College basketball is a grind. Night in and night out, we see strange scores all across the country. Simply put, it is hard to win in college hoops, especially when you have to go on the road.
That is what the Illini learned from this past week.
The week started off great for Illinois. The Illini were riding a four-game winning streak, were 2-0 in Big Ten play and had just cracked the Top 25 rankings for the first time all season. Then came a trip to Madison, WI.
The Badgers were 15-0 coming into the game and ranked No. 4 in the country. They hit Illinois hard right from the start and opened up a massive first-half lead, thanks in large part to a 20-0 run that lasted through a large portion of the first half.
Illinois tried to fight throughout the second half, but every time they made a run at Wisconsin, the Badgers answered with a bigger run of their own. The end result was a monstrous 95-70 loss that certainly did not look good on Illinois' schedule.
It was certainly not the end of the world, though. Illinois was still 2-1 in conference play, and a loss in Madison, while still disappointing, was somewhat expected. The Badgers are one of the top teams in the country, and for Illinois to win on the road would have been a major headliner upset.
The key for Illinois was to bounce back in their next few games. They had winnable games coming up against Northwestern and Purdue, and they could have a 4-1 record through their first five conference games if they just took care of business.
The Illini entered Sunday night's contest against in-state rival Northwestern with all intentions of stopping the losing streak before it could get going.
The offense did not show up, though.
Illinois put together a gritty defensive effort by holding Northwestern to only 49 points, but on offense, the Illini only managed to shoot 28 percent from the floor and only got to the free-throw line six times. It was an offensive disaster, and the end result was another Illinois loss.
When the new Top 25 rankings came out on Monday, the Illini were left clinging to only three votes and had seen themselves fall right into the middle of the Big Ten Conference standings.
Certainly, last week was a disappointing week for the Illini and their fans, but the key in college basketball is to have short-term memory. Nothing Illinois can do can change the last two games, but they can certainly go forward and write the future.
The Illini are back home Wednesday night against an 11-5 Purdue team that they can definitely beat. Illinois has shown that they play very well at home in the past, so after losing two straight games, there is no place where they would rather play.
Right now, the focus needs to be solely on beating Purdue and getting back to a winning record in the Big Ten Conference.
Then, things get tricky for the Illini. Four of their next five opponents will be ranked in the top 14 teams in the country, but that should be looked at as an opportunity for this young team.
Illinois probably will not be competing for the Big Ten title this year, but they are competing for an NCAA Tournament berth. The key to getting into the Big Dance is to continue to play quality opponents and continue to try to pick up key victories to build up their resume.
Illinois certainly has the opportunity to do that over the next month of the season.
It will come down to that short-term memory, though.
What's done is done. The Illini need to worry about moving forward now and continuing their push for that second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth under John Groce.
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