As I sat and watched fans start to hit the exits with seven minutes remaining in only an 11-point ball game, I realized that maybe Illinois basketball isn’t over the hump.
Certainly I will give credit to Minnesota, who appears to be both a Big Ten and national contender, but maybe we did get too optimistic after the Ohio State win.
Illinois needs a minimum of eight, if not nine, Big Ten wins just to get into the NCAA Tournament. A loss on Saturday at the always tough Kohl Center in Madison and John Groce’s team would be 1-3 in the deep and rugged Big Ten.
First let’s look at the positives from Wednesday night. Nnanna Egwu scored eight points and grabbed nine rebounds, decent numbers against an incredibly strong Gopher front line.
Tracy Abrams played crowd pleaser, nearly singlehandedly bringing the Illini back from a double digit deficit. That was until back to back Abrams’ turnovers led to a Golden Gopher run of their own.
DJ Richardson seemed to do all the little things, but couldn’t hit a shot to save his life, though he wasn’t the only one. Brandon Paul hit his free throws, but his threes didn’t fall either.
Now onto the negatives. Tyler Griffey is not a formidable option at the power forward for a supposed Big Ten contender. Griffey’s strength is shooting, and when he’s cold like he was Wednesday, he’s essentially useless. Not to hate on the senior, but Griffey would have made a great mid major player, rather than the small role he’s player over the course of his Illini career.
Joseph Bertrand wasn’t his usual spark plug self off the bench, forcing plays that he usually converts with ease. Bertrand was not the only Illini reserve who failed to contribute though.
Senior transfer Sam McLaurin compiled his entire stat line on an offensive rebound that he put back in for a layup in the second half. McLaurin is more built for the Big Ten than Griffey and I’d like to see Groce extend some trust to the player formerly from Coastal Carolina.
Myke Henry failed to provide a lift as well. Slotted at power forward, Henry is a strong rebounder, though the box score may not show, but lingers around the arc more than banging in the paint. He too struggled with his shot from deep, the same shot that Illinois relies on for so much of their offense.
Devin Langford and Mike LaTulip each made brief cameo appearances in the contest, but made no noteworthy plays.
After last Wednesday’s loss at Purdue, I stated that I was much more worried about this Minnesota game than I was for Saturday’s rout over Ohio State. Looks like that was for good reason, as Tubby Smith’s bunch has many more weapons than Deshaun Thomas’ one man wrecking crew in Columbus.
Despite the disappointment that both myself and the Illini nation feel after this loss, the show must go on. Next stop is Madison, Wisconsin to face Bo Ryan and the Badgers. This would be a huge win to get back on track, in what would be the team’s best chance to win in Madison since their upset win up north in 2010. Can’t wait to be up in Madison for this one and I’ll catch up with you all, hopefully on a more positive note, after Saturday afternoon’s outcome.