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Time for Illinois to start winning

D.J. Richardshis Illinois teammates led Michigan State by 10 points halftime Thursday before coming up short. | Getty Images

D.J. Richardson and his Illinois teammates led Michigan State by 10 points at halftime Thursday before coming up short. | Getty Images

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:33AM

First, the bad news: Illinois has lost six of its eight Big Ten games and tumbled out of the Top 25 onto the NCAA tournament bubble, with no end in sight to its rugged conference schedule.

Now, the good news: That perilous schedule will keep providing opportunities for the Illini to keep that bubble from bursting.

Next up is Wisconsin, which comes to Champaign on Sunday. This Super Bowl appetizer will give Illinois a chance to atone for its 74-51 disaster Jan. 12 in Madison, Wis.

The problem is, the Badgers, who have lost three of their last four, also will be intent on getting a victory. And Wisconsin tends to excel at the toughness that often has eluded the Illini during their rocky Big Ten start.

When it was building a 37-27 halftime lead Thursday at No. 13 Michigan State, Illinois appeared to be on the verge of becoming the first team in the country to own four victories against Top 25 teams.

But unlike in their victories against No. 7 Gonzaga, No. 9 Butler and No. 11 Ohio State, the Illini lost their toughness/mojo/killer instinct — whatever you want to call it. They wound up losing 80-75 to the Spartans, who were 14-for-16 from the field and 24-for-34 from the free-throw line in the second half.

Illinois’ trio of Top 25 victories is a big reason bracketology experts Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm still have it hanging on to an NCAA bid by a thread. The real question, though, is why the Illini are capable of such ups and downs within the same game.

‘‘I wish I could tell you,’’ said coach John Groce, who was
appalled Michigan State scored the first 14 points of the second half. ‘‘You’re talking about in between the ears and in the chest. When you play against a really good Michigan State ballclub on the road, you can’t come out like that.’’

The trouble is, Illinois did.

In a sense, Groce and his players created a monster. By getting off to a 12-0 start, they created inflated expectations for a team with personnel issues that have been exposed in Big Ten play.

Give Groce credit for connecting with his players and coaching them up. And give the players credit for working their tails off to become a pre-Christmas sensation.

But know that navigating a strong Big Ten puts a lot of pressure on programs in transition, such as the Illini. Until Groce adds more tools to the toolbox, Illinois faces uphill battles against the top-tier teams in the conference.

But the Illini are capable of surprises. They have proved that much.

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