CHAMPAIGN — It isn’t about mind games or subliminal messages.
Illini coach John Groce and senior guard Brandon Paul agree on that much.
But Groce’s decision to remove Paul from the starting lineup Sunday against Wisconsin was an attempt to hold every Illini player more accountable on the defensive end, and Groce said that will once again be the deciding factor in making out the starting lineup for tonight’s game.
No matter who starts, it’s a king-sized challenge for Illinois, which has lost four straight home games and now clings to fading NCAA Tournament hopes.
The opponent is Indiana, which on Monday took over the No. 1 ranking in the country. Listening to Groce, Illinois might as well be playing the Miami Heat.
“They have size, depth, point guard play, drivers, shooters, they defend well and they play exceptionally hard,” Groce said Wednesday. “When you look at them, they are as good a team as we’ve played all season. I think Victor Oladipo is the best individual defender we’ve seen.”
Averaging a league-best 83.8 points per game, Groce knows Illinois’ defensive execution has to improve markedly after a loss to Michigan State in which the Spartans shot 87.5 percent in the second half and a loss to Wisconsin in which the Badgers shot 55.6 percent in the second half.
That insistence on improved defense was
heard clearly by Paul, Illinois’ leading scorer.
“I just didn’t get it done on the defensive end in the (Michigan State) game and in practice,” Paul said Wednesday. “That something I lacked, and I have to get better at.
“I let myself down a little in that area, as well as my team.”
Groce said Paul has been working to show better defensive habits.
“His attitude has been good,” the coach said. “He practiced hard yesterday. He was really vocal. He knows what he has to do.”
Groce said yanking Paul from the starting lineup, “isn’t about mind games. He knows what he has to do. Do what we’re supposed to do defensively. Guys who do will get the first crack. Just guard.”
Groce said he and his staff have examined what they’re doing defensively and concluded it really doesn’t matter if the team is playing man-to-man, zone or pressing full court.
“At some point you can’t mask the things we need to be better at,” he said. “You still have to guard the ball. You still have to keep the ball in front of you. Those are simple fundamental things we have to do better.”
Groce said he’s been impressed by the way Indiana has rebounded during the past few seasons following the program’s crash at the end of the Kelvin Sampson coaching regime.
“I admire what they have done,” Groce said. “I said the same thing when we played Michigan. I really admire what coach (John) Beilein has done building that program up as well.
“I think there are two parts to it. One is adding talent. The other part is having a culture and buying in at a high level, about how you play and how you do things on and off the court. It’s about developing a winning mentality. We still have a long ways to go, but we keep chipping away it at every day.”
Groce, who grew up in Danville, Ind., followed his grandmother’s lead and was an Indiana basketball fan growing up.
“I remember going to church on Sunday and my grandmother made fried chicken,” he said. “At noon the Bob Knight show would come on.
“I watched Indiana growing up because my grandmother was a fan. She rooted for the Chicago Bears and the Cincinnati Reds and Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football, so I did what my grandmother did. I didn’t know any better.
“She had a transistor radio, and I sat by her chair and kept stats.”
Senior guard D.J. Richardson said the key to keeping Indiana in check is to somehow prevent guard Jordan Hulls from getting hot from 3-point range. That’s been difficult. Hulls is shooting .491 from 3-point range and he’s just one threat. Oladipo is shooting .514 while Christian Watford is hitting .479.
“We have to do a good job of trying to run them off the 3-point line and do something other than shoot 3s,” Richardson said. “We have to make them feel uncomfortable.
“Hulls has been there for four years and he got going last year over there. He got the crowd into it and the team into it. I have to do a good job of not letting them make shots.”
Hulls made 3-of-4 from 3-point distance at home last season in Indiana’s 84-71 victory against Illinois.