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Despite 1-3 start in Big Ten, Illini basketball not ready to push panic button

Illinois' Tracy Abrams (13) Tyler Griffey Sam McLaurright walk off court after their 74-51 loss Wisconsan NCAA college basketball game

Illinois' Tracy Abrams (13), Tyler Griffey, and Sam McLaurin, right, walk off the court after their 74-51 loss to Wisconsin in an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

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Updated: February 16, 2013 6:25AM

Admittedly, Illinois’ 74-51 stumble at Wisconsin on Saturday had a foul aroma. But the penalty is looking awfully harsh.

The Illini, who had been ranked 11th, dropped to 23rd in the AP media poll on Monday. More importantly, Illinois’ sluggish 1-3 league start leaves it eighth in the Big Ten.

That means the Illini will need to get on a roll if they’re going to notch a winning record in conference play and assure they make good on those orange “3-19-13’’ wristbands they wear.

That’s generally what it takes for teams to make the NCAA tournament, which begins March 19. As strong as the Big Ten looks, 9-9 or even 8-10 might be enough. But even that won’t be easy in the stacked conference.

The good news is, Illinois and new coach John Groce have shown they have the ingredients to reach their postseason goal. Three victories against top-15 teams (No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 11 Ohio State and No. 13 Butler) provide indisputable video evidence.

And the truth is, while the effort at Wisconsin was troubling, Illinois might not have won there even with a good effort. The Badgers are 86-9 at home in Big Ten games the last 12 years for good reasons. And they had six days to prepare, while Illinois had two days coming off an energetic loss vs. Minnesota.

When people look back, they’ll point to Illinois’ opening loss at Purdue, not Wisconsin, as the one that got away.

What matters is bouncing back with the aggressiveness Groce preaches as the Illini move forward, beginning with Northwestern on Thursday.

Although Groce said, “Everything’s open,’’ after the loss to the Badgers, he was talking about tweaks, not blowing up the overall plan.

“We’re not changing,’’ he said Monday. “We’re not going to panic because we didn’t play well in one game. I know what the heck we’re doing. We just need to do what we’re doing a heck of a lot better. And we need to come out a lot more aggressively.’’

To put the fight back in the Illini, Groce said he and his staff will “just talk to them about it. Show them film. We do what we do. I believe in what we do. It’s worked.’’

They also will playing time as a carrot.

“If guys want to earn more minutes, Mike Shaw did that,’’ said Groce, impressed with Shaw’s hustling effort at Wisconsin. “Mike Shaw has earned himself more minutes on Thursday. Maybe some other guys will do the same over the next three or four days.’’

Shaw, who had played a total of 20 minutes in Illinois’ first 17 games, logged 19 minutes against the Badgers. His determination was far more important than his line (two points, three rebounds, one steal, one assist).

“I have to take advantage of every opportunity I get,’’ Shaw said, adding that Illinois’ disaster at Wisconsin was out of character. “We’re going to bounce back. I don’t doubt it at all. We all just have to stay positive. We can’t hang our heads. We have to come ready next game.’’

Fans need to remember that in his first year, Groce doesn’t have the depth or talent he’s going to have in future years.

If the Illini can rekindle the aggressiveness they showed earlier in the season, they will give themselves a chance to find out how much this roster can accomplish.

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