The No. 7 seed Fighting Illini will take on the No. 10 Colorado Buffaloes in a match-up of two enigmas. Both teams have fought through slumps to reach the NCAA tournament. Now that they’re here, they’re as dangerous as ever.
On December 16th, the Illini were sitting at 12-0 as the John Groce era kicked off emphatically. After losing eight of their next 12 contests, the Illini fell to 16-8 and 2-7 in the Big Ten Conference, staring down the barrel of another lost season. From that point on Illinois knocked off five straight wins upsetting the likes of Indiana and Minnesota en route to an 8-10 Big Ten record, the biggest turn around in Illinois history.
“We were practicing well, we just weren’t finishing games the way we’d like to,” Senior Brandon Paul said. “So we just continued to get better. Throughout the losses it’s not that we were playing so bad we just weren’t getting little things done. Whether it was execution or putting a couple halves together.”
Illinois has the ability to storm the court against Indiana one day and lose to Iowa the next. As it’s been all season for the Illini, they enter the NCAA tournament with much uncertainty, losing four of their last six games.
Seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will be the difference between the Illini spending their Sunday in sunny Austin, Texas or back in ice cold Champaign. Paul and Richardson anchor a three point heavy offense that is 14-1 when shooting better than its opponent and 14-2 when exceeding 70 points. Despite their high volume shooting, Richardson stresses defense as their point of attack.
“If we play D everything else will fall in place,” Richardson said. “We obviously gotta make shots because we’ve got a lot of shooters on our team. If we can defend and make shots we’ll be a scary team to play against in the tournament.”
Colorado can relate to the ups and downs of the Illini. Colorado started the season 12-2 and only finished 9-9 for the remainder of the season and enter the tournament losing three of their last five games. With wins against Arizona, Oregon (twice), and Colorado State, the Buffaloes can compete with just about anyone. Colorado is also prone to upsets when their offense stalls, with losses against Wyoming and Oregon State.
The Buffaloes benefit from spreading the floor with a balanced offense with four double-digit scorers in their starting lineup. The Colorado offense is lead by sophomore guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who much like Paul, can go off at anytime but not without his fair share of dry spells. Colorado crashes the boards on both ends of the floor and plays stingy Tad Boyle coached defense. Junior Andre Roberson anchors the Buffalo defense averaging 1.3 blocks per game and is second in the nation grabbing 11.3 rebounds per game.
Groce coached his Ohio Bobcats to upsets against No. 3 Georgetown in 2010 and No. 4 Michigan in 2012. This time around as the Illini coach, his squad will be the favorites. Groce had some wise words for his kids that pertain to Colorado as well.
“You gotta be tough,” Groce said. “You gotta have a desire to prepare. A will to prepare. An ability to be able to focus and execute a game plan. At the same time, the ability to have the confidence while you’re out there to make plays.”
Both Illinois and Colorado have gone from ranked to unranked, from the brink of missing out on the tournament to back in, and now have seen both of their fortunes cross paths. As consistency has spelled them all season, the question facing both teams is, which Colorado or Illinois team will show up Friday?