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The Tough Road Ahead

Now come the battles.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As with most of the year, this week was another up and down one for the Illini. They came out and got outmatched physically by Michigan State, rebounded well against a struggling Nebraska team, and followed it up with an ugly win over Wisconsin.

While a win is a win, the schedule only gets tougher from here for the Illini, finishing the regular season against the top-ranked Wolverines and Buckeyes. If Ayo Dosunmu continues to miss time for the Illini, the margin of error will be even thinner.

Let’s take a look back at the week that was and a preview of what’s to come with the final two regular season contests.

The Illini started their week with a physical road loss to the Spartans. Tom Izzo always has his teams peaking at the right time, and they showed that in this contest against the Illini. They did it with balanced scoring — four Spartans finishing in double figures. Defensively, they were active with seven steals and stayed connected on every drive by Ayo Dosunmu or post up from Kofi Cockburn.

Their well-rounded team defense held Cockburn (13 points, 6 rebounds) and Dosunmu (17 points on 6-of-18 shooting) below their season averages. While Trent Frazier (22 points) and Andre Curbelo (12 points) turned in solid performances, it wasn’t enough to overcome the overwhelming team game that the Spartans put together. Despite being relatively undersized compared to the Illini, they held their own on the boards as a team (-5 overall).

Those three factors kept them ahead and gave Sparty a solid victory to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume. The Illini learned a valuable lesson in team toughness in this one.

Then Illinois took care of business against the Cornhuskers. They responded the way a top team should following a loss. They controlled the boards (+13) and gave themselves plenty of second-chance opportunities on what was an off shooting night from three (4-of-23).

In Dosunmu’s absence, Adam Miller stepped up with greater offensive assertiveness (18 points, 8-15 shooting), as well as a career night for Jacob Grandison (14 points, 7 points). This game should be a big confidence booster for the younger players like Miller and Curbelo, who proved they can step up when needed and lead the team to a big win. The bench got emptied, and more reserves saw some late minutes in this one, which should be a big boost for team morale going into the toughest part of the schedule to date.

And then there’s Saturday, where the Illini did just about everything they could to give the game away against the Badgers in Madison. Illinois finished with a season high in turnovers with 20, impressive even for a team with a penchant for turnovers. The Badgers found plenty of second-chance opportunities with 11 offensive rebounds, but fortunately for the Illini, Bucky finished just 34.8% from the field.

Curbelo showed flashes of stardom in finishing with 7 points but more concerning was his continued struggles with turnovers (6 on the game with only 1 assist). With Dosunmu out, his play is instrumental as a facilitator and playmaker for this Illini team, but he becomes a liability with too many turnovers and reckless plays in key moments. Another steady performance from Cockburn (19 points, 7 rebounds) anchored the Illini throughout most of this one. Still, the Illini need to be sharper in their press breaks, free throw shooting, and perimeter defense if they want to have a chance against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State.

D’Mitrik Trice (29 points, 6-of-9 from three) almost single-handedly overcame the Illini’s double-digit lead in the final minutes, and that defensive collapse is something the Illini will have to clean up.

Looking Ahead

Illinois faces two tough road tests against Michigan and Ohio State ahead of the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines, similar to the Illini, are a savvy group of veterans who can score both inside and outside and play well together on the defensive end with freshman Hunter Dickinson anchoring them inside. The Illini will need to cut down the turnovers and convert their free throws at a high clip if they want to be competitive in this one. Next weekend, Brad Underwood and Co. will look to avenge its earlier loss to the Buckeyes. To do that, they’ll need to hold EJ Liddell in check, who finished with 26 points and 7 rebounds in Champaign. The stout perimeter attack will be on display for the Buckeyes, and effective defensive communication will be needed to limit the number of open looks for Liddell, Ahrens, Washington, and Walker.

The inconsistency from the Illini has remained a concern throughout this season, but this tough slate of games will prepare them for better performances in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

No team will be better tested, especially since they may still be without their best player and leader in Dosunmu. These games present growth opportunities for younger players in impact games, benefiting them in both the short and long term.

The Illini will learn more about themselves this week, and I’m eager to see what they’re made of.