John Groce and the 2013-14 Fighting Illini tipped off the season with an impressive 13-2 mark but have since dropped their last three ballgames and fallen outside the bubble in this year's 68-team March Madness field.
After road losses at Wisconsin and Northwestern, the Illini dropped a home game against a beatable Purdue team. The road doesn't get any easier, as four of Illinois' next five games come against teams ranked in the nation's top 14.
Illinois will try to end its three-game skid this Saturday evening, as the Illini play host to the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans' conference record is unblemished to date, though they were vulnerable in overtime wins to Ohio State and Minnesota at home.
Michigan State big man Adreian Payne is doubtful for the contest, while forward Branden Dawson is questionable. Without a frontcourt player or two, the thin Illinois will have a chance to gain confidence, despite being exposed in recent games as both Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu have struggled simultaneously.
Even without Payne and Dawson, Michigan State has weapons in the form of Keith Appling and Gary Harris, both of whom are prime contenders for the Big Ten Player of the Year award. Still, Illinois hopes to extend their home winning streak over the Spartans to four games come Saturday night.
On January 4, the Fighting Illini and Nittany Lions took the floor in Champaign. The Fighting Illini emerged victorious by a score of 75-55, though PSU was right in the game when stud junior D.J. Newbill was ejected midway through the second stanza.
Illinois freshman Kendrick Nunn appeared to have instigated the quarrel, which ended in a Newbill punch to the back of Nunn's head. February 9 also marks the end of Illinois' gauntlet schedule. Assuming the Fighting Illini don't go on a huge winning streak against top-tier B1G squads, a road win at Penn State would be a huge step back in the right direction.
When the Fighting Illini and Nittany Lions battle in Happy Valley, the end result is always a close one. Former Penn State guard and teammate of now-senior Tim Frazier, Talor Battle, was an Illini killer and buried numerous late game-winning shots against U of I during his career at Penn State.
Three days after the trip to Happy Valley, Illinois should expect to play in a much more packed and loud environment. While you may be able to hear a pin drop at the Bryce Jordan Center on February 9, Nebraska's brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena will be hopping, as the Cornhuskers' season tickets sold out in record time prior to this season.
Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska has played host to Illinois twice. In 2012, the Cornhuskers demolished a reeling Illini squad, capped off by former Illini Meyers Leonard crying on the bench. In 2013, the Illini left Lincoln a winner, after a career night by senior sharpshooter D.J. Richardson.
While most road trips in the Big Ten would be considered successful with a 1-1 split, Illinois will have the chance to notch a pair of victories over PSU and Nebraska in February. Both programs are improved but appear to be the league's bottom feeders still, as evidenced by their combined 0-9 league mark to date.
On March 4, Illinois will honor its seniors in its game against the Michigan Wolverines, who are off to a surprising 4-0 start in conference play, despite Mitch McGary's absence. Michigan's schedule will also get tougher, bringing John Beilein's squad back to earth, making this matchup that much more important.
The Illini and Wolverines only match up once this season, so this game could serve as a virtual play-in game to the NCAA tournament, assuming both teams are somewhere in the middle of the conference standings once March rolls around.
Illinois has dropped its last two contests when Michigan is the visiting opponent. Illinois only has a pair of seniors on its roster, both of whom are the fifth-year variety. Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey will be the seniors honored that night, as Bertrand spent five years with the program compared to Ekey's one season after transferring from down the road at Illinois State.
From March 13-16, the Big Ten tournament will be back in Indianapolis, after being hosted at Chicago's United Center in 2013. The tournament includes four games—play-in games—on Thursday, four quarterfinals on Friday, two semifinal matchups on Saturday and the Big Ten tournament championship on Sunday.
After an early dominance in Big Ten tournament appearances, Illinois has struggled in more recent years. Illinois is 1-3 over the past three Big Ten tournaments and has not reached the semifinals since 2010, when Evan Turner and the Ohio State Buckeyes knocked off Bruce Weber's Illini in double overtime.
Last March, Illinois cemented its name in the NCAA tournament bracket on Brandon Paul's buzzer-beater to knock off fellow bubble squad, Minnesota. Reaching the semifinals or beyond would be fresh in the NCAA tournament committee's mind, should Illinois' NCAA tournament status be a question mark.