Another loss has Illinois even more concerned about reaching the NCAA Tournament. The program failed to earn a bid in two of the last three seasons. 

 

 It might be time to check if Cirque du Soleil is back in town during March.

In a year when securing the program's first NCAA Tournament win since 2006 was a priority, Illinois must first get into the expanded 68-team field. That chore just got more difficult after a 71-70 loss at Northwestern Saturday.

"I don't think it's too early,'' said Illini forward Bill Cole. "I don't want to feel the same way I felt last year. I wish we would have thought about it more last year. It's a matter of being men, stepping up and welcoming the challenge, then figuring out a way to get a win on the road. It's tough in the Big Ten, but we have to find a way to do it to be successful.''

A year ago, Illinois fell into the NIT, then faced a first-round road game because Assembly Hall was booked, and Cole didn't want to do that again.

Against Northwestern Saturday, llinois fell behind by 11 points early, regrouped to tie the game late in the first half and allowed Northwestern to breakaway for a 12-point lead with 10 minutes 57 seconds left before rallying. A team that raced to a strong start early in the preseason, Illinois lost for the seventh time in the last eight games away from home.

Illinois dismantled the Wildcats in a 25-point win in Assembly Hall in early January, but the Illini fell to 15-8 overall, 5-5 in the Big Ten before a game at Minnesota Thursday (8 p.m., BTN). 

"For us, it's Groundhog Day,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "It's the same story, whether we go to Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State or here. We can't get behind and start halves bad.''

After the first back-to-back losses by the Illini here since the mid-1970s, Illinois' schedule doesn't get any easier. The Illini still have road games against top-ranked Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State, so the Illini have some work to do to get back into the NCAAs after missing the tournament in two of the previous three seasons.

If the Illini need to get to 10-8 in Big Ten play to avoid sweating it out on Selection Sunday, there's a need for five wins in the last eight games -- that probably means beating Purdue at home and Michigan State on the road. The bubble talk is officially off and running. Weber already warned the Illini about the need to start winning.

"I did it two weeks ago,'' he said. "I said every game is a tournament game you never know which one will make or break you. I thought it would give them a sense of urgency in each game.''

Before there's a chance at March Madness, the Illini must solve several problems.

-- Slow starts. The Illini fell behind 18-7 in the first half before climbing back to a 29-29 tie. Northwestern finished the half with a six-point run in the final minute.

Northwestern jumped to a 53-41 lead in the second half, when Illinois answered with a 12-0 run.

"We tried lineup changes at halftime,'' Weber said. "It's just disappointing. You all want to start. Then step up and be a starter and make plays. We came here early, had people talk to them, everything except electric shock.

"They have to jolt themselves from the inside. Billy just said we have to start the game with shutouts. We can't let a team on the road jump on us.''

The Illini started freshman forward Jereme Richmond for the second consecutive game, and freshman center Meyers Leonard took the starting spot at center in the second half in place of senior Mike Tisdale.

-- Play with more intelligence. Illini senior forward Mike Davis fouled on a shot near the 3-point line at the first-half horn, handing the Wildcats another two points. Guard D.J. Richarson lost turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the second half.

After tying the game at 53 with 6 minutes 39 seconds left, the Illini defense went brain dead. Northwestern guard Juice Thompson found himself open from the 3-point line four times over the next 4 minutes. He made three of them to put Northwestern ahead 64-57 with 2:16 left.

"They run good stuff,'' Weber said. "You know what they're doing. You have to combat that. He wanted the ball in his hands and make plays.''

-- Find a way to get McCamey back up to speed. He had two points through the game's first 31 minutes before a second-half flurry. Paul led the Illini with 21 poins while McCamey had 14.

"If we're going to have a good finish, he has to play,'' Weber said.

Thompson led Northwestern (14-8, 4-7) with 22 points. The Wildcats won games here against the Illini in back-to-back years for the first time since 1974 and 1975.

"We got knocked own pretty hard at Champaign,'' Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "This wasn't revenge or anything like that. I don't think that way. It's nice to get a signature victory here.''

 

Illinois report card Front court -- F Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Jereme Richmond combined for 18 points. That's not much, especially agianst a team that essentially played a three-guard lineup.

Back court -- D

Demetri McCamey scored 12 of his 14 points in the final 9 minutes, but the Illini need more of him during the first half. D.J. Richardson lost Juice Thompson on defense and lost three turnovers on the second half.

Bench -- B

Brandon Paul provided a spark off the bench while filling the hole at point guard with McCamey in slight foul trouble. Bill Cole had a solid game, and Meyers Leonard earned the start in the second half.

Overall -- D

Losses at Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern (by a total of six points) will haunt the Illini on Selection Sunday, unless there's a surprising run in the next couple of weeks. With this one, the Illini entered the danger zone.