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Consistency is Illinois basketball’s top priority

Sam McLaurin

Sam McLaurin

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Updated: March 4, 2013 11:01PM

The magic word as Illinois heads into its final two regular-season

games is . . . consistency.

Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey wrestled with it earlier this season. Sophomores Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Myke Henry have made great strides with it lately.

And, fingers crossed, Sam McLaurin, the most consistent Illini because of his high-idling motor, will be able to deliver it when Illinois travels to Iowa on Tuesday (8 p.m.).

``The [sprained] ankle looks good,’’ coach John Groce said Monday.

``We’re anticipating him being able to play.’’

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes will be without point guard Mike Gesell, the productive freshman starter who hopes to return from a stress injury to his right foot in time for the Big Ten tournament.

The general consensus is that even if Illinois comes up short at Iowa and Ohio State, who are a combined 29-4 at home this season, it is already assured a ticket to the Big Dance.

The Illini could give themselves extra elbow room, in the form of a better seed, though, if they don’t blink against the Hawkeyes and/or Buckeyes. Considering that No. 2 Indiana and No. 4 Kansas have the only wins in Columbus, and IU and No. 10 Michigan State are the only teams that have won in Iowa City, a win in either would be another bold line on Illinois’ NCAA resume.

Groce, who handed out orange bracelets that read `3-19-13’ to his players before the season, is leaving post-season speculation to fans and media now. He’s thinking about Iowa, not the date when the NCAA tournament begins.

``That carrot’s been in front of [the players] since the summer,’’ Groce said. ``I’ll let everybody else talk about that. The important thing is to play well, so the other stuff takes care of itself. What we have to do is be ready to play in a difficult environment against a team that has the same aspirations.’’

Oh, yes. Illinois and Minnesota (both 8-8) and Iowa and Purdue (both 7-9) are locked in a four-way battle for the 6 through 9 seeds at the Big Ten tournament. The two winners will open against Nebraska and Northwestern. The two losers will play each other.

Advancing at the league tournament, which begins at the United Center, on March 14, not only would be good fun. It could be crucial for Iowa, which could still sneak into what probably would be the Big Ten’s eighth NCAA bid.

Of course, the Hawkeyes need to beat Illinois first to keep their NCAA hopes alive.

On the other hand, an Illinois win over Iowa would give the Illini all the tiebreakers vs. their three 6-through-9 rivals—if Indiana wins the league outright.

It will all be a lot clearer after the Illini and Hawkeyes play.

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