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Strong finish, Nunn's emergence keeps Illinois' hopes alive, but they have to keep winning

If Illinois wants to be a part of March Madness, it almost certainly has to win at least a couple of games at the Big Ten tournament this week — maybe more.

Don't try to get Illini coach John Groce to look beyond the opener Thursday morning against Indiana (17-14, 7-11 Big Ten) in Indianapolis.

"It's us and them," he said Tuesday. "That's our focus."

The Illini (18-13) have been playing perhaps their best basketball of the season over their last eight games. Illinois is 5-3 in those games. That includes wins in four of the last five, and road wins over Penn State, Minnesota, then-No. 18 Michigan State and Iowa, which was ranked 24th at the time.

"Really with the exception of their game with Michigan last week, they have been playing great basketball over the last month," Indiana coach Tom Crean said.

That game with Michigan last week was a blowout loss at home. And it's just one of the ugly spots on Illinois' resume.

There's also the 3-6 home record during Big Ten play. And the eight-game conference losing streak.

What's changed since Illinois went night after night without a win?

One of the big things was the addition of freshman guard Kendrick Nunn to the starting lineup.

Nunn's eight starts this season have been those eight key games down the stretch, when Illinois bounced back from a team that might not even make the NIT to one that could still play its way into the NCAA tournament with two or three wins in Indianapolis. Four wins, of course, would mean the Illini are Big Ten tournament champs and automatically into the NCAAs.

As a starter, Nunn has averaged 12.2 points and 2.1 assists a game.

"He started out not playing a whole lot, and just kind of battled and battled and battled, and figured it out," Groce said.

Crean compared Nunn to former Hoosier Victor Oladipo, saying he thinks Nunn is more offensively advanced than Oladipo was as a freshman.

"Kendrick Nunn with more minutes provides just a little bit more explosiveness with their game," Crean said.

Illinois also has won with defense, up and down the lineup. The Illini have given up 55.4 points a game over the last eight. Take out that 84-53 loss to Michigan and they're allowing only 51.3.

Crean said the Illini are taking balls away from opponents and controlling the tempo. But, lately, it's just plain tough to get an easy shot on Illinois.

"The bottom line is they are making it hard for you get to get good looks," Crean said.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap