CHAMPAIGN – Among the things John Groce has preached to his Illinois team is the need to keep their emotions under control. Never get too high with a win or too low with a loss.
The home loss to No. 8 Minnesota this week could prove to be a test of just how well the 12th-ranked Illini have listened.
The 84-67 loss followed a 74-55 blowout win over then-No. 8 Ohio State, a split almost any team would take.
But the loss also left Illinois (14-3 overall) at 1-2 in the Big Ten, losers of three of its past five. Maybe worse, Illinois couldn’t pin the loss to Minnesota on a lack of effort or toughness.
Illinois did plenty that qualified as tough, Groce said Friday, taking charges, running and diving after loose balls, looking for contact.
The Illini just couldn’t knock down shots – they hit only 35.4 percent overall and were a miserable 3 of 24 from 3-point range. And, tough or not, they gave up 21 points in transition to the Gophers.
“Ran into a little bit of a buzz saw Wednesday night,” Groce said. “They were really good.”
Now the Illini are looking ahead to a game today at Wisconsin (11-4, 2-0), not the first team you’d pick to bounce back against.
Illinois has lost 10 of its past 14 against the Badgers, who stubbornly stick to just the kind of low-scoring, methodical game that the Illini – averaging a solid 75.2 points a game – have managed to avoid this season. Wisconsin is averaging 70.6 a game, but that figure is dropping. The Badgers have scored 47 on Nebraska and 60 on Penn State in their past two games, both wins.
“They’re very, I don’t want to say very deliberate, but very calculating,” Groce said. “They’re determined to get what they want to get and not very often will they take a bad shot.”
“It’s hard to speed them up,” he added.
Sophomore center Nnanna Egwu, who has played twice against Bo Ryan’s Badgers, sounded a little frustrated just describing of Wisconsin’s slowdown game.
“They do a good job getting to you, making you prolong your offense,” he said. “And on the offensive end they take their time. They make you guard for (almost) 35 seconds and then they shoot with two seconds left – and then they get the offensive rebound and make you guard for another 35 seconds.”
Egwu, in his first year as a starter, will see a lot of Badgers center Jared Berggren. He is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13.3 points a game, and one of its top rebounders with six a game. The 6-10, 235-pound Berggren is in his fifth season in Madison, and has started every game since the opener last season, 51 in a row.
Along the way, Groce said, he’s become very good.
“He’s really polished offensively, he’s very skilled, he can shoot the ball from the perimeter, he can score it inside,” Groce said. “They use him a lot like we use Egwu defensively.”
Egwu, an inch taller than Berggren, isn’t nearly as polished but he’s started to come into his own the past few weeks. He’s averaging 8.2 points and seven rebounds a game over the past five, and has given Illinois a smart, physical presence inside on defense that the team wasn’t sure it would have this season.
He quietly had one of the better nights of any Illinois player in the loss to Minnesota, pulling down nine rebounds while scoring eight points.
A loss today would push the Illini toward the back of the Big Ten pack. The next two games, against Northwestern and Nebraska, would give them a chance to claw back. But there’s no question they’d be well behind the top of the conference that could include a pair of 4-0 teams in Michigan and Minnesota by the end of the weekend.
That, Groce said, is something Illinois can’t worry about.
“In terms of getting away from you and all that, I can’t control that,” he said.