It will be interesting in the next few weeks to look back and see just how important Tuesday night’s 71-51 victory at Nebraska was for the Illini.
The competition is so brutal coming up that it might not matter at all. Or it might a difference-maker in the season.
Either way, going in Tuesday’s game felt like it carried “must-win” importance for an Illini team that had lost three straight and lost a good deal of its fans’ optimism, too. This was one of those games that measures whether or not you have a fire burning and after the players-only meeting, it was going to say something about this team’s leadership.
Well, hang a gold star on D.J. Richardson for playing what I would easily call the best game of his Illini career. Not only did he score a career-best 30 points, I thought he set the tone on defense and really helped Illinois take it to the Huskers. It was a fantastic overall performance.
And it wasn’t Illinois’ only noteworthy performance.
Sam McLaurin helped Illinois get off to a fast start and was aggressive on the glass. It might have been McLaurin’s best game, too.
Nnanna Egwu had a career-high 10 rebounds, the first double-digit rebounding effort by an Illini this season.
Joseph Bertrand was all-around effective with seven points, eight rebounds and five steals. He’s such an important part of the team because he brings athleticism and scoring potential off the bench.
Brandon Paul did not shoot the ball well (0 of 6 from 3), but still finished with 14 points.
It was good to see Illinois do most of the things coach John Groce urged them to do since the loss to Northwestern.
“We were really active on the glass, especially in the first half,” Groce said. “I thought our rebounding, our effort overall, our
communication and our execution was better. Richardson was terrific at both ends of the floor.
“D.J. also had to chase (Nebraska guard) Ray Gallegos all night and he didn’t let him get anything easy (Gallegos was 2-for-8 and scored 5 points).
“I thought it was as good a performance as we’ve had all year because it was both ends of the floor and it couldn’t happen to a better guy.”
OK, it was Nebraska. But Illinois got pounded at Nebraska last year. And Nebraska if finally getting healthy and is coming off a road win at Penn State.
I’m not saying this was Indiana or Michigan, I’m just saying that winning at Nebraska was definitely not a given.
But now comes a red carpet parade of Big Ten firepower.
The schedule really gets difficult starting with a 5 p.m. home game Sunday against Michigan.
“Our effort on the defensive end was probably as good as we’ve had over 40 minutes,” Groce said. “Now we have to do it over and over and over and over again. That’s where we are.”
Nebraska only managed 14 baskets for the game. Michigan can get that many in a half. That’s a very different team. But at least Illinois showed it can deliver that kind of performance from the very beginning, and that was lacking badly in the last two games.
On Tuesday Illinois was up 15-4 less than eight minutes into the game and that was a significant change after failing to hold the lead for any moment of the last 2½ games.
Bottom line: Illinois delivered a strong response when it was needed most, led by Richardson’s inspirational performance and a nice variety of help from his teammates.
Now, buckle up for a 5-game stretch that includes Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. The Michigan State and Minnesota games are on the road.
To be successful in that stretch, it will take Tuesday’s defensive commitment and rebounding tenacity, plus improved shooting.
It’s going to be one heck of a test.