INDIANAPOLIS — Illinois’ stay in Indy might not last super long. But it will at least last another day following an 85-52 thrashing of Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon.
It was all Illini practically from start to finish, as they outscored the Gophers by 16 in the first half and by 17 in the second half. The lead got as big as 37 at one point as defensive dominance of a depleted Minnesota group allowed Illinois’ terrific 14-for-26 3-point shooting to stand out even more.
It was a performance that saw contributions from nearly everyone that stepped on the court, one that advanced Illinois to a Thursday game against Iowa and one that head coach John Groce called his team’s best of the season.
“I think it matters how you play, and today was probably the best we’ve played all season,” Groce said. “We wanted to play well. We wanted to have a fresh mindset. I thought the most important thing was to be unselfish offensively, to compete defensively. We did those things. We played well today. Now, tomorrow’s game is an entirely different game. You’ve got to go back out and do it again. Every game’s different. But for today, the guys played to our standards today, and that part was pleasing.”
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Pleasing is probably putting it mildly considering Groce hasn’t seen many games like this one in an otherwise disappointing campaign. The Illini played on Day 1 of the Big Ten Tournament for a reason.
And sure, it was Minnesota, a team Illinois beat twice during the regular season. The Gophers’ season has been an atrocious one featuring dismissals, suspensions and a whole heck of a lot of losing. Just twice during Big Ten play did Minnesota walk off the court a winner.
But there’s something to be said about the Illini figuring things out as the lights flicker on their 2015-16 campaign. Wednesday’s 33-point win was Illinois’ largest over a Big Ten opponent in eight years.
Take Michael Finke, who’d been mired in a long slump. He knocked down five 3-pointers on Wednesday after going 0-for-10 from deep in his previous four games. Malcolm Hill, who’s been one of the Big Ten’s best players this season and has carried Illinois on his back through the majority of the year, finally got plenty of assistance from Kendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands, who have both been streaky and kind of hit-or-miss.
That kind of team-wide performance has been a rarity this season. Wednesday, Illinois got it at a good time.
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“That was good for us,” Nunn said. “Coming into the tournament, we wanted to come in with a fresh mindset. The records and things like that, out the window. We wanted to play for 40 minutes, and I think we did that for the majority of the time tonight.”
“I think we literally got contributions from everybody that played,” Hill said. “That’s something that we can carry for tomorrow.”
Groce divides the season into chunks, as many coaches in sports do, and for an Illini team that’s found little in the way of success for the majority of what Groce dubs “Season 1” and “Season 2” — the non-conference portion of the regular-season schedule and the 18 regular-season Big Ten games — starting “Season 3” off with such a strong showing can only be good going forward. However long forward might last.
“We really set out as ‘Season 3’ started with a fresh mindset over the last couple days,” Groce said. “Our goal was to play the right way offensively. Obviously today we had 32 field goals, 19 of them were assisted. Ball movement was tremendous. And then defensively, we wanted to play ridiculously hard. So really that gave us a chance to move our name to the next line on the bracket. We were more concerned with improving from how we played last week. I thought we did that, I was encouraged by that. I was proud of their unselfishness, I was proud of their effort on the defensive end.”
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Yeah, it was one game against a bad team, but it was a good performance that could energize the Illini not just for Thursday’s game against Iowa or any potential games that lie beyond but for next season, which is shaping up to be a make-or-break campaign for Groce and his tenure as Illinois’ head coach. If he can point to a positive end to this lost season, perhaps that makes a big difference for 2016-17.
Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that Groce & Co. are focused on one thing: Thursday’s game against Iowa.
“We expect that, we want to do that. We want to continue to get better as the season moves along,” Groce said. “It’s challenging when your roster changes quite a bit throughout a season. But with this current rendition, I think it’s the best that this group has played together, for sure. Obviously that should give them some confidence.
“They’re smart enough to know that today doesn’t give you any privileges for tomorrow. You’ve got to bring it again tomorrow. You’ve got to compete again tomorrow. You’ve got to compete on the backboard, spring, talk, communicate, move the ball. We’ve got to do it again well. Every day and every game is different. We’ll have our hands full tomorrow.”