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Illinois win at Northwestern puts both teams’ fates up in the air

Illinois' Maverick Morgan and Northwestern's Vic Law fight evenly for a loose ball, as their teams did Tuesday in Evanston. (AP/David Banks)

It took a 15-0 run in the first half. It took engaged, focused defense from start to finish. It took uncharacteristically good sharing of the ball and some clutch shot-making. It took a road performance better than any we’ve seen all season from Illinois, better than any we’ve seen from the Illini in an absurdly long time.

It took all that — and Northwestern being without its top player, Scottie Lindsey — for the Illini to pull off a much-needed 68-61 upset Tuesday night in Evanston.

Incredibly, it was Illinois’ first true road victory in over a year.

For one night, beleaguered coach John Groce could sleep well. Perhaps for a day or two, Illini fans can allow their imaginations to wander to the very edge of reason: Hey, maybe this 14-11 team with the 4-8 Big Ten record can avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year after all.

And the other side of the coin: How will Northwestern — desperately seeking its first foray into March Madness — react to the pressure that will seep into its midst after back-to-back defeats?

The Wildcats are 18-6, still on track to break the school record for wins — 20 — which by itself wouldn’t mean a thing. Chris Collins team, still a very solid 7-4 in league play, needs to do better than that to assure itself of finding solid ground before Selection Sunday.

For one team, things just got a tad less dire. For the other, they just got mighty complicated.

JON SCHEYER: FUTURE HEAD COACH

The college basketball season didn’t begin until November, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant Jon Scheyer rode a towering wave of emotion and tension all October long.

Blue Devils training camp by day, Cubs championship chase by night.

“Oh, man, Coach K and I are huge Cubs fans,” Scheyer said. “I wish we could’ve been there.”

The 29-year-old Scheyer grew up in Northbrook and attended Glenbrook North, where he befriended current Cleveland Indians standout Jason Kipnis. Yet let’s take a breath right here, for this is starting to sound an awful lot like a baseball story.

Quite the contrary, it’s about a budding star in the college basketball coaching ranks — and the strikingly familiar path he has been on for over a decade.

Like Northwestern coach Chris Collins — whom Scheyer calls a “big brother” — Scheyer was an All-American guard at Glenbrook North and later a team captain at Duke. He did Collins, 42, one better on each count, leading the Spartans to a Class AA state title and the Blue Devils to a national championship.

Both players had brief professional stints before diving into coaching. Collins was on Krzyzewski’s staff for 13 seasons before accepting his first head job, in Evanston. Scheyer — who might still be playing if not for a serious eye injury that sent his first attempt at making an NBA team off the rails — is in his fourth season learning at the knee of the college game’s greatest coach since John Wooden.

Scheyer coaches Duke’s guards — as Collins did when Scheyer was a player — and spearheads the program’s recruiting efforts. Short-term goals include cutting down the nets in April and marrying fiancée Marcelle in May.

Long-term? There’s no doubt about it. Likely before too long, Scheyer will get his shot at running a program.

“In my mind, I always expected to be playing the game for a long time,” he told the Sun-Times on Tuesday, as Duke prepared for Thursday’s mega-matchup with North Carolina. “But coaching is what I want to do. It’s my passion. I love to work at it. I really love it.”

Eventually, someone is going to have to take over for Kryzewski. Associate head coach Jeff Capel, who played alongside Collins at Duke and has high-level head coaching experience, could have the inside track. There are those who believe Collins, instead, is the future of the program. Another former teammate, Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, is a name to bear in mind.

All have excellent reputations. Scheyer has a growing one of his own, too. Collins is sold on his future as a top banana.

“He always thought the game like a coach,” Collins said. “He was like a coach on the floor and has done an outstanding job at Duke ever since he was done playing. He’s learning from great coaches every day. There’s no question in my mind that he’ll make an outstanding Division I coach someday.”

GAMES OF THE WEEK

No. 16 Purdue at Indiana (Thursday, 6 p.m., ESPN2): Big game? It’s never not when these programs hook up. Yet the Hoosiers are reeling, losers of seven of their last 12 contests; a couple of key injuries haven’t helped. The Boilermakers might be the Big Ten’s best team, but they need this one just to stay in the regular-season race.

No. 8 North Carolina at No. 18 Duke (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN): Whoa — speaking of rivalries. Don’t be misled by those rankings, because the Blue Devils are the favorites in this one. If they’re the 18th-best team in the country, yours truly is the next Fabio-level romance-novel cover boy.

No. 5 Oregon at No. 10 UCLA (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN): The Ducks can’t match UCLA’s pure talent or offensive flash, but they’ve been around the block a few more times — no small matter. Experience and discipline have keyed a 19-1 run for team that pounded Arizona by 27 last time out.

No. 1 Gonzaga at No. 20 Saint Mary’s (Saturday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN): Don’t think these are big-time teams? Try the Zags’ Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 300) vs. the Gaels’ Jock Landale (6-11, 255) on for size. This is the game unbeaten Gonzaga must win if it’s going to run the table.

No. 13 West Virginia at No. 3 Kansas (Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN): Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers have taken down Bill Self’s Big 12 bullies in four of the teams’ last eight meetings, including an 85-69 statement victory last month. There’s no fear here on either side.

TRENDING

Up: Krzyzewski. It’s good to see him back on the bench after he missed seven games while recuperating from back surgery. Duke was 4-3 in his absence.

Down: Kris Jenkins, Villanova. Mr. Big Shot has lost his eye of late to such an extent that coach Jay Wright took him out of the starting lineup after a three-game stretch in which Jenkins scored a puny total of 16 points. Jenkins was back in the first five Tuesday against Georgetown.

Up: VCU. Why again did this team lose badly to Illinois? The Rams are back to their usual excellent play, tied for first in the always-tough Atlantic 10 and seemingly NCAA Tournament-bound at 18-5.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com