The beginning of the end as skidding Illini host Iowa

SHARE The beginning of the end as skidding Illini host Iowa

Nebraska guard Toney McCray (0) beats Illinois center Meyers Leonard (12) and guard Joseph Bertrand (2) to score during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Lincoln Journal Star, Ted Kirk) LOCAL TV OUT

The three remaining regular-season games on Illinois’ schedule seem anticlimactic unless fans are wondering whether the Illini are going to lose out, rivaling the football team’s 1-6 ending last fall.

When the Illini (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten) take the floor at Assembly Hall on Sunday against Iowa (15-13, 7-8) it will be only the third time in February they have played in Champaign.

‘‘This is a big stretch for us, and it’s been a long grind for our guys,” coach Bruce Weber said. ‘‘They’re excited we have a chance to be back at home.”

A ‘‘grind” can’t accurately describe what Illinois has been through this month. A meat grinder, maybe, considering the team has lost six consecutive games and nine of its last 10. Illinois hasn’t won on the road since Jan. 4 at Northwestern or at home since the Michigan State victory Jan. 31.

Weber said Friday that defense is still a huge problem after it allowed No. 8 Ohio State to shoot a whopping 65 percent from the field in the Illini’s 83-67 loss in Col­umbus on Tuesday. That was the second consecutive game in which an Illinois opponent shot over 50 percent. In a disastrous 80-57 drubbing at Nebraska on Feb. 18, the Cornhuskers shot 56 percent.

The only positive Illinois could take from the Ohio State loss was that it prevented some dubious history from being made. The Illini almost had back-to-back 20-point losses for the first time in 37 years. The last time it happened was Jan.  4 and 6, 1975 against Iowa (95-70) and Minnesota (75-47) under coach Gene Bartow.

But there still needs to be more pride and toughness on the floor. Junior guard D.J. Richardson understands what needs to be done.

‘‘We’re putting a lot of pride into it, and we have to get guys out there who want to put a lot of pride into it,” said Richardson, who scored his 1,000th career point in the Ohio State loss. ‘‘It’s not even the starting five, but the guys on the bench. We have to see if they want it. If we’re not doing it, then Coach can sub us out. You have to try something new if you have to.

‘‘With me being here for three years and being a leader, I have to do a better job of getting the guys together and be more of a player-coach.”

Junior guard Brandon Paul is two points shy of the 1,000-point career mark entering the game.

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