February 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Illinois rescues itself from sharp descent

A little more than two weeks ago, it appeared Illinois was in a tailspin from which it had virtually no chance of pulling out.

An impressive start was ancient history — the Illini had lost six of seven — and a trip to the NCAA Tournament was sailing out the window.

And with No. 1 Indiana in town, it didn't appear the slide was going to end any time soon.

But a strange thing happened during the final minutes the night of Feb. 7. Illinois pulled off a stunning comeback, beating Indiana on a last-second layup.

Not only did it stun the Hoosiers, but it appeared to be the shock the Illini needed.

Illinois followed that game with four more victories to firmly put itself back into the NCAA field.

Now, Illinois gets most of the week off before facing Nebraska on Saturday and then closes the season with games at Iowa and Ohio State.

"The big thing right now is to make sure we get some guys rested up physically and mentally," Illinois coach John Groce said. "We had seven games over the course of 20 days and played at a pretty high level and continued to get better."

Illinois lost once during the nonconference season, and along the way beat Butler and Gonzaga.

But after a blowout victory over then-No. 8 Ohio State, things fell apart.

But just as it looked like there was a chance Illinois' great start would be wasted, the victory over Indiana turned things around.

Freshman paradox

Purdue freshman A.J. Hammons is averaging almost 11 points and better than six rebounds.

In early February, he was named the Big Ten freshman of the week after scoring 30 points in a loss against Indiana.

But while Hammons has drawn plenty of praise, coach Matt Painter has not always been happy with the 7-footer's effort. During last weekend's victory over Northwestern, Painter started Sandi Marcius and brought Hammons in off the bench.

Hammons played 12 minutes, and Painter said it was as much about Marcius' improved play as it was Hammons' inconsistent effort.

"I thought Marcius played hard the last two games," Painter said. "I thought A.J.'s effort had been inconsistent. I couldn't justify starting him."

Marble's rebound

Midway through Big Ten play, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was close to taking Roy Devyn Marble out of the starting lineup. The junior was struggling and had scored two points in as many games as the Hawkeyes had lost four of five.

But, Marble has bounced back, averaging 19 points the last four games, helping Iowa win three of four and keep its slim NCAA hopes alive.

"Our offense had struggled and it's obvious for us to survive in this league we need Roy Devyn Marble to play the way he's been playing," McCaffery said. "He was the guy down the stretch (against Nebraska) making the key basket for us. We need for Devyn to not only be getting 20 points, but he's got to make shots late as well."

mcharboneau@detnews.com

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“The big thing right now is to make sure we get some guys rested up physically and mentally,” Illinois coach John Groce says. / Associated Press
Iowa guard Roy Devyn Marble (Southfield-Lathrup) is averaging 19 points ... (Jim Mone/Associated Press)
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