Northwestern-Illinois Preview

The Associated Press

First-year Illinois coach John Groce is poised to make sure his team puts forth its best effort every game.

He'll be looking for a much more inspired performance - and some considerably better shooting - as the No. 23 Fighting Illini try to avoid a third consecutive defeat Thursday night against visiting Northwestern.

Groce didn't waste any time calling his team out after Saturday's 74-51 loss at Wisconsin. He felt Illinois (14-4, 1-3 Big Ten) played hard in an 84-67 home defeat to then-No. 8 Minnesota on Jan. 9, but then watched his team fall behind 14-0 and by 20 at halftime against the Badgers.

"(Wisconsin's) competitive spirit was better than ours to start the game,'' said Groce, whose team went 2 for 14 from 3-point range in its lowest scoring game of the season. "That is unacceptable. That is not what we're about.

"I'm going to evaluate every guy, starting with competitive, physical, mental toughness type plays. Everything's open at this point."

Whether that means a lineup change or reduction in minutes for some remains to be seen, but Groce's players sound willing to take full responsibility.

"Not to compete: it's the seniors' fault, it's the captains' fault," said senior guard D.J. Richardson, who had a team-high 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting at Wisconsin. "We've got to execute when we're out there on the court.''

Illinois averaged 76.9 points and shot 45.4 percent - 38.6 from beyond arc - while starting 12-0. Since then, it's shooting 39.0 percent from the field and 25.4 from 3 to average 67.8 points while losing four of six.

The Illini rank among the national leaders in 3-point makes (8.6) and attempts (24.9) per game, but have gone 5 of 38 (13.2 percent) from beyond the arc in their last two. They've shot 24.8 percent from 3 in their last five home games.

Illinois also allowed the Gophers and Badgers to shoot 19 of 38 from 3-point range and 50.9 percent overall.

Though the Illini might have a good chance to bounce back against a Northwestern squad that shot 29.4 percent in a 70-50 home loss to Iowa on Sunday, they have dropped three of five to the Wildcats (10-7, 1-3) following an 11-game series winning streak. Illinois shot 54.2 percent but allowed the Wildcats to shoot 60.4 in a 74-70 home defeat Feb. 5.

Senior Brandon Paul (18.1 points per game) went 6 of 10 from beyond the arc with 22 points in that contest, but went 1 of 11 from the field for a season-low eight Saturday.

Paul is 4 of 16 from 3 in the last three games, but Northwestern can't forget about the Illini star as it tries to avoid losing for the eighth time in 12 games after starting 6-0. Though the Wildcats won 70-54 at Penn State last Thursday, they've shot 38.6 percent and averaged 59.3 points while allowing 71.8 on 46.2 percent shooting in league play.

"There's so much pressure on your defense to make stops, but then you can't score at the other end," coach Bill Carmody said. "We are having a hard time figuring out who is going to score."

Guard Reggie Hearn averages a team-leading 13.7 points but was held to a season-low six versus Iowa.

The senior went 4 of 5 from 3-point range to finish with 20 at Illinois last season.

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