With what's coming up on the schedule, Wednesday's home matchup with Purdue is about as must-win as a game can be in the middle of January. With that in mind, I think Rice (adductor strain) will go for it, even if he's not quite 100 percent. Obviously he won't be allowed to play if there's risk of doing further damage, so Kendrick Nunn has to be ready for increased playing time no matter what.
What I want to see… The Illini get back right on two-point baskets. It's true that the officials aren't calling as much since Big Ten play started, which hurts guys like Rice, Tracy Abrams and Joe Bertrand. Those guys like to attack the basket and the trips to the free throw line have dried up since the sound of the whistle isn't being heard as often.
Still, shooting 32 percent from inside the 3-point line (combined number from last week's two losses) is unacceptable. Illinois doesn't have the shooters to make up the difference from behind the arc and it's time to stop wasting great rebounding efforts (against the Badgers) and defensive performances (versus Northwestern).
The Illini will win if… They get some production from the 4 and 5… I love Jon Ekey's basketball IQ and his potential to shoot from deep. But he's hit only five of his last 24 takes on 3s. Nnanna Egwu hasn't scored in double figures since the Dartmouth game… seven contests ago.
I wouldn't mind seeing Illinois go small for spurts, with Bertrand and maybe Malcolm Hill on the court as an interchangeable 3/4 combo. Rice's health will play a factor in this, of course, and I do like what Ekey and Egwu do defensively (sometimes more than others).
Those two need to become more of a threat. And you have to produce first to be considered as such.
Score prediction… Illinois wins 70-63. I know the Illini started 2-7 last year and were able to get back on track. That was last year. It has nothing to do with this season. I don't think the Illini can drop this game and expect to keep up with the conference race and the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. We can all get into the tough five-game stretch that awaits following Wednesday. Purdue comes first though, and I think we'll see an Illinois team playing with urgency and purpose.