The way No. 5 Illinois sees it, Tuesday night's Big Ten Conference home game against visiting Northwestern is a test in Champaign, Ill.
To win the NCAA Tournament, a team has to string together six straight wins. One slip-up, one bad bounce, one off-night, and you're history. It's a gauntlet like few others in big-time sports.
If the Fighting Illini (14-5, 10-3 Big Ten) can earn a season sweep of the Wildcats, that will make it six consecutive victories.
Though Northwestern (6-12, 3-11) has dropped 11 straight games, its record is relatively irrelevant in the grand scheme of what Illinois is seeking to accomplish.
"We're trying to win (six) games in a row so we can simulate that so when the NCAA Tournament comes, we'll be ready to accomplish that," said Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu to the Champaign News-Gazette Friday night after a 77-72 overtime win at Nebraska.
"We did a poor job of executing to the potential of where we want to be at, but at the end of the day, that left column always says win. There are no moral victories."
Dosunmu flashed All-America and potential national Player of the Year form down the stretch, scoring 17 of his game-high 31 points during the final 3 1/2 minutes of regulation and overtime.
That -- and some terrible execution down the stretch from an opponent that at the time had lost 26 consecutive conference games -- saved Illinois from an embarrassing loss.
"Every season you go back and look, and there's always a game or two where you didn't play your best," Illini coach Brad Underwood said to the News-Gazette. "Yet really good teams find a way to win."
Dosunmu (21.7 ppg, 6.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists) and Kofi Cockburn (17.4 ppg, 10.6 rebounds) continue to account for nearly half of Illinois' scoring. Cockburn's 14 double-doubles are second in Division I to Austin Peay's Terry Taylor, who has 15.
Meanwhile, Northwestern appears light years away from a 6-1 start that included a home win over now No. 4 Ohio State. The Wildcats haven't won since that 71-70 verdict over the Buckeyes Dec. 26.
Saturday's 64-50 defeat at No. 25 Rutgers followed what's now become a familiar script for Northwestern -- establish a seemingly comfortable early lead and then blow it. The Wildcats owned a 10-point lead less than six minutes into the game, yet managed to trail by 10 at halftime.
Even a brilliant second half stretch of defense that saw them hold the Scarlet Knights without a point for 7:58 was only enough to get them within four points. Northwestern made just 32.7 percent of their shots and were manhandled on the glass 43-31.
"We are just coming up a little short," Wildcats coach Chris Collins said. "You've got to play with that little sense of anger and confidence when that time comes. We've got to make those plays and I have got to continue to help these guys."
Chase Audige paces Northwestern in scoring at 12.8 ppg, while Miller Kopp averages 12.4 and Pete Nance scores 11.8.
The Illini bagged an 81-56 win over the Wildcats on Jan. 7 in Evanston, Ill., after trailing by 15 points at halftime.
They outscored Northwestern by an unfathomable 53-13 in the second half.
--Field Level Media