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Illinios losing the fight
by Shawn Sillinger

Illinois fading?  

Doesn’t anybody want to win the Big Ten Conference? The highest ranked team in the Big Ten, the No. 8 Illinois Fighting Illinois, slipped to fourth place in the conference Tuesday after dropping a 72-64 decision to the Michigan Wolverines. The Illinois were favored by 2 ½ points in Ann Arbor, but put up one of their poorer defensive efforts of the season to allow the Blue-and-Maize to snap their five-year losing streak against Illinois. It was also the first time in six contests that the final score went over the posted total.

Illinois has now lost three of its last five, going 2-3 against the spread in the process to fall to 13-10 ATS on the year. The latest defeat was at the hands of a Wolverines’ squad that was missing two starters: Lester Abram (ankle) and Chris Hunter (knee). But Michigan has outplayed expectations all season, going 12-8-1 ATS to sit just half a game behind the Illinois in the conference standings. And Illinois – playing on just one day of rest – faded yet again in the second half.

If there was one obvious weak link this year in Champaign, it was bench strength or lack thereof. Illinois lost five players during the off-season, including Deron Williams and Luther Head; their absences have been filled somewhat by the emergence of Richard McBride and Brian Randle, but guard Jamar Smith (8.4 points in 19.3 minutes per game) is the only one of Illinois’ five freshmen to make an impact this year. Unfortunately for Illinois supporters, even Smith has disappeared of late; he joined his bench mates in putting up a collective 0-for-5 goose egg against Michigan.

The remaining star from last year’s stellar Final Four lineup, senior guard Dee Brown, should sue for lack of support. With Smith falling off the radar screen in recent weeks, McBride is the only other player of note in the Illinois backcourt. February hasn’t been kind to the Springfield native. Essentially a one-dimensional long-range bomber, the inconsistent McBride was excellent at home versus lowly Penn State and Northwestern, then shot a combined 3-for-16 (2-for-10 from downtown) on the road against Ohio State and Michigan.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Illinois heading down the stretch. Their remaining three games are Saturday at home against No. 22 Iowa, then a pair of away dates at Minnesota and No. 16 Michigan State. Illinois lost to all three teams in January. Another loss to the conference-leading Hawkeyes (just 3-7 ATS in road games thus far) would not go down well with the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

The Illinios appear to be clinging to a No. 3 seed at this point and probably need to beat at least one of Iowa or MSU, as well as the Gophers, to avoid the dreaded No. 4 seed on Selection Sunday. Illinois also needs to worry about its seeding in the Big Ten tourney. The fourth and fifth-place teams meet in a tough second-round match up, while slipping out of the top five would cost the Illini a first-round bye and make defending their conference title a long shot.