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Rayvonte Rice (24) and Nnanna Egwu will play their final regular-season game Saturday at Purdue. (AP/Rick Danzl)

Illinois, Purdue brace for high-pressure matchup

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SHARE Illinois, Purdue brace for high-pressure matchup

The text messages began making the rounds at around midnight on Thursday.

“Let’s just have fun on Saturday.”

“This is our last go-around.”

“Let’s give the fans a lot of positives when they leave Mackey [Arena].”

They were sent to teammates by Purdue seniors Jon Octeus and Neal Beshears. In the earliest hours of Friday morning, younger Boilermakers responded.

“This is what we need to do for the seniors,” junior Raphael Davis wrote. “Let them go out with a bang.”

When Illinois visits Purdue Saturday in a game whose importance is being felt throughout Illini Nation, there’ll be two teams playing with their seasons on the line. The Illini (19-11 overall, 9-8 Big Ten) need another victory to put themselves in favorable position to reach the NCAA Tournament, but the Boilermakers (19-11, 11-6) — who’ve rallied nicely after an awful non-conference performance — need the very same thing.

It’s anyone’s guess which team needs a “W” more desperately. Suffice it to say, motivation won’t be an issue for either squad.

“We’ve got to out-tough them,” said Boilermakers sophomore Basil Smotherman. “Kind of just lock down everybody.”

Illinois beat the Boilermakers 66-57 in January without its best player, senior guard Rayvonte Rice, who was midway through a stretch of nine games on the sideline due to injury or suspension. Rice has been back in action for a few weeks and has turned his game up significantly of late, averaging 20.7 points over the last three contests. The Illini have dropped their last four games in West Lafayette, and nine of 11 overall against Purdue, but their confidence is high.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” coach John Groce said. “It should be a physical game. We anticipate that. It should be a championship-type intensity that both teams will play with.”

Of course, neither team has an abundance of “championship-type” qualities or else this meeting wouldn’t have such a seeming dark side for whoever loses. Illinois is in danger of missing the tourney for a second consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened since 1992. And Lou Henson’s 1990-91 squad missed out on March Madness only because it had been barred from the postseason following an NCAA investigation.

Matter of fact, you have to go back 35 seasons — to the early Henson years — for the last time the Illini failed to make consecutive tourneys simply because they weren’t good enough. That’s not a recurrence many fans of the program want to deal with, though March success has been scarce of late. Since its glorious run to the NCAA title game in 2005, Illinois has a total of three victories in the Big Dance.

A loss at Purdue likely would leave Groce’s team in need of multiple victories in next week’s Big Ten tournament in Chicago, with top-seeded Wisconsin looming in the second round. If both Illinois and Michigan State, which plays at Indiana, win Saturday, the Illini would miss Wisconsin in a potential second-round matchup, drawing No. 2 seed Maryland instead.

“We feel very blessed to be playing for things this time of year, ” Groce said. “It’s certainly not something we take for granted.”

Illinois has bounced back well from its only three-game losing streak of the season, dominating Northwestern and playing inspired ball in a victory over Nebraska. Both games were at home, though; the Illini are just 2-6 on the road in the Big Ten.

“We played really, really well here the last two games. Really well,” Groce said. “Does that guarantee anything [Saturday] at 3:30? No. You’ve got to do it again.”

The season is riding on it.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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