We’re all learning a lot about this Illini basketball team and, at the same time, we’re learning about this first-year Illini coaching staff.
In each case, fans should be pretty encouraged by what they’ve seen.
The team posted its fourth straight victory Sunday night in Evanston, using a rather amazing 26-0 run to orchestrate a 62-41 victory over Northwestern.
The Wildcats went almost 9½ minutes without scoring a point – a futile stretch that spanned from the last three minutes of the first half through the first six minutes of the second half. Missed shots and turnovers became the rule for the Cats as Illinois turned a 19-15 lead into a 45-15 runaway.
We’re learning that this is an improving team and that maybe – just maybe – old dogs can learn new tricks.
We’re seeing a new level of confidence and competence from a team that couldn’t find either last season.
And from the coaching staff, I like what I’ve seen as they meet Big Ten teams for a second time.
They certainly showed that against Minnesota and they made big adjustments against Northwestern.
I didn’t think Illinois did a very good job at all defending Northwestern in Champaign back on Jan. 17. That’s the night the Wildcats shot 47.2 percent and made eight 3-pointers in a 68-54 victory over the Illini.
But corrections were made Sunday. Players clearly were paying attention to the game plan and scouting report. And Northwestern shot 25 percent and needed three late 3-pointers to get to five.
“We’re more connected defensively,” big man Sam McLaurin said. “We talk a lot more now. Early in the season we weren’t talking at all defensively. We were just winning with our talent.
“Now we’re communicating out there and it has made us better.”
That’s why in a period of 11 days, Illinois has gone from 2-7 in the Big Ten to 6-7. And if Illinois takes care of business Thursday at home against Penn State, the Big Ten record will have evened at 7-7 and the overall victory total will have reached 20.
Those are NCAA Tournament numbers and that’s exactly what McLaurin is focused on.
“Our goal since the start of the season is this right here,” McLaurin said, pointing to a wrist band the team has been wearing since October. “Right here it says 3-19-13,” the first day of competition in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s where we want to be.”
D.J. Richardson scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds for Illinois. And once again his defense set the tone.
“He’s playing amazing,” Brandon Paul said. “His confidence is through the roof.”
Interestingly, Paul scored just eight points, putting him in single digits for the second game in a row.
No worry, coach John Groce said. In fact, he heaped the praise on Paul.
“Brandon Paul had one of the best games he’s had all season,” Groce said. “That’s as good as he’s defended all year long, a really good all-around game.”
Groce also praised point guard Tracy Abrams, who had 13 points and four assists but who did not start because Joseph Bertrand inched him out on his defensive grade in practice.
“I’ll be honest, it was a deal where (Abrams) was almost a 70 percent gradeout, which on our scale is between an A and a B. Others just graded out higher.
“A month ago we had three of those guys fail on the grade,” Groce said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Groce reiterated that Illinois is an improving team, which begged the question: How much better can this team get?
“We can get better for sure,” he said. “A lot of it is mindset. Our execution continues to get better, but we still have a long ways to go.
“I have an unbelievable staff. We stayed the course when we were struggling and it helped that we’d been through some things at (Ohio University). We know what we’re doing works. We have a lot of confidence in it.
“I was a math teacher and I used to teach geometry. When students try to solve proofs, they couldn’t solve them unless they knew the theorems. Well, our guys are knowing them now. It’s gone from knowledge to habits and that’s a big difference.
“The maturation process is starting to happen with them.”
I never know to expect when I come to Northwestern. I’ve seen every kind of game here, including upsets and crazy endings.
But Illinois’ 26-0 run and blowout victory was pretty unexpected, too.
There were plenty or orange-clad fans in a Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd of 8,117.
That included a group of 150 from the Orange Krush student support group, who rode three buses and showed up wearing purple Northwestern shirts. They peeled those off in dramatic fashion just before the opening tipoff, revealing their orange Illini apparel.
Three of those clever Krush members even managed to get picked for a timeout competition in which participants were involved in a tricycle race. They wore their purple until the contest ended, then yanked up the shirts to show their orange, an embarrassing moment for the Wildcat game management staff.
I rate it as one of the great moments in Orange Krush history.
Thursday’s Illinois-Penn State game tips off at 7:15 p.m. and will be broadcast by the Big Ten Network. Penn State slipped to 8-17 and 0-13 in the Big Ten Sunday with a loss to Michigan.
Four regular-season games remain before the Big Ten Conference Tournament March 15-17 at the United Center in Chicago.