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Illinois Needs to Dig Deep with 2 Massive Road Games Ahead

The Big Ten schedule is always a grind, and the Illini's next two games will be no different.
Photo: IlliniMBB/Twitter

Photo: IlliniMBB/Twitter

Last Friday night, Brad Underwood's Fighting Illini team had a chance to take over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a matchup in Champaign against Maryland. Illinois got off to a hot start but went ice cold at the beginning of the second half and couldn't recover, eventually falling by a score of 75-66.

They had a chance to bounce back against Michigan State on Tuesday night with that game also being at home. Instead, they came out flat and dug themselves a massive hole, trailing 37-20 at halftime. A second-half comeback was in the works, as they closed the gap to take their first lead of the game when an Ayo Dosunmu layup put the Illini in front 61-60 with 5:29 remaining in the game. There was plenty of back and forth down the stretch, and they were in a position for a potential close-out after Kofi Cockburn's free throw put Illinois up 69-68 with 20 seconds left on the clock. Instead, Michigan State converted on their next possession thanks to a Xavier Tillman dunk with just six seconds left. Ayo Dosunmu drove to the opposite end of the court to attempt a game-winning shot, but he slipped awkwardly and the game was over.

In the moment, all focus was on the health of Dosunmu and the game became secondary. Thankfully for Illinois, an MRI revealed no structural damage to Dosunmu's leg. That's a huge relief because the standout sophomore guard has such a bright future ahead of him and he is undoubtedly Illinois' best player.

With the major injury concerns now put to rest, the Illini must refocus on winning basketball games. A seven-game win streak from January 5th through January 30th put Illinois in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, but they have since dropped three straight games, two of which were at home, and fallen to fifth place in the standings.

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The Big Ten schedule is always a grind, and the Illini's next two games will be no different. On Saturday, they visit Rutgers, a team that sits just below Illinois in the standings in sixth place. The most difficult aspect of this contest for the Illini will be the venue in which it is played. The Scarlet Knights are a perfect 16-0 at home so far this season. Whether the intimacy of the venue or the rowdiness of the crowd is the secret sauce, Rutgers simply does not lose at the RAC.

After Saturday's game, the Illini will travel to Penn State for a showdown next Tuesday. The Nittany Lions have put together an outstanding 2019-20 campaign, as they currently hold a 19-5 record (9-4 in conference play), good for second place in the Big Ten. They're no slouch at home either, as they tout a 12-1 record at Bryce Jordan Arena. Needless to say, the upcoming stretch will be extremely difficult for Brad Underwood's squad.

Illinois will be walking into a pair of hostile environments possibly without their best player. No official update has been provided on Ayo Dosunmu's timeline, but given the awkward manner in which he fell on that last play against Michigan State, one could expect him to be sidelined for at least a couple of games. Fellow guards Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier, Alan Griffin, and Da'Monte Williams will need to step up in a big way. A heavy dose of Kofi Cockburn in the paint wouldn't hurt either.

Beyond the X's and O's, Brad Underwood needs to reinstill a winning mentality upon his players. Getting back to what made them successful during January's seven-game win streak will be a daunting task, but it needs to happen now for Illinois to keep from sliding further down the Big Ten standings.

UPDATE (2/14/20, 10:30 AM CST): Illinois head coach Brad Underwood announced that Ayo Dosunmu is day-to-day and will travel with the team to Rutgers.