CHAMPAIGN — If Tuesday’s 20-point victory at Nebraska is an indication, a players-only meeting last week seems to have inspired attention to detail that had been missing in three previous University of Illinois basketball games.
After captains D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Sam McLaurin and Tracy Abrams dragged the team behind closed doors and pledged to do a better job, Illinois responded in a positive way.
Rebounding was ferocious. Coach John Groce praised the effort on the defensive end. Every time Nebraska made a push, Illinois pushed back harder. And because Richardson scored a career-high 30 points in what Groce called the best overall game of his career, Illinois was able to absorb another night of poor shooting by Brandon Paul (4-of-13 overall, 0-of-6 from 3) and Tyler Griffey (1-of-6).
But with a daunting five-game stretch against some of the Big Ten’s top teams beginning on Sunday, it raises questions:
Should there be a players-only meeting every week?
Coaches and players are superstitious and if it worked going into the Nebraska, why fool with fate? Huddle up prior to Sunday’s showdown with the Wolverines.
Should Groce stick with his starting lineup change for the third straight game, keeping Sam McLaurin on the front line with Nnanna Egwu and bringing Tyler Griffey off the bench?
Yes, for two reasons: McLaurin has played better as a starter and Griffey has played better as a backup.
You’ll notice I did not say that Griffey has shot the ball better, because he hasn’t. But he’s been more active on the glass and it seems like he’s injecting
himself into the thick of the action more regularly.
As for his shooting, well, it has reached almost comical proportions. Griffey has now missed all of his 17 3-pointers over the past five games and maybe he should think about taking a bounce or two and driving into the lane where that 21-foot shot becomes a 14-footer. Just a thought.
The upcoming string of five games over 19 days will test Illinois in every way imaginable. Consider:
l Michigan, 5 p.m., Sunday, Assembly Hall. Ranked No. 2 in the country, the Wolverines (17-1) are headed to Purdue tonight. This is a gifted lineup led by guards Trey Burke (18.0 ppg, 7.2 assists) and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (16.4 ppg) and forward Glen Robinson (leads in rebounding).
l At Michigan State, Jan. 31. The Spartans are 17-3 and 6-1 in the league and the victory at Wisconsin on Tuesday was their sixth in a row. With a core that includes Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson and big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, coach Tom Izzo seems to have figured some things out after a few early bumps.
l Wisconsin, Feb. 3 in a Super Bowl Sunday Special at Assembly Hall. As Illinois already knows, this is a good team capable of being a very good team. The Badgers (13-6) beat Illinois soundly in Madison, then pulled a national shocker by winning at Indiana. But since then, Wisconsin has lost at Iowa and lost at home to the Spartans. Wisconsin can be beaten, but never without a fight.
l Indiana, Feb. 7, Assembly Hall. At 17-2, some believe this is the best team in the country. Ranked No. 7 for now, the Hoosiers are the second highest scoring team in America, averaging 84.4 points. They can go inside to Cody Zeller and outside to a ton of options. It’s possible Indiana may struggle at times because it has too many parts.
l At Minnesota, Feb. 10. Since beating Illinois 84-67 at Assembly Hall on Jan. 9, Minnesota has lost at Indiana and lost at home to Michigan. The Gophers lost at Northwestern on Wednesday night and Illinois has already seen Minnesota at its best — when it rebounds, shoots and creates turnovers.
A 3-2 record would be a spectacular achievement during those five games but even 2-3 would keep Illinois in the hunt thanks to a more forgiving finishing stretch.
At the least, the victory over Nebraska keeps some of Illinois’ dreams alive.