The Big Ten regular season is officially in the books and man, it didn’t disappoint. The conference has six ranked teams and there is a general consensus that the Big Ten conference stands as the best in the land. All eyes will be on national title hopefuls Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State this Thursday when the Big Ten tournament kicks off in Chicago. After one of the most competitive Big Ten seasons in recent memory, the tournament will head to United Center, where an Illinois team that may not be the main attraction plans to spoil everyone’s March plans. But it won’t be easy. After winning five straight games, including a victory over No.1 Indiana and No.18 Minnesota on the road, the Illini have lost three of their past four games. As the Illini fan base is more than familiar with, the team’s recent span of games doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s been this way for Illinois all season long.
“Our guys know that they’ve played good basketball at times and when they do and they play the right way they’ve got a chance to beat about anybody,” Coach John Groce said. “When they don’t we could get beat by about anybody.”
Nobody embodies that feast or famine style of play better then seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, who were both awarded with third-team All-Big Ten honors. While Paul and Richardson have led Illinois in scoring all year, their erratic play at times has been both a blessing and a curse for the Illini. At his best, Paul can drive to the basket at will and ignite the Illini’s transition game. At his worst, he’ll force off-balanced shots looking for a whistle and show some questionable effort on the defensive end. Games like his 35 point explosion in a win at Gonzaga and his 8 point effort on 1-11 shooting in blowout loss at Wisconsin have you scratching your head. Same can be said for Richardson, who followed up big games such as his 23 point effort in a win versus Indiana with performances such as scoring 7 points in a loss against Northwestern.
Despite a slow end to the regular season for the Illini, Paul and Richardson are finally starting to put together some much needed consistency on both ends of the floor. Paul is coming off of a 21 point game against Ohio State and has scored double digit points for five straight games. Richardson has scored double digit points in 13 straight.
As the Illini enter what Groce calls the “third season,” consistency is the only thing separating Illinois from an NCAA tournament bid. When things get going for the Fighting Illini they are one of the most dangerous teams in the nation. In their last tournament at the Maui Invitational in November, the right Illinois team showed up and terrorized the opposition, knocking off three opponents in three days. Paul believes that same Illinois team will show up again.
“Obviously Maui’s a long time ago but we played a few games in a few days,” Paul said. “That’s the same thing that’s going on right now.”
With victories over Indiana, Gonzaga, and Ohio State, the Illini have a resume that will likely earn them a tournament bid. As they prepare to face off against Minnesota in a rubber match on Thursday, none of those wins will matter.
“If they think a win a month ago or a loss four or five days ago is gonna have anything to have to do with Thursday’s game at 11 AM then we’re not very mentally tough,” Groce said about his players. “Then we don’t understand what this is about. You lack toughness, that’s a problem in March.”
The great thing about March is everyone’s record is back to 0-0. Few people remember wins that Kentucky had last year in November or December, but everyone remembers them cutting down the nets in March. No one understands that better than Groce. Groce took a 13 seed Ohio squad from the Mid-American conference to the Sweet Sixteen last season, upsetting Michigan, South Florida, and forcing 1 seed North Carolina to overtime.
“I think we’ve always kind of been a staff or organization or team that this time of the year we air on the side of being aggressive and keeping them mentally and physically fresh,” Groce said. “Understanding that we’ve been doing this since October, so some parts of the game, you kind of are who you are. In two days you’re not gonna make someone a completely different player.”
While Illinois can’t already start making their NCAA tournament plans, they can lay the groundwork in the Big Ten Tournament. Slotted as an 8 seed, Illinois will have a tough path to the title, facing Minnesota first and with a win, will face the 1 seed Indiana Hoosiers. The day in, day out grind of the Big Ten schedule has prepared the Illini for this potentially tumultuous stretch of games, but in a conference this deep, you can never overlook your next opponent.
“Our focus has to be on Minnesota we can’t worry about how many games we’re gonna play or who we’re gonna play next,” Paul said. “Obviously Minnesota is not a team to look past, we split with them this year and this game is gonna be about mental toughness as well as physical toughness.”
In the Illini’s 57-53 victory at Minnesota on February 10th, the Golden Gophers were without their star forward senior Rodney Williams, who is second on the team in scoring (10.5 ppg) and rebounding (5.2 rpg). With Williams back, Minnesota has continued to struggle, entering the tournament having lost four of six. Even when the Golden Gophers are backing up, they’re still dangerous. With wins against Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin, they can beat anyone on any night. Although, heading into a sold out Chicago crowd that is sure to be decked out with Illini fans, it will certainly prove a tough start towards Minnesota’s redemption. With both teams looking to turn things around and lock up an NCAA tournament bid, Thursday will be just another typical Big Ten brawl.