NCAA Talk

Illinois rebounds with big win over Buckeyes

976461.png

Illinois rebounds with big win over Buckeyes

CHAMPAIGN On Saturday there were plenty of reminders of the game, nearly a year ago, when Brandon Pauls 43-point outburst helped beat Ohio State (then No. 5) in Champaign. Fans got a poster commemorating the guards career-best game in the Illini program, and observant fans might have even noticed the senior was wearing the shoes from his big night.

Saturdays clash between No. 8 Ohio State and No. 11 Illinois was not the Brandon Paul show, however.

There were a handful of telling stats from the most recent meeting of these two Big Ten behemoths including Pauls team-leading 19 points. None was as impressive as the Illini holding their opponent to less than 30 points for more than 28 minutes, though.

Illinois played hard-nosed basketball for all 40 minutes against the Buckeyes and came away with a 74-55 win. For coach John Groce the effort his team gave was everything he could ask for.

We knew it would take a great effort and wed have to be tough and together to win. We did that, he said after the win.

In their Big Ten opener at Purdue on Wednesday, the Illini (14-2, 1-1) had the holes in their game torn open and exposed to the world, leading many to question if their 12-0 start to the season had been a fluke. A team effort full of toughness, however, will change the story about Illinois.

Purdue was just disappointing because thats not who weve been, Groce said. You cant win the games weve won in the environments weve been in if youre soft.
The chip on Illinois shoulder after losing to Purdue was evident from the first possession of the game. The Bucks gave the ball up the first two times they had it and the hosts made them pay. The Illini ripped off a quick 5-0 lead thanks to a Tracy Abrams three pointer.

Early on, Abrams showed home fans more of the impressive form he displayed in the win over Auburn at the United Center on Dec. 29. In the first 10 minutes of play, he was a perfect 3-3 from the field, grabbed three rebounds and dished out four assists.

His fourth assist, a big alley-oop to Paul, put Illinois up by 10 and raised the volume inside the Assembly Hall to near-deafening levels. Paul called Abrams early effort crucial for the rest of the team.

When he comes out with that energy it picks up other guysit takes pressure off other guys, Paul said.

Abrams finished the game with 13 points, five assists and six rebounds.
I
llinois continued to pull away from OSU thanks to another layup by Abrams, followed by a steal and layup from Joseph Bertrand to go ahead 25-11. But from 9:08 to 6:32 in the first, the Illini missed eight straight shots seven from behind the three-point line.

Defense kept Illinois in the lead, however, allowing OSU just a pair of free throws during the dry spell. The key to keeping a lead, according to center Nnanna Egwu, was staying calm.

It starts with coach Groce. He never panics, hes always level, he said. We feed off that.

Illinois calm helped them get back in the swing of the game, with an alley-oop from Paul to Bertrand jump-starting the offense. The hosts made four of their next five shots, including threes from Myke Henry and DJ Richardson. A steal by Egwu followed by a 12-foot jumper got Illinois to a 15-point lead with two minutes before half and had the fans in Champaign yelling again.

OSU would cut into Illinois lead a bit, but the home fans cheered the Illini to the locker room at halftime with a 37-25 lead.

The crowd continued to have good reason to cheer after the break, as the Illini started the half on an 11-2 tear to get to the 16-minute mark ahead 48-27. The next few minutes featured some sloppy play from both teams, but Illinois continued to hold off the Buckeyes; and, as the clock ticked below 12 minutes left in the game, OSU had still not cracked 30 points, trailing 53-29.

Deshaun Thomas, who scored a game-high 24 points, and the Bucks turned up their energy level and cut Illinois lead to less than 20 with 8:43 left. But the Illini continued to make it tough for the guests to develop any significant run. Egwu made the lead 20 again with a big dunk with 4:52 to play, he would finish the game with a career-high 16 points.

After the game, everyone was full of praise for Egwus performance. OSU coach Thad Matta said the Illinois big man was very, very good, and Groce hailed him for his devotion to the team.

He keeps getting better, and if theres ever a kid who deserves to get better it is him. He works his tail offI love him, the Illinois coach said about the Chicago native.

OSU would cut the lead below 20 again in the final seconds, but the final few minutes were but a formality for Illinois. The home team would finish off the Bucks with ease and even their Big Ten record win a win and a loss.

After being out-rebounded by 10 in the loss to Purdue, Illinois turned the tables, winning the battle on the glass by ten against OSU, 40-30. The Illini also improved in the paint, going from 18 points to 24 points in the paint on Saturday, and beat the Bucks in blocks, eight to one.

Matta laid the blame for the loss on his teams turnovers, however.

We were forced to hurry things instead of trying to do what we wanted to do, he said.

OSU came into the game outscoring opponents by 21 (77.6 to 56.5), out-rebounding opponents by eight (39.7 to 31.6) and shooting 46 percent from the floor. Illinois reversed all those numbers, most impressively holding the Buckeyes to just 33 percent shooting while making 48 percent of their own shots.

Unlike previous games, though, Illinois was not reliant upon the three point shot. The Illini took just 12 shots from behind the arc in the entire second half, taking twice as many shots from inside the arc during that time.

Groce was confident his team had learned lessons from the Purdue loss, which he said kept him awake on Thursday night. He credited their great play against Ohio State on hard practices Thursday and Friday. He said no game, not even an impressive win like the one his team pulled off on Saturday, would be a focal point for the Illini, though.

Each game is so differentwere not going to define our season by one game win or lose, Groce said. The guys responded at a high level against OSU. We have to enjoy this today, but we better be tough again on Wednesday.

The Illini host no. 9 Minnesota on Wednesday.

Say it ain't so: DePaul commit Tyger Campbell reopens recruitment

tygercampbellnodepaul.jpg
AP

Say it ain't so: DePaul commit Tyger Campbell reopens recruitment

It looks like it was too good to be true.

Tyger Campbell shocked the recruiting world when he committed to DePaul on May 8.

Less than four months later, Campbell has reopened his recruitment.

The Rivals.com four-star point guard out of La Lumiere High School in Indiana, who is the No. 66 prospect in the 2018 Class, took to Twitter Friday night to explain his decision.

One of Campbell's original draws to the Blue Demons was DePaul hiring Shane Heirman as an assistant coach. Heirman coached Campbell for two seasons at La Lumiere.

"I like DePaul and honestly my coach (Shane Heirman) just went there and we have a great connection and he's always had my back," Campbell told Scout.com when he committed to the Blue Demons. "I like [DePaul] coach Dave Leitao, too. I like his program and he's an intelligent guy."

Campbell currently has offers from a handful of D1 schools, including Illinois, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Purdue, SMU, Memphis and Tennessee.

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

uic.jpg
USA TODAY

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

On the heels of a 12-win improvement, UIC basketball is riding confidently into the new season. 

And why shouldn't they be? Head coach Steve McClain returns a young, talented nucleus that's expected to challenge for a Horizon League championship and NCAA Tournament berth. 

In fact, the program is in such good shape that they thought: Let's play Kentucky. 

Yup, that's right. The UIC Flames will match up with the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Nov. 26, a necessary stage in development, according to McClain. 

“Every year you build your program, there’s steps you have to take," McClain said. "When we got the opportunity to go to Kentucky, I think that’s the next level of exposure for our program.

"When you're chasing trying to be great, you gotta show your kids and show people what greatness looks like. I don't think anyone can argue what Kentucky has done, so I want to put our kids in that environment so they see what it is." 

The contrast between programs is severe. UIC hasn't made an NCAA Tournament since 2004. The Wildcats have made 11 since then. UIC has never advanced out of the first round at the Big Dance. Kentucky has eight National Championships. 

Even this upcoming season, as the Flames boast one of their most skilled teams in school history, none of them were ever touted like Kentucky's freshman class, which ranks No. 2 in the nation per ESPN. 

But the disparities in past successes don't seem to bother UIC. Instead, players, who were likely snubbed by bigger schools in recruitment, are excited about the opportunity to compete on a national stage that the Flames rarely see. 

“First I was like, ‘It’s about time we got someone like (Kentucky) on our schedule,’" said center Tai Odiase, one of the few seniors on the roster. "We’ve been trying to play bigger teams to showcase what we’re made of."

“I don’t see why you go into a place like that without a chip on your shoulder. You don’t go in there just to play basketball, we’re trying to win."

UIC will be heavy, heavy underdogs. There's no way around that. But there are certain spots where they may not be at such a disadvantage. 

On the defensive end, Odiase continued to terrorize guards and big men alike, finishing fifth in the NCAA with 2.9 blocks per game. The dynamic guard duo from "The Six," Godwin Boahen and Marcus Ottey, are quick enough to hang and both took a huge step down the stretch last season. Then there's the return of 2015-2016 Horizon League Newcomer of the Year Dikembe Dixson, who is recovering from a torn ACL.

"The doctors at times thought he was a freak of nature because he was back as quick as he was," McClain said.  

Still, it's a tune-up game for Kentucky, who also scheduled Kansas, UCLA and Louisville on their non-conference slate. But one team's expected walk through is another team's vital experience. 

"Our guys can walk in and see that on a given night, you can compete with anyone," McClain said. 

Given new athletic director Garrett Klassy's comments at his introductory press conference, it doesn't seem as if games like this are a one-hit wonder for UIC. 

“I am an aggressive scheduler," Klassy said. "I helped with the scheduling at George Washington. We’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere.

"You want to measure yourself against the best. We have a lot of returning starters. It’ll be nice to go on the road, play a tough game and maybe sneak out an upset."