CHAMPAIGN — Illinois did something Sunday it hasn’t done often this season: It looked great.
The Illini were terrific on both ends of the floor in an upset win over the 20th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers. Illinois clamped down defensively and kept Purdue’s mammoth front court from doing much damage. And the Illini were sensational offensively, getting a combined 52 points from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn and scoring 84 points on 54.2-percent shooting, both season highs for Boilermaker opponents.
But as well as things went Sunday, many of the Illini’s realities remain. There are still three starters in street clothes, sidelined with injuries. And consistency hasn’t exactly been a descriptor that has applied to this team this season.
So the main thing on John Groce’s mind following Sunday’s big-time victory? Making sure this kind of performance wasn’t a one-time thing.
“This is something that we have to build on,” Groce said. “I’m not interested in doing that just one day or a couple practices. We have to do that every day. That is the standard, and that’s the expectation moving forward.
“That effort you saw today, the energy we played with — that’s got to be the bar.”
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The Illini are still just 9-8 on the season, and Sunday’s win was only their first in Big Ten play. Part of the reason the performance against Purdue was so surprising was because this Illinois team hasn’t had a lot of them.
It was an outing the opposite of Sunday’s that sparked this sudden increase in quality. Just three days earlier, Illinois was thumped by Michigan State, 79-54, in East Lansing. It was an ugly game for the Illini in which they shot 29.8 percent from the field and went 2-for-15 from 3-point range.
That blowout defeat didn’t make Groce or his team too happy, and the past few days were about hard work to make sure the Illini could rid their mouths of the taste of that loss.
“We were embarrassed a little bit in the first half Thursday night in terms of a lot of different areas,” Groce said. “The kids, the last two days, we were pretty hard on them. I wanted to make sure we came out and played the Illinois way. That was our whole focus as a staff for a couple days. You don’t know what the score’s going to be, but we wanted to play unselfishly, we wanted to play with some toughness, we wanted to execute, we wanted to play with some energy, with effort, connected, and try to do it consistently over the course of 40 minutes. And I thought today … we did it in the most consistent fashion.”
“He used the word ‘embarrassed.’ I use the word ‘disappointed’ just because that’s not how we want to go out,” Hill said. “From start to finish, they just destroyed us at both ends. Practice, honestly, it’s been like hell. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. But even though practice was tough, we still have to have the mindset that we can’t lose our minds, we have to focus on the game plan. I think we did a good job of that (Sunday). The toughness that we didn’t have against Michigan State, I think we had it here for the whole 40 minutes.”
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The hard work paid off Sunday. Illinois dominated Purdue. But instead of looking at the win as a goal achieved, the Illini want to make this a template moving forward.
A 1-3 start to conference play isn’t exactly something to crow about, though stealing a win in a four-game stretch against Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue isn’t too shabby, either. The schedule the rest of the way isn’t quite as difficult. Games against beatable Nebraska and Minnesota teams are sandwiched around one against surging Indiana. Then comes Ohio State, Wisconsin and Rutgers, those first two at home. The Big Ten schedule is never easy, but it could be more difficult. It certainly has been in recent seasons.
The win over Purdue was a big one — especially considering the Boilers are one of the best teams on the Illini’s schedule — but Groce is looking for games like Sunday’s not to be the exception but the rule.
“For me, I kept telling the staff, what we’re about, what we say we’re about, how we want to play, we didn’t do any of that in the first half on Thursday night (against Michigan State). Regardless of the score, and it certainly wasn’t a score that any of us liked in that first half, we just didn’t play the right way. So that part was hard for me to swallow,” Groce said. “We got after it the last couple days, and for me, I want us to play well and build off today: play with some toughness, block out, execute, don’t lose your mind, stay focused. I thought we did that today throughout, but now we’ve got to build on that.”