Illinois's 68-60 loss at Iowa on Wednesday was pretty bad. The Illini knew going in they needed to win three of their last four to essentially secure an NCAA Tournament selection — yet they still laid an egg. The team's seniors (Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice, and Ahmad Starks) accounted for a remarkable 45 points in the loss, with everyone else pretty much sleeping on offense.
Now, Illinois faces the prospect of needing a win in each of its final regular season games to keep hopes of meaningful postseason play alive. Of course, two of those three games are against the hottest teams in the conference: Northwestern (4 straight wins) and Purdue (winners in 8 of their last 9 games).
The first challenge for the Illini is Northwestern, who beat Indiana 72-65 in Bloomington on Wednesday to extend its winning streak to four games. Since starting Big Ten play 1-11, the Wildcats are relishing their spoiler role and averaging 67.5 points per game. Tre Demps has been a wrecking ball in that span, averaging 16.5 points per game, and Alex Olah has been literally and figuratively big, averaging 12.25 points and notching a pair of double-doubles.
Northwestern is also winners of its last two games in Champaign, but has never won three in a row. In the last meeting of Illinois and Northwestern, Kendrick Nunn stole the show, scoring a career-high 25 points. Nunn is in a major funk right now, though, as he has just 7 points in each of Illinois's last three games and is shooting 21% from field goals during that span.
If Illinois is to stop the Wildcats' hot streak, not only does Nunn need to improve, the whole team needs to improve. Playing as a team, the second half of John Groce's TNT (toughness and togetherness), was fairly absent at Iowa, as the Illini focused more on dribbling than finding an open pass. I don't see this being a long-term problem, however, as Groce seems to have little patience for it. Additionally, there's a good chance Jaylon Tate will be healthy again after suffering an illness, and his skills as a distributor will certainly help.
My prediction: Illinois 64 – Northwestern 59