January 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Matt Charboneau

Illini's promising season heading downhill

The season looked promising for Illinois and guard Brandon Paul, but the Illini have lost three in a row, including at home to Northwestern. (Darrell Hoemann/Associated Press)

Amazing how quickly things can change in the Big Ten.

A season ago, Illinois was basking in a quick start and looking forward to playing for a conference championship. Instead, the Illini lost 12 of their final 14 games and missed the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Bruce Weber lost his job and Illinois was suddenly in rebuilding mode.

But 12 games into this season, it started to look like rebuilding wasn't necessary. New coach John Groce had directed the Illini to a Maui Invitational championship and big wins over Butler and Gonzaga.

And despite a loss to Purdue in its Big Ten opener, Illinois rolled over Ohio State at home.

Three games later, however, the Illini find themselves with just one conference win and are suddenly wondering what happened to their once-promising season.

"The bottom line is we have to play better," Groce said after Illinois' 68-54 loss at home to Northwestern. "We have to coach better. Nobody can feel sorry for you."

Illinois has lost three straight by double digits and has lost five of its last seven. Thursday's loss to the 11-8 Wildcats was, no doubt, the low point of the season, thus far.

Northwestern was coming off a 20-point loss at the hands of Iowa and hadn't been competitive in all but one of its conference games.

So to say Illinois' performance against the Wildcats was disappointing would be an understatement. Only senior guard Brandon Paul has scored consistently, getting 21 against the Wildcats.

But the bottom line is Illinois needs to get much more out of its roster, the way it did early in the season when spirits and confidence were high.

"You have to find a way to grind it out," Groce said. "At the end of the day, we need some guys. They have to play better. A lot of them."

The flipside Thursday was the feeling in the Northwestern locker room.

The Wildcats weren't expected to do much this season and when they lost Drew Crawford for the year, those expectations dropped even further.

Coming into the Illinois game, Northwestern had essentially beaten nobody at home. Its best win was against Delaware State, rated 211th in the RPI. But away from home things have been much better. The victory over Illinois gave Northwestern a 6-1 record away from Welsh-Ryan Arena.

And despite Sunday's loss at home to Indiana, the Wildcats appear to be headed in the right direction when as recently as two weeks ago things couldn't have looked gloomier.

"We played one of our better games of the year," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "I think you have to do that to beat these guys here."

Northwestern was outstanding from the field, finishing 8-for-15 from 3-point range.

"If you make shots, you become a better coach," Carmody joked.

The victory over Illinois no doubt had folks in Evanston feeling better, but it also provided a bit of a spark that at least allowed the Wildcats to hang with Indiana for much of Sunday's matchup.

"We definitely needed (the victory)," forward Jared Swopshire said, "just for our confidence and team spirit."

By no means does Thursday's game cement the fate of Illinois or Northwestern. But it did likely at least give a glimpse as to how each is feeling about the next couple of months.

Turnaround in Iowa City

Three games into Big Ten play, any suggestion that Iowa was an NCAA Tournament team likely would have been met with skepticism.

But Saturday night, the inspired Hawkeyes proved they have an up-and-coming group that gives into nobody.

Following a blowout win at Northwestern, the Hawkeyes knocked off Wisconsin, the same team that hadn't lost in Big Ten play and was fresh off its upset victory at Indiana earlier in the week.

For the Hawkeyes, it was a day of emotion as they celebrated the life of Chris Street , the former Hawkeye who died in a car accident 20 years earlier when he was a member of the team.

His No. 40 jersey took up a spot on the bench and the Hawkeyes fed off the emotion.

"There was an energy level in the building that I've never seen before," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "I've been in a lot of buildings in my playing and coaching career and nothing like that. There's not a doubt in my mind there was a difference."

Iowa jumped to an early lead and hung on late, riding the wave of emotion and a huge 3-pointer late from an ailing Roy Devyn Marble (Southfield).

"With the condition I'm in, I'm having a hard time really exploding toward the basket," Marble said. "I think the 3 was my best shot at that time."

It sent Wisconsin home with its first Big Ten loss and reminded everyone around the conference that Iowa is no longer to be taken lightly.

Key games this week

No. 18 Michigan State at Wisconsin, Tuesday: The Badgers might be ranked after beating Indiana on the road, but some of their momentum will be curbed with Saturday night's loss at Iowa. Michigan State is coming off a big win at home over Ohio State and has a tough week to prove it belongs near the top of the Big Ten.

No. 9 Minnesota at Wisconsin, Saturday: The capper for another tough week for the Badgers should lead to an interesting matchup and prove whether they are the real deal. It's also a big week for the Gophers, who are coming off back-to-back losses to Indiana and Michigan after winning their first three in the Big Ten.

No. 18 Michigan State at No. 2 Indiana, Sunday: The Spartans, who were wiped out here a year ago, will cap a huge week at Assembly Hall. A win here could entrench Michigan State near the top of the conference while Indiana will be busy proving its place among the elite will not be affected by its loss to Wisconsin.

No. 5 Michigan at No. 23 Illinois, Sunday: Things don't get any easier for the crumbling Illini, who have just one conference victory. Each team has winnable games early in the week, but that phrase is more of a stretch for Illinois. Michigan bounced back from the Ohio State loss by winning at Minnesota then taking a week off, meaning it should be fresh for its trip to Champaign.

mcharboneau@detnews.com

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