on both three-point shots and two-point shots.

Illinois junior guard Rayvonte Rice continues to lead the conference in scoring at 18.8 points per game, but he got a little too trigger-happy in Madison, throwing up quick, deep three-pointers (he was 1-for-5 from behind the arc) and shooting 7-for-21 from the field. As a team, the Illini shot a measly 31.6 percent.

Athletically, the Illini are well ahead of the Wildcats. But Groce, like Collins, still is searching for players he can count on. Illinois’ bench play is a major negative right now, as five true freshmen continue to give uneven performances while providing very little offense.

A victory Sunday wouldn’t turn NU’s season around, but it would allow Wildcats fans to brag a little. NU likes to promote itself as ‘‘Chicago’s Big Ten team,’’ rather empty words for a downtrodden basketball program in a pro sports town. At least this matchup against the Illini is a game with some meaning.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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