By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) In January 2013, the University of Illinois basketball team saw a promising nonconference campaign devolve into a potential disaster with a flurry of Big Ten setbacks that included deflating losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue.

Sound familiar?

It should, of course, since one year later we’re seeing déjà vu all over again with John Groce’s second edition of the Illini – who just lost to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue to squander a strong first half of the season.

And now, after completing the “easy” part of its Big Ten slate – with a disappointing 2-3 record – Illinois (15-3 overall) enters a gauntlet that’s likely to decide its postseason fate. It begins at 8 p.m. tonight with No. 4 Michigan State at the State Farm Center, and is followed by games vs. No. 11 Ohio State (away), Indiana (away), No. 14 Iowa (home) and No. 3 Wisconsin (home).

Then the Illini finally get a break with Penn State and Nebraska.

On the road.

Sounds brutal. And, well, it sounds a lot like last season.

Last year, after Illinois lost to lowly Northwestern – by 14, at home, in a game in which the Illini never led – to fall to 1-4 in the Big Ten, I wrote in a column that “Groce now has his work cut out for him if his team is to make the NCAA Tourney come March. During this demoralizing start in the Big Ten, he is likely learning things about his roster that former Illinois coach Bruce Weber knew all too well when he was fired last year after a 2-12 tailspin to end the season.

“For whatever reason, this collection of Illini players … just seems to be missing something. Let’s call it toughness, for lack of a clearer explanation.”

The 2012-13 Illini ended up tumbling all the way to a 2-7 Big Ten record before memorably stunning No. 1-ranked Indiana in Champaign to spark a five-game winning streak that saved their season.

On Thursday, following Illinois’ home loss to Purdue, Champaign News-Gazette basketball writer Marcus Jackson recounted last season’s back-from-the-dead run, but wrote, “This one feels different, though. That Illinois team had spent time ranked among the Top 10 teams in the country thanks to a win in the Maui Invitational and wins against Top 10 teams Gonzaga and Ohio State.”

It is true that this Illini team is less experienced than last season’s, hasn’t ever been so highly ranked, and has a conference schedule that’s tougher overall than it was a year ago. So I do agree that the current Illini team feels different, although not all of those differences are negative.

On Wednesday night, Illinois got “out-toughed” by the Boilermakers during their 66-58 loss, and Groce said so.

“It’s unacceptable. They were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls,” he fumed after the game. “Our guys better figure out quickly the physical toughness that’s required on the backboard.”

If they want to win, they absolutely had better. But unlike last season when, despite their tough start, I never felt that Illinois’ players were very tough – mentally or physically – until they rallied to upset IU, I have seen toughness from this current Illini bunch.

I saw it against Missouri during the Braggin’ Rights victory. I saw it when they hung on to beat the Hoosiers in overtime to open the Big Ten. And I saw it in the following game when they stood up to Penn State’s D.J. Newbill when the guard was trying to bully the youthful Illini.

I think Illinois does have some players with a true edge – Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Kendrick Nunn, in particular – and I do think they still have a shot at rediscovering the toughness that they seemed to have misplaced up in Madison.

“It’s more mental than anything else,” Groce acknowledged on Wednesday. “We’ve done it. We’ve got to get back to doing it and doing it better.”

And they had better do it soon.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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