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It’s too early for Illini to panic, but it isn’t too soon to worry

Illinois’ JEkey (shown defending against Northwestern’s Tre Demps) is 5-for-24 from three-point range team’s last five games. | Matt Marton/AP

Illinois’ Jon Ekey (shown defending against Northwestern’s Tre Demps) is 5-for-24 from three-point range in the team’s last five games. | Matt Marton/AP

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Updated: January 14, 2014 11:01PM

Has must-win time arrived for Illinois?

John Groce would scoff at the notion. It’s only January, and he is, after all, a coach. His personal version of the ‘‘one game at a time’’ mentality espoused by every woman or man with a whistle is to compare each Big Ten game to a round of a heavyweight fight.

An 18-round fight, mind you. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, but that’s beside the point.

‘‘We’ve talked all along about it being 18 rounds,’’ Groce said Tuesday, a day before the Illini (13-4, 2-2 Big Ten) will take on Purdue in Champaign. ‘‘This is Round 5 on Wednesday. We’ve got to be ready to go.’’

Rounds 3 and 4 were brutal on Illinois. First it was pummeled 95-70 at Wisconsin. Then it failed to connect at a pathetic rate in a 49-43 defeat at lowly Northwestern, shooting only 28.1 percent.

Groce’s team entered those games with a shiny new Top 25 ranking and exited them looking an awful lot like a National Invitation Tournament squad.

‘‘Obviously, it was a tough week . . . [but] we’re smart guys,’’ senior forward Jon Ekey said. ‘‘We know, obviously, the last game doesn’t mean much for the next game.’’

Ah, but sometimes it does, and that’s why the game against Purdue is so important. A third consecutive loss — with No. 4 Michigan State coming to Champaign on Saturday — could set the season on a highly disappointing course.

Groce put the two-game losing streak in perspective by pointing out how well the Illini played at both ends of the court in building a 13-2 record. Defensively, they were stout. Offensively, they were efficient, if not explosive, taking good care of the basketball and shooting 50 percent on two-point field goals.

Against Wisconsin and Northwestern combined, Illinois made less than a third of its two-point shots.

‘‘Our body of work over 15 games, I’m going to choose that as the glass half-full rather than [choose] the span of two games,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We’ve got to knock a few more in. Our guys know that, and I’m confident that we will.’’

The Illini have some problems right now, though, that haven’t been confined to the last two games. Take Ekey, for example. Illinois’ top three-point shooter has misfired on 19 of 24 long balls in the last five games. During that same span, junior center Nnanna Egwu is 0-for-8 on three-pointers and 15-for-48 (31.3 percent) overall from the field.

Against Northwestern, the Illini missed so many shots from in close that it was almost comical. Purdue is a far more dangerous animal. The Boilermakers (11-5, 1-2) have won eight of their last nine games against the Illini and have one of the best rim protectors in the country in A.J. Hammons, the Big Ten’s leading shot-blocker at 3.6 per game.

NOTE: Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, strained an adductor muscle in his hip during the loss at Northwestern. Coach John Groce said he was uncertain about the extent of Rice’s availability for the Purdue game.

‘‘We’re not going to do anything to harm our guys,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We’re going to do what’s best for Ray Rice.’’


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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